From Maria Hill to Robin Sparkles, Cobie Smulders has given us some of pop culture’s most enduring characters—ironic for someone who never intended to be in show business. We spoke with her about learning comedy on the fly, fighting and driving alongside Tom Cruise, and escaping the limelight by hiding underwater.
Paste Magazine: You started out in modeling at an early age. Is it true you were so unhappy that you decided to switch gears entirely to become a marine biologist?
Cobie Smulders: [sighs] Yeah, yeah. For me, I started modeling when I was very young … I think I was 13. I think it started, as it would for any 13-year-old, as “What? I can be in a magazine? That’s awesome.”
It kind of started as this infatuation with just being successful, I think. I grew up in Canada. I grew up in Vancouver, and I always had wanted to travel, see the world … get out of Canada for a little bit. I always wanted to move around. It started like that, and, also, I wanted to make some money so I could go to college, eventually, when I was older.
I was never successful. I didn’t make a dime, but I was able to travel a lot to Japan and Milan, and Paris, and Germany … all over. I had a really fun time, but I made zero dollars at it, and so I went back to Vancouver, and I enrolled in college, and I was going to study marine biology, like you said. Then, the summer before I was set to go to school, I moved home in the spring and went back into theater again. I did theater throughout high school. [I] started doing theater, and got back into this acting group of friends who were really cool and creative and fun. I was like 20. I was like, “You know what? I think I’m just going to do this for a couple of years and see what happens.”
I keep wanting to go back to college. Even today, I’m like, “Maybe I’ll just quit, and I can go to college.” I literally still have that argument in my head when I am like constantly like, “Oh, I just want to retire,” which is just a conversation I have just constantly going on in my brain, because I don’t know how I ended up in this industry. I keep going, “Oh, I’ll just quit, and I’ll just go back to college, and I’ll study something.” I don’t know what I’d study now. Marine biology takes many years to get the type of degree I would want to get.
Paste: Do you think that the marine biology thing was a reaction to the fact you hated the modeling so much that you wanted to run away from it all and hang out in a submarine by yourself for long periods of time?
Smulders: My God. You know what? I love that analogy so much, and I think that there is some serious truth to that. Even to this day, my happy place is scuba diving, is like being under the water, where all you hear is the sound of the sand and your bubbles. That’s my happy place, so maybe there is something to that. I don’t like talking about myself. I hate talking about myself.
Paste: For someone who often thinks about bolting from the business, being attached to healthy, long-running TV shows or movie franchises must be a bit frightening. When you started How I Met Your Mother, did you suspect that it would end up being a nine-year-long commitment?
Smulders: No. Never. I got the pilot for How I Met Your Mother, and I was so stoked that I could live and work in America. I was like, “I got a green card for like 2 years.” Two years is forever at 20. That’s like a decade in 20-year-old thinking. I was just excited that I could stay legally and I could work. I think, like any TV show, you sign on, you sign a contract for seven years or something like that, but you only get paid for the pilot. Then they see the pilot. Then you wait and, then, you get the 13 episodes. Then you wait for that to air. Then, if that’s successful, they’ll give you the back nine.
Every season, we didn’t know if we were going to come back or not. It’s always been in flux. It wasn’t really until, I would say, season five or six or something that we felt confident that there was going to be a pickup.
Paste: With that show and your work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’ve been both blessed and cursed with longevity. Is that a good feeling, or does that freak you out a little bit?
Smulders: When I was doing How I Met Your Mother, it was a blessing and a curse in terms of the commitment, because I became so comfortable knowing “Oh, well, I have work. I’m going back to work in September,” which is a mentality that no actors have, unless you’re on a hit TV show. It made me very calm, but then, when I got off the show, and I was like, “Shit. I don’t have a job,” that kind of threw me into a panic, and so I did three movies back-to-back.
I’m more hesitant to sign on to long-term things now. I don’t think I would sign on to something that was like a 24-episode show. That would give me anxiety, but for things like [The] Avengers, it’s always fun, and I love the role of Maria Hill in those movies, because I get to kind of pop in and play with everyone for a couple of weeks, and then I’m done. It’s not a big commitment to the storylines. The actual work involved is not that much, so it’s more enjoyable. I think I would have a very hard time committing to something long-term.
