Cobie Smulders Is the Grungy, Bisexual P.I. That TV Has Been Waiting For Stumptown is her most daring role yet.
| The Row jacket, $2,190, at Bergdorf Goodman. Photo: Ryan Pfluger
“Oh god — what was that?” gasps Cobie Smulders, her icy blue eyes widening beneath the brim of a Crayola-blue baseball cap. While the Stumptown star and I walk through Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades, minding our own business, our path is obstructed by one of the most frightening bugs either of us has ever seen. At least, we think it’s a bug. “It’s like a cross between a mouse and a grasshopper!” she exclaims. “That thing is not normal. It looks like an alien.” The creature is the size of a tarantula, with six fleshy pink legs, a shiny torso covered in brown racing stripes, and a bulbous head the size of a marble. Smulders, who wanted to be a marine biologist before a role on How I Met Your Mother kickstarted her acting career, appears more excited than scared. “I’m going to throw something at it,” she adds, much to my chagrin, crouching down and lobbing a stick in its direction.
Before Smulders is able to rouse the beast, a woman in heavy-duty hiking gear, trailed by a mother and two children, starts walking down the trail toward us. While I cower behind a branch, Smulders valiantly leaps up to warn them. “There’s a very strange bug of a … um … a very large size,” she says. After the first hiker examines it and deems it a “harmless potato bug,” Smulders accompanies the kids to take photos.
Regardless of how serious the threat, Cobie Smulders seems like she would be a good person to have on hand — and not just because the first six episodes of her new P.I. drama Stumptown have her doling out more groin-kicks than an MMA fighter. She has a dependable energy about her, a groundedness that feels very un-Hollywood. (On my way to our hike, I was greeted by an unsolicited text message so nice that it sets my Canadian Spidey senses tingling: “Hi Anna! It’s Cobie! I’m excited for our stroll! Wondered if I could get you a coffee or tea?”). When I arrive, she explains she wanted to take me to Temescal Canyon because it’s one of her favorite hiking spots — close to the home she shares with her husband, SNL alum Taran Killam, and their two daughters — and it only recently became accessible after the latest bout of dangerous fires, from which Smulders and her family had to temporarily evacuate. “I’m a nature obsessive, that’s the Van in me,” she says — referring to Vancouver, the crunchy coastal Canadian city where she grew up.
Winding through the trails of Temescal, Smulders radiates laid-back ’Couv-girl energy, despite having lived in the States since she nabbed the role of Canadian tomboy Robin Scherbatsky on How I Met Your Mother 14 years ago. Indeed, she has been a voice of constant reassurance on our hike from the moment I show up in my Uber with all my anxious Manhattan energy. “You can pee in the woods,” she says, cheerily, when I express concern at the start of our walk. “Can I hold anything for you? It’s going to be okay, I promise!” After HIMYM ended in 2014, after nine seasons, Smulders did the indie thing (a Kris Swanberg Sundance movie called Unexpected, Netflix’s Friends From College) and the action movie thing (Jack Reacher with Tom Cruise; playing Maria Hill in one billion Marvel movies), but has yet to crack the A-list. (A recent Who? Weekly episode debated labeling Smulders a “them,” because of her surprisingly devoted online fanbase, before deciding she was a “who.”) Smulders, for her part, doesn’t really seem to give an [expletive] about fame. “I just want to work and pay the bills and do something that I am actually excited about, which is kind of where I find myself now. But still after every job I have the thought: I’m never going to get hired for another job again,” she adds. “It might be the Canadian in me.”
Stumptown might finally be the star vehicle that Smulders’ loyal fans have been waiting for. In the new ABC drama, based on a series of hit graphic novels, Cobie plays Dexedrine (Dex) Parios, a grungy bisexual war veteran suffering with PTSD, navigating her work as a private investigator and a complex web of personal relationships in Portland, Oregon. It sounds a little absurd on synopsis (would you hire a P.I. named after an amphetamine?) but it works. The show has been heralded — even by prestige TV snobs who normally wouldn’t go near a network procedural — for Smulders’ performance, which manages to perfectly balance pithy comic-book stylishness with humane vulnerability. “On crime shows, the women are usually victims, or they’re super spies who get the guy with a couple karate chops and a kick to the balls,” she says. “It was interesting to me to play a woman who kept getting hit and then would come back up.”
Smulders wasn’t looking for another serialized drama when Stumptown fell into her lap, but it presented a rare opportunity: to be in the same city as her daughters, 5 and 10, and husband, who is also shooting an ABC series. “Taran and I are saying constantly to each other: ‘This is so crazy. How is this happening? how lucky are we?’” she says. She was also intrigued by the opportunity to take on a more hands-on role on set as executive producer. “I want to be someone people can come to, especially the women on set,” she says. “I’ve been super maternal since I was 10 years old. I’m much more comfortable in the position where I’m part of the decision-making process, and where I can be like, “What are you doing? Is that okay? That wasn’t okay.’”
Smulders says Me Too has made her more aware of the conciliations she made to appease men when she was younger, especially modeling as a teenager in New York. “I don’t know how I fucking survived. There were creepy dudes for days, and I just learned from a really young age to be like, “Okay, no, thank you. I’m gonna go. I’m going back over here, I’m good, I’m with my girlfriends.” Now, she says, she realizes that a lot of the behavior she put up with or brushed off isn’t okay. “I’m very chill, I swear a lot. I’m a Vancouver down-to-earth chickiepoo, I’ve always been able to roll with the boys’ club,” she says. “But now it’s very interesting watching those moments come up, where someone makes a really bad joke or something, and just being able to say things like, ‘No, we don’t do that anymore.’”
