Cobie Smulders on Life After ‘How I Met Your Mother’

The acclaimed actress opens up about her excellent new indie film Unexpected, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that polarizing finale.

07.24.15 9:15 AM ET

As far as film actresses go, few are having as low-key great a summer as Cobie Smulders.

Yes, there was her turn as Maria Hill, the ass-kicking ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in the superhero extravaganza Avengers: Age of Ultron. Though it sassed and Hulk-smashed its way to $1.4 billion of the world’s hard-earned dollars, Hill was a bit of an afterthought in the overcrowded sequel. But it’s impossible to miss her in Unexpected. Smulders appears in virtually every scene of Kris Swanberg’s film as Samantha Abbott, a teacher at an inner-city school in Chicago who discovers she’s pregnant at the same time as one of her students, Jasmine (Gail Bean). The two bond over their mutual problems—from boy trouble to their uncharted futures—in a film charmingly devoid of the exploitative stereotypes that often accompany explorations of inner-city kids and teen pregnancies.

And after nine seasons as Robin Scherbatsky, the fun-lovin’, Desert Eagle-poppin’, Neil Patrick Harris-sexin’ Canadian pop star turned world-class journalist on CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, Smulders has segued smoothly to indie leading lady. In addition to Unexpected there was this summer’s underrated rom-com Results, starring Smulders as a fitness instructor opposite Guy Pearce, and she’s currently shooting Clea Duvall’s directorial debut Intervention, along with Melanie Lynskey and Natasha Lyonne.

Just after our interview, the 33-year-old Vancouver native suffered a mysterious broken leg that forced her to drop out of Rick Famuyiwa’s HBO film Confirmation, an Anita Hill biopic featuring Kerry Washington as the woman who sued then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas for sexual harassment in 1991. Smulders was all set to play Harriet Grant, one of the lawyers who interviewed Hill during the infamous series of Senate hearings surrounding Thomas’s nomination, and divulged some tidbits about the controversial film, as well as her new career path she’s forged post-HIMYM.

The title of this film, Unexpected, is pretty fitting since I read that you didn’t know you’d be pregnant with your second child when you’d agreed to make it.

I would like to say I’m that committed to my craft, but I’m not! I’m not committed at all… no, it was just happenstance. I was shooting Results and I’d met with Kris Swanberg earlier that year when I was not with child and gushed at her about how much I liked this project, and her, and her short Baby Mary. And the project came back around six months later, and it kind of worked out. There were some days where the belly helped and some where we had to hide it a bit or add more belly. Due to the hard work and effort of the wardrobe department we all pulled it off!

How meta was it to be playing a pregnant character while you’re actually pregnant yourself? You had scenes in this film where your character is in the delivery room pushing out a baby while you’re pregnant in real life. It sounds like a total trip.

I think everybody feels their pregnancy differently, and for me, I was so in work mode. The only difference was I was pretty tired, so that lent itself to the performance in some scenes. But we were doing so many scenes each day because we shot this in 18 days, so I was trying to forget that I was pregnant and just push through it.

The thing I enjoyed about Unexpected was it didn’t fall into that trap of proselytizing, like The Secret Life of the American Teenager, or being exploitative, like all those MTV teen pregnancy shows. That must have been important to you as the star of the film.

It was important to me and very important to Kris, since it was based on a real-life experience of hers. She was a teacher in the inner city and found out she was pregnant while one of her students was pregnant as well, and the thing that I found so interesting about this film and about what it’s commenting on are women who are definitely “able” to take care of a child in terms of what the society thinks of having enough money, a career, a supporting partner, and these things you have in line, and even these women feel so unprepared. When you couple that person with a teenager who’s trying to get to college and really has to put a break on a lot of her dreams, it really showcases both sides of the equation.

Zoe Saldana recently came out with some eye-opening comments about how her pregnancy affected her career—that the studios “panicked” when they found out she was with child and even thought about writing her off of projects. It spoke to a unique gender double standard.

Everyone’s at different places in their careers, but it’s hard. It depends on what type of a mother you want to be, and how involved you want to be. I’m very grateful that I was able to shoot two films that worked very well with my pregnancy and that were very accommodating with me, and I hope that’s the case with every woman in our industry. But it’s hard. It’s physically demanding, and you do have to make sacrifices for sure. Oh, for sure.

You know, the first thing I think I ever saw you on was The L Word. You played Leigh, a lesbian who dated both Valerie and Helena. I was such a huge fan of that show, which was pretty ahead of its time as far as tackling LGBT characters on TV goes.

That’s a really good point, because it was a while ago! The L-Word was such a great show because of the amazing writing and characters, but maybe because it was such a new concept people couldn’t pick up on it, but I think it was down to the dynamic characters and how well done it was. I can’t believe it’s been a decade, but wow, it has been.

