Trucker’s Michelle Monaghan on Getting Her License

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Photo: Monterey Media

Michelle Monaghan has acted — often as the Girl — opposite some of the biggest actors of our time (Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 3, Matt Damon in The Bourne Supremacy, Richard Gere in Unfaithful, Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, etc.), so it’s perhaps forgivable if some viewers still think of her as just another pretty face. But that may change tomorrow with the release acclaimed indie Trucker, which she pretty much carries with her performance as a tough long-haul trucker whose life is upended when she's forced to care for the son she abandoned years ago. Monaghan spoke with Vulture earlier this week.

Your family fostered a lot of kids when you were growing up. Did that have any bearing on your decision to do this part?
Most certainly. That part of my life was a huge influence on me personally. I’ve probably used it somehow, creatively, in all of what I do. Because when you grow up in a situation like that, you come to the understanding that there are women out there that aren’t maternal. It’s something that I’m not sure has been explored that much, or in this way. And that was part of why I was so intrigued by this film. And along the way I’d encountered a lot of parents who weren’t ready to be parents. It happens to a lot of people, and I feel like it’s something that should be talked about. So that was always hanging in the back of my head.

Did you do a lot of research?
I spent a lot of time with female truck drivers, in that environment. I went on short hauls with them, to find out what their day-to-day lives are like. I also went to truck-driving school, and I got my CDL permit. That was crucial for the role. I made a deal with myself and James [Mottern, the director] that if I wasn’t able to get the permit, I wasn’t going to make the movie. So thank God I got it! It’s a whole culture, and it’s this character’s livelihood. It informed the character so much, who she is and why she is how she is. To stay true to the honesty with which James had written this part, there was no way I could get away with not doing this research.

How did you develop this specific character?
I did a lot of writing on my own, just about the character. James and I worked very intently on the script for several weeks. We didn’t change a lot but we did try to put it into my voice, once we knew I was going to be doing the part. And I asked him what her backstory was. Was she maybe a prostitute? Was she maybe hanging out at truck stops when she was younger? And he wouldn’t answer any of my questions. He left me to answer it for myself, so I did create a backstory for her.

The character is kind of a child herself, and the interactions between her and her kid are more like conversations between two children.
She doesn’t know how to communicate — neither she nor the kid do. She abandoned him, so she doesn’t really consider him her blood. So she’s not going to talk down to him. So those childlike moments were important. There’s also that scene where she’s sitting on the couch with him, and he asks, “Did you really love me?” That was a really hard scene for me to nail, in finding the balance of tone. I didn’t want to ever be talking to him as if he were my son. I wanted her to always be matter-of-fact. It couldn’t ever be like I was being an adult. I wasn’t accepting any responsibility for him. I thought it really clarified things for James to include that childlike behavior in there. Because they’re kind of equals, and it allows the kid to call her out. There’s that great line when we’re on the baseball field, where he says, “No one’s more scared than you. You’re the scaredest one of all.” That stops her in her tracks. And you really see that she takes that in. She’s very vulnerable in that scene.

At the same time, it’s a really quiet film, and a lot of the drama of the film happens in your character’s glances and reactions rather than through dialogue.
I’m glad you noticed that. Yeah, that was definitely in James’s script. If you can say it without dialogue, then that’s better, obviously. Plus, this is a pretty lonely life these truckers lead. They spend a lot of time by themselves, not talking to anybody. It makes sense that they wouldn’t be very articulate.

What was the hardest part of doing this film, for you?
We shot it in nineteen days. So that was pretty hard, because it was a big push. But it was also incredible shooting at that speed. Everything was palpable. I wish I could shoot more films like that. I think the hardest part of this process has been in the postproduction. Not just getting it finished, but also getting it seen, getting it distributed. And it’s only just now beginning, when you think about it.

Is it hard, after you do a part like this, to go back to basically being the Girl?
Yes. Absolutely! It’s very hard. Because these are the kinds of parts that you live for, the kinds of parts that make you want to be an actor in the first place. And then to have to go back to doing those other things, even though they’re certainly fun to do, is like a huge cultural shift, and it takes some getting used to.