You could say Michelle Monaghan’s latest role required her to do twice the work.
The actor stars as twins Gina and Leni in the drama thriller Echoes, which debuted on Netflix on August 19 and promptly knocked Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman from its perch as the streaming platform’s current most-popular series.
“It’s a lot. It’s very, very much a lot,” Monaghan laughs. “It was an intense project, as you can imagine. You know, it’s like pulling double duty, truly, but it’s also the very reason I wanted to do it, because it was a challenge that I hadn’t obviously explored before.”
In the seven-episode series, from 13 Reasons Why creator Brian Yorkey, Gina and Leni aren’t just twins with a close bond or a sixth sense about one another — they share everything. So much so that they switch identities every year on their birthday — sharing jobs, friends, unsuspecting husbands and a child.
As Leni, one is in West Virginia raising horses and a daughter with her husband, played by Matt Bomer. The other lives a fast-paced life in Los Angeles with her therapist husband (Daniel Sunjata).
But their (twisted) ritual hits a major snag when Leni goes missing and Gina must return home to join in the search. Flashbacks throughout show glimpses of their troubled childhood and teen years, and what led them to switch identities in the first place.
Best known for roles in Mission: Impossible, Gone Baby Gone and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Monaghan says she studied twins in preparing for the role and learned that switching identities does occur.
“I learned that a lot of switching of identities takes place,” she says.
“People tend to do it as twins when they’re children generally, you know, doing it experimentally, I suppose, to have fun or to avoid getting in trouble. And they switch and they do the thing and they think it’s fun. They prank people. And then there are some other stories where, you know, kind of people do it as as adults and maybe in a more sinister, manipulative way.”
Obviously Monaghan isn’t the first actor to play twins on screen. Memorable examples include the 1961 movie The Parent Trap starring Hayley Mills as identical sisters, and the 1963 TV series The Patty Duke Show, starring Patty Duke as identical cousins.
Those projects used split screens to pull off scenes with both actors. By 1998, Lindsay Lohan starred in the remake of The Parent Trap, using photography tricks and a body double.
For Echoes, a motion control camera was brought in and Monaghan says she made the switch herself, between Gina and Leni, “multiple times a day”.
“What that allowed us to do is really just put both women there side by side, and you could see them really flawlessly,” she explains.
“I would really just play one character’s side for a few hours and I would work alongside a wonderful actress who acted as the opposite character. So if I was playing Leni, she was playing Gina for me, and then I would finish that character and go and do an hour switch of hair, make-up and wardrobe and then come back and do the other side of that. And we would do that sometimes a couple of times a day.”
Vanessa Gazy, the show’s Australian creator, executive producer and writer, says witnessing Monaghan’s abilities, plus the work of the visual effects department, “is still thrilling” and the end result met her “earliest visions for the show”.
“Watching a talented actor at work is a joy, and to watch Michelle Monaghan split herself in half to inhabit two complex, identical women was perhaps doubly so,” she says.
“This was an enormous undertaking for Michelle in particular: playing two lead roles over seven episodes is not only a performance challenge but a production marathon. She approached the work with passion, generosity, courage and kindness.”
Monaghan — who also recently filmed the Apple TV Plus series Bad Monkey in Miami, based on the 2013 novel by Carl Hiaasen, alongside Vince Vaughn, Jodie Turner-Smith — says she herself found watching Echoes “a real trip”.
“It’s hard to watch myself one time, but to watch myself twice was a lot. But I loved it, I had so much fun.”