'True Detective's' Michelle Monaghan: Robert Downey Jr. was her improv guru

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For someone having an accidental career, Michelle Monaghan -- Maggie on HBO's "True Detective" -- is doing pretty well.

The 37-year-old actress grew up in a town of 700, Winthrop, Iowa, and daydreamed of becoming a journalist.

"I grew up loving current events," Monaghan tells Zap2it. "You grow up looking out when there are not a lot of other things going on in your hometown."

Monaghan lived in town, but her family had a farm and grew corn and beans. Her summer vacations were spent detasseling corn.

"I would go through rows and snap it off for $5 an hour," she says. Monaghan left Winthrop for Chicago, where she put herself through college by modeling for catalogs.

"This acting thing landed in my lap," she says. "They were looking for an actress on 'Young Americans' on The WB. Ian Somerhalder and Kate Bosworth came out of there."

At that point, Monaghan hadn't taken any acting classes. Her take on getting cast was, "This is another gig; OK, it will pay the rent."

She then audited a couple of classes at New York's Circle in the Square Theatre and found, she says, that "my biggest fear was getting up in front of a live audience."

Monaghan is learning on the job from the best. She says she has "taken something from each actor" she has worked with. Robert Downey, Jr., she says, "taught me to improvise."

She's also acquired unusual skills, such as learning to drive an 18-wheeler for "Trucker" (2008).

"It is one of my greatest accomplishments," she says.

In between playing Woody Harrelson's wife on "True Detective" and being mom to two young children off camera, Monaghan continues to nurture the dream of working in theater.

"Maybe I will be so off-Broadway, I'll be in New Jersey," she says.

Birth date: March 23, 1976

Credits: "Boston Public," "The Bourne Supremacy," "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," "Mission: Impossible III," "Gone Baby Gone"

Family: Has a 5-year-old daughter and an infant son with her husband of eight years, Peter White

Loves to do with her daughter: "Bake. We made Key lime pie this weekend," Monaghan says. "She loves to lick the beaters, and I pretend like I am mad at her, but I totally get it."

Influences: Gena Rowlands, Sally Field and Annette Bening.

Other potential careers: "I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't fallen into this," she says.
Photo/Video credit: Getty Images