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Michelle Monaghan at the heart of ‘True Detective'

By Courtney Crowder
Chicago Tribune

In one of the most poignant scenes in HBO’s “True Detective,” Michelle Monaghan’s Maggie Hart accuses her husband, Martin, played by Woody Harrelson, of being a promiscuous “sulky teenager.”

“You put a ceiling on your life, on everything, because you won’t change,” she says, exasperated.

It’s a pivotal scene that marks the first time viewers see just how disillusioned Maggie is with her marriage, and Monaghan shines in it, portraying strength, vulnerability, sadness and hope from one quotable line to the next.

“I was moved by that (scene),” Monaghan said during a phone interview from her Los Angeles home. “I think all of the people who saw it were too. … It’s confronting for a lot of people because it’s really honest and very real. It’s how people speak, and that’s powerful.”

Unlike her fictional husband, Monaghan has never put a ceiling on her life. Growing up in Winthrop, Iowa – a town of 850 – she said Hollywood seemed so separate from her life. But merely 14 years after starting her career, Monaghan, 37, has not only shared the screen but held her own with stars such as Tom Cruise (“Mission: Impossible III”), Jake Gyllenhaal (“Source Code”), Robert Downey Jr. (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) and her “True Detective” co-stars Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, who plays Martin’s partner, Rustin “Rust” Cohle.

“True Detective” had HBO’s biggest series premiere with 2.3 million viewers, and follows Louisiana homicide detectives Hart and Cohle and spans 17 years. In 1995, the pair investigate the murder of a young woman and possible occult connections. In 2012, the partners are questioned about the case after a simiilar killing takes place.

The finale of the first season, a planned anthology series, will air Sunday, hopefully putting to rest speculation as to who is “The Yellow King,” the supposed cult leader and possible serial murderer. Whodunit theories surrounding the king’s identity have set the Internet abuzz for weeks.

Intersecting relationships

The procedural aspect of “True Detective” is interesting and complex, but the heart of this show is the characters’ rich relationships and their tangled emotional webs.

“What’s really happening is this incredible dissection of relationships and how they intersect and they converge and they change over time,” Monaghan said. “I think that is what is really grabbing people emotionally and at times even making it uncomfortable.”

She studied journalism at Columbia College Chicago. Newscasting had long been an interest, she said.

“I don’t really think now, having found my career as an actor, it’s that much of a departure,” she said. “I’m still really fascinated with characters and people and telling their stories.”

Monaghan hasn’t been a TV show regular since her powerful turn as naive, well-meaning teacher Kimberly Woods on “Boston Public” in 2002.

It was the quality of “True Detective” that lured Monaghan back to the small screen, she said. “It was really the level of material and the caliber of people involved that decided it for me. Had it been a film, I would have made the same decision.”

Monaghan’s Maggie Hart is easily the show’s most developed female character, and Monaghan plays her with finesse. She deftly balances Maggie’s mama-bear fortitude with the tenderness and raw hurt of a wife trying to connect with a husband she fears she’s lost. Episode 6 exposed Maggie as the reason for the rift between Hart and Cohle, and her performance was impressive, revealing a woman at her wits’ end, forced to take dramatic measures.

Maggie is one of Hart and Cohle’s few “anchors to the world of civilized reality,” said series creator Nic Pizzolatto.

“I think Maggie is the most emotionally intelligent person in the story, and I think she is the most honest person in the story,” he said. “I feel like Michelle is able to bring this wealth of emotional gravitas that counterpoints the sort of savagery and dishonesty of the men around her.”

What does future hold?

Monaghan won’t stay away from TV too long after “True Detective” ends, as she’s signed on to play one of the five leads in Ryan Murphy’s new series “Open,” which was given a pilot order by HBO. Not much has been revealed about the show, which Deadline Hollywood described as a “provocative exploration of human sexuality.”

“It’s really about relationships and the state of relationships in a modern society, in the age of technology, in terms of monogamy and betrayal and commitment and what commitment means,” Monaghan said.

For years, Monaghan has moved easily between studio pictures, indie movies and TV. But there’s still one credit she would like to add to her resume: Broadway.

“That’s my ultimate dream and my ultimate goal as an actor,” she said. “I don’t know when or how that will take place, but it will happen.”

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