“Kids, I’m going to tell you an incredible story—the story of how I met your mother,” Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) told his eye-rolling children in the pilot of How I Met Your Mother. Now, after eight seasons of circuitous clues; a parade of spunky character actresses and cute Girl Next Doors; endless will-they-or-won’t-they teases with former paramour Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders); and glimpses of her umbrella, her ankle, and her raincoat, we finally saw the mother’s face on Monday night's season finale.
It was the face audiences had been waiting since 2005 to see. Was it an actress who played a girlfriend of Ted’s who we already met, like Sarah Chalke, Rachel Bilson, or Ashley Williams? Nope. Was it another big star, like Sarah Michelle Gellar, Keri Russell, or Elisabeth Olsen? Nuh-uh. It was…wait who was that?
The little-known actress who landed the mother of all roles was Cristin Milioti, a Tony-nominated Broadway actress about to break out in Hollywood—as if you need to be told that—in a major way. Milioti most recently played the lead, Girl, in the musical adaptation of the film Once. Her quiet, stirring performance in the role earned her rave reviews—she “just seems to float through the theater like some weird but essential Czech angel,” wrote the Chicago Tribune—and the Tony nod.
So while most How I Met Your Mother viewers are meeting Milioti with nopreconceived opinions of her or her work, she’s already cherished by New York theater fans. For proof of why, here she is singing the show’s signature duet, “Falling Slowly,” with co-star Steve Kazee:
Indie film buffs may recognize Milioti from Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me, and Sopranos diehards may remember her as Johnny Sacks’s daughter, Catherine Sacrimoni, in a brief three-episode arc that included a scene-stealing turn as a grumpy bridesmaid. She’s also filmed guest spots on Nurse Jackie and The Good Wife.
It’s most likely, however, that you remember her as “very sexy baby” Abby Flynn on the “TGS Hates Women” episode of 30 Rock, on which she played a Sarah Silverman-esque comedian Liz Lemon begrudgingly hires to bring another female voice—however grotesquely squeaky—into the writer’s room.
How did Milioti, who so far was shown only in the last scene of the How I Met Your Mother season finale, land the role that most actresses in Hollywood would kill for? And why, after years of setting Ted up with a rotating stable of women played by the likes of Mandy Moore, Katie Holmes, and Abby Elliott, did the producers decide to cast an unknown?
It turns out that Milioti, despite not having much on her Hollywood resume, has been on the radars of HIMYM co-creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas for about two years now, thanks to the keen eye of casting director Marisa Ross. “Then the more we got to know Cristin and see her work, the more we realized, Yeah, she’s the right choice,” Bays tells Entertainment Weekly. “So that definitely helped because we didn’t want to do a big casting cattle call—we were going to make it ‘come audition for Barney’s cousin’ or something.”
Of course, it helps that Milioti’s musical bonafides are already Tony-minted, as one of the clues given to her identity is that she’s a member of the band that plays at the wedding of Robin and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). “I think there were will be a musical component to her character, and [her musicality] was definitely a little bonus feature,” says Bays. “For anyone that has gone and seen Once—she’s not in it anymore, obviously—but she has an amazing voice,” Thomas adds
Her casting was mercifully kept secret thanks to a secretive on-camera chemistry test with Radnor, which Harris—a big Broadway booster and fan of Milioti’s—nearly spoiled by bursting into Milioti’s makeup trailer and exclaiming, “You’re the mother!” The truth was, however, that two other actresses were also still screen-testing the role.
Critics are cheering the decision to resist star-casting the pivotal character, first of all for the element of surprise—you can’t cast Jennifer Lopez on a TV show and keep it under wraps—and second of all for the thrill of being introduced to a brand new actress who we have no judgment of already.
“We didn’t spend years watching her on Scrubs, or The O.C. or even a few months on Good Morning, Miami,” says Alan Sepinwall at HitFix. “She is a blank slate, onto whom the show and its audience can project whatever qualities we feel should be in Ted Mosby’s ideal woman, without insisting that Elliott Reed or Summer Roberts or Chris Elliott’s daughter would act that way, play bass that way, etc. She is the Mother, she has [been] put on this world to cross Ted Mosby’s path on the night of his best friend’s wedding to make him forget all about Robin Scherbatsky and a move to Chicago. Earlier knowledge of her is not required and maybe not even preferred.”
With that in mind, the HIMYM producers were smart to jump on casting Milioti, as she won’t be that blank slate unknown for long. She plays Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming The Wolf of Wall Street—marking two big breaks in the same year.
You might calling it hitting the motherload.