Interview: Michelle Monaghan Talks ‘Machine Gun Preacher,’ Her Journalism Background, and Shane Black’s Cleverness
Marc Forster’s Machine Gun Preacher is a humanistic picture. Despite the atrocities conveyed in the film and the fact that the story focuses on an actual anti-hero, the director managed to end on a hopeful note. Some call it dopey, I say humanist. Even with the upbeat nature of the film, there’s a slightly dark moral dichotomy; should a former junkie and criminal, Sam Childers, be the one leading a freedom brigade? Are his methods necessary or justifiable?
Sam Childers isn’t the only character with his own moral conundrum, as one is also a part of Lynn Childers, played by Michelle Monaghan.
This is the second time I’ve interviewed Monaghan, and like the first time, she reminded me of that popular girl in high school who was cool with everybody. Some actors look like they’re two seconds away from killing themselves during junkets, but Monaghan comes off like she couldn’t be more pleased to be discussing her work ‐ with a guy like me interviewing her, I’m not sure how she does it.
Here’s what Michelle Monaghan had to say about the ending of Source Code, the moral dichotomies of Machine Gun Preacher, when journalism and acting collide, passion projects, and the greatness of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Have you been asked a lot since SXSW what happened to Sean Fentress?
Oh yeah, are you kidding me? [Laughs] I still get it a lot. It’s so funny, someone asked me that yesterday, “I’ve watched the movie three times, so what’s your take on the ending?” God, he must have three different endings now. I love that. It’s awesome when you can make a movie that really has legs, where people can spin around, question, and debate about it.
I always thought it was darker what happened to Colter Stevens. What can he do? He can’t see his dad or just take Sean’s job. [Laughs]
He’s in pretty bad shape, really. It’s surprisingly dark. It’s the ultimate sacrifice, actually.
That’s true. Jumping into Machine Gun Preacher, I’d say, along with Source Code, it’s a very humanistic movie. Is that something that just draws you to certain films?
Yeah, absolutely. Anything that I can personalize in some way ‐ humanize it for myself or the person next door. For me, that’s what moves me about film. I love doing shoot ’em ups or a great ‘ol comedy ‐ I love my job, so there are aspects of every genre that I enjoy ‐ but a drama that’s provocative and somewhat challenging material is…like I said earlier, anything that people are going to sit around and debate about afterwards, that’s something I want to be a part of.
I think the debates, also for Source Code, come from the fact they’re very much about anti-heroes.
They are. Listen, we’re all flawed people at the end of the day; I don’t know any perfect people. What was so compelling to me about this movie was this message: Ultimately, he’s a guy from Timbuktu who had very humble beginnings. It’s very much like how I grew up, because I grew up in a very small town. I went to spend a weekend with Sam and Lynn, and he’s a guy that turned his life around; as a result, he turned thousands of other lives around halfway across the world. For me, that was inspiring. I think a lot of people think that folks who make a difference are supposed to be “perfect” people, but the reality is, we’re not perfect. Anyone can make a small difference. I’m not saying you have to pick up a gun and go to Africa, but you can donate five or ten bucks to a charity. That goes a long way.
A lot of people question his methods, as well. The character gives you reasons to.
That is the dichotomy of the movie, and I think that’s why it’s compelling. Is it necessarily correct what he’s doing? I can’t even answer that question. He lives by the Old Testament; an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. The reality is, at the end of the day, he’s saved thousands of children. Had he not gone down the path that he had, there wouldn’t have been a thousand children alive today. Anyway you slice it, that’s the truth. Whether you agree or disagree, that’s what I love about the movie.
I actually spoke with [screenwriter] Jason Keller the other day, and I told him that I think the movie takes a pretty firm stance that what he’s doing is right. I love that quote of Sam’s, “If your child was kidnapped, would you care how I got him back?” I feel like the film sticks to that idea.
Exactly. The reality is when you read these statistics in the paper, you’re just really not aware ‐ you can read the statistics, but they’re just statistics. When you see a movie that does humanize it for you, where you see what really does happen to these children, some people stand up and go, “Okay!” Imagine your child being abducted in the middle of the night; would it matter how anyone got them back? It would not matter. It’s so easy for people on the outside to judge and say what he’s doing isn’t correct. At the same time, we haven’t witnessed what he witnesses on a day-to-day basis. The atrocities and mutilations he’s seen, that is what compels him to move forward. You know, there’s not too many positive things you could say about the LRA. [Laughs] You could say a few negative things about Sam Childers here and there, but at the end of the day, what he’s doing is far, far more profound than what they’re doing.
Lynn has her own unspoken dichotomy, with how she saved Sam, and yet she has to deal with him abandoning her and their kid at certain points. Was that an idea you and Marc discussed?
