Like Ted Mosby and most TV fans, I met Cristin Milioti in the rain. And like them, I was quickly smitten.
The former How I Met Your Mother star, who played the long-awaited titular character in the show’s final, controversial seasons, and I are meeting in the East Village, where she is rehearsing for a play opposite Dexter alum Michael C. Hall, to discuss her role in the current season of Fargo.
It is pouring.
“Do you ever carry around a yellow umbrella, just to mess with people?” I joke, referring to the iconic HIMYM prop. She laughs before confessing that she’s managed to hold on to the same, rather nondescript black umbrella for an astonishing number of years, going so far as tracking it down at various places she’s absentmindedly left it over the years. “My own version of How I Met Your Mother,” she laughs.
We seek shelter at a rather hidden tea shop named Podunk Tea Room, cluttered with mismatched furniture, vintage tea sets, and competing aromas escaping from assorted half-finished brews. Leave it to Cristin Milioti to find the cutest café ever.
She’s excited. Part of it is manic energy, buzz stemming from a mind-meld of a day rehearsing Lazarus, the upcoming musical adaptation of The Man Who Fell to Earth, staged by the New York Theatre Workshop and featuring original music from David Bowie, who starred in the 1976 Man Who Fell to Earth film. (Tickets to the show, which stars Milioti and Michael C. Hall, naturally sold out in hours.)
And part of it, it quickly becomes clear, is an enthusiasm for Fargo—the FX anthology series best known for reimagining the world of the iconic Coen Brothers 1996 film and running a monopoly on showbiz awards and critics’ Top 10 list after its sensational first season.
The second season of Fargo takes place 28 years before the first, stylishly depicting—with that signature macabre humor—the tangled web that’s spun when a ghastly massacre is committed, the one that’s ominously referred to back in Season One.
Milioti plays Betsy Solverson, the wife of Patrick Wilson’s trooper Lou Solverson and mother to young Molly (played in Season One, much older, by Allison Tolman), whose ability to help her husband solve cases is only minorly slowed by a cancer diagnosis. Yes, HIMYM fans, brace yourselves for PTSD.
Fargo creator Noah Hawley reached out to Milioti directly to play Betsy. He outlined Betsy’s arc and explained that the character required someone who could display the qualities that Molly would have when she becomes the steely heroine we met in Season One. He explained that it was going to be a season about strong women, with characters played by Jean Smart and Kirsten Dunst contributing to a blissfully feminist vibe.
“First of all, that’s all you need to tell me,” Milioti laughs. “‘Strong female role? The one of four that will come out this year? Great, I’m in.’”
But it wasn’t until last month at a Fargo panel event in New York that Milioti explicitly asked Hawley why he had thought of her to play Betsy. Referring to performances he’s seen her do and the characters she’s gotten to play thus far, his answer was simple: “I was rooting for you.”
Thus explains the appeal of Cristin Milioti.
Milioti’s journey to Calgary, where she shot Fargo, has been a bit of a cannon shot—the kind of explosive trajectory It Girls are made of and exciting new actresses whose careers merit obsessing over are born. That’s certainly what happens when, after years of teasing, baiting, and torturing fans, one of the most popular comedies of the last decade finally casts a character it’s been promising to reveal for years.
After eight seasons of agonizing buildup, Cristin Milioti landed one of the most sought-after roles on television. She was The Mother.
But kids, the story of even how Milioti met sitcom stardom on How I Met Your Mother begins even earlier than that. It begins with Tina Fey.
“I feel so strange still talking about it,” Milioti says when I bring up Sexy Baby.
After years of theater work characterized by various instances of “off” in front of the word “Broadway,” and a handful of guest roles on shows like The Sopranos and The Good Wife, Milioti was cast in an episode of 30 Rock titled “TGS Hates Women,” which would go on to be one of the series’ most famous.
On it, Milioti played a spoof of female “sex comics” who play up coy sexuality in order to titillate a male audience, while arguably bringing down women—among them Fey’s Liz Lemon—who yearn for smarter role models in comedy. The notorious line, delivered with expert coquettish trashiness by Milioti: “I’m a very sexy baby...”
