Cameron Monaghan Dishes About Paradise Highway, Shameless, And More - Exclusive Interview

While slapstick comedies and the typical romantic tropes entertain many a moviegoer, some of the best films leave audience members more aware, introspective, and informed about a topic that's flown under the radar. Think of the likes of "Spotlight," the true story of a team of journalists at the Boston Globe who dug into the dark depths of the Catholic church, or the seminal classic "The Shawshank Redemption," following the stories of incarcerated men and the corruption that helped keep them behind bars. Such films expose the underbelly of the societal beast that so many of us turn a blind eye to, bringing some of the best actors to the screen in the process. These films will soon be joined by "Paradise Highway," the thrilling story of a truck driver — played by Juliette Binoche — tasked with smuggling a little girl across the country in order to save her brother's life. Hunted by two FBI agents, Binoche's Sally is forced into an untenable situation, all while bringing the horrific realities of human trafficking to the screen.

Remember "The Shawshank Redemption"? The hit film featured the one and only Morgan Freeman, and the storied actor is hitting the screen alongside "Shameless" star Cameron Monaghan in "Paradise Highway," the two actors bringing the FBI agents — hellbent on bringing human trafficking to an end — to life. An epic story, "Paradise Highway" is sure to leave viewers amazed and enlightened, and ahead of the film's premiere, we sat down with Monaghan for an exclusive interview where we chatted about the film, his iconic co-stars, his days on "Shameless," and more.

What drew Cameron Monaghan to the Paradise Highway project?

Your character in "Paradise Highway" is young and ambitious but finds himself looking down the barrel at the realities of human trafficking. It's a huge undertaking, both as a topic and an acting performance. What initially drew you to the project?

I was working on another project at the time, and a couple of the same producers were also in pre-production for this project, "Paradise Highway." I had heard a few people who had read the script talking about how amazing it was and how interesting and special the project was. Basically, I back-doored my way into securing access to the script and read the screenplay by Anna Gutto, who was a first-time feature director and writer. I found it [to be] very impressive.

Obviously, a subject matter like human trafficking and child sexual slavery is immensely difficult and heavy. Yet for as bleak as that subject matter is, the script was special in that there was a humanity to it. There was a beauty and an interest in these characters as people and putting that human element into the forefront [that] I thought was a really smart decision on her part.

I saw that there was this character, Agent Finley Sterling, who I thought I was right for. I talked to these producers and I asked, "Is this a possibility?" They said, "Maybe." They talked to her and she wasn't familiar with my work. She hadn't seen the stuff that I had done before and she was unsure. She had me read for the character, which I was honestly thankful for, because the character is different from anything I've done and it's only something that I've very recently aged into, thinking that I could portray a character like this. I found that I understood where he was coming from or some part of him.

It ended up working out. Also, somewhere along the way, I found out that Morgan Freeman and Juliette Binoche were attached as the two leads. That certainly did not hurt as well. I felt very grateful that I was hired onto this one and that I had the chance to be able to play this role.

Cameron reveals what aspects of the film challenged him as an actor

You mentioned aging into a role like this. What challenges did you face when you started to embody this character?

Well, Finley's background is very different than mine. He comes from wealth; he is an Ivy League graduate. He is a law enforcement agent. All of these things are things that are not particularly familiar to me.

It was important to me to still find something that was relatable or human about this guy. It was really important to understand who he was, what his home life was like, what he was, who he was. I had a lot of conversations about this character with Anna [Gutto] and we were able to develop a backstory for him — and to her credit, it was already on the page a little bit to begin with. She gives just enough information about all of these characters that they feel three-dimensional, but making sure that was consistent was important to me. We discussed him in such a way where it felt very natural from one scene to the next, to know where he was and what his journey would be for the movie.

The actor reveals what it was like to work with Morgan Freeman

You mentioned the one and only Morgan Freeman — you were able to share some really impactful scenes with him. What was that experience like? What did he teach you on-camera [or] off-camera?

