Michelle Monaghan gets her GI face on for “Fort Bliss”

blissThere was a time when the tall, thin brunette Michelle Monaghan walked the catwalks of high fashion, appearing in shows from Milan to Hong Kong and on magazine covers of the late ’90s.

But when she transitioned to acting for TV and the movies, she remembered where she came from.

“I really appreciate playing grounded people,” the Winthrop, Iowa native says. “I have working class roots.” Dad was a factory worker and Mom ran a day care center. So, don’t just doll Monaghan up and plop her in the plot. Give her character a real job, teacher or doctor, truck driver or soldier.

“It’s not a conscious thing to do, finding working class characters to play. I just am drawn to people I recognize.”

In films such as “Gone Baby Gone,” “Trucker” and her latest, “Fort Bliss,” she reminds herself and viewers that “real people” come in all shapes and sizes. Strip off the makeup, put the hair in a bun under a helmet and she becomes Sgt. Maggie Swann, an Army medic –divorced — with a small son who barely knows her when she returns from a long deployment in Afghanistan.

“You get this resolve that comes from your sense of responsibility when you play someone like this,” Monaghan, 38, says. “Me coming off believable as a soldier for ‘Fort Bliss’ was something that I took very seriously. Getting approval from these people in the Army I got to know, and having approval from the Army to shoot at Fort Bliss itself means that you want to get her right. I’m representing the female experience in the infantry. Very intimidating.”

A brisk 21 day shoot meant she could not leave the character behind for long. The posture and comportment of a soldier became her daily life. She went through medic training “so that I would understand what Maggie is supposed to be good at. You get a small glimpse into the intensity and the focus when you do that.”

She talked to women who serve in combat units — 200,000 women have those jobs in today’s Army “and like 40% of them are mothers.”

And quite aside from the externals — saluting, developing a soldier’s gait, the way one takes off a cap or dons a helmet — Monaghan, a mother of two small children herself, got a peek into the world of the oft-deployed soldier-parent.

“A lot of people come home emotionally suppressed,” she says. “It doesn’t serve you to be emotional when you’re Down Range” in a combat zone. “You have to be focused. It’s not easy to flip a switch. It’s a generalization to say so, but loved ones at home have a hard time understanding that, especially from women soldiers.”

Variety’s Justin Chang notes that Monaghan “gives a typically fine, flinty and effortlessly moving performance” in “Fort Bliss,” so her close study of her subject shows.

Women soldiers have to appear as tough, or tougher than the men serving with them, Monaghan notes. That’s appealing, because “I’m tough. Most of the women I know, women in my life, are tough — multi-dimensional, vulnerable, nurturers. We don’t have the opportunity as actresses to show those different sides of ourselves. We’re typically depicted in just a couple of different ways.”

One of those ways is as an object of romantic desire. In one of the more severe moments of whiplash her post “Mission: Impossible III” and “Source Code” career has offered, she went from “Fort Bliss” combat fatigues to the world of romance novelist Nicholas Sparks for “The Best of Me.”

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“All that emotional restraint of being a soldier? Let it ALL hang out!” Monaghan laughs. Few might see “Fort Bliss,” but audiences often flock to movies from the novels of America’s most popular romance novelist. And “The Best of Me” (Oct. 17) could be no different. It’s about two high school sweethearts — Monaghan and James Marsden) who stumble into each other when they visit their hometown, promises love and tears. Monaghan had to abandon Regular GI and get her swoon back for co-star James Marsden (“Enchanted”). Did it work?

“All I can say is, bring some tissues!”

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