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High up in the Hollywood Hills, actress Michelle Monaghan is marveling at the expansive view of downtown L.A. from the enviable vantage point of the bright, colorful 1923-built abode that Ginger Rogers once called home. Monaghan and husband Peter White, a graphic artist and interior designer, set down roots here just before the birth of their first child, daughter Willow, now 6. “Our floors and everything are original, so we always wonder if Ginger Rogers did a little dance here and there on those floorboards,” says Monaghan, best known for serious acting moves in a wide-ranging career that includes 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in which she starred opposite Robert Downey Jr.
These days, the main actions performed on those original wood planks are high kicks and karate chops as Monaghan, 39, prepares for her next big role, opposite Jamie Foxx in the action-comedy Sleepless Night. The whole family—including toddler Tommy, who turns 2 in October and is affectionately called “Tommy the Tornado!”—has now temporarily relocated to Atlanta during filming; they’re hunkering down in the historic Inman Park area. Monaghan, an enthusiastic foodie, is looking forward to digging into the city’s famed restaurant scene and working off those outings with biking and running trips around the BeltLine.
Currently, audiences can see her in a different sort of onscreen battle in the summer blockbuster Pixels. As the lone female lead, her character heads up a special-ops force consisting of a motley crew of former arcade champions led by Adam Sandler. The slovenly, middle-aged gamers have been enlisted to fend off aliens who take the form of characters from ’80s video games. It’s a preposterous, but inventive, take on the summer popcorn action-comedy flick from director Chris Columbus, the guy who brought us The Goonies and Home Alone, not to mention three Harry Potter films.
“I just loved the character—I loved the hair, the makeup, the costume. Part of me was channeling Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin,” says Monaghan about playing the weapons expert. “She works for the government, and she actually creates the weapons, the light cannons that the guys use.”
Monaghan was already quite familiar with the world of video games thanks to spending her formative years growing up in rural Iowa; she and her pals would hang out at the arcade, “grab a Coke and check out the boys. I was so that chick, putting the quarter in. I remember when they were still 25 cents,” she recalls. “I loved playing Pac-Man, Centipede and, before that, Pong. My friend’s grandma had the Pong game, and I would always be like, ‘Let’s go over to your grandma’s and play Pong!’ I can still hear that sound!”
While filming Pixels, Monaghan had similarly memorable moments. “Waking up at 5 in the morning and sitting in a makeup chair next to Peter Dinklage getting a mullet put on his head—I want to start every day that way!” she cracks. In all seriousness, she says filming Pixels was most pleasurable in large part due to the hilarious banter between the cast members. “I adore Adam Sandler. He likes to rib you, and I can dish it out pretty good myself. Every single one of those guys was so funny in their own right. It was just constant improv; we laughed the whole time.” And when they weren’t working, they’d all hang out together, an experience that certainly doesn’t happen on every film. “We were always going out to dinner on Friday or having a lunch on Sunday or going to the water park with all of the kids. We were a really tight bunch. And we’ve all remained very close.”
Columbus says casting Monaghan was a no-brainer. “I needed a strong woman. Violet is a tough, intelligent character, and Michelle could convey that perfectly. But she also has brilliant comedic timing.” He continues, “She makes every scene she’s in a better scene. She finds the reality in each moment, even if it’s a comedic moment.”
Television audiences saw the full force of her dramatic abilities in the first season of the acclaimed HBO series True Detective, playing opposite Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in a pivotal role that she describes as “a profound, game-changing experience. The character was such a slow burn. It got a lot of criticism initially—‘This woman, she’s this; she’s that.’ I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Just wait, you’ll see!’ It was a great arc to play,” says Monaghan. When her character ends things with her husband (Harrelson) by hooking up with his partner (McConaughey), it’s a shocking, incendiary turn of events. “Before that scene, Matthew said, ‘Let’s just go for it; let’s not hold back.’” By that point, they’d all been working together for months, so it was a trusting environment in which to be so vulnerable. “We hugged before, and we hugged after. And everything else in between is what they call Hollywood magic.”
