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'Jack Reacher' and 'Avengers' star Cobie Smulders straddles the line between indie stalwart and blockbuster bruiser

'Jack Reacher' and 'Avengers' star Cobie Smulders straddles the line between indie stalwart and blockbuster bruiser
Cobie Smulders is the heroine in the new "Jack Reacher" film. (Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

"You've gotta get some greens in there," Cobie Smulders said, disapprovingly.

We were checking off which fruits and vegetables we wanted in our respective juices when the actress noticed that my selections included only fruits and no vegetables. She pointed out that each option on the menu was labeled with a helpful purpose. Cucumber: Urinary function! Kale: Anti-inflammatory! Celery: Detox!

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I was more interested in Juice: Yummy! But alas. Smulders took my menu and declared that she would be ordering for me.

"I drink these, like, multiple times a day," she explained. "I had to get healthy for a period in my life, so I learned a lot about food and diet."

The period she was referring to began when she was 25 years old, the year she found out she had ovarian cancer. She was in the midst of filming the third season of "How I Met Your Mother" when she learned she had tumors on both of her ovaries and would need surgery to remove the cancer that had already spread into her lymph nodes.

The experience changed her. Yes, she's adamant about green juice now. But she's also stronger — in her words: "very stubborn, very competitive, driven." All characteristics she puts on display in this weekend's "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back," in which she stars as a decorated Army major who goes on the run with Tom Cruise's renegade investigator.

It's the second major studio franchise Smulders has joined following her turn in "The Avengers," where she was introduced as the savvy Maria Hill, who keeps the trains running at the international intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. — a role she has reprised five times for Marvel, in film and on TV.

Tom Cruise in a trailer for "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back."

Since "How I Met Your Mother" wrapped in 2014, the 34-year-old has oscillated between big blockbusters like this and low-budget independent films like Andrew Bujalski's "Results" and Clea DuVall's "The Intervention."

After nine seasons on the CBS sitcom, Smulders craved the kind of messiness the indie film world provides. She was yearning, she said, to be part of the creative process again and bored of doing the same thing for so many years. "And then immediately I went, 'Oh my God, I miss my schedule,'" she said, laughing at herself.

The "Jack Reacher" sequel certainly provided routine. When she was cast, she was recovering from a broken leg (she tripped in her apartment) and needed to put in extra hours training for the film's physical demands. There's a lot of running in the movie — from bad guys at an airport, on rooftops, even through a New Orleans parade — so Smulders spent four hours in the gym every day to prepare.

Even though she was in the best shape of her life, she said, she still didn't feel ready to run alongside Cruise.

"At the beginning," she recalled, "I was like, 'I just don't think I can do this. I'm going to have to play the weak card.' And when you shoot a big movie, you just feel so many more eyeballs on you. It's a lot of pressure."

Ed Zwick, who directed the film, couldn't detect the actress' anxiety. And he's seen actors get freaked out by working with Cruise before.

We needed someone who could go toe-to-toe with a major movie star who was really capable of holding the screen.


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"I've seen a lot of people who just do too much with Tom — somehow the moment takes on too much import, and any naturalism goes out of it," said the filmmaker, who also directed Cruise in "The Last Samurai." "We needed someone who could go toe-to-toe with a major movie star who was really capable of holding the screen. And Cobie is a such a pro. You don't do a TV show for nine years and not end up being very comfortable with the kind of improvisation and changes that happen on a big movie."

Meeting Cruise for the first time did prove intimidating, Smulders admitted. But her nerves were calmed as soon as it became clear the 54-year-old veteran wanted her input on the film. At the table read, she remembered, the actor asked for her opinion on where her character stood. And when they started running, he let her get a head start so she wouldn't look like a damsel in distress, tagging along with the hero.

"I could have easily been in this film running behind him, hair flying in the wind," she said. "But it was important to him that I be Jack Reacher's equal. So he let me set the pace. Because the times that Tom started, I literally had to yell, 'Slow down!' as we were running. He just goes, and I couldn't physically catch up to him."

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In addition to honing her athletic prowess during the shoot, Smulders was simultaneously looking after an 18-month-old. She has two children, ages 7 and almost 2, with husband Taran Killam. She and the actor met at a party when they were 22 and wed eight years later. She's seen more of Killam lately, since she just finished acting in his directorial debut — an action flick with Arnold Schwarzenegger — and because he was let go from "Saturday Night Live" in August.

"I love having my husband at home. Especially when I have to leave the country so he can take care of our children," she said, downing a wellness shot. (Yes, she ordered a wellness shot in addition to her green juice.) "But I miss him on that show, because I think he was such a great part of it and he did so much funny stuff."

The couple live in Battery Park and plan to live in New York for another year while Killam shoots a Showtime pilot and Smulders finishes a Netflix series with Nicholas Stoller. Their apartment, she said, is nothing flashy — she doesn't like living large, despite having made a reported $225,000 per-episode toward the end of her run on "How I Met Your Mother."

"Those numbers were all wrong," she insisted. "My mother would always be like, 'How much money are you making over there?' But I'm pretty money savvy. My dad made me read 'Rich Dad Poor Dad' when I was 12 — this investing book about how to manage your money and be smart. So I'm kind of like a grandmother."

As if on cue, she finished off her green juice responsibly. Mine, by the way, wasn't totally terrible. She went easy on me, opting for carrots instead of kale.

"Plus, I put mint in it," she said. "It overpowers everything."

Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA

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