"I always feel like, 'Oh, this is the last job I'll do and I'll never work again,'" admits Cobie Smulders. "I'm very, like, pessimistic about the way I work within this industry."
It's late afternoon on a Tuesday in October and the 34-year-old actress is smack dab in the middle of a global press tour for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back that has taken her from the Forbidden City and Great Wall of China to Fort Belvoir in Virginia, where she visited the troops. Smulders is running behind today and apologizes, saying life has been a real whirlwind.
"That's the perfect word for it," she notes, before punctuating it: "whirlwind."
It's a word that could also perfectly describe Smulders' career. Born Jacoba Francisca Maria in Vancouver and nicknamed "Cobie" by her grandma, she'd already been acting for a handful of years when she booked her breakout role on How I Met Your Mother in 2005. She was the biggest unknown in a cast that included Jason Segel, Alyson Hannigan, and Neil Patrick Harris, but after nine seasons of playing Robin Scherbatsky, she has gone on to become arguably the most successful: she starred in the Nicholas Sparks adaptation Safe Haven, The Lego Movie, and regularly pops up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
"When I got off of the show, I knew I wanted to do something different. I knew I wanted to focus on films, because I didn't want to be contractually held to something for many years," she explains when asked if she had a big picture for her career. "I wanted to keep bouncing around and try new characters and really just challenge myself. But I never thought of, like, 'My goal is an action movie with Tom Cruise.'"
Goal or not, it's a mission she accomplished: Jack Reacher arrives in theaters on Friday, with Smulders playing Major Susan Turner, a U.S. Army officer framed for selling government secrets who must go on the run with Cruise's titular hero. Literally. There is enough running in this performance alone to warrant her own "Every Cobie Smulders Run. Ever." viral video. ("Not as long as Tom's, but it's a possibility!")
"I'm glad that you are acknowledging that," she jokingly boasts. "That was probably hardest part of the training and physically the hardest part of shooting. I think they cut out most of it in the movie, but we had to sprint across a football field. Like, full-on sprint. It was one of those, I don't know how long my body is going to be able to do this. We ran in [New Orleans'] French Quarter. We ran through the airport. In every location, we ran."
Jack Reacher also marks another career milestone. Despite having appeared in both Avengers installments and Captain America: Civil War, Smulders considers this her first big action movie. ("It was a real blessing that the first action movie where I had a lot of stunts and I was very physical was a Tom Cruise action movie. He's such a pro and he's so smart.") It was her most physically demanding role yet, she says, one that required her to begin training months before she arrived to the set. It was also just a big movie.
"It's funny transitioning to a big-budget movie where there's trainers and trailers," she says, her credit immediately prior being Sundance darling, The Intervention. "When you're shooting an independent film, there's such a camaraderie. Everybody is pitching in and it's more of a group effort. On the big-budget stuff, you have that camaraderie too, between the actors and the crew, but like, you don't need to be craft service for the day, because they have a budget for that! You don't have to be like, 'I guess I'm handing out snacks today on set!'"
One moment in particular sticks with Smulders, when she felt in awe of the sheer size of it all: "We recreated this Halloween parade and it was quite magical. It was so just bizarre to be in the French Quarter, which we were able to shut down, and have hundreds of extras in costume with giant floats. It would be three in the morning and we'd be setting up a shot and I'd be like, 'What is happening?!' Like, 'Where am I?' I kept finding myself taking a moment and looking at where I was and really appreciating it."
There's a scene in the movie where Major Turner tells Jack Reacher how she has to defend herself as a woman in the Army because men are always undermining her, treating her as if she's not as strong or smart or capable. It's a scene many actresses might relate to based on their experiences in Hollywood, but that doesn't prove true for Smulders.
She takes a thoughtful pause, letting out a light laugh before answering. "Being an actor is a hard job to take on, whether you're a man or a woman. You have to deal with a lot of rejection and you have to deal with a lot of hard moments. So, I don't know if those were moments that happened because they were sexist or because it's just this industry."
"When I think back about working on How I Met Your Mother, what an amazing place that was and the opportunity it afforded me afterward, I haven't come up against anything like that," she continues. "And I know I'm exceptionally lucky. I think I've been one of the lucky ones to not have experienced that firsthand."
Chalk it up to luck or gut instinct then that all of the roles Smulders has played are strong female characters, because she says she doesn't analyze scripts based on, say, the Bechdel test, or explicitly limit the types of roles she's willing to sign on for or as she puts it, "think too many steps ahead." Right now, she says the way she chooses roles is far simpler.
"Honestly, it's like, I have two children. I'm married. I'd like to see my husband [Saturday Night Live alum Taran Killam]. If I'm going to take time away from my family, it's going to be for a project that I love and I'm extremely passionate about," she points out. "But I don't think about it in terms of if it's going to be successful or if it's going to take me to this place. I just go, 'Let's spend the summer doing this! That sounds like fun!'"
So, where does her pessimism about her career come from, then?
"I don't know. I don't want to blame my Canadianism on that, but I'm constantly like, 'Well, this has been a great ride.'" She lets out a self-deprecating snort, before adding, "'No one's ever going to want to see my face on anything again.' And that's fine! I'll just find something else to do."