Cristin Milioti doesn’t think of herself as a romantic comedy heroine. And even though she has starred in a deluxe assortment of romantic comedies, she is more or less correct.
Since her breakout, as Girl (yes, the character is named girl) in the Broadway musical “Once,” Milioti has made a career of dismantling — on occasion, eviscerating — the narrative clichés of the happily ever after. In the “USS Callister” episode of “Black Mirror,” she plays a computer coder who outmaneuvers an incel suitor. In an episode of “Modern Love,” she stars as a book critic who forms a secure attachment with her doorman, not her child’s father. The takeaway of her 2015 movie “It Had to Be You” is that maybe it didn’t. And in last summer’s perfect “Palm Springs,” her character uses a time loop to work through her issues. Romance is strictly optional.
“I can survive just fine without you, you know,” she tells Andy Samberg’s Nyles in the movie’s climax.
“Made for Love,” a new and very weird series that premieres on HBO Max on April 1, begins where most rom-coms end. Milioti stars as Hazel, a 30-something woman who is married to Byron (Billy Magnussen), a handsome tech mogul so overwhelmingly successful that even the Musks and Gateses of the world must feel a little intimidated. But the relationship suffocates her.
Escaping, almost by accident, she encounters the muddle and stress and bother of moving through the world alone. Well, not quite alone. Byron has implanted spyware in her brain.
In the opening moments of the show, Hazel flounders onscreen looking like a half-drowned mermaid — wet, disheveled, in a scaly green dress and smeared eye makeup. She looks exhilarated, frightened, exhausted, confused, defiant, more. Most actors seem to work with a palette of a dozen or so emotions, but Milioti’s colors are unlimited. And since she likes to use as many as she can, she won’t play characters who aren’t fully human. (Which, when it comes to roles for women, is not exactly a given.)
“I like playing complicated people,” she said. “I didn’t get into this to be a handbag to a man’s story.”
This was on a recent afternoon, on a bench on a pier at the end of Brooklyn Bridge Park, one of her preferred haunts. The weather pulsed with the promise of an early spring and Milioti — dark glasses, dark sweater, dark jeans, crinkling surgical mask — watched what she called the “dog parade” pass by. She didn’t carry a purse. Her accessory of choice: a double-finger ring that looks like fangs.
Petite, quietly savage, with a sense of humor that can skew either goofy or mordant, Milioti, 35, is not the girl next door. She is more like the girl that you didn’t realize was living in the attic.
Magnussen, who has known her for more than a decade, described her as one of the funniest, most elegant and engaging women he has met. “She is just absolutely a fun time,” he said. And she is. Especially if you are a dog.
“You’re new,” she cooed at a tawny puppy on the pier. “Welcome. Is this enough attention?” Then she went back to talking about network sitcoms and the patriarchy.
“She’s a complicated, layered person in her real life,” Samberg said. “And she brings that to her roles.”
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Growing up in New Jersey, Milioti auditioned for every school play and musical. “I just always loved being onstage and I loved disappearing into roles,” she said.
OK, not every role. Her encapsulated review of Sarah Brown, the winsome heroine she played in “Guys and Dolls”: “Ugh.” More her vibe? The Artful Dodger, a role she campaigned for, mostly because all the female parts in “Oliver!” are terrible.
She studied acting at New York University but stayed for only a year and a half. “I was really impatient,” she said. “I was only getting to act for, like, 15 minutes a week.”
So she waitressed and she babysat. She dog-walked and she worked in a dog biscuit factory. She began working off Broadway, playing multidimensional roles — in shows like “Crooked,” “Stunning,” “That Face” — that made the most of her big-eyed girlish exterior and the dark heart beating beneath. Off Broadway paying what it does, she still walked dogs. There were also many auditions for victim-of-the-week stuff, dead-sorority-girl parts that she could never seem to book. She just didn’t have the right faceless victim vibes.
In the first workshops for “Once,” the musical based on the John Carney film, she played a supporting role. Romantic leads — Sarah Brown, ugh — weren’t her thing. But John Tiffany, the show’s director, felt differently. He found her funny and mercurial. “And incredibly moving in a properly generous way,” he said. (Milioti had called him the night before our conversation, he said, and encouraged him to absolutely roast her. He declined.)
When the show moved to Cambridge, Mass., for a tryout, he convinced the producers that she should take over Girl, the part she went on to play on Broadway for more than a year. That role led to a recurring spot in the final season of “How I Met Your Mother” — she played the Mother — and a series lead on the NBC rom-com “A to Z,” which didn’t last long.
With some financial security achieved, she began maneuvering back toward roles that didn’t make her feel like what she described as “an unwitting foot soldier of the patriarchy.” She wanted parts that let her touch “the weirdness and the wildness and the inner forests” of human nature, she said. Parts that let her communicate the essential strangeness of behaving like a person, especially a female person; parts where she never has to apologize for a character’s sharp angles and iffy choices.
Milioti loves iffy choices, and she loves thinking through how and why a person might make them. On set or onstage, she will throw herself into the scrappiest, spikiest, ugliest facets of any part, without ego or undue seriousness. (She is known for punctuating somber moments with fart noises or a pirate’s hook briefly liberated from the props department.)
“She wants things to be [expletive] up,” Samberg said.
When she did press for “Palm Springs,” journalists would sometimes ask her why she took the role as Sarah, the nervy, volatile, ultradamaged sister of the bride. She had to make an effort not to roll her eyes — when roles like that come along, every actress worth her Moon Juice wants them. And auditions are a blood bath, she said. “Because it’s so rare, sadly, that a woman gets to play all of those different things.”
Milioti didn’t have to audition for “Palm Springs” — the part was hers after a single meeting — or for “Made for Love,” another role replete in different things. “I like to joke that ‘Made for Love” was made for Milioti,” said Alissa Nutting, an executive producer and the author of the novel the show is based on. Nutting knew that Milioti could do drama as well as comedy, often instantaneously.
“I’ve never seen an actor that can do air quotes with their eyes,” she said.
Milioti read the pilot and signed on immediately. Hazel’s anarchic bid for freedom and the questionable and often violent choices she makes along the way hit her where she lives.
“The amount of things that she goes through and the amount that she’s not dealing with, and the amount that she is dealing with, I was salivating over,” she said.
In “Made for Love,” Hazel experiences an awakening, transforming from a perfectly groomed helpmeet, with the spray-on smile of a woman in a hostage situation, to a gritty, messy, blood-flecked runaway who can wield a machete — or an umbrella or a golf club — when she needs to.
Had Milioti undergone anything like that, either personally or professionally? Was there an experience that made her swear off those handbag and foot soldier roles? She wouldn’t say. (While she has sometimes discussed her personal life, she now opts for a Bartleby-inspired response: “I prefer not to.”)
But she did offer a more encompassing answer, saying that a lot of women are now confronting the roles that society — and not just Hollywood — has asked them to play. Because we should all be the heroines of our own complicated stories. And not the sorority girl shoved into the trunk.
“It’s this reckoning of like, Wow, what have we been fed this entire time?” she said. “We have been fed a steady diet of [expletive]. We’re all suddenly awakening and being like, Why do we feel so bad? And why were these things allowed?”
“That, to me, is thrilling,” she added. “And it’s long overdue.”