Since saying goodbye to CBS’s mega-hit sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” last year in a series finale that left fans of the show divided, Canadian actress Cobie Smulders has remained in the spotlight thanks to her ties to Marvel and their “Avengers” franchise. As Agent Maria Hill, she appeared in last year’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and on the small screen in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and this summer she’ll reprise the role for “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” But at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Smulders is set to receive a lot of attention not because of Marvel, but her performances in two other the most hotly anticipated films premiering in the U.S. competition: “Results” and “Unexpected.” In the former, directed by Sundance alum Andrew Bujalski, Smulders stars with Guy Pearce as a pair of personal trainers whose lives are upended by the actions of a new client. And in Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected,” she stars as an inner-city high school teacher who develops a close friendship with one of her students after they both fall pregnant around the same time.
You recently made the move from LA to New York. What caused that?
My husband works here on “SNL,” so he’s been doing that for five years and since I’ve been working on “How I Met Your Mother” I haven’t really been able to come over here. So we just decided, hey, we like each other, let’s be in the same city [laughs]. We’ll see how that goes.
The end of “How I Met Your Mother” has allowed you more time off to make films, and has finally afforded you the chance to live in the same city as your husband. What’s the transition been like?
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, although it does seem like I haven’t been on that show in five years and it’s only been one, not even, a full year since the last thing that we shot. I miss everybody so much, I miss the day-to-day, I miss our crew, I miss doing these characters. But at the same time, any time that I start getting sad or nostalgic I think, “Well we did it for nine years and not every actor gets to say ‘I was employed on the same show for nine years.'” And so I’m just really grateful, but I’m also grateful to the fact that I’m living this new life that I love and doing all sorts of varied roles. That’s kind of my goal for this next chunk, is to switch it up a lot and try new things and experience new characters and story lines.
When you say that the one year away from the show feels like five, why is that? Is it because you’ve been so busy?
I think so, yeah. I left “How I Met Your Mother” and jumped right onto an episode of “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the TV show. I wrapped and the next day I was on set shooting “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” So to go to that and then the second “Avengers” film, and I shot an independent film called “Results” with Andrew Bujalski in Austin, and then I went to Chicago to shoot “Unexpected.” And in that time I moved to New York City and got pregnant. So it’s just pretty crazy.
And you have two kids now, right? I do, yeah.
That’s a lot.
It is. It’s no joke [laughs]. As they always say, it’s no joke. That’s what everyone was saying. They’re like, “Two is like having 20.” It’s certainly a much heavier work load.
When it comes to working for Marvel, it’s not like you can ask them to hold off for a couple months until you’ve got your life sorted out.
I’m also not very good at that anyway in my life, especially in this industry. It’s sort of like you want to take the opportunity when it comes your way and sometimes you have to sacrifice those opportunities for the good of your family or your sanity or whatever. But it also all timed up very well for me this year.
Because of “How I Met Your Mother,” you’re used to signing contracts where you have to commit to years, not months. Did you have any reservations when you were approached by Marvel to become part of the Avengers universe, given what would be expected of you?
No, absolutely not. I think the reason that I was so ready to sign on for such a long period of time was because Joss Whedon was at the helm of this, and I knew if Joss was involved I knew it was something I wanted to do for as long as they would have me.
Going from working on Marvel properties to acting in two indies must have been like night and day for you. Can you talk about what it was like going from the biggest film you’ve ever been a part of — “The Avengers” sequel — to filming the indies by Kris Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski.
The scale is obviously very different and it’s obviously just like being in two different worlds. The world of “The Avengers” is so grand and it’s so technical and there’s so many people involved, and that was really just the main difference. Oh, we have a crew of, I don’t even know how many people but let’s say a hundred, who are on the ground working. And I shot a movie in Chicago with Kris and I think our crew was 15 people. You’re doing seven scenes in a day with Kris Swanberg and you’re working on one scene over the course of four days with “The Avengers.” It’s so much bigger and there’s so many more people involved.