Paste: Was it hard to get people to see you as something other than a sitcom performer, especially when making a jump to action films?
Smulders: I think, maybe from the perspective of Hollywood, yes. I lucked out in the sense that, when I was on the sitcom, the Marvel stuff came to me through my friend Joss Whedon. I had never done anything like that before, but, because we were friends and he saw me playing that role, I kind of jumped into that world.
Also, to go back even further, How I Met Your Mother was actually the first comedy I had ever done. I hadn’t done much before How I Met Your Mother, but it had been all dramatic stuff up until that point, so I wasn’t sure if I was funny. Even when I got the job, I was like, “Are you sure that I’m funny? Because I don’t know, I’ve never done this before.” I had to kind of learn it from some of the best people. Having Jason and Aly and Josh and Neil to work off of was very helpful in that respect.
I think I’ve just been really lucky. Even after I got off the show, I was able to just do these little movies that didn’t require a huge audience seeing me as this new thing. It was a smaller audience and a smaller budget, and so maybe they took more of a chance on me. I think, with my entire career, I’ve just been kind of lucky.
Paste: What character, at this point, do fans most identify you with—Agent Hill or Robin?
Smulders: I think it’s still Robin.
I mean, I was just in China, and it was like, “It’s Robin!” I was surprised by how many people knew the show and watched the show and knew me as Aunt Robin. Also, I live in New York, and that show was shot in New York. It’s that, and then it’s followed up with, “Oh, and Avengers is awesome,” but it’s mostly Robin, still.
Paste: Okay. Let’s talk Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Being that you have such a major role in the film, is this sort of like a natural upgrade in the action film genre for you after establishing yourself in the Marvel films?
Smulders: Yeah. I like that you call it an upgrade, because I do think it’s that. There are a lot of similarities between the character of Maria Hill and Susan Turner, the difference being there’s obviously no superheroes and the threat is not global in our film. It’s not pure Earth devastation. It’s more internalized, the crime that happens in the Jack Reacher film.
In this film, I get to do just so much more, because our film is very, very realistic … [in] the fight sequences, there’s not any real CGI. It’s very much two people on the run without any weaponry, without an agency watching over them, protecting them, helping them out. It’s really two people on the run sort of interrogating people and trying to find information. It’s like a true crime thriller. Ed Zwick is a huge fan, and Tom, as well, of ’70s crime thriller movies, these gritty cop movies, and so I think they took a page from those and used that thematically in the film.
Paste: Obviously, playing a military officer and participating in tons of fight scenes required you to do a lot of physical training. Did you also end up learning or developing a different way of carrying yourself, like a military-inspired swagger?
Smulders: Totally. It comes from this standing-at-attention mentality, where, even when they say, “At ease, soldier,” they still look like they’re standing at attention to me. It’s that sort of mentality where you’re always ready, and you’re always poised. It’s also, what I found about meeting people in the military, doing research on the military, so much of it is about respect. I was at Fort Belvoir yesterday, which is a military base. I got “ma’am”-ed so many times, and I loved it. It was this respectful way of behaving, and it sort of comes from being at attention, always at the ready, always focused and always centered.
Obviously, the stakes were always high in our film. You always sort of had to be at the ready, but I think somebody who has gone overseas, who has done tours, who has experienced things, who has experienced physical and mental exhaustion is always poised, in a way, and always ready for something.
Paste: Has that poise, confidence or other attributes from this role seeped into your personal life?
Smulders: The easy answer to that is that I’m a much better driver now, because I did get a lot of driving training from Mr. Tom Cruise himself, so I do feel like I’m a better driver. I think that, in some ways, I’m more confident. I think it probably goes back to the training, because I pushed myself so hard and did things that I didn’t think I was capable of. I think that whenever you push past those boundaries that you set for yourself, you go, “Oh, I’m actually not like that. I’m more like this,” and it kind of makes you reexamine the way that you think and the way that you hold yourself. I think that was a big takeaway for me.