Cobie Smulders on Her Stunning Transformation Into Devious Ann Coulter
The “How I Met Your Mother” and “Avengers” star discusses her scene-stealing turn as conservative troll Ann Coulter in FX’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story.”
For fans of the hit CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Cobie Smulders will always be synonymous with Robin Scherbatsky, the genial journalist formerly known as “Robin Sparkles” and so-called aunt to Ted Mosby’s kids. But to cinemagoers, she is Maria Hill, the high-kicking S.H.I.E.L.D. agent helping the superpowered Avengers cancel the apocalypse, over and over again. Both contingents will undoubtedly be thrown for a loop by the Canadian-born actress’ latest on-screen transformation: a morally bankrupt narcissist by the name of Ann Coulter.
Yes, in Ryan Murphy’s new FX miniseries Impeachment: American Crime Story, Smulders delivers a pitch-perfect performance as the immigrant-bashing hatemonger. While the main story centers the persecution of Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) at the wandering hands of predatory President Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) and her two-faced pal Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson), Smulders steals every scene she’s in as a young, brash Coulter, here helping Paula Jones’ legal team prepare briefs in their uphill battle against the powerful Clinton apparatus. That Smulders’ real-life husband, former SNL star Taran Killam, plays Jones’ buffoonish husband Steve—who is desperate for a role on a different CBS sitcom, Designing Women—makes it all the more intriguing.
It’s remarkable how spot-on Smulders’ Coulter is, radiating snark and condescension, given how kind she comes across in real life, and the small amount of time she had to prepare for the part, having replaced GLOW’s Betty Gilpin at the eleventh hour.
I spoke with Smulders about embodying a woman she couldn’t disagree more with and her true feelings about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
Are you and Taran in a contest to see who can play the most loathsome conservative troll?
[Laughs] Yeah, I know. We’re not in that negative space that often, and it’s interesting—and it’s a wonderful challenge. Taran is one of the nicest humans, and I’d like to think that I’m a kind person too, but don’t like talking positively about myself in any respect. I can speak for him and say it’s just such a completely different role for him to jump into—not only playing this dominating man but just the look of it, which is what I really had to deal with. The haircuts alone are enough to make you uneasy. When it walks through the door, it’s pretty intense.
He also played Trump too, and I’ve gotta say, I thought his Trump was way better than Alec Baldwin’s.
Thank you for that. I agree.
I found Baldwin’s affect too exaggerated and cartoonish, but I thought Taran nailed the childishness of Trump, in a way.
The childlike petulance—which I find [Trump] to be, in real life.
I read that you replaced Betty Gilpin as Ann Coulter in Impeachment. How did you snag the role? Your Coulter is so spot-on.
I should’ve started this whole interview by saying, “I haven’t seen anything, and I’ve only read the episodes I’m involved in, so I’m only starting to talk about it and don’t really know how it’s going to be.” My husband got hired pre-pandemic, and then was put on hold—like the rest of the world. I very much went on tape and had to throw together my best Ann Coulter on a whim to get it, but the role came to me at a time politically—it was after this past presidential election—where I was like, I don’t know, man! It just seems like a lot. And then I decided, you know what? What an amazing challenge and opportunity. I was excited about doing something that’s completely different from my life. I’ve never met Ann Coulter and don’t know her personally, so I can only speak to what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard her say, and what I think her true beliefs are. But she also seems like the type of woman who has a ton of confidence, who’s very intelligent, and who can walk into a room and think they’re the smartest, most beautiful person in the room—which is the polar opposite of me in my life. To show up on set and pretend to be that confident and stubbornly righteous was an interesting exercise for me.
And since this is the ’90s, Coulter is quite young here.
Yes, that’s also a part of it. I thought, let’s try to focus on the late ’90s and not spin it into the present day. Here, she’s just starting her career as a media pundit. She wrote the bestselling book High Crimes and Misdemeanors after her experience writing all these legal briefs for Paula Jones’ attorneys, so this was a big career moment for her.
What did the preparation entail? And how painful was it to listen to so much Ann Coulter?
I mean, she’s written… I think 12 books? And I listened to every one of them. So it would be me, like, folding laundry and listening. It was the first time in my life where I was listening to audiobooks just to get the cadence of the voice and not digest what was being said. You know, I certainly heard what she had to say, but I don’t share the same beliefs, so it was like tuning off that part of your brain that’s going to argue or disagree and just try to listen to the sounds and the rhythms. There was a lot of that. There are a lot of videos online, and she has her blog, so it was about diving into that. On the show, it’s somebody who’s super eager at the beginning of her career laced in with the most familiar version of Ann Coulter that we see on television today.
What did you chase the Ann Coulter books with? A Pixar movie or something?
I would just click back into mom mode and play with my kids for a while.