When the episode aired, Milioti was so broke she couldn’t even afford to pay her cellphone bill.
“It was a really dark time,” she says. “It was a shit year of not being able to afford my rent. Not affording my cellphone. Wearing all my same clothes from college.” She thinks back to the audition and takes a beat. “She took a huge chance, too,” she says, referring to Tina Fey. “She could’ve given that to anyone.”
Indeed, Milioti’s guest spot came at a time when Matt Damon and Oprah Winfrey were appearing on the show. You could easily imagine Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, or a slew of “names” getting cast instead.
Milioti was helped in her audition by the fact that she happened to be obsessed with 30 Rock, and knew the exact tone to shoot for. “I was like, I was going to go balls to the walls,” she remembers. To nail the voice and the mannerisms, Milioti studied YouTube videos of Paris Hilton’s appearance on Letterman. She got the job.
She watched the episode from her boyfriend’s apartment in Bushwick, a rare exception to what would become a steadfast rule of not watching herself on TV. “That was one time in my life I was able to watch something and take it in,” she says. “Not that I took in any of what I was doing, but I took in, ‘You are in your favorite TV show. You watched this last Thursday and this Thursday you’re on it.’”
Immediately, doors to audition rooms began opening to her that she’d never imagined she’d get into. Two weeks later she landed Once.
Once is the Broadway musical that landed Milioti a Tony nomination, a Grammy Award (!), a higher profile than she had ever experienced before, and, ultimately, auditions for two of her biggest Hollywood breaks: How I Met Your Mother and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. It kicked off one of those dizzying career rises in which opportunities and the stories behind them start falling onto each other like dominoes.
The weekend before the Tony Awards, where Milioti was nominated, she was asked to screen-test to play Leonardo DiCaprio’s big-haired, big-personality first wife in Wolf of Wall Street.
Tonys rehearsal was at 7 a.m. By 10:30 a.m., she had hurriedly put on high heels and teased her hair to read with DiCaprio. In a misread of body language during some improvisation, she mistakenly thought he was trying to kiss her. When it became clear that he was not, she got flustered and spilled her coffee over the makeshift set.
The morning after the Tony Awards, while a brutal hangover had her dry heaving in a bathrobe, she got the call that she had been cast.
It’s Once, too, that ultimately led to her audition for How I Met Your Mother.
The show’s creators, Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, had both, like the rest of us, delighted in Milioti’s Sexy Baby on 30 Rock, and had made a mental note of her. So when a casting director for HIMYM saw Once and suggested they check out Milioti, the duo was more than eager to nab tickets to the show.
Milioti flew to Los Angeles the day after she left Once to shoot the “Mother” reveal scene: “One ticket to Farhampton, please.” At the time, she had never seen the show, and was therefore unaware that she had just landed the role that every sitcom actress in Hollywood wanted—and saved from the pressure of what that knowledge would bring with it.
“I had ignorance on my side,” Milioti says, “So I didn’t know what it meant.”
She shot the scene right before HIMYM’s summer hiatus. Over the break she binged them all, and then it hit her. “I realized this was a huge thing.” Ignorance, it turns out, was bliss. “I would’ve been throwing up in my mouth, for sure,” she says if she really knew ahead of time how important the role would end up being.
We talk briefly about the show’s polarizing finale, a controversial conclusion that fans are still debating over a year later. Is it tiresome, or at the very least frustrating, to constantly field questions about it?
“I don’t tire of it at all,” Milioti says. “First of all, it was an amazing part of my life. If anything I feel unqualified to answer it because I didn’t put in the nine years’ time before.”
Still, when people recognize her on the street from the show, they give her a hug. “It’s extremely familial, and that’s incredible,” she says. “I feel like this is such a rote answer, but I really believe it: I really feel like it was such a testament to that show that people reacted the way they did. That it was that divisive.”
It might be fate that Milioti is starring in Fargo.