I point out that a lot of the jokes on How I Met Your Mother — particularly some of the sexist barbs levied by Neil Patrick Harris’s character Barney Stinson — feel dated in the light of today. “It’s so true!” she acknowledges. “And none of us really called him out on it. We were just like, ‘Oh, Barney, there he goes.’” She shakes her head. “It would be interesting to go back and watch some of those episodes now; it was such a different time.”
We veer onto a slight downhill trail, and Smulders instinctively reaches out her hand in case I need help. “You good? It’s a little rocky here,” she says, looking back to make sure I haven’t fallen flat on my face on the treacherous 15-degree decline. Smulders was just shy of 20 and stoked to have an American work visa and a paying job when her acting career began. Now, at 37, she’s thinking a lot more about the impact entertainment can have on its viewers and the message she wants to send. “When you’re an actor, you don’t have the kind of job that you can really feel good about, in terms of giving back to the world. A lot of people are like, ‘I just always wanted to make people laugh.’ And I’m like, Well, sure,” she says, rolling her eyes. “But really I think the gift that we that we are given as actors and performers, is you get to sort of be a part of the creation of pop culture.” Even as diversity has become a Hollywood buzzword, network TV has been much slower than cable and streaming when it comes to increasing representation onscreen. With Stumptown, Smulders was particularly excited to play one of the few bisexual dramatic leads on a major network. “Streaming is all about representation and pushing the bar, but you don’t see it much on network. Someone in middle America can just turn on this show on for free. And that was one of the things where I was like, ‘Hey, ABC. Are you gonna be brave enough to put a bisexual woman on television, and like, make it a real thing?’ And they were.”
Dex is a part of a new wave of female characters (generally not main characters) who hook up with both men and women, without feeling the need to overtly define their sexuality. “I don’t know what she calls herself, whether she would call herself bisexual or what,” she says. In last week’s episode, we meet one of Dex’s ex-girlfriends, played by singer Ioanna Gika, who Smulders helped cast. “She’s very ethereal; she’s an old soul; she’s beautiful; she’s just so talented,” Smulders gushes. Although, she adds, “I really did want to cast someone who was openly gay initially,” she reflects. (Her first choice, she says, was Annie Clark, who makes music under the name St. Vincent.) If Smulders isn’t yet a bona fide queer icon — and real ones remember her 2005 L Word stint — it seems inevitable that she will be soon.
Another thing that excites Smulders about Stumptown is the nuanced way it depicts Dex’s PTSD, which stems from Dex watching her ex-boyfriend die in an explosion while they were both serving as Marines in Afghanistan. Smulders is fascinated by the human psyche, and she read tons of books about mental health and consulted experts in order to nail it just right. “I think humans are all dealing with a level of PTSD,” she says. “It’s how we deal with certain situations in terms of tricking our brains to compartmentalize things and dissociate them. And obviously I’m playing a woman who has had a major trauma, but everyone’s dealing with shit.”
When you have come to a place where you’re like I might die, this might be it — [that] really messes with you. My battleground is my own body, which is a fucked up thing to have to have on your mind all the time.
As the sun begins to go down, we post up at a picnic bench near the end of the trail, and Smulders tells me about the big trauma of her own life. When she was 25, while filming the third season of How I Met Your Mother, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She went through multiple surgeries to remove the cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes and surrounding tissue. After initially being told she would never be able to get pregnant, the doctors ultimately managed to save a third of one ovary; she gave birth to her first daughter a few years later. For years, she didn’t tell anyone about it, even her cast-mates. “I’m a very private person, and I didn’t want people to come and be like” — she affects a voice of treacly concern — “’Hey, how you feeling today?’ Fuck off. Fuck right off. I didn’t want anyone working around me. I told my husband, family, and close friends, and we dealt with it, and that was it,” she says.
Smulders says the reason she waited until 2015 to speak publicly about it was that she only recently started to feel like it was all actually going it to be okay. “I think that there is still such a stigma about talking about vaginas and reproductive parts,” she says, recalling how she had to press her doctor for an ultrasound, even as her doctor reassured her that she was young and healthy, with no family history or genetic predisposition. “I’m hoping that women can get more confidence to advocate for themselves.”
I ask her whether she drew on this trauma to play Dex, and Smulders fiddles with the sheath on her biodegradable coffee cup. While she doesn’t want to equate their experiences, she acknowledges that getting sick so young has permanently changed how she thinks about trauma and survival. “The fear is very much alive in me still. When you have come to a place where you’re like I might die, this might be it — making those kind of plans really messes with you. And for me, my battleground is my own body, which is a fucked up thing to have to have on your mind all the time.” But Smulders, much like her new onscreen avatar, isn’t one to wallow in self pity. “Now, when stuff gets hard or my work days are intense or I’m not seeing my kids or whatever is happening in the moment, I can go: Well you’re not at fucking Cedars Sinai waiting to hear if you’re going to die. I’m able to check myself a lot,” she says.
On the way to the parking lot, Smulders checks me, too. “Do you want me to text you a picture of the bug? It’s a good one, because you can really see how big it is compared the branch,” she offers. Unable to wimp out in her company, I bravely accept this cursed parting gift, and my phone pings with an image that is sure to give me nightmares for the rest of the week. “Now, can you please let me give you a ride out of the jungle?”