‘It’s always in my back pocket’: Cobie Smulders on Canadian identity

The Avengers star in conversation

Andrew Tolson

No one has ever brought more kooky CanCon to an American TV show than Cobie Smulders. The Vancouver-born actress is now in her ninth and final season of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which has made her character’s Canadian backstory a running gag. She plays Robin Scherbatsky, a New York cable news anchor from Vancouver, once famous only in Canada as a teen pop star named Robin Sparkles. Smulders has also made her mark on the big screen as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill in The Avengers—a role she’ll reprise in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Meanwhile, the 31-year-old actress co-stars with Vince Vaughn as his pregnant wife in this month’s Delivery Man, Quebec writer-director Ken Scott’s Hollywood remake of his hit comedy Starbuck. Vaughn plays a sperm donor whose horde of kids wage a class-action suit to trace his identity. Based in L.A., Smulders has a four-year-old daughter with her husband, Saturday Night Live cast member Tarran Killam. Born Jacoba Francisca Maria Smulders, she was nicknamed “Cobie” after her great-aunt.

Q: For an expat on American TV, you’re a rare case. You don’t have to act American. You’ve taken your Canadian identity with you.

A: I like to bring it with me wherever I go. It’s always in my back pocket.

Q: All those Canadian references in How I Met Your Mother—was that your idea?

A: They actually came to me and said, “We think that it would be exotic.” I’ve never been considered exotic my entire life. The way that they pitched it, it was a way to create a commentary on the U.S., showing Canada had universal health care, gun control. And I got one speech: “It’s a terrible country; it’s too bad that I can get in a huge accident and not have to pay for anything.” That’s all I got— though I will say there is one episode airing in the next month or so that’s a really beautiful tribute to Canada.

Q: Can you give us a hint?

A: I can’t. Canada is heavily featured.

Q: You’ve already tapped Tim Hortons and the Vancouver Canucks—not to mention Robin Sparkles, who revealed her inner Alanis Morissette at the Grey Cup.

A: But it’s different. It’s almost like . . . I can’t give it away.

Q: Tell me how your mother came to Canada.

A: She’s British. In her late teens, early 20s, she went travelling and found herself on a vessel. I think she was just crewing it. They were pulling up the anchor and a rusted cable poked a hole in the boat. When they were trying to pump it out, the pump caught fire, the boat sank, she was on a life raft, the Americans swooped in, rescued her and the crew, and brought them to Vancouver. And there she stayed. She said she stayed in love with the [affecting a English accent] “clean, green beauty of the Canadian coast.”

Q: At one point, didn’t you have ambitions to be a marine biologist?

A: Marine biology was definitely in there. I studied acting throughout high school, then modelling took over because it brought more opportunity. When I quit modelling, coming back to Vancouver, I registered at the University of Victoria. At the same time, that summer, I was taking acting classes and decided to give that a year or two instead of going back to school. I always wanted to go back to school. I was looking into taking some classes part-time, but marine biology involves a lot of lab time.

Q: You could always play a marine biologist.

A: Well, the cool thing is I’ve partnered up with Oceana, one of the leaders in education about overfishing. At the end of December, I’m going to Belize with them to do a snorkelling/scuba trip and take samples of the reef and work with the local researchers. I get to be a little marine biologist for a week.

Q: You’ve said you didn’t like modelling. Why?

A: I hate having my picture taken [laughs, as a Maclean’s photographer shoots her]. I don’t know why I’m in this industry, honest to God. I don’t like a lot of attention. I know it’s super-weird for me to say that during an interview.

Q: You’re in the wrong business.

A: I’m completely in the wrong business. I kept going with [modelling] because I was able to travel so much. I was living in New York every summer when I was 14, 15, 16 and moved there when I graduated high school. I went to Japan, Italy, Paris, Germany. I travelled all over the world.

Q: You shot Delivery Man with a Canadian director. Did that feel any different?