We did, but it all stems from Lynn. I spent a lot of time with her. When I first read the script, I thought there was a lot more there I don’t know about. I knew that because Jason [Keller] had spent a lot of time with them. I called Lynn, and she was very forthcoming on the phone. I told her I needed to ask a lot of difficult questions, and she said I could ask anything I want. So I went down to visit them in Central City, and I spent the weekend there. I think the first night we stayed up until four in the morning, and Sam went to bed at two in the morning when he was finally done telling his stories [Laughs], which were completely freaking me out. It was one of those things where I went to bed at 4AM, but couldn’t sleep, you know what I mean? I just laid in bed until 8AM, where they made sure I got to do some target shooting. [Laughs]
What I learned from Lynn is that she’s such a complex and conflicted woman. She has endured a lot over the years. She had a lot of sleepless nights before Sam turned his life around, and still continues to have a lot of sleepless nights. What I discovered about her, and thought was the most important thing to convey, is that she’s the most grounded person. She’s not an emotional person, and I say that with all due respect. She doesn’t get angry or upset, and she was very vocal to me about that. She was a real quiet giant. I gotta say it was very difficult ‐ for the first time, I ignored my instincts. A lot of scenes I just wanted to unleash in, but it was a challenge that…first of all, I was playing a real person, and I had to honor her. I had to really show restraint and find that quiet performance, because she lives that way. She had an extraordinary amount of faith, and that’s what gets her through every week or months without speaking. It’s allowed her to endure going bankrupt, losing the business, and Sam putting the children first. It takes an extraordinary amount of faith and strength to do that.
That sounds very journalistic, and if I’m correct, you initially studied journalism.
I did, I did.
First off, why did you leave journalism? Secondly, does that background apply heavily to acting, with studying all the angles?
It does. I was studying investigative journalism, but I left. What I discovered was, it’s really hard for me to be objective. [Laughs] Like I said earlier, I’m an emotional person. Now I think, “Of course I’m an actress!” When I was doing journalism, I had no idea I wanted to be an actress. I write a lot when I figure out these roles. I think when I was writing a lot for Gone Baby Gone, I realized I was writing with the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” approach. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m essentially doing an investigative piece on all my characters.” When I realized that, I think I jumped up and down, because all that tuition and checks I wrote for that loan I was still paying off was not for nothing. [Laughs] I had a lot of guilt for not finishing school, and I thought it was a lot of wasted money. It’s not, though; I still used that approach.
I think you dodged a bullet not going into journalism. [Laughs]
Yeah, I think so. It’s almost like the lowest-paying degree coming out of school. I thought, “Are you kidding me?”
So you went where the money was! [Laughs]
[Laughs] I did, I did. What can I say? I totally sold out.
[Laughs] Do you take that journalistic approach to even greater extremes for a passion project like Trucker? And, let me say, I just watched that for the first time last week and thought it was excellent.
Thank you so much! I really appreciate anybody seeing that film, because I’ll tell you what, hardly anybody has. It’s something that I’m really, truly the most proud of. We shot that movie in 19 days for, I think, 1.2 million. I got my class-A driver’s license for that, went to truck driving school; I really dedicated myself to that role, and I went on short hauls with a lot of female truckers. I really appreciate any kind of slice of life. I appreciate the working class a lot, and that’s something I grew up with and identify with. I like to tell those stories, because they’re real people and it’s not all sugar-coated. In going one step further and going off on a tangent ‐ I actually prefer documentaries more than I do even film. That’s probably from my journalistic background, you know? I love the exploration of people who are real, and I am drawn to those kinds of roles. Trucker was an opportunity for me to dig deep into a culture I did not know a whole lot about, but I was able to learn so much from it. I felt like it was a really honest portrayal and depiction of female truckers, and what they go through as moms. I’m proud of that, so thanks for watching that.
[Laughs] I kicked myself in the head for not seeing it earlier. I know you were a producer on that, and you’re now producing Blonde. Did your experience on Trucker make you want to get into shepherding more projects for yourself?
Completely. For me, I want to produce more and more. I’ve been around now for a bit, and enough to know I’ve worked with some talented people, and there are people I want to work with. It’s a great opportunity to think of a screenwriter to adapt something, a director to sit down with, and to come up with a project that inspires me to develop myself, and for other people. Blonde is something that came about when I was pregnant, when I still wanted to be creative, but I obviously wasn’t going to be in front of the camera. I developed it with a dear friend of mine who’s super talented. We just got our financing for it, we’ve got our director for it, and we’re looking to shoot it at the tail end of the first quarter of next year. I’m really excited about this project, and it’s really fantastic.
What type of directors do you respond to? I just spoke with Marc Forster, who came off as someone very assured. I’ve also spoken to Sofia Coppola, who you’ve worked with, and she was very reserved. Is there a specific type of environment you prefer to work in?
Well, I think any director that I can have open communication with. I know that’s a very vague thing, and I don’t even know if I know it myself. It’s really the material that…I can’t even say that it’s the director, because I’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors. I’m always open to working with any director, because it’s really the material. If we’re on the same page about the role, then I think you can hash anything out, creatively. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it comes down to the script. Probably the best script you’ve worked off of is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is kind of a site favorite for us.
You know, it’s kind of a favorite of mine, too. I’m really proud of that film, and everybody in it. It was such a crazy opportunity for me; it was my first lead role, and Shane [Black] really took a chance on me. Robert [Downey Jr. ] and I had a lovely friendship on that film, and we still do. He really took me under his wing, and he gave me so much support. Shane Black, what can I say about him? He’s just genius. I’d work with him over and over again.
Was that script also daunting, at all? Almost every line is so clever, and that’s a tough kind of humor.
You know, it was. I sort of almost didn’t get how good it was, [Laughs] and I think that’s the beauty of it. I was just very clear in my head about who that girl was, and she was such a unique person. Even for Shane, I think he’d say it didn’t require a lot of direction for any of us, because everything was on the page. It was already so colorful, so he just let us roll with it. He casted the people who just got it, so then we just had a ball with it.
Machine Gun Preacher is now in limited release and expands this Friday.