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Golden Girl

by Peter Proko; Photo by Eric T. White

With an undeniable buzz from Broadway to Hollywood, Cristin Milioti just may have the Midas touch.

During the course of the past year, Cristin Milioti got married. Twice, in fact. And now she’s falling in love all over again.

No, the Cherry Hill-born actress isn’t finicky when it comes to relationships. She’s just one of today’s hottest actresses riding an unbelievable wave of momentum to stardom. The 29-year-old isn’t an overnight success story, either. Already a noted stage performer, Milioti spent years in the background, turning up in small roles on The Good Wife and Nurse Jackie, but most notably as Johnny Sack’s daughter Catherine in The Sopranos and as 30 Rock’s Abby Flynn.

Then in 2012, she wowed audiences on Broadway as part of the smash musical hit Once. Her stunning performance earned her a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical and an individual Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. The recognition catapulted Milioti’s career to a whole new level, and helped earn her a part in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which amassed a cult-like following over its on-air run.

After eight seasons of building up the storyline, in May of 2013 the show’s creators introduced Milioti as “The Mother.” It was a breakthrough role on the hit TV show centered around a father telling his two children how he fell in love. She appeared throughout the ninth and final season before it was revealed in the series finale that her character passed away. For the dedicated fans of the sitcom, it was a polarizing episode to say the least. They waited so long to meet her; they weren’t ready to let her go so soon.

Luckily, Milioti didn’t stay dead for long, turning up next as Leonardo DiCaprio’s first wife in the The Wolf of Wall Street. The heavily Oscar-nominated film helped Milioti’s star ascend even further.

She returns to the small screen this month appearing in the romantic NBC comedy A to Z, starring alongside Ben Feldman (Mad Men). Produced by Rashida Jones and narrated by Katey Sagal, the show traces a couple’s relationship from the day they meet until … well, we don’t know what happens yet.

It’s a long way from the days when she roamed the halls of Cherry Hill East, where she sang in the jazz band and starred in drama productions. We caught up with Milioti during a break from shooting A to Z to talk about falling in love on camera, repeatedly slapping DiCaprio for 12 hours, and why no matter how big of a star she becomes, she’ll always have a soft spot in her heart for Wawa.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: So, how excited are you for A to Z to finally be here?
CRISTIN MILIOTI: I’m pretty excited, I think it’s a great cast and we are really finding our stride. We are shooting episode five now; it’s amazing how quickly we’ve settled in.

SJM: I watched the pilot and I think you and Ben already have good chemistry on-screen. Are you excited to see how that builds as the show progresses?
CM: I’m very excited. We get to reveal more things about these people that I think make them so much more relatable. There are heartbreaking situations and hilarious situations.

SJM: Of course the last time we saw you on TV was in How I Met Your Mother. Fans waited eight years to meet you and then you died. Were you shocked that they killed you off so quickly?
CM: They told me at the Christmas party, and I burst into tears and I think my initial reaction was, ‘That is so sad. But he finally found her, why have such a sad ending?’ It had been [the show’s creators’] plan from the beginning and I sort of came around to it. Part of that show was very life-like; they dealt with things that got to your heart. They wanted to convey that things in life happen in mysterious ways and to really value each other. It was very brave of them.

SJM: Were you shocked that the finale polarized so much of the audience?
CM: I was not shocked at all. One of the things that is so incredible about that show is the fan base. I knew it [would get a big reaction]. Even my character was polarizing. There were people rooting for Ted and Robin to get together, people rooting for Barney and Robin to stay together. There’s no way to please millions of people.

SJM: How difficult was it to play that role, not only because fans have been chomping at the bit to meet you, but also because that cast had been together for so many years and here you come at the 11th hour to take some of the spotlight?
CM: I had ignorance on my side. I never saw the show and I don’t have any social media accounts so I was blissfully ignorant as to what people thought when I was first introduced. I had no idea what it meant to play the role. Then the gravity hit me. It sort of worked for me. If I had known how anticipated that role was, I would have blown my audition. I would have been so nervous.

SJM: Wait, you don’t have any social media accounts? For someone in the limelight, that seems pretty rare.
CM: I’ve been getting pressure to do it. What I like about social media is that a 12-year-old girl somewhere, someplace can reach out to someone they look up to and say, ‘I am a huge fan and your show helps me get through my day.’ That part is amazing.
But for the most part, in my opinion, it creates a real disconnect between people. There’s so much humble bragging on social media accounts. [People] have this weirdly heightened social awareness. It really creeps me out and I don’t have anything interesting to say anyway. You don’t care what I had for breakfast. I have an Instagram account, but it’s private. I only share it with 40 people and they are all people I’ve had dinner with. I can see my friends’ babies, their dogs…
The idea of social media makes me uncomfortable and I have pretty thin skin. If someone would write me and tell me they think I am incredibly untalented, I wouldn’t handle that well.

SJM: You’ve done theater, TV, and film. Do you have a favorite?
CM: I love them all, but they are very, very different. I love the fact in TV and film you get to do something different every day. You get different lines every day and you can sit with a character and go on a journey with them. In theater— I did Once for a year, and my performance at the end was wildly different from the beginning. But, there’s nothing like the rush from being live on stage. That is a premium rush. I’m starting to jones again for a play.

SJM: So you went to Cherry Hill East— what was high school like for you?
CM: I did plays in high school, sang in the jazz band, I was in a rock band with friends and did the battle of the bands. My memories of high school are of terrible fashion choices. I showed the crew my high school prom picture and I am the spitting image of J Woww [from Jersey Shore]. I had body glitter. I looked insane.

