What does it take to get to the top -- without losing your center? Our “Making It Work” series profiles successful, dynamic women who are standouts in their fields, peeling back the "hows" of their work and their life, taking away lessons we can all apply to our own.
Michelle Monaghan has come a long way from her days growing up in the small town of Winthrop, Iowa.
After graduating high school, Monaghan moved to Chicago where she studied at Columbia College and began to model. She traveled all over the world, modeling in Singapore, Tokyo, Milan and throughout the U.S. One semester shy of college graduation, Monaghan moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting.
The 38-year-old, who currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband Peter and their two children, Willow and Tommy, boasts a lengthy résumé. She has starred alongside actors like Robert Downey Jr. in 2005's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and Vera Farmiga in 2011's "Source Code." This year, she made headlines for her performance in the Emmy award-winning HBO TV series "True Detective."
Monaghan has become a versatile actress, one who seems just as at home in Hollywood blockbusters like "Mission Impossible" as she is in independent features. She most recently starred in "Fort Bliss," writer/director Claudia Myers' indie film, as Staff Sergeant Maggie Swann, a single mom and army vet whose son forgets her after she returns home from a 15-month deployment.
Monaghan spoke to The Huffington Post about why all women's stories need to be told, how she defines success and why she definitely doesn't shy away from the word feminist.
How do you define success?
That’s honestly a really, really tough question. I’ll say that in this moment I feel really successful because I’m extraordinarily proud. When I feel a sense of pride about something, I know I’ve been successful.
It sounds like you’ve put a lot of work into a project, "Fort Bliss," and now that it’s all coming together you can sit back and kind of relish in it.
Yea, exactly. And, by the way, I’m not successful every day. But there are different times in my life where I feel that I can pat myself on the back. In reference to this movie, I’m patting myself on the back. I’m very proud of it and I’ve worked really really hard on it. And there’s no shame in saying that.
Hell yea. So by that definition do you consider yourself successful?
Definitely, I do.
Monaghan as Staff Sergeant Maggie Swann in her new film "Fort Bliss" via Instagram.
Your character in “Fort Bliss,” Staff Sergeant Maggie Swann, is a woman and mother enlisted in the army. What impact do you hope her story has on viewers?
Well, this is a role that I love as an actor because she's a character I can really sink my teeth into. Someone who I consider to be an everyday woman, someone who’s complicated and complex and who some people might consider flawed but I just consider real. Someone who’s vulnerable and a nurturer but very independent. Those qualities represent all of the women I know in my life. And yet, we don’t necessarily see them reflected that much in our culture.
I certainly know that stories about female vets are nearly absent from our culture. Yet over 200,000 women serve on active duty -- they’re on the front lines and women are dying. Over 40 percent of them are moms. And so, what "Fort Bliss" focuses on is a mother’s passion to serve her job -- a woman who loves her career who’s really, really good at it and has a strong sense of duty to her country but yet is also a devoted mother.
When these women come home from combat society overall is judging them. Society says, “Well if a woman decides to leave home and leave her child, she’s a bad mother. But if a man decides to serve his country or leave home then he’s honorable and he’s doing a good thing because he’s providing for his family.” And that’s the double standard that I think permeates all of society -- not just the military. That’s something that I think has to change. We are judging women and saying that they’re not good mothers if they’re not making their children’s lunch every single day or tucking them in at night. It’s not realistic and it’s a complete double standard.
Monaghan at the Emmys with her "True Detective" costars via Instagram.
What are some issues your character, Maggie, faces in the film? And how do these issues relate to real women?
After Maggie returns home from her first deployment, she gets a divorce. Female soldiers have amongst the highest divorce rate in the country, because men are being left at home, unable to relate to their wives’ experiences, but more so because men are being left in nontraditional roles. In addition to that, my character suffers a sexual assault which is something that's incredibly prevalent in the military. A third of women in the military experience some sort of sexual assault.
And sexual assault in the military is largely underreported to begin with.
Exactly. We didn’t want to make the entire movie a commentary solely focused on sexual assault but we also knew that we couldn’t tell a woman’s story about the military without including that narrative. Maggie deals with a lot of different issues: PTSD, survivor’s guilt, sexual assault -- all of which are very common, but not necessarily true to every single soldier.
Feminism and the debate over what the term feminist means has been a huge topic of conversation lately. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yea, I absolutely consider myself a feminist. I think it’s so crazy that that word still has to exist in our society, to be quite honest. The fact that we even have to have that question -- shouldn’t everybody, every female, every male, be a feminist? I’m always floored when women are afraid to say they’re feminists. It’s almost like you’re apologizing for being a woman and I could never apologize for being a woman -- I’m so grateful. I shouldn’t be allowed to tell other women’s stories if I can’t say that I’m a feminist. I have to be a feminist in order to represent other women.
Monaghan with costar Ron Livingston at the "Fort Bliss" premiere via Instagram.
So, what’s next for you in your career?
I’ve done a complete 180 from "Fort Bliss" and I’m coming out with a Nicholas Sparks movie called “The Best Of Me.” It’s a really timeless and beautiful love story which comes out October 17. And then I have a film coming out in July called "Pixels" which is a big commercial comedy with Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage and Adam Sandler. We laughed non-stop for days on set, it was seriously one of the best times I’ve ever had making a movie. It’s also one of the first movies I’ve done that my kids can actually see which I’m really excited about.
Who is your role model?
My mom. She is the most extraordinary woman I know, I’m so indebted to her. She’s the biggest nurturer I know and she’s so selfless. She’s taught my brothers and me a lot of gratitude and I hope that’s something I can pass along to my own children one day.
Monaghan with costars Kevin James, Adam Sandler and Josh Gad on the set of "Pixels" via Instagram.
I feel proud to be a woman because (fill in the blank) _________.
Because I feel that I can embody everything great about being a human being. Truly. I can give birth! And I did, I did it twice! There’s nothing more profound about that and yet I can have a job that I love doing. I’m proud and fortunate to be a woman where I am today. In this country, I am fortunate to be a woman.
What’s one thing you desperately wish you could tell your high school self?
I would say be more daring and less judgmental about myself, and probably other people as well. And I definitely would’ve blended my foundation more.
Watch the "Fort Bliss" trailer below.
This interview has been edited and condensed.