When Michelle Monaghan was growing up in Winthrop, a small town in Iowa that was then home to about 700 people, she’d go down to the corner grocery store and play the arcade games. It was the ‘80s, and everyone would put their quarters into the machines for Donkey Kong and Frogger. Monaghan’s game was Pac-Man. “I can definitively say I wasted a lot of quarters on Pac-Man,” the actress, now 39, says with a laugh during a call from a film set in Atlanta, where she’s shooting an action movie with Jamie Foxx. “My parents would give us each a buck, and you’d have to spend it wisely. I was good enough to put my initials in [the top scores] every so often, but as you can imagine, there was no competition with 700 people.”
Now Monaghan is starring in a film alongside these iconic arcade characters. In Pixels, which came out on July 24, the actress plays Violet Van Patten, a newly divorced mom and lieutenant colonel who designs specialty weapons for the U.S. military. When an alien race misinterprets a tape of old video games and begins sending evil versions of Pac-Man, Centipede, and Space Invaders down to battle with Earth, Monaghan’s character has to team up with Adam Sandler’s Sam Brenner, a champion arcade player. To save the world, they have to win at the alien games.
“I had just come off True Detective and a romantic drama called The Best of Me,” Monaghan says. “Those were pretty heavy, emotional projects, and I tend to want to do something different to what I had been doing. So [this] was the other end of the spectrum. It was also something that I could really relate to in terms of '80s games. It’s a real nostalgia that the movie has for me.”
In one scene, Monaghan and Sandler are forced into a life-size game of Donkey Kong and have to leap over flying barrels as they make their way up giant ladders. But during the shooting, which took place last summer, there was no reference point for any of the visuals.
“I can tell you when you’re shooting it, you feel very silly because the majority of it is CGI and green screen,” the actress says. “So to pretend there’s a Donkey Kong 100 feet high throwing a barrel at you and leaping over them when there’s nothing there is a little daunting. It’s challenging as an actor because you want to work opposite from something that is alive. You have someone hollering direction at you, shouting directions, saying, 'It’s coming! It’s almost there, it’s two feet from you! And – jump!’ and you do this big leap in the air over nothing.”
Monaghan’s career is deeply varied, with her roles ranging from dramas like Machine Gun Preacher to action flicks such as Mission: Impossible III and Source Code to romantic comedies like Made of Honor. She’s interested in comedy, which Pixels distinctly is, but finds it challenging to do improv. Fortunately, working with Sandler, Josh Gad, and Kevin James on this movie helped Monaghan open up more when it came to quick-fire jokes and reactions.
“It’s always daunting for me, working in comedy,” she admits. “I dabble in a lot of things, but I will say I don’t think comedy is my forte like it is for those guys. What’s so wonderful about working with them is they are so encouraging. They would kind of pick up the pieces and improv all the time. I may not say something very funny all the time, but they can turn what I’m saying into being funny just by way of what they say. I think that’s a real testament of a great actor.”
Sandler may be a great comedian, but he has recently been the subject of some criticism for his frat boy casual red carpet attire, which seems to suggest a double standard in the way actors and actresses are expected to present themselves to the public. Sandler’s refusal to don more than a baggy T-shirt and a pair of shorts for a press event while his co-stars squeeze into designer gowns and other attire doesn’t seem to bother Monaghan.
“You know what?” she says. “He’s so uncomfortable in that. I’m always the first one to want to be comfortable on the red carpet. He’s just a total guy’s guy. I only care about what I wear – I couldn’t give any hoots about what anybody else does.” She pauses, then adds, “If I didn’t want to get dressed up, I’d probably wear something else. But I don’t think you should dress up for anybody unless you’re going to dress up for yourself.”
For Monaghan, the possibilities of what she can wear on the red carpet is the best benefit of her job. She reads Style.com and is genuinely excited to dress up for events. “I work with a stylist,” she notes. “But I’m extraordinarily collaborative, maybe even annoyingly so. I love fashion. Obviously it extends from my background in my early career, which is modeling. I just so appreciate designers and what they do and how they evolve.” She cites designers such as Jason Wu, Altuzarra, Ungaro, and Raquel Allegra as some of her favorites, and prefers classic lines over trendy, of-the-moment looks.
Monaghan may not face sexism on the red carpets, but she still grapples with finding complex, interesting female characters in Hollywood. She’s adamant that Pixels is meant equally for boys and girls, even though video games are traditionally considered a male pursuit, and says she wants to ensure that every character she plays feels interesting to her.
“There’s always a struggle to find women that are multidimensional [and] don’t just serve a lead-actor story,” Monaghan says. “I’m always on the hunt to find movies that inspire me as a woman. So often I hear, 'You’re such a strong character.’ And you know what? Most women living their life are strong and vulnerable. Unfortunately, you don’t always see those qualities depicted on film. A lot of the roles I’ve found great creative satisfaction in are the independently produced and directed. Little films like Fort Bliss that I had come out last year.”
For the actress, it’s important to balance lighthearted films with heavier, more dramatic roles that require more emotional heft. The first season of True Detective, in which she played a put-upon wife, was an opportunity to do something especially serious. It led Monaghan to her next project, Hulu’s upcoming series The Way, which she will star in alongside Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul. The series, which will begin shooting later this year, follows a cult and looks at what it means to believe in something very deeply. “It goes to some very interesting and dark places,” Monaghan says. “This came up and I was clearly open to do something like True Detective again because the experience was so positive.
"I’m always looking for material that I haven’t been challenged by before,” the actress adds. “I never really know what it is until it lands in my lap and I think, 'Oh wow, this character is really exciting.’ Anything that I can sink my teeth into that is, of course, challenging, but also enlightening about a particular person or perspective on things. … Probably as a result, that’s where I do my best work. Sometimes you just have to be patient for those and not just jump into whatever. [You have to] be mindful of waiting for a character that really speaks to you.”