Cobie Smulders is not exactly a method actor.
On set for her ABC drama, Stumptown — well before the pandemic's industry shutdown — she is moments from shooting an extremely heavy scene, but she's joking with costar Tantoo Cardinal and director Marc Buckland.
She and Cardinal are positioned very close to each other, and Smulders wonders if they're going to kiss or something, which would not really be appropriate. There are laughs, some repositioning, then they reset and "Action!" is called.
Cue the waterworks. Tears stream down Smulders's face as her character, former active-duty Marine and current private investigator Dex Parios, confesses something to Cardinal's Sue Lynn Blackbird, the owner of a nearby tribal casino and the mother of Dex's late boyfriend, who was killed in Afghanistan.
They get through it, Buckland calls "Cut!" and then Smulders is right back to joking around. She playfully complains that her tear ducts are swollen, but there is no visual evidence of that.
"I never saw acting as an actual job," she says after they finish shooting. "My dad was a dentist for 40 years, and I was told that the only way to make money and have a career — well, this isn't exactly stable."
For most people, sure, acting isn't all that stable, but Smulders has had a remarkable run.
Her first major role was in the hit CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which she won at the tender age of 22. She soon joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe to play Maria Hill, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. in several movies and ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series.
She also starred in a movie with Tom Cruise (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back), did two seasons of the Netflix show Friends from College, and appeared in several other series and movies before signing on to Stumptown, where she is also a co-executive producer.
In short, aside from marrying Saturday Night Live alum and Single Parents star Taran Killam, and having two daughters with him (Shaelyn is 10 and Janita is five), she pretty much hasn't stopped working for 15 years — and that includes a bout with ovarian cancer that she faced during the third season of HIMYM.
In all that time, she has never been the star of her own show. Until now. For the first time, she is number one on the call sheet, the most important cast member, the one without whom the show doesn't go. It's something she recognizes but dismisses, saying, "I still don't like it."
Based on a series of graphic novels by writer Greg Rucka and artists Matthew Southworth and Justin Greenwood, Stumptown follows Parios as she maneuvers through Portland, Oregon, as a P.I., dealing with intense PTSD from several tours in Afghanistan, as well as juggling several love interests, sparring with the local cops and caring for her brother, Ansel (Cole Sibus), who has Down syndrome.
The hour-long drama balances dark moments with lots of action and a fair amount of levity and irreverence, which makes it a good fit for her.
"I had never done comedy before How I Met Your Mother, but then I was the Comedy Chick," she says, sitting in her trailer after the scene with Cardinal. "Then I did the Avengers movies and Jack Reacher, and I was the Action Chick. Then I did a few indie films, and I was the Drama Chick."
She shrugs at the silliness of labels. "That's one of the reasons I was so excited to do this, because it's such a blend of all the things I've done before. The action, the drama, the comedy — it's all here." Still, it wasn't an easy decision to make.
"There is a lot of hemming and hawing about deciding to take a role," she admits. "But I do find that a lot of times, things align a certain way. This one was like that, although it took me a while to see it."
There was the fact that the show shoots in Los Angeles, which means she and Killam can both be around their kids. There was also the fact that, as an established TV star, she could be a co-executive producer, with input into casting and production and shaping her character and the show's storylines.
And then there was the character herself, and the chance to do all the things she'd done before, but all at once.
"I read the graphic novels and fell in love with Dex Parios," she says. "It's one of those characters that gets inside you and you say, 'Oh, I want to play her so bad.' I didn't know if I was ready to jump into another series, but then I decided, if I'm going to do something for a while, this is a wonderful world to live in and explore for a long time."
For creator–executive producer Jason Richman — coshowrunner of Stumptown with executive producer Matt Olmstead — the whole thing was a little slice of kismet. After he'd fallen in love with the graphic novels and written the pilot, there was the question of who could play the lead.
"Dex has to be funny, emotional and carrying a lot of damage," Richman explains, "and it has to be grounded and real, so the character isn't afraid to make a fool of herself. When we were casting, we found a lot of people who could do some of those things, but we were having a hard time finding one who could do all of them."