Long before Monaghan’s movie magic began, she studied journalism in college, then spent 10 years living and modeling in New York City, where she eventually found her calling as an actress. But even during childhood, there were early signs of things to come. “When I learned every line of dialogue to Steel Magnolias, that was probably some sort of indication,” she says with a laugh. “I remember one Christmas—my cousins and I re-enacted the cemetery scene from Steel Magnolias where Sally Field says, ‘I just want to hit somebody; I want to hit them hard!’” Naturally, Monaghan played Field’s character.
“I grew up in a town of 700 people. I always tell people, just reach for the dream. But you don’t actually think that that’s attainable, necessarily, when you’re sitting there in the middle of Iowa—and L.A. and New York are so far from you. [Back then,] we didn’t have cable, and the nearest movie theater was an hour away,” she recalls. In high school, Monaghan followed her two older brothers’ footsteps and performed in school plays. “I didn’t do sports or anything like that. I was far too shy and self-conscious. But somehow, doing a play seemed fun. I remember doing a Neil Simon play and absolutely sh*tting myself about going onstage. I must have been near a panic attack because everything went quiet and sort of blurry. Then I went out onstage, and the next thing I remember is the curtain call. It was the most exhilarating feeling of complete abandon. And I never ever forgot that feeling.”
Her decade in the Big Apple had a profound effect on her too. “Oh, my gosh, it informed everything,” she says, with a folksy twinge of the former small-town Midwestern girl percolating below the surface. “Coming from rural Iowa, the move to New York and seeing people from other walks of life from all over the world making their dreams come true gave me encouragement. There’s such an extraordinary amount of pride when you make it there. … I was in New York at the perfect time for me, in my 20s. It was great.”
Today, Monaghan lives in Los Angeles, a galaxy far, far away from her Iowa roots and her New York City detour, and proudly considers herself an Angeleno. The afternoon of our meeting, she is in her “day-to-day, running around look”: brown leather midcalf boots by George Esquivel, a local shoe designer and friend she describes as “a really rad dude”; Madewell jeans; and an Isabel Marant T-shirt and sweater. She’s big on emerging L.A. designers. “I absolutely live for Raquel Allegra’s amazing silks and knits. Other local designers I love are Kieley Kimmel and Juan Carlos Obando. I am really interested in L.A. fashion designers at the moment; there is this amazing, burgeoning creative group based mostly downtown.”
She also raves about the many culinary delights of L.A., including Jon & Vinny’s on Fairfax, Aussie-owned Eveleigh on Sunset (“They make the best margaritas in town. Try the Poor Carlita—it’s not on the menu anymore, but ask for it.”) and Little Dom’s in Los Feliz, especially the cauliflower eggs and blueberry ricotta pancakes. Yes, she gets both for brunch. (“Gotta have my fruit and savory!”)
In her downtime, she and her family head out on quick road trips down to Laguna or up to Ojai and hit the beach. “My husband’s Australian, and we like to spend time surfing, and the kids love the water,” Monaghan says.
As an actress, her prime motivator is giving voice to other people’s stories. “I love being enlightened about a perspective on someone’s life that I have never really considered before. I relish having the opportunity to put myself in someone else’s shoes.” The roles she’s most proud of are those that portray people you don’t often hear about. She continues, “I did a movie last year, Fort Bliss, about the military community and an army medic who returns home from Afghanistan after 15 months of deployment… and her child no longer recognizes her. … There’s a real disconnect between people in uniform and civilians, and that experience bridged the gap for me. It was incredibly humbling.”
Every time she takes on a role, she learns a little more about herself too. “That’s why I love acting so much—you explore different sides of yourself all of the time. You get to tap into frustration or vulnerability or fear or joy. There’s something very therapeutic about getting to be emotional and letting loose—and laughing,” explains Monaghan. Apparently, her whole family gets to participate when she prepares for a project. “Right now, as I’m training in martial arts for Sleepless Night, I’m coming home and constantly kicking my husband, doing fake punches and fake fights with our daughter. There’s always a trickle effect that happens where a little bit of that character moves into our house—and doesn’t pay rent.”
Hair by Leon Gorman at Walter Schupfer Management for Cutler NYC using Kevin Murphy
Makeup by Shane Paish at Walter Schupfer Management for Diorshow
Manicurist: Debbie Leavitt using Hope Gillerman Organics at Nailing Hollywood | Digital Tech: Kimmy Fikes | Photo assistants: Ryan Skut and Todd Super