Interview with Michelle Monaghan for her new film ‘Fort Bliss’

Published 10:16 am Friday, September 26, 2014

‘Fort Bliss,’ written and directed by Claudia Myers, is a military-focused movie you have never seen before. The film takes an unapologetic look at serious issues faced by female soldiers in the U.S. military, issues that I have barely seen addressed before (besides maybe “Return”). In fact, from the film’s heartbreaking opening Homecoming ceremony scene to its final scene, it is obvious that Myers has a story to tell and concerns she wants to bring to the forefront of public consciousness. Whereas many films have explored the experiences of male combat veterans returning from war, few have tackled the experience from the viewpoint of a female soldier.

Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan) is a stoic Army medic and single mother who has returned home to Fort Bliss (El Paso, Texas) from a 15-month deployment in Afghanistan. However, her homecoming is not the joyous occasion one might expect. Because she was gone for so long, reuniting with her young son Paul, who was in the custody of Maggie’s ex-husband, is strained; he barely recognizes her. Paul is comfortable with his father and his father’s live-in girlfriend, so Maggie’s reappearance in his life is an unwelcome change. Maggie not only has to deal with these issues at home, she also has to mentally heal from trauma sustained downrange. As time progresses, her familial situation starts to get better, but the life of a soldier is never stagnant. Will new orders from command make Maggie have to choose between her job/country and family?

Although we have seen Michelle Monaghan excel in such projects as “True Detective,” “Mission Impossible 3,” and “Source Code,” her performance in ‘Fort Bliss’ is the best of her career. Monaghan’s fearless, layered portrayal of such a complex, realistic character is the heart of the film and brings so many issues and questions to the forefront. Like actual soldiers, Maggie is faced with an incredibly difficult work/life balance. She loves her job and is incredibly good at it, is responsible for the lives of many fellow soldiers, and is dedicated to her country. However, the life of an active-duty soldier does not allow for the “traditional” relationship between a parent and child. Plus, there is the added social stigma that women should not be away from home for a long time since they are “the caretakers.” How can Maggie maintain a close relationship with her son while also continuing to work a job she loves? More importantly, why is she being made to choose between the two?

I am such a fan of “Fort Bliss” and the conversations it will most-assuredly create. Michelle is incredibly sweet, insightful and passionate about supporting and giving a voice to the problems faced by our members of the military. We talked about how she trained to play an Army medic, the role the Department of Defense had in providing assets for the film, the obstacles female soldiers have to face when it comes to work/life balance, and much more!

Lauren B. ( I absolutely loved the movie and your performance in it! You were fantastic.

Michelle Monaghan: Thank you so much!

Lauren B.: “Fort Bliss” is a film that focuses on the military. Did the Department of Defense have a big role in providing assets for the film?

Michelle: Yes they did. We were so fortunate. Really, it’s a testament to Claudia Myers, our writer and director, in all of the research she did. She spent five years making documentaries and training videos for the military. Throughout that process, she interviewed soldiers and heard about their issues with reintegration and coming home from being deployed. The theme was the parenthood, the high divorce rate of women and men. She had done all of that research and did such a great job writing the script that she was then able to hand it to the State Department and she said, “Okay. Would you actually allow me to take this [film] and allow me to shoot it at Fort Bliss?” They read it and said “Yeah!” They gave her a few notes here and there. Everything was so detail-oriented. We really wanted to do everything from the soldiers’ perspective. We wanted it to be authentic. So, everything was Army standard specifications and told from a soldier’s perspective. When I got hold of [the script], I had complete and utter faith in her because she had done all of her homework and we had [military] approval.

