Michelle Monaghan
Jeff Lipsky/CPi Syndication

The Hollywood veteran makes a not-so-mysterious return to the small screen on True Detective.

The television world has changed plenty in the 11 years since Michelle Monaghan last starred on the small screen. After a season long stint as a schoolteacher on Boston Public, Monaghan’s film career took off with starring roles in blockbusters like Mission: Impossible III, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Source Code.

But her return to TV this month is a far cry from her school days. Alongside Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the 37-year-old Iowa native stars on True Detective, an eight-episode HBO series set in a small Louisiana town where addictions, spiritual arguments and family tragedies emerge before the show’s gruesome mystery unfolds.

“It continues on that path,” Monaghan laughs. “It’s a very dark, adult drama, and that’s what appealed to me: that the writing is very provocative, very rich.”

Directed by Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, Sin Nombre) and penned by Nic Pizzolatto (The Killing), True Detective follows the lives of Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson), detectives who track a serial killer over the span of 17 years.

“You don’t pick your parents, and you don’t pick your partners,” Hart mutters in the premiere as he contends with Cohle’s seemingly endless demons. It’s hard to predict how the case will end, but because the action jumps between the early 1990s and a more depressing present day, the assumption isn’t a good one. 

As Hart’s wife, Maggie, Monaghan describes her character as a “slow burn” who takes time to reveal her cards to viewers. “I love the opportunity to play a long-form character, to find nuances over time without signing up for seven years,” she says. “As the investigation unravels, you discover how cunning [Maggie] can be. She becomes the grounding force of the story. Both men make the mistake of underestimating her.” 

Monaghan has fallen for the cable-TV approach, as she’s already signed on for another HBO series in development, along with an adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ novel The Best of Me, due out in 2015. She also recently completed production on the films Fort BlissA Many Splintered Thing and Better Living Through Chemistry. Staying busy for this mother of two is just fine, she says, as long as the projects are as fun as True Detective

Wait. Fun?

“There was a lot of laughter!” Monaghan insists. “Woody and I have some incredibly intense, powerful scenes, but I worked with him on North Country years ago, and it was like hanging out with a good friend all over again. We were laughing as soon as they yelled cut, going, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know you had that in you!’ ”