Interview: Michelle Monaghan on FORT BLISS

When we last saw Michelle Monaghan, she played a woman dealing with an unfaithful husband amidst the backdrop of a 17-year-old murder mystery on HBO’s True Detective. In Claudia MyersFort Bliss, however, she faces a much different predicament: reconnecting with a son who now sees her as a stranger.

The drama, which was inspired by Myers’ own experiences of meeting with veterans whilst working on military training films, follows U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Maggie Swann (Monaghan), a decorated Army medic who returns to civilian life in Texas after serving for 15 months in Afghanistan, hoping to reestablish a relationship with her five-year-old son, Paul (Oakes Fegley), who feels more at home with his father/Maggie’s ex-husband, Richard (Ron Livingston, who threatens to battle Maggie for sole custody of their son) and soon-to-be stepmom, Alma (Emmanuelle Chriqui).

Slowly but surely, Maggie starts to adjust to her new life, bonding with her son and even starting a new romance with a car mechanic (Manolo Cardona) — but dark memories from her time abroad are not easy to erase without leaving an internal scar. With redeployment looming, she faces the dilemma of choosing between her family or serving her country, the answer to which isn’t as simple as black and white.

I had the opportunity to speak to Monaghan yesterday to talk about her role in the film, the issues faced among soldiers when they return home from deployment and much more. You can read the full interview below.

Hi, I’m Alfonso from Thanks so much for taking the time for this.

Hi, Alfonso. My pleasure, my pleasure. Thank you so much.

I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed the film, and I thought you did a great job in it.

Thank you.

It really resonated with me because I grew up with a single mother, so it was something I could connect with.

Wow. Thank you.

Your director, Claudia Myers, has described Fort Bliss as the “ultimate working mother story.” It takes on the never-ending theme associated with single mothers of work versus staying at home with the family. Do you think there’s ever a right answer to that dilemma?

I think the right answer to that dilemma is whatever the mother or the career woman wants to do. I think this movie poses a much broader question, as you were talking about, about the mother leaves her family to go to work — she’s a bad mother. The fact that we judge a mom’s parental choice as opposed to not judging a father’s parental choices at all when they have to leave for work — it’s just so archaic, really. It doesn’t seem fair to me. I do love that this film tackles that question.

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Your character, Maggie, which coincidentally has the same name as your character in True Detective, was written with so many layers. She gets to be vulnerable, flawed and strong. What aspect of her personal journey attracted you the most to the role?

Well, I’ll say that, you know, these roles are too far and few in between playing, you know, having the opportunity to play a character that is so complicated, and torn, and what some people would even perceive as flawed, so those are all great things from an artistic point of view to sink your teeth into. I really appreciated how torn she was, really conflicted between two worlds. And you can imagine the confusion and the strength and the vulnerability and the tension that all that can become. Really that all stems from having the opportunity to sit down with a lot of female vets, soldiers who were also moms, talking to them about their experiences. They spoke to me with great candor about their struggles, their challenges and that really informed the emotional journey of this character.

A lot of these women, a lot of soldiers who return home, they are very emotionally depressed for good reason. It’s not just easy for them to flip the switch. I really just connected to their story and my passion to tell their story with as much emotional truth as I possibly could. From a personal standpoint, I, too, am a working mom, and I do things sometimes here and there away from my kids, and certainly not to the extent as soldiers do — that’s an extreme case. Certainly I don’t run the risk of not returning home, but I can appreciate emotionally, you know, the challenges that come with that.

Another great quality to your character is that she doesn’t allow herself to be defined by either of the men in her life (Richard and Luis). Is it a challenge to find roles like this where the main cause of someone’s troubles aren’t due to a failed romance?

Yeah, I mean, listen, this is a leading lady role. It’s a female-driven. As you know, why we’re having this conversation is because they’re very rare. That is frustrating. I’m an actress. I love to work. I love to do work that’s complex, that’s representative of women that I know. When I hear somebody say, “Oh, you played such a tough woman.” I think to myself, “I am a tough woman, and I am vulnerable, and I am a nurturer, and I am complicated, and I’m independent — I’m all these things,” and so are all the other women in my life. It’s just unfortunately, you know, we only see a couple of dimensions of women most of the time represented on the screen.