That’s a lot of immigrant-bashing over 12 books.
Yeah… certainly toward the later books. Absolutely. I don’t know. I’m a liberal Canadian being asked to play this role, so it was an education for me, because I’ve never sought out looking at things from that perspective. I will say, it was interesting to ask, why does one think that way? I think it’s extremely important, in this time and age, where there are so many things to look at from multiple perspectives, and that’s the great thing to come out of this show. When people ask, “Why are you rehashing this dramatic moment in American history? Why go back?” It’s gonna be polarizing based on your political beliefs, and I don’t think that’s going to shift very much, but I do think we’re going to see the human stories involved in this, and how these women were affected by it. Those were glazed over back in the day.
Is it hard on shows like this to measure how campy or “big” you should go with your performance? Because you’re all in wigs and prosthetics playing heightened versions of these real people.
I think that everybody’s hope is to play the most grounded version of these characters—and that being said, a lot of these characters are big personalities. Ann Coulter is a big personality, and it’s very easy to play her in that way. It’s my job—and every performer’s job—to make them seem human. But I hear what you’re saying. I can only speak from my experience because, especially shooting during the pandemic, you’re very bubbled up with your scenes, and my storyline is sort of separate from the main storyline. It was a time of high stakes, and so it’s going to seem dramatic anyway.
I love the scenes between your Ann Coulter and Billy Eichner’s Matt Drudge. My colleagues and I were joking that it’d be fun to see a spinoff of just you two.
Drudge & Coulter. For me, it’s these moments that make this show interesting. Like, Drudge had his own television show, and he had the set look like a detective’s office, and he wore this hat, and this is the early days of the internet, so he had a blog online which felt not like a real thing. And Steve Jones, who Taran plays, wanted a role on Designing Women—and asked the Clintons for it. It’s all these things where you’re just like, this is so bizarre! And George Conway and Ann Coulter were friends! And working with Billy is one of my greatest joys. We were able to do a television show, Friends From College, a couple of years back, and he’s such a fantastic performer. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve gotten to work with as far as the way he retains information. We were able to play off each other and have a really great time.
Since you’ve studied up so much on Ann Coulter, I’m curious what your take is on her. Do you think she actually believes this stuff, that she’s a performance artist, or a mix of both?
You know, it’s hard to say, because one of the things I try to do is say, I can’t really know anybody until I have a personal moment with them. She has a political style—to go in and stir up the pot—and that’s how she’s made her career. But I don’t know what she feels or thinks genuinely. She’s outspoken about a lot of different things, and to be comfortable saying some of the beliefs that she has out loud, it leads me to believe that there’s probably a part of her that does [believe it]. She’s still an enigma to me.
I’ve only seen the first batch of episodes that they gave to the press, but Ann Coulter basically made a name for herself by leaking that Bill Clinton had a curved dick, which is a very strange thing to have be your first big political move. Is that on the show? And how surreal was that to actually have to discuss on a TV show?
I read that as well through the research that I had done. But mostly this is just depicting her and this group—they called themselves “The Elves,” since they worked at night—as a team working behind the scenes on the Paula Jones case, really wanting to be involved, and wanting to write bestselling books after. I don’t want to reveal too much about that, because it’s a different part of the show, but they focus more on her experience with Conway and other lawyers working on the case.
Do you remember what it was like first hearing about the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal when you were a kid in Canada? Was it as big a deal up there? For me, it was quite surreal. I remember being super young and reading portions of the Starr report in The New York Times and thinking, it’s really weird that The New York Times is publishing what basically amounts to erotica.
I was a teenager when it all happened, and I just remember the broad strokes. The most vivid memory I have is the Saturday Night Live sketches depicting the comedy of it. I remember the bullet points, and I remember Monica, but I didn’t clock it as much. I don’t want to blame that on Canada, because it was very covered up in Canada, but I was 17 or 18, and it wasn’t on my radar. So, to go back and read up on it—I didn’t know the details of the Starr report, and to realize that they published that? There are so many details of this that I can’t believe happened.
Impeachment depicts Bill Clinton as a horror villain, and I’m curious how your thoughts have evolved when it comes to Bill Clinton. I think a lot of people’s opinions have changed given shifts in culture, and the way Monica Lewinsky was cast in popular media at the time. It’s crazy to think that she was presented as relentlessly pursuing him even though she was an intern in her early twenties and he was the most powerful man in the world.