It was revealed that it came down to you and Evangeline Lily for the role of Kate on Lost and you bombed the audition and she got it. Is that the biggest “almost” of your career? 

Ah, the things that come out of Comic-Con. That was probably the biggest one for me, especially in the TV world. You never quite know whether shows are going to go and whether you’re just going to shoot a pilot, and I think it was the fact that it became such a huge hit and that it was shooting in a tropical paradise that I went, “Aw, man! That hurts.” But Evangeline is great and was perfect for the part.

Well, one big “almost” was Joss Whedon’s script for Wonder Woman that never got made, especially considering he said he was considering you for the title role.  

Well, Joss and I are very good friends, and I don’t know what would have happened. More than me being in it, I would have liked to see Joss write and direct Wonder Woman. Before Avengers and all this stuff, how cool would it have been to have a Wonder Woman movie from Joss seven years ago? That would have been awesome. It wasn’t meant to be, but he’s doing okay.

Well, you’re now Maria Hill in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Is it nice to have that sense of job security? That you’ll at least be employed for the next X number of years?

It’s very secretive. They like to keep the surprises for the audience so they don’t reveal a lot of information—even to the inner circle. But it is nice! It’s very cool to be a part of the world, and a part of this ongoing story that’s happening. Normally, you walk into a movie, have a script, and then you’re done with it, or at the most you’ll do a sequel—maybe. But with the Marvel world, they’re doing television, they have merchandise like crazy, and Lego video games. It’s cool to be a part of all of it.

Plus one day you can show your kids how much you kicked ass.

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We have very strict rules about TV and film in my house. Maybe a couple of years. Maybe one day I’ll be cool, but we’ll see!

Will we see you pop up in Captain America: Civil War or the Avengers’ Infinity Wars films?

That’s really sweet that you asked me, but I can’t talk about that. I’ll get in trouble!

Let’s talk about the Anita Hill biopic Confirmation. You’re set to play Harriet Grant. Did you get a chance to meet the real-life Harriet Grant or her husband, Scooter Libby?

Kerry is gonna be so great. But no, I haven’t met [Harriet] or [Scooter]. It’s really a recounting of the events. I don’t think that…it’s hard to say, because it’s a he-said, she-said scenario, and even the facts are very colored by that—they’re very he-said, she-said. Even our version, it’s hard to say what is truth and what is not. I think that’s hopefully going to be the thing that people leave with—that they can make up their own minds. But it’s really Anita’s story, and that’s the central focus.

The cast of How I Met Your Mother from left to right: Alyson Hannigan as Lily, Jason Segel as Marshall, Neil Patrick Harris as Barney, Cobie Smulders as Robin and Josh Radnor as Ted. How I Met Your Mother airs Monday nights on the CBS Television Network.  Photo: Smallz and Raskind/ Fox ©2013 Fox Television All Rights Reserved

Smallz and Raskind/CBS

Smulders and the cast of 'How I Met Your Mother.'

Will Joe Biden play a big role in the film?

Yes, Greg Kinnear is playing Joe Biden and he’s very much a character in the film.

Now that a year-plus has passed, have you had time to process the reaction to the How I Met Your Mother finale? It seemed to be a very polarizing one. A lot of people felt cheated by it.

I think it’s a compliment, more than anything. If they’re angry or loved it then they watched the show and are really passionate about the show; that, to me, is the really exciting thing. We were lucky to be on the air for nine years, which is something that never happens, and we were lucky that we got to finish when we wanted to finish. We all went in and said, “We’re going to do one more year,” and they got to finish the way they wanted to. A lot of times it’s rushed or canceled and you don’t know what happens, so I’m grateful that we got to see it through to the way the creators had intended since the beginning.

Okay, but what do you think about the finale?

I’m going to save my opinion for myself, because I feel like any time I open my mouth about it, it gets spread all over the place.

One thing I didn’t know about you until fairly recently is that you’re married to Saturday Night Live’s Taran Killam. Do you have a favorite character or sketch of his from SNL?

That’s very hard! I like any time he does anything musical because he has such a great voice and is a great dancer, so when he wrote and did the “Boy Dance Party” that was really fun.

How did you two meet?

Oh... We just met through friends, really! We just really like each other and we found each other, so that’s great.

With Results and Unexpected, it seems like you’re finally getting to play the lead instead of being one piece of a giant ensemble on How I Met Your Mother. Does it feel liberating?

People talk about when they get off a show “I can do anything!” but I was so happy on that show with those people and that crew that I was very sad to leave it, and on that show I got to do a multitude of things. I got to be a freakin’ Canadian pop star and had big dramatic arcs in some episodes, and some were ridiculously silly. I never felt, “Oh my god, I’ve been doing this for nine years!” Of course now, I have flexibility to choose and play different characters, and I’m focusing on my ability to grow, learn more, and get better. It’s exciting to be able to choose roles with more diversity, but How I Met Your Mother was great. I never wanted off the show to do movies.