What’s it like to have two films at Sundance this year?
I was thrilled when they both got in. I’m not surprised. Kris and Andrew are both really great filmmakers and both of them have had films in the festival beforehand. It was just really exciting. The “Results” movie, I haven’t even seen it, I don’t know what it’s going to be like, but just speaking of expected, it was really unexpected. It was just such a passion project for Kris and for me when I signed onto it and really for everybody involved. It’s just such a close-knit family and I’m excited that Kris is getting recognized.
You’ve dabbled in independent film before, but you’re more known for your studio and TV work. Did you make more of a concerted effort to put yourself up for more indie work following the end of “How I Met Your Mother”?
I’m always looking for interesting stories and I feel in independent film there’s more opportunity. With Andrew’s film, I don’t even remember how that came at me. I think I read the script and he came to town and we met and read through the scenes a bit and it was just like, “Let’s do this.” With Kris, I read Kris’s script and I went after it pretty hard. I was really excited about and it went away after a while. And while I was in Austin shooting, Kris called me and said, “Do you want to do this?” And I was like, “Okay.” And I also think that me getting pregnant may have helped a little [laughs]. I like to think that I’m extremely method with my tactics on getting work. And so that worked out in my favor.
When you say fought really hard, did you write her a letter?
I did, I sent her an email. There’s varying degrees of that and I don’t want to appear too stalker-ish, but I definitely sat down with her and waxed on poetically about her script and tried to compliment her as much as possible within our first meeting. Then, wrote to reiterate all of that in an email. Through the “biz,” through the “reps,” through my people I made sure that she was aware of how much I wanted to do it.
You’re going to be living off of residual checks for the rest of your life, thanks to “How I Met Your Mother.” You don’t have to continue at quite the pace you’re currently at. So why do it?
It’s more about working creatively, and honestly, I know I just came off of kind of a crazy year, but when the work asks you to come, you just kind of go. I’ve always been in industries where that’s the case and my husband’s in the industry, so our family is used to this last minute Oh my god, I just booked this movie, it’s shooting in Vietnam! Can we do this? Should we do this?” [Laughs] We’re used to this lifestyle of pick-up-and-go. I’m actually delving back into it a little bit personally. My husband works a little bit less consistently, but having been on “How I Met Your Mother” for nine years, it has given us this grounded lifestyle for so long, that now that I’m off of the show I’m realizing, gosh, first of all, no movie shoots where you live. [Laughs] Even if you live in Los Angeles or New York, you’re going to be shooting all over the country. And that’s just sort of what happened this past year.
My plan is to stay in New York for as long as I can and do some theater out here and just keep working creatively. Like you said, having been on “How I Met Your Mother” for so long, I do have the ability to be a little picky with the next projects that I do, and have them be more about characters that I’m excited about, stories that I want to do and directors that I want to work with. That’s really the freedom that the show has afforded me, more than a monetary thing. It’s creatively I’m free to explore a little bit more.
Is it surreal to look back at where your career was at before “How I Met Your Mother,” and how it’s evolved since the show ended?
Yeah, it’s a luxury that unfortunately no actor really ever gets and I’m aware of how lucky I am. I started the show when I was 22, and I was fresh off the boat from Canada, or fresh off the boat at I5.
But yeah, my life is completely different. It’s almost a decade ago now, which is insane. It’s like what they say, the percentage of SAG actors that are employed is like one percent, that are currently employed and working. And being on a sitcom like “How I Met Your Mother” is like winning the lottery and I’m fully aware of how lucky I am and what it’s given to my life. I think it’s too soon to reflect too much. I think I’ve gone back and watched Season 1, and we look like children. It’s even a different show from Season 1 to Season 9. It changed so much even within those nine seasons that we had. We had time to change the show, and change the characters, and watch these characters grow and work together in different ways. It’s sort of like an ever-changing job in a way as well. But I am nothing but grateful to it for everything.