The Lionsgate crime drama Paradise Highway deals with the ongoing real-life problem of human trafficking. The story follows a reluctant trucker Sally (Juliette Binoche), who takes her human cargo, Leila (Hala Finley), to a delivery. After the delivery is botched, the two find themselves on the run while law enforcement, played by Morgan Freeman and Cameron Monaghan, are on the case. The Shameless star spoke with Bleeding Cool about his audition for the Gutto in her directorial theatrical debut, the research into the dark subject matter, and working with the Oscar-winner.
Bleeding Cool: What inspired you to take on 'Paradise Highway?'
Cameron Monaghan: A couple of people I was working with spoke very highly of the script, and I was interested in finding out what it was. I backdoored my way into getting access to it [laughs]. It was something really special. As dark and as bleak as the subject matter of human trafficking and child sexual slavery is, there was this element of the story that I thought was beautiful, human, and alive.
It didn't feel procedural, but rather it was about people and something more. There was this character, Special Agent Finley Sterling, who I saw myself being able to play. I contacted the producers, and they approached our writer-director Anna Gutto. Since she wasn't familiar with my work, she had me audition, and I was lucky enough to be able to convince her to be a part of it. Somewhere along the way, I found out that Morgan Freeman and Juliette Binoche were also attached to the project, which only motivated me to be a part of it even more, and the rest is history.
BC: What research did you do to get into character?
Monaghan: I was lucky I could jump onto this project early enough where I had a couple of months to figure out not only this character but also the context he's within. Anna has done a fair amount of research while writing this project and had a number of good resources about human trafficking. My first shock was learning statistics and realizing how much more dire the situation is in the United States than what I previously knew. It is an immense problem at the moment and something that people need to have more awareness.
I started reading stories about survivors caught in trafficking situations. There's a podcast by a woman named Jerri Williams, a former FBI agent. She interviewed some former special agents who specialized in human trafficking. The way they spoke about it was really interesting and informative and helped me figure out this character and who he would be.
BC: How do you describe working with Anna since Paradise Highway is her directorial feature debut and how she ran her set?
Monaghan: Anna not only impressed me as a writer but also as a director. This is her first feature, and she's Norwegian. Initially, I didn't know if she would be able to communicate with the English-speaking American crew. Specifically, we were in the Deep South, and that is its own culture. I believed her because the writing felt like it transcended borders and culture. It felt like she understood something, and she could communicate effectively on the set in addition to working efficiently, smartly, and quietly.
[Anna] and her director of photography were a team who would be off figuring things out quickly. They had a very good plan. When she gave you a note, she would bring you to the side and whisper it to you, and the set had this immense focus to it. Everyone was firing on all cylinders, and I was lucky I could work within the context of something that, while we had a very tight budget and schedule, still felt like there was electricity on the set.
BC: You mentioned working with veterans like Morgan and Juliette on set. Could you tell me what that was like?
Monaghan: Morgan Freeman and Juliette Binoche being in the film was a very exciting thing. Most of my scenes in the movie are with Morgan as the two of us are on the road. We have this road trip movie element to the characters. That was a very amazing thing. We were in rural Mississippi in the middle of July, so it was very hot [laughs], and we were being eaten alive by bugs. I was very excited to be in that situation. Morgan is from there and desensitized to those harsh conditions even though I grew up in South Florida, but still, there's something about that heat & humidity that is palpable.
You can sense it on the screen. I don't think you can fake Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Deep South… there's something that is really filmic and beautiful about that region of the United States. I was very glad that we were able to shoot it and not have to fake that. Don't think that can be faked, but being able to work with Morgan within the context of his home state was a pretty amazing thing. He has a lot of pride in Mississippi, and it was really cool to be able to see what he loved about it.
Paradise Highway, which also stars Frank Grillo, Hala Finley, Veronica Ferres, and Christiane Seidel, is currently in theaters, digital, and on-demand.