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Michelle Monaghan Brings the War Home in 'Fort Bliss'

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Fort Bliss, the new movie about an Army medic’s attempts to sort out her family life after returning from a deployment in Afghanistan, works because of actress Michelle Monaghan’s performance as Maggie Swann.

The movie explores a lot of issues faced by men and women in the military. While it’s a honor to serve their country, a lot of people pursue their military careers because they’re good at their jobs. How does that factor into their relationships with family and children? Should women (or men) choose to reenlist and leave their kids while serving far away from home? What happens to the kids when couples divorce? How does that split affect decisions about service? Writer/director Claudia Myers weaves in a substantial subplot about sexual harassment during deployment and manages to make the whole movie hang together.

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Michelle Monaghan gives one of her best performances in a career that got its first boost from a dynamite role in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (the great modern L.A. film noir starring Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. and one of the best Christmas movies ever) continuing through Gone Baby Gone and Due Date . Most recently, her appearance as the only sane character in HBO’s True Detective might’ve been the best thing about a great TV show.

Michelle talked to us about Fort Bliss and her commitment to her role as Maggie. There’s a real sense that this movie isn’t just another gig for her: she’s both passionate and articulate about the issues facing military families. That fierceness shows up in an outstanding performance that’s going to resonate with a lot of people who serve.

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Talk about how you got involved with director Claudia Myers and “Fort Bliss.”

Claudia sent it to my agent, really the old-fashioned way.  My agent said, “I think you're gonna want to do this.”  I read it.  She was right.  I immediately responded to it.  I sat down with Claudia two or three days later. Immediately upon having a conversation with Claudia, it became apparent that this was something that she had done her homework and her research on and that she was going to use every effort to tell this story authentically.

Shortly thereafter that I signed on to do it.  I couldn’t imagine doing this with anyone else.  I responded to the role because creatively, as an actor, I'm always looking for roles that are strong women that are complex, conflicted, possibly flawed, and something that you can really sink your teeth into.  And this was all of that, plus it was enlightening to me.

This was a story that was completely original, an aspect of war that I had never considered, and it was so relevant and timely to me.  It just became a real labor of love at that point.  We shot it in 21 days, as I'm sure she told you.  We were literally running and gunning. It was one of the most fulfilling creative experiences I've ever had.

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“Fort Bliss” won the Best Narrative Film Award at the GI Film Festival.  What's been your experience in showing the film to people serving in the military?

Well, it's really been profoundly gratifying.  You know, we took our jobs very seriously in terms of the storytelling.  It was always our goal to tell the story truthfully from a soldier's perspective.  Everything that we did was to Army's standards and specifications.  We had subject field experts with us the entire time to make sure that we were embarking on everything truthfully.

So for us to be able to show it to our core audience, to the very people that inspired it, and to get a response that was so powerful and meaningful to them was more than I could ever ask for.  It was the highest compliment you could pay us.  You know, I've had many service members come up to me, male and female, saying that it was one of the most honest depictions that they had ever seen.  To know that they feel like we've represented them in the right way makes me very proud, because it's all we ever wanted.  I never would have embarked on this journey had I not intended on doing that.

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It means very, very much to me.  In fact, it's impassioned me even more to share this story with a broader audience.  Just the other night, we had our premiere and we premiered to over 600 people.  Over 400 of them were people in uniform and they gave us a standing ovation, which again, was a very proud moment.

To see civilians and people in uniform come together and for civilians to have an appreciation for a side of war that we don’t often fully understand, the sacrifices that soldiers and their families go through. We want civilians to understand and be moved by the family sacrifice and the true cost of war for those at home.

I think a lot of people would agree with me that there's a real disconnect between people in uniform and civilians.  What this story does, in its own small way, is help humanize the soldier and really help people understand the impact of what being deployed means to soldiers’ families.

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Most military movies focus on the action in the field. “Fort Bliss” is a movie about how complicated things can be back home.

It's true. What's really great in Claudia's filmmaking is that there is no right or wrong answer.  It's not black and white.  These folks are living in a very gray area and every single character makes a sacrifice.

What I find so compelling is that everyone is sacrificing something. You align yourself with a woman who is so passionate about serving her country and has a very strong sense of duty and is very, very good at her job, but what’s the cost to her family? A mother decides to leave home and leave her family to go to work. Does that make her a bad mother? Because we wouldn’t question that from a man.  If a man decides to leave home to pursue his job and his passion, then he's providing for his family.

There's a very interesting dialogue in the movie. Can you be a good parent long distance?  Yes, you can.

This movie represents people having to make decisions that are very grounded in real life, difficult decisions in a very imperfect life. The circumstances in our story aren’t ideal for anybody. People are just doing the best that they can and I think that is profoundly honorable.

It’s profoundly honorable as a parent to be able to tell your child, “I have to go away for a year or longer, but I am doing what I love to do and I'm proud to serve my country.” To be able to say that and mean that is all we want for our children in the first place.  Just because you're not there packing a lunch every day, or maybe bathing them every night, doesn’t mean that you're not a good parent. Whether you're male or female, that needs to be recognized.

Now, one other thing I guess people are interested in is you're having a very good year with the roles that you’ve had a chance to play.This is a really spectacular part for any actor and I'm sure a lot of people saw you in True Detective earlier this year.  So what's it like right now?

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Between “Fort Bliss” and your great role in HBO’s “True Detective,” you’ve had a really high-profile year. What’s it like for you right now?

Life is good.  Life is busy.  I have a ten-month-old at home.  I have a six-year-old daughter. It’s like the universal theme of this movie:  how do you balance career and parenthood?  It is a constant challenge.  It takes a village and it requires a constant support team.

I so appreciate where I'm at, but I've been around long enough to know that there's an ebb and flow to one's career.  A few years ago, I was struggling to find any roles that I loved, that I connected to, and then all of a sudden when it rains it pours.  It's funny how it happens that way.  So I try to really appreciate when times are good and really to have patience when times maybe aren't so good.

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Is there any message you’d like viewers to take away from the film?

There are over 200,000 women serving active duty.  Over 40% of them are moms.  That’s the fastest growing group of vets. I just want them to know that we recognize you and we honor you.  We know that you are strong, independent, devoted, nurturing women, and we appreciate you.

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