Once upon a time, Michelle Monaghan recalled while discussing her new crime thriller “Sleepless” on a sunny afternoon in Beverly Hills, she wanted to be an investigative journalist.
“I had a very idealistic outlook on life,” said Monaghan, who scrapped those plans when she quit Columbia College Chicago, where she was studying journalism, and moved to New York to pursue acting. “I really wanted to right the wrongs in the world.”
The Iowa-born actress shares that trait in common with her on-screen alter ego in “Sleepless,” a Las Vegas-set remake of the 2011 French thriller “Nuit Blanche” (Sleepless Night) about a dirty cop desperately trying to save his kidnapped son from the gangsters holding him as collateral against a stash of stolen drugs.
In “Sleepless,” Jamie Foxx plays police officer Vincent Downs, fighting his way through a seedy casino on the worst night of his life. Monaghan plays Internal Affairs detective Jennifer Bryant, who smells corruption in her own ranks and sets out to bring him down.
Playing her toughest character yet, and the lone female officer on the force battling sexism from her own department, Monaghan is unrelenting. While filming a knock-down, drag-out brawl with her costar, she accidentally packed a little too much punch.
“I actually chipped Jamie’s tooth,” she groaned of landing a hard right across Foxx’s Oscar-winning mug, despite training with veteran stunt coordinator Jeff Imada for two months. “I was a little amped on adrenaline. My knuckle split. He felt it but he said, ‘Keep going!’”
Monaghan shrugged, flashing a dazzling smile to match a bedazzled Dolce & Gabbana jacket she wore over vintage denim Redone jeans. “I am a tomboy,” she said. “I am physical.”
It’s not just the action that piqued Monaghan’s interest when the project, adapted by Oscar-nominated “Straight Outta Compton” screenwriter Andrea Berloff and directed by Swiss filmmaker Baran bo Odar (“The Silence”), popped up on her radar. Since landing her breakout role opposite Robert Downey Jr. in Shane Black’s 2005 cult hit “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” Monaghan has built a varied resume. She played a private investigator in Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” and a long-haul truck driver in “Trucker,” an unwitting spy in “Mission: Impossible III,” imbuing her characters with a sense of strength and grace even when thanklessly playing romantic foil to male stars.
Those early studio hits helped Monaghan realize she could find rewarding roles across multiple genres — comedy, drama, action. “I slowly started to figure out what appealed to me and I realized that these were all aspects of my personality,” she said. Now at 40, Monaghan has become one of the most reliable and versatile actresses in Hollywood. And yet, there was something missing.
“I hadn’t really been in a true crime drama,” she said. “I really liked the character. And I’ve played very strong, independent women in the past. There are many interpretations of that woman — we all are that woman — but I loved this interpretation, because she doesn’t answer to anybody else.
“She’s not devoted to family or kids — she’s devoted to her job,” Monaghan added. “She doesn’t need flowers on her desk. She’s mentally strong, she’s emotionally strong and she’s physically strong.”
Said Odar from Berlin via email: “Michelle is a very talented actress, if not the best of her generation. She has this natural take on things. She is always truthful in the moment when she is acting. And she knows how to throw a punch.”
Plus, Monaghan acknowledges with a grin, she has the foulest mouth on the force. In “Sleepless,” Bryant makes it rain so many F-bombs, she may have done more work to earn the movie its R-rating than all the wanton violence that peppers the screen. “You know what? It’s about damn time,” she laughed.
Monaghan pulls double duty at the multiplex this week: She also appears in Peter Berg’s true tragedy drama “Patriots Day,” about the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt that ensued. In it, Monaghan takes on the relatively thankless role of the supportive wife of Mark Wahlberg’s Boston police officer, just two of the everyday Americans faced with unimaginable horror in their own backyards on April 15, 2013.
“It was very humbling to be a part of, on a personal and a professional level,” she said. “When you’re talking about life and death and tragedy like this it’s not political. You’re talking about Americans, an American tragedy. We’re human beings. You support each other in times like this.
“I think that’s what you see with this story, this unity,” she continued. “This is happening all around the world; you are seeing cities and countries rise up and stand taller and stronger together. It is nothing short of inspiring.”
It’s no secret that complex and multilayered roles for women in Hollywood are woefully hard to come by, but in recent years Monaghan’s found them more and more on the small screen. She was nominated for her first Golden Globe for her supporting turn in the acclaimed first season of HBO’s “True Detective.” This month she also reprises her role as a high-ranking member of a controversial cult in the Hulu drama “The Path.”
Monaghan, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two children, ages 3 and 8, counts herself lucky that she does not feel pressure to base her career choices on anything but her creative impulses.
“Having children has given me a lot of perspective on my life. But in terms of creative choices it’s still very personal and selfish, in my head,” she smiled, pointing to her temple. “That’s feeding the beast up here.”
But Monaghan admits that the strong, complex, beast-feeding roles don’t materialize every day. “I’m also a firm believer in, ‘If you don’t see it, go out and create it,’” she said. Unannounced projects are dancing on the horizon, but Monaghan politely declines to spill any details.
The first month of 2017 is already set to be a prolific one for Monaghan. Are we on the cusp of a Michelle Monaghanaissance? A producing credit on her 2008 critical darling “Trucker” and other projects she’s developed over the years have been personally rewarding. Her acting career in front of the camera is on enviably solid ground. And another film she’s in, “Sidney Hall,” will premiere this month at Sundance.
In a male-dominated Hollywood still afflicted by an antipathy toward actresses, especially actresses in their 40s, Monaghan is making moves to claim greater control over her destiny.
“When you’re starting out in your career you don’t necessarily have the ability to pick and choose,” she offered. “You go in and you audition and it’s essentially the luck of the draw. You work hard, you do the work.
“At this point,” Monaghan teased, “I’m looking to up the ante.”