It's a wild thing. These characters are in this car together on the road for pretty much the entirety of the story. We were shooting in rural Mississippi in the middle of July in 100-degree weather, 100% humidity — oh man, it was brutally hot. There's a very special kind of Deep South heat that is pretty wild. You're getting eaten alive by insects and all of that good stuff.

I'm in this car with Mr. Freeman for a month. That was a very interesting and pretty incredible opportunity. He is a really warm and intelligent person. He has a killer wit and a wicked sense of humor and he has zero tolerance for any bullsh*t in a way that I very much appreciate.

Our characters are slightly antagonistic to each other at the start of the story. His character is a seasoned veteran; I'm the new kid on the block. That was related a little bit to who we were as people — I'm a younger actor coming in, and he took the opportunity to mess with me, which was great. He would rib me between scenes. Yet the second that "rolling" was called and we would say, "Action," there was this presence to his performance. There is something that is magical about how he's able to communicate with his eyes.

It's hard to describe. So much of my job as a performer was to make sure that I don't get mystified or ... You can have admiration, but at the end of the day, you're there to do your work and to bring something of yourself. You don't want to have this out-of-body experience where you're just watching someone else do their thing, however amazing. It was about making sure that these scenes were conversations, picking up what he's laying out, and then drawing stuff out there for him to play off of as well. No one does it better than him. I felt very lucky to be able to experience that and to learn from it.

Cameron reflects on 11 seasons of Shameless and the show's ending

You were on 11 seasons of "Shameless." I want to know if you were satisfied at the ending of the show, what it was like to wrap up after growing up on-screen, your love with Mickey ...

It's a difficult thing with a show like "Shameless," not only because it's been on for 11 years, but also [because] it was a show that was not ... It's not just about plot. It's about characters that are existing from one moment to the next. So much of their lives are unsure. They don't necessarily have grand plans. They're trying to live from moment to moment.

That's a very difficult thing to cap off. I don't think that there's any universe in which you tie up a nice little bow and say, "Everyone gets their perfect happy ending," and that's it. Instead, you have to find a point at which you can walk away from these characters. What I like about the ending of the show is it feels like you could be walking down the street in Chicago and you could see Frank, or you could see Debbie, or you could see Ian, or whatever — maybe not Frank, since Frank died. But the idea that these characters are still alive and out there in the world and trying to make ends meet is probably the best way that you could end those stories, or at least walk away from them.

I was glad that we were able to ... During COVID was our 11th season, and when the closures happened, everyone had this question of whether or not we were going to be able to come back to do it. I'm glad that we were able to ... In many ways, it's this victory lap of being able to celebrate doing 11 years of the show, and to find some sort of closure with these characters was important.

Cameron talks about the future and his desire to slow down

If you can share, looking forward, what's on the horizon for you after "Paradise Highway"?

I can't speak too much on what that might be. There's a couple things, but I will say that I've been enjoying ... I've been consistently working, not only on ["Shameless"], but also on other projects for the better part of 20 years at this point. It's been nice to have a bit of breathing room to decide what's important to me and what I would like to do next — not only as an actor, as a performer, but also as a person, as a human being. To make the necessary lifestyle changes and life changes and decisions and to explore has been really nice.

With COVID, it forced all of us to slow down a little bit and ask the bigger questions.

Yeah. With COVID, everyone had to spend a lot of time with themselves, and that's something that I'm okay with. I spend a lot of time by myself and I like ... I'm an extroverted introvert, or maybe vice versa. Regardless, I enjoy a lot of time by myself — but that being said, no one likes being forced into that time. I was very lucky that I was able to have the stability with my life and my career that I was able to do that without the risk of the bottom falling out for me; a lot of people are not lucky enough to get that privilege.

I was very thankful for that. Now that time has passed a little bit and things are opening up a little bit, being able to travel has been amazing. There's a lot of places in the world that I would very much like to go [to], and to try to see as much of the world as I can, and to meet people from different places, from different cultures — to explore that is my primary interest right now. I want to learn and grow and be able to do that while I can. That's where I am at the moment.

"Paradise Highway" will be available in select theaters and on digital and On Demand on July 29.

This interview was edited for clarity.