Vancouver native Cobie Smulders doesn’t seem like an obvious choice to play the right hand woman of S.H.I.E.L.D. overseer Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in Joss Whedon’s hotly anticipated big screen superhero mash-up The Avengers, and the recently-turned-30 year old actress is totally cool with that.
In the role of serious ass kicking taskmaster Agent Maria Hill, the actress best known for her comedic work on the hit television show How I Met Your Mother, is one of the people charged with the unenviable task of reigning in the egos and talents of some of the comic world’s greatest superheroes, including Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a not-hulking-out Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Captain America (Chris Evans). In addition, she also has to butt heads with her boss – played by the recently crowned highest grossing box office draw of all time – and the rest of a wary American government.
The actress sat down with Dork Shelf during a promotional stop in Toronto to talk about breaking away from her more comedic day job to fire off some guns, and how the set of The Avengers really did have a team like vibe thanks in part to some great actors and a great director.
Dork Shelf: What’s it like joining up with a cast this huge and being one of the new additions to a team that has never officially been together but has always been around?
Cobie Smulders: It was extremely intimidating. Like you said, it’s about getting this team together. So to come in and be intimidated and also be one of the most commanding presences in the film was… challenging. But I just tried to not fall about in front of Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlet and Chris and Chris and Mark.
DS: Because you have to boss them around…
CS: Yeah, I have to boss them around, and Maria doesn’t really agree with what’s going on, so she’s kind of the naysayer in the group. But you know, Joss Whedon made me feel so comfortable. Just the fact that Joss chose me was comforting. Do you know what I mean? He’s a man who knows what he’s doing. He’s a fanboy and I don’t think he would have chosen me to play Maria Hill if he didn’t believe in himself. So I took a lot of solace in that.
DS: Was there any actor who you were really worried about having to boss around on screen?
CS: Robert Downey Jr. I had one line with him and I just thought that I don’t know how I’m going to say it, but I’m just going to try and move my mouth, breath out at the same time, and hopefully form a sentence.
First of all, he’s the nicest man, but I’ve watched him throughout his career even going back to the 80s. Less Than Zero was one of my favorites. And also, I felt that coming into this Avengers world, he’s already done two Iron Man films and is one of the major reasons why were doing The Avengers. So it was sort of a Godfather thing and then he was also extremely handsome and charismatic. So it was a deadly combination. I felt very intimidated around him, but there was nothing to be afraid of.
A lot of times we get questions like, “Who has the biggest ego?” or “Who freaked out on set the most?” I understand why we’re asked those questions, but really everyone came together on this movie and really stepped up. Again, I think that all came back to Joss Whedon who wrote a script that was this good and gave everyone of the characters moments where they felt like their characters were served and they were served as actors. So there was no, “why did he get to do this?” Everyone had their scenes and were happy with what they did. I don’t know how he did it, but he did it.
DS: Do you have any idea of where your character will go in subsequent films? Because without giving anything away, it seems like you’re being set up to replace a specific character.
CS: I know what you’re saying, but I don’t think I will replace anyone. It’s hard because if you look back at the comic series you see so many stories. Maria takes off from S.H.I.E.L.D. at one point, she goes off with Tony Stark as a spy in another one, she’s a life model decoy, she’s a Skrull. There are a lot of different ways to go. I don’t know. I know that they thought this was going to be successful. I don’t know if they realized how successful. And that makes it hard because this movie is such a good one that it’s going to be tough to follow. I know that they are doing another Iron Man then they are doing another Thor and another Captain America. If S.H.I.E.L.D. has a presence in any of those movies, I’d love to be a part of it.
But beyond that, I don’t know. I really honestly don’t know much. I didn’t even read the script when I got this part. I got it as soon as I signed the contract. They were like, “and here’s your part. This is who you are and what you’re doing in this film.”
DS: Did they give you much backstory in terms of the character and who she was in the comic books?
CS: No, not at all. I was abandoned. (laughs) It’s funny we were doing press in London and I was paired up with Clarke Gregg [Agent Phil Coulson] and he was like, “Oh yeah, I called up (producer) Jeremy Latcham and he sent over this massive book on my character and the history of the Marvel Universe.” I was like, “Um…where’s my book?” I was literally scouring the internet and contacting comic book venders to see if they had any of the series with Maria Hill involved. So, I really just did all of the research myself.
And then I did a lot of the training myself. I had a day in Albuquerque with the stunt coordinator, but the day after I got the part I hit the gym, hired a personal trainer, and started boxing. He had trained S.W.A.T. teams and helped me familiarize myself with weapons and how to load them and how to shoot them and how to roll and all these things so that I could do as much as possible myself. They were very helpful on set, but they had much bigger fish to fry than me on this film.
DS: You worked very closely with Samuel L. Jackson. What was that experience like because he’s a bit of a persona?
CS: I thought he was going to be very closed off and non-conversational and just kind of come in and do his thing. But he was so nice. The thing about him is that he’s been in every film ever made. He’s something like the highest grossing actor of all time. When I think of Sam I think of Pulp Fiction, but he’s done so much more.
I remember there was one day when we were on the helicarrier set messing around. We were standing in front of this huge window – and I should mention the helicarrier was a giant set the size of a sound stage. You could enter from one of three stairways and once you were in it, you were suddenly in the middle of this huge set with hundreds of extras and at times, you didn’t even notice where the camera was. So, we were on the front standing by the window joking about what would happen when we fell off and he was like, “You know, I could bring out my lightsaber.” And I was like, “Ok Sam, that’s a weird non sequitur.” And then I was like, “Oh no, wait. You’re a fucking Jedi. Shit!” I didn’t even think of that because I only ever saw the first prequel, so I’d forgotten he was a Jedi. Then I had to step back and admire his career. It’s just astounding.
DS: In terms of your career, is this the start of a shift into action films?
CS: I was always open to action films. You get to do incredible things. Not only physically, it’s just a whole other medium of working. I was excited to go in a different direction from How I Met Your Mother. It’s funny because whenever we get a hiatus from the show there’s this rush from everyone to get out there and challenge ourselves with new things. Not that How I Met Your Mother isn’t challenging, and I’m so lucky because other shows would be so much more monotonous and I get to do amazing things that are fun and interesting. But I just wanted to play a different character, so when this came around I was just like, “This is the best possible thing that I could get!” So it was just cool to run around and shake off the sitcom and get really grounded into something. I really liked the severity of Maria Hill’s character.
DS: The Avengers is a surprisingly funny movie and even though you have a comedy background, you essentially play the straight role. Were you ever tempted to push things a little farther into the comedy?
CS: No I actually didn’t want to have any zippy one-liners or anything. I was really happy just giving out protocol and doing shoulder rolls and shooting people. Because like I said, it was such a cool change for me. There was a giant scene that got cut out that used to bookend the movie with Maria being interrogated about what happened. It was emotional and I couldn’t help, but really exaggerate the emotions with Joss and be like, (hysterically, like Ron Burgundy in a phone booth) “Oh god! There were all these guys coming and nothing that we could do about it!” The idea of starting this huge fucking movie freaking out like that just made me laugh. So I would be joking around about things like that off camera, but on camera I was very serious and very happy about that.