Well, I think that when we look at the female players in this—Linda Tripp, Lewinsky, and Paula Jones—they don’t have any power, and I think because of that, there’s inner turmoil. The way that they’re not believed or supported is the tragedy in this. We have these women who were forced to fight each other to feel powerful, and that to me is just so sad. In terms of [Bill Clinton], it’s a longer answer and I don’t really feel comfortable… maybe we can go for cocktails and have a much longer conversation. But when I watch this, and I think about what happened to the women in this storyline—particularly Monica, she was a political tool that was used. It really saddens me that this story became her whole life. I got to meet Monica the other night, which was really exciting for me, and to see that she’s gone on this anti-bullying mission, and using herself as an example, she’s bringing a level of awareness to that that’s a really beautiful thing.
It’s quite revealing how Ann Coulter chastised the Clinton camp for branding Paula Jones trailer trash, only to turn around and call her trailer trash when she posed for Playboy. That feels like a good example of Coulter’s hypocrisy.
Yeah, where did those standards come from? I think it’s coming from a lack of understanding and empathy. When I look at the Paula Jones case, it seems like this is a woman who’s desperate, and just because she posed for Playboy doesn’t mean she’s not telling the truth—it speaks to a need to financially provide, or whatever it is. It’s interesting how she flip-flopped really fast on that. Part of that is in the show. I just don’t understand the mentality. It’s self-serving and asking a lot of someone—she was putting too much pressure on Paula, and you can’t expect someone to go through what she went through perfectly. It breaks a human.
What was the key, for you, to unlocking Ann Coulter? Was there something you homed in on, like a behavioral tic, the voice… or the blond wig?
The wig certainly helped. It was just more the mentality of being constantly underwhelmed by everyone and everything around you. It’s this mentality of [in Ann Coulter voice], “I can’t even believe that this is real.” She believes that she’s always right, and when someone is wrong it’s dumbfounding to her. In the scenes with the lawyers, it’s all, I’m the smartest one here and if I’m talking, everyone should listen. It was more about coming in with extreme confidence and thinking, “I’m the Supreme Ruler,” which colored everything. [Laughs] And then, in terms of cadence and stuff, there are these repetitive things she does with vowels that I picked up on.
I feel I’d be culturally remiss if I didn’t ask you about Maria Hill, because I do watch the Marvel movies. There’s been a lot written online about how Maria Hill was underutilized in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so I’m curious how you felt about it? And is her time over?
Well, I can never talk about future plans—or else I don’t think I’d have future plans with Marvel. But it’s so nice to hear that people think that way. I’ve only been grateful for the stories I got to be in. Maria Hill is mortal, and I feel like our time is limited in these stories, because we’re not as interesting. We can’t really shoot into outer space—well, we can, but we’re more vulnerable. I don’t make those decisions, but I had a blast. It’s been very cool to have been there from the beginning and see it evolve, and it’s been great to see more women—and more diversity in general—come into the Marvel world. To be a small part of it has been a wonderful experience.
Do you ever think about the alternate timeline where How I Met Your Dad gets picked up, plays for 10 years, and we never get to see Greta Gerwig become such a fabulous director? Because I do.
[Laughs] It’s so true, right? It’s so true! It would just be Season 9 or something. Wasn’t that wild? I don’t know how that didn’t work. Like, how did that not work? It’s Greta Gerwig! That seems like a show I’d want to watch. But thank goodness she took that other path.
Now there’s this How I Met Your Father spinoff with Hilary Duff. Are they going to tap you and the other original cast to appear on it in any way?
Oh my gosh, I don’t know! I think they’ve started, and Pam Fryman, who directed almost every episode of How I Met Your Mother, is directing it too, and the continuation of that only means great things for the show. If Pam’s there, and Carter [Bays] and Craig [Thomas] are producing, I’d help out if they needed it. I just don’t know what direction they’re taking the show in.
I read that you became a citizen in 2020. Was that to vote a certain person out of office?
Yes. I feel like it may have been my vote that did it? [Laughs] It’s a weird position to be in, in terms of being in the entertainment industry and asked to comment on things politically—or feeling like you should be putting the word out about politics, voting, whatever it is. It started feeling a little hypocritical to be telling people to get out and vote when I’m not able to myself, and I also really wanted to vote in this past election, so it was a combination of things. I’ve been trying to educate myself more on politics and issues, from the Black Lives Matter movement to getting more invested with environmental protections, and it’s a lot. But it feels like the bare minimum you can do is vote, and I couldn’t, and it was infuriating, the more and more involved I got. I just felt like I had to do my civic duty, get my vote in, and then be like, “I voted… what are you doing?” And it felt different. It felt good. I just voted in the recent [recall] election in California. It feels like you’re a part of it, and everybody should be.
But are you still keeping that Canada card in your back pocket in case things truly go to hell here?
Very much. Very, very much. It’s very close to the chest at the moment. It’s weird, because next year I’ll have been in each country the same amount of time in my life—20 years and 20 years. I feel at home in both countries, but all my family’s in Canada and there will always be a big piece of my heart that’s there.