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Maggie is at her most confident at her job, but in her life as a civilian she struggles to establish a relationship with her child. Did you draw on any personal experiences where you had to struggle to connect with someone to be able to get into that mindset?

Yeah, I mean, like I said, you know, I don’t leave for fifteen months at a time. I’ve left my daughter up to a month without seeing her, and it is hard when you come back. I don’t cut the bread the way she wants. (laughs) You know. Or she no longer likes scrambled eggs. She likes maple syrup with her oatmeal and not honey anymore. Those are little things. It takes time to reconnect, but I think there’s something that’s even more important beyond that — it’s that while it may be hard to reconnect on some small level here and there, on a greater level I think it’s also very honorable and an important thing to be a good example to your child. If you love your job and you’re proud of what you do, then to be able to express that and for your child to be able to witness that is just important, you know, in being there every single day to tuck them in. Just because you can’t be there a hundred percent of the time doesn’t, of course, make you a bad mother.

The film has a lot of authenticity to it. Not only did Claudia have experience making military videos, but you also got a chance to film at Fort Bliss (in El Paso, Texas). I was wondering if you would be able to describe how you prepared, to learn about your role as an Army medic?

Yes, we did have the support of the Army, which was a real, big surprise. As you know, the movie is not a recruitment poster. It deals with a lot of controversial topics. They still supported us because they understood that it’s a very realistic portrayal of the experiences of Army soldiers. Basically we went inside the Fort Bliss to do research. I went on a workshop, and I learned procedures that I would do in the field in the event of an emergency. Those are just things that technically I needed to understand but also gave me some insight into the intensity and focus on which a medic is needed and relied on.

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Without giving away any spoilers to people who are gonna read this, Maggie has a handful of traumatizing scenes that really take a toll on her life. Was there a specific one that you found the most challenging to film?

Oh, that’s a good question.

There’s one that’s kind of like Kramer vs. Kramer. [laugh] That one was hard to watch as well.

Yeah. There are several, but there’s not much I think I can tell you if you don’t want any spoilers. But listen, as one can imagine, we touch on PTSD, we touch on survivor’s guilt, we touch on sexual assault — all of these number of things that encompasses a female soldier’s experience in the military. We didn’t want to make a commentary about any one of things, but we just wanted to touch on them to say that these sort of things exist and these are some of the issues.

I’ve got time for one more question. Sorry.

Alright. [laugh] The film, as you mentioned, deals with issues like PTSD, survivor’s guilt and the gender inequality in the workplace. But ultimately it’s really about a mother trying to reconnect with her son. What aspect do you hope audiences will take away from seeing the film?

Well, I think that audiences will be able to relate to it on that level in terms of any parent. Whether you’re male or female, it’s a constant struggle to balance your career and parenthood. It just is — it’s hard. I think people will relate to it on that level. I think that they’ll also be enlightened about an aspect of the war that very few people consider. I think there’s a real disconnect between civilians and people in uniform, and I think that the story helps humanize the soldiers’ experience. Not just the soldier themselves, but, really, the sacrifices the entire family makes when one gets deployed for any number of months. There’s a huge support system that exists out there to support these choices and sacrifices — and families are as courageous as the soldiers.

Well, thank you so much for taking the time for this. I managed to fit in my last question just in time. (laughs)

Well, good. Well that is perfect. You got them all in.

Awesome job on the film again. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

Thank you, Alfonso. I really appreciate the support, buddy.

Fort Bliss is now available on VOD and in select theaters. Watch the trailer here.

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The Author

Alfonso Espina

Alfonso Espina

Alfonso Espina is a Toronto-based freelance writer and graduate of the Journalism program at Ryerson University. He has written for The Huffington Post, Tribute Magazine, Next Projection, Pop Wrapped, MuchMusic, Screen Invasion, Flicks And The City, and UpandComers.