By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—As a kid, Maika Monroe watched all the “High School Musical” films, swooning over blue-eyed hunk Zac Efron like most other red-blooded American females. She never imagined a career as an actress, let alone starring in a movie opposite Efron, playing his girlfriend. And yet, that is exactly what happened to Monroe, a tall blond beauty from Santa Barbara.
At 19, Monroe makes her feature film debut in “At Any Price,” in which she plays Cadence, a country girl who is dating Dean (Efron), an aspiring stock car racer. With no real family to call her own, Cadence hangs out a lot at Dean’s family 3,000-acre farm, which as it turns out is not in as great financial shape as it appears to be. Dean’s father, Henry (Dennis Quaid), a third-generation farmer, is quietly trying to dig his way out of debt by whatever means necessary, including selling patented genetically modified seeds to his neighbors. Even that isn’t an easy task as there are legal restrictions and other competing salesmen. His favored older son, who was supposed take over the farm, has left the country to pursue his dreams of adventure in South America, so he is stuck trying to interest his rebellious younger son in learning the family business.
Surprisingly, it’s Cadence who ends up taking an interest in the farm and selling seed. With Dean preoccupied preparing for an upcoming stock car race, she joins Henry as he makes his sales pitches to neighboring farmers, and demonstrates a genuine aptitude for the job.
Monroe grew up in the coastal California town of Santa Barbara, where her father works in the construction industry and her mother is a sign language teacher. Though she recalls enjoying watching movies, she had no aspirations of becoming an actress. A natural athlete, she was more interested in dance and kiteboarding as she entered her teens.
While at dance school one day, she saw a notice calling for students who wanted to appear as extras in a short film so she signed up. Her first day on the set was an eye-opener, she recalls.
“I remember just being in awe of it,” the blond beauty says. “ I was just blown away by every aspect of it: the director working with the actors, the camera and just everything about it. That’s where I fell in love with it. I got to know the director really well on that set because even when I didn’t have to be there, I would want to watch and be behind the camera.”
Impressed with her enthusiasm, the director wrote a small speaking part for her, which made her eligible for a Screen Actors Guild card. She subsequently landed small parts in short films and on TV.
Her mother shuttled her back and forth between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles (some 90 miles apart) for Monroe to audition for parts, sometimes as often as four times a week.
“I’m lucky to have a mom like I do because I wouldn’t be where I am right now,” she humbly says. “If it wasn’t for her, I couldn’t have done it. She had no interest in it, but it’s what I wanted. I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
Monroe recalls that there were a lot of “no’s” before the “yes’s” started coming.
After several years of plugging along in the finicky world of show business, Monroe was ready to give it up in favor of pursuing her other passion: kiteboarding.
She had started playing the physically demanding outdoor sport around the same time she started acting, and had gotten pretty good at it. Actually, she had gotten very good at it, to the point where she was involved in professional competitions. It was while she was contending at the Red Bull Big Air Competition in the Dominican Republic that she had to make one of the most important decisions of her life. She sat down and wrote out the pros and cons of acting versus professional kiteboarding.
“I knew if I trained, I could be the best kiteboarder in the world,” she says, without a hint of vanity. “ With acting, the decision is always in someone else’s hands. It requires talent, but it’s also luck .I had no idea what could happen. So I really had to think about it. Every part of my body wanted (to act) so bad it almost could have started being a negative.”
After coming in second at the competition, she thought she’d made up her mind to go the professional kiteboarding route. But just then, she got a phone call from her agent asking if she was interested in auditioning for the role of Cadence in “At Any Price.”
Without hesitation, Monroe and her mother put together an audition tape and sent it in. Within days, she got a callback. The youngster decided then and there to return to LA, where she was up against four other young actresses for the coveted part. She met with director Ramin Bahrani, who also co-wrote and produced the drama, and landed the role.
Soon afterward, she found herself on location in DeKalb, Illinois, in the middle of America’s farm belt, playing sexy and smart Cadence. Meeting Efron was both exciting and scary, she recalls.
“There was no chemistry read or anything,” she says in her enthusiastic way. “So the first time I met him was in DeKalb, where everyone came out two or three weeks before we started filming. I didn’t know what to expect because, you know, he’s kind of huge! But when I met him, it was clear that he is so down to earth and so easy to talk with and connect with. That helped very much and so the acting came off very naturally. I was very blown away by him. It was fun working with him.”
Monroe says she initially was a little more intimidated by Quaid, the veteran star of films including “Great Balls of Fire,” “Far From Heaven” and “The Rookie.”
“I’m usually not star struck but he is a legend,” she says, smiling. “This role for him is very different from the things he’s done in other films and also from who he is as a person. Watching him transform into Henry—his whole body transformed—was incredible.”
The teenager admits she knew little about the controversy surround genetically modified seeds, which serves as a backdrop for the central story about the complexities of family relationships and the changing nature of the farming industry.
“I didn’t know much about it at all,” she says of the genetically modified corn, which out-produces conventional seed suppliers and has muscled many smaller farms out of business. “But that’s what I love about my job. Never in a million years would I have gone to DeKalb, nor would I have known anything about this. Plus, you don’t see that many films about this topic. Yet there’s such a cool story around these characters with such depth. It frames an interesting movie.”
Monroe credits “At Any Price” for propelling her career forward. She subsequently has landed roles in two other Hollywood films: the upcoming drama, “The Bling Ring,” directed by Sofia Coppola and Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day,” in which she co-stars opposite Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.
All three roles are each quite different from one another, and also quite different from the perky and grounded Monroe herself.
The trickiest role, by far, was playing an alcoholic teen who gets pregnant in “Labor Day,” she reveals.
“I would describe her as my polar opposite,” she says of playing the layered and complex character Mandy. “ I remember getting the script and thinking, ‘There is absolutely no way I can pull this off.’ I initially saw her as this evil girl with no redeeming qualities. So I worked with an acting coach on it and sent the audition tape to Jason (Reitman) in New York, and he said he wanted to meet with him. Then I started falling in love with this character after talking to him. I began to see more sides to this girl—where she comes from and why she does the things she does. She became fascinating to me. It was a huge challenge but I loved it. And it takes place in the ‘60s, so I have this cool hair and makeup that transformed me.”
Monroe says her role in “The Bling Ring,” based on a true story about star struck suburban teens who go on a robbery spree of Hollywood homes of their celebrity idols, and until they get caught, is a smaller one, though it afforded her the opportunity to work with one of her directing idols, Sofia Coppola, and “Harry Potter” star Emma Watson.
“It’s kind of been blown out of proportion on the Internet that I play this bigger role than I do,” she admits. “But I really appreciated the opportunity to do it and I’m excited to see the final film.”
Set to turn 20 on May 29, Monroe is savoring her last few weeks of being a teenager.
“I’m soaking it in,” she says giddily. “I love that I’m still a teenager.”
She is set to start another movie project soon but cannot say what it is yet. She still enjoys kiteboarding in her free time, but has decided not to pursue it as a professional career anymore.
Her plans to attend college to study graphic design and web design also are on hold as she continues to build her resume with acting credits.
“This past year, I’ve been basically working nonstop—in a very good way,” she says, smiling. “But I definitely want to go to college. As of now, I may have to take classes online. It’s important to me but things just need to calm down before I can focus on that.”