To the uninformed, Michelle Monaghan might be little more than a recognizable face. Yet, the actress has had a strong start to her career, having appeared in several of the most successful recent movies. That’s her in The Bourne Supremacy, Mission: Impossible III, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Eagle Eye.
Nothing she’s done to this point, to resurrect the age old cliché, will prepare you for her work in Trucker. A small, subtle character study set against the vast expanse of the American West and written and directed by James Mottern, it’s the story of a tough trucker named Diane (Monaghan) who finds her independence and isolation compromised when she’s reacquainted with the son (Jimmy Bennett) she abandoned as an infant. Film School Rejects spoke to Monaghan about the deeply personal project, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008 and is now in limited release.
What attracted you to Trucker?
To me it was so refreshing. … I read films that are one-dimensional a lot of the time and pretty predictable. And in predictable I mean melodramatic and sometimes they’re very sentimental. You play the victim. … When I read the script she was anything but that, Diane. She was very honest, she was unapologetic, she never makes any promises. … She doesn’t play the victim, and for me I thought that was so appealing. … It was a role of a lifetime for me. As an actor, you want to play characters like that.
What appealed to you about James Mottern’s directorial approach?
James is unique as a filmmaker. He really let the camera linger on me and allowed me to act. So often as an actor you’re bombarded with all this dialogue and you don’t feel like you’re getting to act. … I just feel like in those quiet moments Diane really discovers who she is. It’s not what’s coming out of her mouth. She’s kind of playing tough, but it’s in those quiet moments you find out who she is.
Why are Hollywood studios so scared of making movies in this sort of naturalistic vein? In the 1970s, they did so often: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Five Easy Pieces etc.
Gosh, I wish I knew the answer to that. I truly, truly do. I don’t know if [maybe it’s just that] they’ve got their typical movies they want to make. Everything’s become formulaic. Those are real character driven dramas.
Can you talk about the long journey to getting the movie made, seen and released?
It really is a longtime coming, this movie. It landed in my lap in 2006, took a year to get financing attached, made it in Tribeca, and then a year, year-and-a-half to get distribution. The floor kind of fell out from under everybody. I never really lost hope, but for a split second I thought, “Gosh, is this really the end of the road for this movie?” It didn’t seem possible. That was the scary thing. Last year was a really dark time, I think, for a lot of independent films, particularly [at] all the festivals. There were a lot of films that played at the festivals that were really well received, critically acclaimed but walked out of the festivals without buyers.
What was working with Jimmy like? He projects a maturity that’s beyond many child actors.
It’s funny, Jimmy, I really seriously say this and I mean it, he’s got a longer resume than I do. I think if you pull it up on IMDb I think you’ll find that it’s longer. He was really like working with an adult in a 12-year-old’s body. He was always prepared and knew exactly what he wanted. Part of what he brought to the role that enhanced what James and I wanted to do in the relationship was [that] he avoided playing a whiny 12-year-old boy. He wasn’t annoying; he had that tough quality about him that he uses as a defense, which is oddly enough kind of the way Diane operates. I think they’re very similar to each other. I never wanted them to communicate as a mother and son, because they’re strangers to each other.
Why was it important for you to actually get a truck driving license, and learn how to drive a big rig?
They expected a stunt driver. But I sort of made a deal to myself, to James, long before we started shooting that I’d have to get my CDL. And I say that not to be like, “Oh my god, my CDL,” but you can see when you watch the movie it’s so integral to the character. It’s her livelihood, it’s who she is, [and] she loves being her own boss. I knew that if I did that and surrounded myself in that culture, in that environment, it would inform so much of that character. Frankly the role’s written in such an honest way that it deserves to be played as honestly as it should be.
In what ways does the California dessert setting inform Diane’s character?
I think there’s just something about the dessert. It really is a sort of character. It’s barren, hot, and dusty. I don’t know, you know, those are all things I think Diane is. Horses were a big inspiration. … You know when you’re trying to corral a wild horses and you can’t, and dust is coming up, I really saw Diane as a mustang, as one of these horses you’re trying to break and you just can’t break her.
Trucker is currently open in NYC, and will be expanding later in the month.