SJM: Do you still keep in touch with any of your old friends from the area?
CM: There are two girls out here [in L.A.] that I’ve known since kindergarten. We had all the same teachers at Beck.

SJM: What are some of your fonder memories of South Jersey?
CM: We grew up in the Country Club Diner. I was in Cherry Hill recently helping my parents go through the house as they get ready to move to North Carolina, and I drove by it and the building is still there but it’s closed. We spent every day there after school. We’d order one cup of coffee and stay for hours and smoke cigarettes in the smoking section. When they’d finally kick us out, we’d go to Wawa at Holly Ravine, order hoagies and sit in the parking lot.

SJM: You sound like you miss Wawa.
CM: I would go out of my way to order a Wawa hoagie. I was just talking on the phone to two of my closest friends and the subject of a last meal came up and mine was a toss-up between a really great eggplant Parmesan and a Wawa hoagie.

SJM: What kind of hoagie?
CM: Turkey, American cheese, lettuce, tomato with mayo and a little salt and pepper.

SJM: You had that order ready to go!
CM: [Normally] I’d go with the smaller one, but since it would be my last meal…

SJM: You’d have to go with the Classic?
CM: [Laughs] Yeah, I’d have to go with the Classic. My boyfriend and I got in a fight once because I went to a Wawa without him. It was so weird when my parents decided to move from Cherry Hill. One of the things that made me sad was that I wouldn’t get a Wawa hoagie anytime soon.

SJM: What was the worst acting gig you got when starting out, do you remember it?
CM: Lord yes! It was the summer when I was 18. I worked as a singer/dancer at Hersheypark. They did five shows a day, six days a week. I was living in a terrible apartment complex 40 minutes away from the park.

SJM: Despite the reality, did it feel like the sky was the limit after that?
CM: No, I was really aware it was [an awful] gig.

SJM: Do you feel like since Once you’ve been on a real hot streak?
CM: I could pinch myself. I can’t believe that all this has happened. I don’t lose sight of the fact that a lot of this business is dumb luck. I’ve worked really hard but been lucky as well.

SJM: What was the experience like working on The Wolf of Wall Street?
CM: Another pinch me experience. It was fantastic!

SJM: The scene where you catch Leonardo DiCaprio cheating on you is pretty intense. What was it like filming that on the set?
CM: It was extremely intense. We shot that from 8 at night until 8 in the morning, so we were a little delirious by the end of it. So much of that scene is improvised too, it was really intense. I was actually wailing on him and we did like 30 takes.

SJM: What did you think about your wardrobe in the film? It really added a bit of nostalgia even if the ’90s weren’t that long ago.
CM: I feel like I really carried the weight of the period. Yeah, [the cast] were in the ’90s clothes, but they were fashionable. I had the permed wig, the jeans that came up to your first rib. I loved it though. I love that stuff more than anything. Give me a wig and an accent.

SJM: You’re from New Jersey and you had a role in one of the all-time Jersey shows: The Sopranos. Despite being a small role, did you feel like you were part of something big?
CM: That was my first job. I’d never seen a camera before. I was 20; and again, I’d never seen the show. I still haven’t seen the show. That and Mad Men I want to watch and catch up on. I remember being more confused than anything else. I knew it was a big deal but I was so confused. Steve Buscemi directed the first episode I did and he is very kind. He gave me my first professional job.

SJM: You also did 30 Rock with Tina Fey. What was that like for you?
CM: That was probably one of my favorite jobs of all time. I was a rabid fan of the show. To say that was a dream come true is an understatement. [Tina] is so lovely, warm, supportive and nurturing. I think I was very quiet because I couldn’t believe I was there. It was one of the top three jobs I’ve had and ever will have. Again, give me a wig and accent.

SJM: Having already worked with some amazing people in your career, is there anyone that is on your wish list?
CM: I would love to work with [directors] David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino. … Now I’m just pulling names out of my lofty brain cloud. There’s so many actors. … Amy Poehler, who is great.

SJM: Who or what inspired you to pursue acting?
CM: I was sort of attracted to theater as a kid. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were influences. And I’ve always been drawn to Diane Keaton and Catherine Keener; women who played very strong roles and weren’t the damsels in distress. They felt like me, it wasn’t like I was looking at Cindy Crawford. They are normal girls and they’re flawed and hilarious and heartbreaking and all these things.

SJM: What’s one thing you know about acting now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
CM: To relax. Certain situations on set, especially during an emotional scene, you have to produce in front of 80 people. It’s like, ‘We need you to break down crying, so whenever you’re ready, but also we don’t have a lot of time so please hurry up.’ That is difficult. I wish I told myself to relax and trust myself. Take your time and trust yourself. And don’t compare yourself to anybody else.

SJM: How have you evolved in your acting career?
CM: I’m more at ease with myself, so I have a confidence in a way I can take my time and really know how to get to where I need to be.

SJM: So A to Z is debuting this month, anything else you’re working on that you can tell us about?
CM: I can’t say what the project is right now, but I’m trying to figure out my schedule to do another musical. But it depends on what happens with the show. If we get picked up for a second season I won’t be able to do anything.

SJM: When you get a break from the set, how do you like to unwind?
CM: I like to lie down and stare at walls [laughs]. No, I have such wonderful friends and a boyfriend. We go out to dinner, stuff like that. My family and I are going to take paddle boarding lessons but I’m nervous.

SJM: Why? It sounds fun.
CM: I can’t swim. I can tread water though and I can snorkel because I can float.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 7 (October, 2014).
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