A: Canadians are well-mannered, down-to-earth people. I don’t know if Ken Scott’s just a great guy or just a Canadian. It was nice to speak French with him.

Q: Are you fluent?

A: I’m a fluent listener. I went to French immersion for the fifth and six grades, then continued studying French and lived in Paris for six months when I was 18 or 19.

Q: In Delivery Man, Vince Vaughn has fathered 533 children . . .

A: Not him personally—his character. If Vince Vaughn has had 533 children we haven’t heard about, that’s pretty amazing.

Q: Well, I wouldn’t put it past him. If you were in that situation, pregnant, and your guy comes home and says, “Guess what, honey? I have 533 children,” what would your reaction be?

A: I honestly don’t know. The character Vince plays is the only guy who could get away with it. And possibly my husband.

Q: Vince seemed to be shifting from comedy to drama over the arc of the film. Do you have a trajectory? Do you want more dramatic roles?

A: I don’t have a lot of control over my trajectory. My profession is one that’s based a lot on luck. But I’m in a place now where there are choices available to me.

Q: Now that your show is ending, are you gravitating more toward film?

A: It’s hard to say. It would be hard to just jump into another show right now, but if a great project came along, I’d take it. I’m moving to New York—my husband has a contract to finish there, so the chances are good I’ll be focusing on film and theatre for the next while.

Q: You have the Avengers franchise, and Joss Whedon tried to cast you as Wonder Woman.

A: Yeah, well, he made mention of it [laughs]. I don’t know if I was his first choice, but it was a very kind joke. I’m a part of that universe for as long as they want me. I enjoy playing Maria Hill so much. It’s a world of fantasy and it’s supported by so many fans; it’s truly nothing but fun.

Q: We’re supposed to be in a new golden age of television. A lot of the creative energy is shifting from film to TV, but you seem to be migrating in the other direction.

A: There is a shift. TV is just so good. There are so many stories and opportunities.

Q: When people talk about the creative limits of film, they point to the comic-book blockbusters such as Avengers.

A: It’s just creative in a different way. If you’re looking specifically at Avengers, I feel those characters were extremely well-developed. Yes, you’re dealing with superheroes who have bizarre circumstances. But Marvel and Joss Whedon are doing a great job in keeping those characters grounded and interesting. Also, creatively, with special effects and stuff that they’re doing in these blockbusters, it’s amazing. You’re getting to see artistry on a whole different level.

Q: Would you like to have your own franchise as an action heroine?

A: I’m not against it. Who knows? Sure, I’d like to try it. I won’t say no to projects I believe in if there’s a good story there.

Q: Whose career do you emulate?

A: Kate Winslet’s.

Q: Really? Most actresses say Meryl Streep.

A: Meryl has had such an amazing career. But Kate Winslet, I feel she balances life and career really well. You don’t see anyone but her character in her roles.

Q: One price of becoming a movie star is being less able to disappear into a character. What’s your strategy for protecting yourself from celebrity?

A: Live in Canada for as much time as possible. Once my husband is done with Saturday Night Live, we’ll talk about moving back north. Probably Vancouver.

Q: Quebec directors had a real breakthrough lately—Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Have you kept track of Canadian cinema?

A: No, not as much as I’d like to. I’m a big Sarah Polley fan, and the last one I watched was Stories We Tell, which I just loved and am obsessed with. It made me want to educate myself more in what’s happening in Canada. I’ve never made it up to the Toronto International Film Festival, which I’m dying to go to. I’ve been in this little bubble in L.A, so I’m excited to move to New York; I feel my connection to Toronto will be stronger.

Q: Do Canadians hang out in Hollywood?

A: I would like to say there’s, like, the Moosehead, a Canadian bar where we all hang out. We don’t all hang out, but I think there’s an awareness of who is Canadian and who is not, if you’re Canadian.

Q: Is there anything in particular that makes us good at comedy?

A: I think we’re very self-deprecating and sarcastic.

Q: Are you that way?

A: Yes.

Q: So what’s your greatest flaw?

A: My sarcasm.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.