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Small-town girl Michelle Monaghan hitting it big in Hollywood
Michelle Monaghan, right, plays a miner in "North Country." The film stars Charlize Theron, left.
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WINTHROP - In the movie "Garden State," a 20-something actor played by Zach Braff returns to his hometown and awkwardly struggles to relate with family and old friends.

In real life, actress Michelle Monaghan - who stars with Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. in the new film "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" - says homecomings in Winthrop don't bring similar complications.

"When I come home, everything is just normal," said Monaghan, a 1994 graduate of East Buchanan High School.

But Monaghan, who lives in New York, has had little time to visit lately. After filming "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" last year, she spent the winter in northern Minnesota filming a role in the movie "North Country." She's now shooting a starring role in next year's "Mission Impossible 3."

The major roles are bringing Monaghan her first wave of write-ups and reviews. Critics are calling her a "rising star," "the most refreshing actress in years" and "the hottest breakout star of 2005."

But things haven't changed in Winthrop. When people recognize Michelle there, they see Robert and Sharon Monaghan's daughter, not Downey Jr.'s or Kilmer's co-star. She catches up with family and friends over beer, card games and sometimes karaoke.

Her parents prefer to stay out of the limelight.

"We are just very proud of her. She has worked very hard. She is very blessed, and she realizes that," said Sharon Monaghan, Michelle's mother in Winthrop.

A proud uncle, Joe Hammel of Castalia, admits he does enjoy pointing out a star in "North Country" is his niece.

"She has worked very hard and spent a lot of time away from home, but this is what she wanted," Hammel said.

Monaghan said she found a hint of home while working on "North Country." The movie was filmed mostly in the small northern Minnesota towns of Virginia and Hibbing.

"I felt like it was a lot of the same people; kind of that Midwest attitude and mentality," she said.

One difference compared to Iowa: "It's a hell of a lot colder. It's arctic up there. It really is."

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" was filmed in the warmer climate of southern California. Monaghan plays an aspiring actress from a small Midwestern town who moves to Los Angeles to find her break.

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Monaghan gradually fell into acting. She studied three years at Columbia College in Chicago to be a journalist. Modeling jobs on the side helped pay for school and eventually lured her to New York. There, she went from commercials to television drama appearances and eventually the big screen.

Now, she's hungry to try as many genres as she can. The script and the character are the most important factors when choosing a role, and a strong director is also important, Monaghan said, because she isn't a classically trained actor.

Since her film debut three years ago, Monaghan's name has scrolled in credits with others like Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Charlize Theron and Angelina Jolie. Her film credits include "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" and "The Bourne Supremacy."

She hopes it's all a sign of success to come.

"I have worked with some really incredible stars already," she said. "I've set the bar pretty high for myself."

Back home, her family thinks she is on the brink of a career some people wish for as children.

"Boys want to be cowboys and girls want to be models, nurses or movie stars. Michelle's dream came true, and that's great," Hammel said.

Contact Dan Haugen at (319) 291-1565 or dan.haugen@wcfcourier.com.

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