It’s easy to believe that Cobie Smulders is How I Met Your Mother’s Robin Scherbatsky, the strong, independent career women who embodies both the “cool girl” factor and femininity. And not just because she played the character for nine seasons—on the big screen, Smulders extended her commanding resume in characters like Maria Hill (Avengers: Age of Ultron), Kat (Results) and now Samantha Abbott in Unexpected.
Unexpected, directed by Kris Swanberg, is a film that doesn’t dress itself up with pretense, but instead is a rare untold story about a woman who doesn’t have it all, and is struggling to find what that even means amidst societal expectations. Samantha Abbott is a passionate teacher whose security comes crashing to a startling halt when she becomes pregnant at 30. Instead of eliciting immediate elation, her pregnancy makes her question her current path in life. If that’s not enough, Samantha can’t escape her dilemma in the classroom, as she discovers that her student Jasmine (Gail Bean) is also pregnant. The two women forge an otherwise unlikely bond based on a mutual understanding of life’s—ahem—unexpected obstacles.
Recently, Paste had the chance to sit down with Cobie Smulders for a candid conversation about the many challenges expecting women can face.
: You’ve done such rich material over the past few years. The characters you play are all so strong for various reasons. Is that what you gravitate towards?
Cobie Smulders: For this project I think it was more the storyline, and seeing these two women undergoing the same thing, but under very different circumstances. What I love the most about this film is that my character is very together—she knows what she wants to do with her life, and she’s in this stable relationship—and then she has a student in high school whose boyfriend is a little all over the place, and they both get pregnant, and the older woman is having the harder time. I thought there was something so interesting about that and seeing this sort of friendship form between these two women.
: You’re playing completely against this stereotype that’s so embedded in our culture, of what women represent at a certain time in their lives.
Smulders: Right. It was amazing. I read this script and I thought, “How can I do this movie?”, and I started stalking Kris a little bit, like politely stalking, and she came to LA and I said, “I want to meet with you.” She was very much like, “Well, we’re figuring it all out,” and then it came back around and I was so glad I could do it. It’s such a beautiful story.
: The direction of the film seemed incredibly personal—even just in how shots and framing feel so intimate.
Smulders: Yeah, it’s based off of Kris’s own life experiences. She was a teacher in Chicago when one of her students got pregnant, and she had just had a baby. The film just felt real. Obviously we’re dealing with elements of race, and privilege, and the under-privileged in different cultures, but what it comes down to is a woman’s journey to motherhood, and what that is and what that means to different perspectives.
: I love that this movie is about real women who don’t necessarily have a road map. Could you relate even though you have two children of your own?
Smulders: Yeah, I very much remember the first time around, and not knowing anything. For me I started a bit young. I was in my late 20s and that’s kind of young these days, at least for New York City. I just felt so alone, and kind of confused, and still sort of stubborn with thinking that I was going to be able to do everything, and do it all, and yes you can, but it’s a lot of work. There’s sacrifice involved. Either you’re going to work a lot and not get to spend time with your kid or you’re going to spend a ton of time with your kid and you’re sacrificing your career. It’s kind of hard to comment on it personally because I feel so privileged. I live a life where I have a huge support system, and I’ve been very lucky. I know that there are mothers out there that are in it. Just flippin’ in it.
: My mother was a working mother and I grew up admiring that about her, but a few months ago we had the identical conversation that your character is having with her mother about losing her identity in a child. My mother had said that if she could have chosen to be a stay-at-home mother, she would. I was so shocked by that. Is that something that you struggle with?
Smulders: I do. For sure, I think you’re very lucky if you can balance both. There’s some careers where that’s possible and there’s some [where] there aren’t. I have a career where if I do two movies a year, I’m still looking at a couple of months off. It’s a challenge and I think it would be very nice if people started making some changes. I come from Canada and maternity leave is six months to a year and they also have paternity leave, and I think that there’s something to that. There’s also something to making a more comfortable environment for women to breast feed, or to bring their kids into work and to have more nurseries in these office buildings. I think without that there are a lot of daycares that are in business—which: take it or leave it.
: The film addresses the many inequalities between men and women across the board, but especially when it comes to expecting children. I’m sure you get asked in interviews all the time how you balance motherhood and work, and I’m sure your husband Taran [Killam] doesn’t have to deal with having to explain that.
Smulders: Right. That’s a very good point. I think Kris deals with that very well. I think it’s a timing thing too, especially in this film. I know my character gets obsessed in the minutia of it, where it’s like: “If I had only gotten pregnant four months later, I would have been able to take this job, then I would have been able to take maternity leave, and I would be able to do all these things.” It’s a sacrifice. It is unfair but it’s also nature’s way. We produce breast milk and babies need us. I think mothers and fathers both want to be there for this new time, but there’s certain things that women can only do so they have to make that sacrifice for sure.
Unexpected is in theaters and on VOD on July 24, 2015.