Surrounded by a Norse god, a super soldier, a deadly spy, a brilliant scientist who can become an 8-foot-tall rage monster, and, well, Tony Stark, it might have been easy for Cobie Smulders to get lost in the muscle-clad crowd.
But the 30-year-old Canadian actress who plays S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill in the record-breaking blockbuster “The Avengers” made it her mission to create a space for her character among Marvel’s A-listers, which, of course, include Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Chris Evans’ Captain America and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.
“I feel like I was able to hold my own quite well,” Smulders said on a recent morning. “That was really important to me, because I was quite intimidated. ... Not only is it a different genre for me, but it’s with some of the most talented actors in Hollywood.”
“The Avengers” isn’t Smulders’ first role in a feature film, but it is her first foray into big-budget action flicks. The bulk of her acting experience comes from her role as Robin Scherbatsky in the long-running CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” and it was her relationship with cast members of that show that led to her landing a part in “The Avengers.”
“How I Met Your Mother” co-stars Neil Patrick Harris and Alyson Hannigan and recurring guest star Alexis Denisof had all worked on previous projects with Joss Whedon, the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator recruited by Marvel to direct “The Avengers.”
“I wanted someone there for (S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick) Fury and (Agent Phil) Coulson to deal with, and I wanted another woman in the movie,” Whedon said. “There’s a lot of boys, and I felt the movie definitely needed another strong female presence just to balance it out, and someone at Marvel suggested that we use Maria Hill. ... I was like, ‘That’s perfect! That makes sense, because she’s always had a bit of a beef with Fury, so we’ll have some tension there.’ ”
Whedon narrowed the casting pool to three actresses. “And then I ran into Aly Hannigan, who just said, ‘You gotta read Cobie! You gotta read Cobie! You gotta read Cobie! You gotta read Cobie!’ ” Whedon said.
He relented, widened the pool to five and tossed Smulders in the mix.
Whedon wrote a fake scene for the potential Maria Hill to read opposite Samuel L. Jackson (who plays Nick Fury in the Marvel films). Smulders read last.
“In the scene, Fury tells Maria to point her gun at his chest,” Whedon said. “And when Cobie pulled her gun and pointed it at Sam’s chest, I went, ‘Oh, God, she’s gonna shoot him!’ Even though I had seen the same scene four times already and had written it and directed it. She has enormous authority. She can hold her own against anybody.”
Agent Maria Hill is a relatively new character in the comics. Created by Brian Michael Bendis and David Finch in 2005, she runs S.H.I.E.L.D. when Nick Fury is in hiding after a scandal. She has a tough attitude and a protocol-focused, by-the-book methodology, making her a foil to Fury’s renegade style of leadership.
Although “The Avengers” is infused with plenty of Whedon-esque comedy, playing Maria Hill was a vast departure from the sitcom role Smulders has inhabited for seven seasons.
“I’ve been doing ‘How I Met Your Mother’ for so long, and it’s been so great, and I just feel like it’s second nature at this point,” she said. “I loved the change and sort of taking on the physicality of a different character.”
And physical it was; Agent Hill finds herself in a car chase, at least one explosion and several firefights. Smulders became known on set for her gung-ho approach to stunts.
“Cobie’s a very smart and capable individual who was ready to be an action hero,” Jackson said. “She was willing to jump in there and do that tomboy stuff and have a good time. She’s been doing that comedy for a while, and she wanted to be an action girl. And she was great.”
Smulders said her confidence in the action scenes stemmed from preparation. She hired a black belt martial artist who trains SWAT teams in Los Angeles to train her in her home and at a shooting range.
Though her “How I Met Your Mother” character is also a gun enthusiast, Smulders had used guns only as props.
“I wanted my gun to feel like an extension of my person, and I’m not comfortable around guns,” she said. “So he helped me a lot in terms of officer procedure. You know, how you would enter a building, how you would hold a gun, how you would sort of stalk somebody, how you would take somebody down, how you could roll and draw your gun at the same time, which I got to do in the movie.”
So will Agent Maria Hill be returning to her post in future Marvel movies?
“I think so, yeah,” Smulders said. “I’ve signed on for a few more. If they’ll have me, I’m in.”