In Focus

Not Your Everyday Damsel in Distress

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, left) with the most important woman in his life, Julia (Michelle Monaghan, right), in Mission: Impossible III.
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, left) with the most important woman in his life, Julia (Michelle Monaghan, right), in Mission: Impossible III. (Alex Bailey)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2006

"Mission: Impossible III" (see review on Page 46) wastes no time establishing one critical difference between it and its predecessors: This time, as the people who write movie-poster copy like to say, it's personal.

Personal, as it applies to this latest installment in the popular actionadventure franchise, means that Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt is not just trying to put a bad guy (Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing black-market arms dealer Owen Davian) out of commission. All in a day's work for a super secret operative with the Impossible Mission Force. Now Hunt has an added on-the-job incentive. That would be Michelle Monaghan, who plays Hunt's new bride, and who, as the film opens, sits bound and gagged opposite her husband, who has just 10 seconds to turn over something called the "rabbit's foot" before Davian puts a bullet through his wife's pretty little head.

"That was my fondest memory: me being handcuffed and duct-taped," recalls Monaghan, letting loose one of her trademark throaty laughs a second after realizing that her comment could be taken the wrong way. "No, no, no, I don't mean it that way. But having these two greats, you know, on either side of you, it's like a sandwich."

Um, that's not helping.

What Monaghan is trying to say is just how honored she felt to be working with a soon-to-be-Oscar-winner on one side, "playing this terrible, evil villain," and with Cruise, a matinee idol she practically grew up being a fan of, on the other. (Monaghan, by the way, prefers not to even enumerate some of the more "inappropriate" questions she's gotten about her much-in-the-news co-star, his girlfriend, Katie Holmes, and their new baby, let alone his well-publicized espousal of Scientology. "Let's not even go there," she says.)

If the opening scene, which sets the pace for the film's relentless forward momentum, feels raw, it might just be because it was shot without rehearsal, Monaghan says.

"We literally just went, 'Action!' What was so incredible was that the three of us just went for it. One of the cameras ran out of film. When we stopped, we all just looked at each other and went, 'Holy [expletive]. That was a really intense scene.' It felt really terrific, right off the bat."

Not everything felt quite so terrific. For one thing, Monaghan says she misjudged just how technically demanding even her few, brief action sequences later in the film would be. "With dramatic acting, all you have to be responsible for is learning your lines and knowing where your mark is," she says. "I really underestimated how difficult it would be in the sense of multitasking. As opposed to having one camera, there are three. Perhaps you only get one take, because they're going to blow up something and they can't rebuild it. You're on the move. The gun's got to go off at a certain time. The cameras are rolling, and you've got Tom Cruise sitting next to you.

"The pressure," she says, "was just beyond overwhelming for me." Rather than envying fellow actresses Keri Russell and Maggie Q, whose on-screen butt-kicking is a little more prominent, Monaghan says, "I was just happy to have two to three days of it and be done with it."

Still, she was glad the part required a little action and calls it "refreshing" that the film goes beyond the "female-as-a-victim-girl-gets-saved-and-end-of-story-for-girl" cliche.

"I love J.J.," she says of the film's director and co-writer, J.J. Abrams, best known as the creator of TV's "Felicity," "Alias" and "Lost." "He was really thoughtful and took her one step farther." Monaghan doesn't want to spoil the ending, but she believes that viewers may be surprised by the direction her damsel-in-distress act takes. "I think that's unheard of in Hollywood."

Speaking of Hollywood, the 30-year-old actress says that, despite increasingly high-profile jobs (including prominent parts in last year's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and "North Country"), she prefers to live in New York for the time being, rather than move to Los Angeles. "I look at L.A. as my place of work," she says, "and this as my home. I don't have anything against L.A., but it's kind of a one-horse town, the way I look at it. New York is everything."

It's the city she has called home since 1999, when Monaghan traded in journalism studies in Chicago -- a way to see the world for a small-town Iowan -- in an attempt to parlay a successful modeling day job into an acting career. A commercial for Secret deodorant led to a recurring role on the WB's short-lived summer 2000 series "Young Americans." Although that show was canceled after eight weeks, Monaghan bounced back, saying the daily rejection of modeling helped her develop a thick skin. "I thought, 'So? It got canceled. I made some good money. On to the next thing.' "

The next thing, for Monaghan, will be the screen adaptation of Dennis ("Mystic River") Lehane's "Gone, Baby, Gone," by writer-director Ben Affleck, a complex thriller about husband-and-wife detectives (played by Monaghan and Casey Affleck) who are investigating the abduction of a child. After that journey into the heart of darkness, she says, she wants to try her hand at comedy and maybe, somewhere down the road, theater.

"That's my ultimate goal," Monaghan says, who recalls her days doing high school drama with fondness.

And how about praying for the day when people stop mistaking her for Liv Tyler, an actress Monaghan resembles a feistier version of and to whom people are constantly comparing her? "Oh, my God, no," she says. "That's the nicest comparison ever. I could never get sick of that."

As for now, Monaghan says she's enjoying her rapid metamorphosis from ingenue to movie star. "I feel like the world is my oyster," she says. "I really want to take advantage of it. And it tastes delicious."

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