When HIMYM ended, Milioti was one of pilot season’s hottest commodities. She immediately signed on for another high-concept rom-com, this one titled A to Z. Though utterly charming and boasting a well-reviewed pilot, the show only lasted 13 episodes.
Hollywood is notoriously plagued with frustrating bouts of tunnel vision, a historic refusal to see a performer outside of the range or genre in which they became most famous. After back-to-back cute romantic sitcoms, there’s no reason that she should’ve been on Noah Hawley’s radar for Fargo.
For her part, Milioti was waiting for something more dramatic and darker to come around. “I’m coming to it from a very different place,” she says of her mostly dramatic theater work before HIMYM made her famous. “I remember all of the off-Broadway stuff that no one ever saw.”
That it was Fargo that broke her TV rom-com streak is poetic.
Milioti was 9 years old when she saw Fargo for the first time. “So inappropriate,” she says. “My dad took me to see it, I think because he wanted to see it.” It wasn’t just Fargo. It was Beetlejuice. It was Citizen Kane, Hitchcock, and another Coens’ classic: Miller’s Crossing. “I knew a lot about the Coen Brothers by the time I was 12 or 13,” she says. “Not that I got it all.”
Her pop culture diet was, of course, peppered with more age-appropriate offerings, chiefly cartoons like Animaniacs, Freakazoid, The Tick, and The Simpsons. “I think it kind of describes who I became,” she laughs. “Like a dark cartoon.”
Fast-forward about 18 years, and Milioti and her father are in New York at the 2012 Lilly Awards, which recognize extraordinary contributions made by women in the arts. They were honoring Milioti for her work in Once. Frances McDormand, who she saw in Fargo all those years before, was also there as a presenter.
“In my speech I turned to her at some point and was like, ‘It’s because of women like you that I got into this. I saw Fargo when I was 9 and it was your performance that showed me this world where strong women and real people were welcomed. You didn’t have to be a six-foot blonde. You could play a real person. I felt seen by it.’”
Afterwards, McDormand tracked Milioti and her father down. “She was like, ‘You let her see Fargo when she was 9?!’”
Milioti’s run in Fargo is four weeks in now. Monday’s episode was her biggest showcase yet, featuring Betsy essentially solving the entire crime while sitting in a beauty parlor and, later, receiving harrowing news in relation to her cancer diagnosis.
“My dad texted me the other night and was like, ‘I can’t believe how full circle this has become,’” she says. “‘I took you to see this when you were a kid and here you are now.’”
It’s a rare moment where Milioti allows the significance of what she’s managed to accomplish in such a short amount of time sink in. Throughout our tea, she continually balks at any discussion that veers too close to introspective about the milestones that so far have dotted her career. “Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed by how lucky I am that I’m afraid to take it in, lest I should jinx it in some way,” she says.
Just last week, David Bowie himself popped by Lazarus rehearsals and the cast sang for him. Her co-star Michael Esper teased her that when he looked around the room during a quick break, everyone was on the verge of tears, overwhelmed by the honor. When he glanced at Milioti, she was picking her nails and checking her phone.
“I just obsessively keep my nose to the grindstone, which isn’t the greatest quality,” she says. “I take it in at weird moments.”
She remembers when she boarded that flight to L.A. after leaving Once to shoot her first HIMYM scene. It was the first time she had been in first class. She decided that she was going to mark the occasion—and her career transition—by listening to the cast recording of Once, which she had only listened to a few tracks of prior to then.
“I just lost my mind crying,” she says. “Not only because I was so sad to leave but I think it was, ‘Oh my God, we won the Tony.’ Things that had happened like a year earlier. ‘Oh my god, we were on Broadway.’ All these things hit me. I had never really fully taken them in because I was afraid they’d go away. It took like a year, which is not great.”
She laughs at herself. “It’s not a great trait to have,” she continues. “I’m trying to be more present with that stuff. It took being 35,000 feet up in the air eating two ice cream sundaes to fully take in these things that have happened.”
And now, apparently, a few cups of tea.