Enter Smulders. "It's a really lovely situation to have in casting, finding exactly what you're looking for, but 100 percent more. You almost can't shoot for it, because it's so rare."
It's a match that critics adore. They've called Smulders "so charismatic" and "amazing" in the role, while Variety said she "is an extremely sharp and capable performer who's especially good at finding humor in characters who take themselves just a little too seriously."
TV Guide said one of the show's best attributes is that, "It delivers Smulders to our TV screens on a weekly basis again."
For her, it's more than a great role. She takes her producing credit seriously and is very hands-on. While some stars will retreat to a trailer between shots, Smulders hangs out, talking, joking and listening to whoever is around. Grips, costumers, Teamsters — everyone is equal, everyone is important.
That attitude makes the entire production feel appreciated. "You can tell a lot about a school by the principal, you know?" Cardinal says. "The attitude comes from the top down. She carries the show, and it's lovely coming to work. She's so cool and honest and kind, which helps the morale of the cast and the crew. Everybody is really happy."
Richman concurs, saying Smulders "is very aware of what it takes to make a show, how hard everyone works, and how everyone's specialty is their life's work. If people are having to stay late to load up the trucks, she's aware of that and comes prepared. It sets the tone for everyone to do the same, and the show runs like a machine that way."
Initially, taking on the dual roles of Dex and co-executive producer seemed like a great idea, but then, she says with a laugh, "I realized, 'Oof, it's going to be a lot of work!'
"But that has been part of the journey, saying, 'This is a marathon, not a sprint, and I have to pace myself physically, mentally and emotionally.' That's been a fascinating education."
While she broke into the business not quite two decades ago, (her early roles included "Exotic Beauty" in Walking Tall) that education began in earnest, Smulders says, in 2016 on the set of Jack Reacher with Cruise.
"Tom was the most passionate person I've ever worked with. He expects the best from everybody and from himself. That makes it exciting."
Cruise, however, is known for thriving in the spotlight. He revels in the leader role and in his control over projects. That part is new to Smulders, and not entirely welcome.
She claims not to enjoy the attention. In fact, she literally runs away when Cardinal starts talking about working with her. Later, she admits she broke out in a panic sweat at the thought of it.
"How am I in this business, right?" she says, laughing. Then she explains how, exactly, she is in this business.
"I lived in my head a lot, and only when I was an adult did I understand what that meant. I had an interest in people, in psychology, in why people were doing what they were doing, where they come from, what made them angry and what made them sad. I was always picking that apart."
That's what actors do, of course, and it's a helpful approach for someone with even more responsibility, regardless of how little she might like being in the middle of everything.
"Insecurity aside, my job is to make sure that everybody is okay," she says, "that the days are as short as possible and that the scripts are streamlined.
"If there are any issues, we talk about them and get them settled. You can't go to a job and be around people all day and be miserable. You have to make your job enjoyable. It's part of my personality, and in my experience, life is too short."
That's especially true, considering how much time she spends bringing Dex's PTSD to life. It's an ongoing source of tension on the show, and it leaves the audience without a safety net — how far is Dex going to fall, and how much trouble is she going to find?
Smulders read lots of books about PTSD in the military and got to talk to a few soldiers, back when she was doing press with Cruise for the Jack Reacher film.
"The more I delved into it, it occurred to me that we all have it," she says. "I have it, you have it — there's stuff that triggers everybody. It's just that Dex has a very severe case, having suffered such devastating loss. So for me, it was about how to manifest that physically. What is it that triggers her in those moments?"
While a series pickup was pending at press time (it has since been renewed), Smulders is hopeful of an even darker Dex next season. She looks forward to joining the writers' room to explore the character and her story arcs.
"I would like to experience more highs and lows with Dex. I want to see her fall down really hard. I would be interested to see how far she falls and see her pick herself back up. To see the darkness really take her over.
"And then I would like to see her end up in a place where she finds happiness. Finding peace within herself. Saying goodbye to some ghosts and being able to move forward in a healthy way."
She thinks for a moment, then laughs. "Of course, when she does, the show's over."
Viewers can catch up on Stumptown on Hulu or on demand.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2020