Despite any attempts to the contrary, Cristin Milioti has no interest in being put into a box. In the course of her relatively brief career, she’s taken on a wider variety of roles and disciplines than many actors do in decades. She’s made her mark on television, in movies and onstage, playing instantly iconic (and wildly different) characters in Black Mirror, Fargo, How I Met Your Mother, and the Broadway musical Once, to name a few. Currently, she’s recording her first album. And this is only the beginning.
“Variety definitely attracts me. I try to do things that are as different as possible. I look to play real, complex people, which is not always made available. I’ve had the good fortune to be very discerning in what I work on, and discerning about the people I work with,” Milioti says. We’re chatting at a coffee shop in Brooklyn Heights, shortly before she’s set to head off to a recording session.
Most recently, Milioti took the sci-fi world by storm in “USS Callister,” the Season Four premiere of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. She plays Nanette, a programmer who gets sucked into her sexist coworker’s virtual reality space fantasy and refuses to play along. Thanks to Milioti’s steely performance (and some unforgettable dialogue), the character became an instant icon for the #MeToo moment.
“I don’t think any of us were prescient enough to know just how relevant it would be, but it felt relevant to me at the time, having existed as, like, a woman in the world,” Milioti says of her turn as Nanette. “We filmed that right after Trump was elected, and I certainly felt like it was a bit of a wish fulfillment thing – to see this small-minded, angry, misogynistic bully get taken down by a smart woman.”
These days, Milioti very much calls the shots in her career, but it was something she struggled with early on. She studied acting at New York University, but dropped out when she was a sophomore. “I was wildly unhappy there,” she recalls. “I think I spent a lot of years trying to be what people wanted me to be. And it doesn’t ever work. Or alternately it does, and you’re trapped in something that is not you, and it sucks.”
An agent discovered her when she was performing a black box production, and from there she began booking theater productions Off-Broadway. When she landed her first TV gig, it was no small potatoes: She took on the role of a mob underboss’ daughter in The Sopranos.
After playing small but memorable parts in The Wolf of Wall Street and on 30 Rock (remember the “sexy baby”?) Milioti scored her first major leading role as the “Girl” in Tony-winning Broadway musical Once. Music has always been baked into Milioti’s life, but getting cast in a musical had long proved elusive, until director John Tiffany saw her audition and took up her cause.
“He threw down really hard for me, and I will never forget that. He really believed in me when not a lot of people believed in me,” she says. “People were like, ‘We don’t know what to do with you. What are you? You sound like this, but you look like this, and you’re kind of weird and you’ve got this smoky thing going on?’ I just didn’t fit anywhere.”
It was when she was performing in Once that How I Met Your Mother show runners Craig Thomas and Carter Bays took note of her and cast her as the sitcom’s long-awaited, much-discussed Mother. And the turnaround was lightning quick – she began shooting the day after she left Once.
Milioti tends to steer clear of social media, which helped her avoid feeling too much pressure in embodying such an eagerly awaited character. “I don’t know if I understood just how big it was until it happened. And then I was like, oh, right, people have waited years for this,” she explains. “But I definitely had a sense of pressure to honor this show.”
For both Once and HIMYM, Milioti taught herself to play instruments she’d only dabbled in before. But Milioti has been passionate about singing her entire life. She got the chance to work with one of her musical heroes (heck, one of everyone’s musical heroes) when she joined the cast of David Bowie’s Lazarus at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2015. Bowie worked directly with the ensemble, but it would prove to be some of his last – he died during the last week of the show’s run.
“It was the most magical thing to work with him and to talk to him and to sing those songs for him,” Milioti recalls. “Everything you’ve ever read about him being kind and gracious and incredibly funny is so very true. It was like working with some kind of space angel. That experience is something I will take with me when I go.”
And Bowie isn’t the only music luminary Milioti has collaborated with. In February she was featured alongside Run the Jewels on a track on #DARKDAZE, the latest EP from R&B musician/producer Boots. He’s also producing Milioti’s first album, which she’s currently in the process of recording. Milioti has been performing the songs she wrote for the album on and off for years, but she says that Boots’ contribution (he also produced Beyoncé’s eponymous 2013 album) is taking them to the next level.
“It feels like this very special creation. It feels like creating a planet or something,” she says of working on the album. “I knew that I would love doing it, but it’s been transformative. I’m very excited to share it.”
Milioti has managed to carve out an incredibly diverse career in a short time, and she hopes to keep taking on as many different roles as possible going forward. “I don’t ever want to play the same thing, because that kind of takes the fun away of what we do. There’s so much rejection and heartache, and the fun, the flying part of it is that you get to inhabit someone else’s body so entirely,” she says.