Then we went to Fort Bliss and I was able to go through an intensive medic training class, which was amazing. Actually, I think it could prove beneficial for me just in life! I was really happy to do that, to learn something like that and it ended up being really integral to the character, sort of learning that intensity, focus and pressure that someone would experience as a medic. Obviously, it’s a percentage of what they actually go through but it helped me get a glimpse into that life. Then what was so invaluable was having access to the soldiers, and the women soldiers in particular, talking to them as moms and really hearing what their struggles were and what their emotional states were and are… really just appreciating the challenges and gauging that so I had an emotional understanding and confidence to then portray or convey their experiences in a very honest and truthful way. It is something I took so seriously, I really did. It was so important to me because I am portraying a story that is maybe not that familiar to civilians. It wasn’t familiar to me. It enlightened me, which is why I wanted to share the story. It is very common to women in the military. There are over 200,000 women in active duty; 40% of them are moms. This is something that happens, so I didn’t want to do a disservice to them. It was a huge responsibility for Claudia, myself, and everyone involved to do it the right way.

Lauren B.: Yeah! I’ve never seen these issues tackled, especially for female [soldiers], in a movie.

Michelle: Yeah! Stories about female veterans are nearly absent from our culture! They’re completely non-existent. Women are the largest, fastest-growing vet community among soldiers. This is not going away and [“Fort Bliss”] really tackles traditional roles. That’s why women also have one of the highest divorce rates in the military because men at home don’t know how to handle what it’s like to be left at home, which is also another reason I think the storytelling is so great because you align yourself with these different characters. These are characters that are all making sacrifices and they’re all doing the best they can in a really imperfect world. I think that’s why [the film] is resonating with people, in the corps audience and civilians.

Lauren B.: You were talking earlier about how you trained as an Army medic. Can you talk a little bit about that course?

Michelle: Yeah! It was a couple of days and we rehearsed every scene that we were going to do. So, in the opening scene, there’s a part where you do a body check and you do, ‘Where’s the blood coming from?’ I used a tourniquet an inserted an IV…we learned all of that. Then I had a line of very brave soldiers that allowed me to put in a needle and put in an IV, which was really exciting for me. Those are all things you wouldn’t normally do, but I was really appreciative because what that taught me was a trust, a particular trust that platoons have for their medics… for “Doc.” It’s an integral part of a unit, as anyone can tell you, but it was also so informative for me as a character because it made Maggie needed and depended on and proud of what her job is at home. She felt as though she would be letting down her platoon, people she spent 15 months with time and time again, if she wasn’t there. It really just compounded the dilemma she had.. that her heart was really torn between these two worlds.

Lauren B.: And I also liked that there wasn’t a giant ribbon around the ending.

Michelle: Exactly and I think that is also a reason why people are appreciating [the film] and it’s resonating with people because it shows we live in a grey world. Life isn’t black and white. It’s really, truly people doing the best they can with what they have or don’t have at home. I think it’s been profound for people to see and watch that way. The fact that the corps audience responded in such a positive way and feel it’s an authentic depiction of their experience has been incredibly gratifying. It’s the ultimate compliment we could ever ask or intend for.

Lauren B.: It’s a lot of pressure!

Michelle: Yes, a lot of pressure but I am more inspired by something that seems completely challenging or unbelievable. Becoming a truck driver [in Trucker], I was like there is no way I can drive an 18 wheeler! Then I was like, “oh yes I am!” It’s that and I find that is such a privilege to be able to put myself in someone’s shoes. I think the challenge is so great and daunting and I am so scared of it, I push myself to the nth degree to make sure I do it to the best of my ability. I feel like a character that has a lot of truth to it is easier to connect to because it feels attainable. Even if they have a different life than you or a different job than you, you still feel with the same emotions. So you say, “Let me try to put myself in your shoes, do the research necessary for that outer shell, because emotionally I can make it truthful. If I do my work there, then that is my job and I know how to get to the heart of it.”

Lauren B.: So what do you think happens to your character when she gets back from deployment?

Michelle: Well that’s a great question. I think that she comes back after… I think there is a new self-awareness that she has now and respect for her ex-husband. I think she will go away for 15 months, come home, and I don’t think she’ll have as many issues this time. She has emotionally been through it and can work through it a bit more.

The questions asked by Lauren Veneziani ( were cut due to space. For the full interview, visit

LAUREN BRADSHAW grew up in Courtland, graduated from Southampton Academy and doubled-majored in foreign affairs and history at the University of Virginia. She lives in the Washington, D.C., and can be reached at