The new NBC comedy series A to Z tells the story of Andrew (Ben Feldman) and Zelda (Cristin Milioti), and all that has happened from the day that they met. Andrew is a romantic who dreams of finding “the one,” while Zelda is a no-nonsense business woman who prefers to be her own person. But despite their differences, when the two polar opposites meet, sparks fly and they begin to explore how much more could be between them.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Cristin Milioti talked about how she got involved with A to Z, the testing process with various actors for the role of Andrew, playing a realistic love story, living up to romantic ideals, the importance of getting the first kiss just right, and what viewers can expect from the season. She also talked about her experience on How I Met Your Mother, how warmly she was welcomed when she joined the show, and that she fully expected the series ending to be as polarizing as it’s become. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did you come to this? Were you looking to jump right into another TV show?
CRISTIN MILIOTI: This happened before I finished How I Met Your Mother. I knew that I wanted to try another half-hour comedy again. I don’t think there are hour comedies, but if there were, I would have been open to it. I think television is really incredible because of the fact that you get to sit with a character for so, and the character does something different, every week. I think that’s really interesting. I really had a great time working on How I Met Your Mother, and I had so much fun. I thought, “This would be really fun to do again.” And then, this script came along, and I went out and auditioned for it. It all happened so seamlessly. I auditioned for it and I got it. Sometimes with this stuff, it can go back and forth, and back and forth, but this just all fell into place. And then, I read with a bunch of different Andrews for a couple of weeks. When Ben [Feldman] came along, we tested and it went great. It just all happened really quickly.
When you read with Ben Feldman, did you know that he was the right Andrew?
MILIOTI: I feel like I had known, when I read with the other guys who were all so wonderful and talented, that there just wasn’t something there, necessarily. When I read with Ben, I loved working with him, but I was so nervous. By then, I had read with so many people that I didn’t know what was what anymore. I was like, “I thought we did a great job together, but maybe we didn’t. I don’t know. I’ve read with 10 different people and I can’t tell anymore.” But, I knew that I really liked him and I thought that he was so wonderful. I thought that we had a chemistry, but you don’t know because you go into these scenarios where you’re reading in front of 30 stone-faced people. I was so afraid that I was maybe going to get fired, even though I had the job. What if I did it wrong this time, and then they realized that they made a mistake? So, my radar was off. But then, as soon as we started working together, it was instantly there. It’s either there or it’s not, in my opinion. You can’t really manufacture it.
When you learned that this show sets up, right off the bat, that it’s going to explore Andrew and Zelda’s dating life and that it lasts eight months, three weeks, five days and an hour, did you wonder where it would go from there?
MILIOTI: No. I keep expectations so embarrassingly low that I broke my contract and went and got a hair-cut. I was so convinced that this show wouldn’t get picked up because I had such a great time. I’d always interpreted as they break up. When I would describe the pilot to my friends, I would say, “Oh, it’s so cool. It’s about this couple, and you know they’re going to break up. It follows them from the minute they meet until they break up.” And then, at the TCA’s, Ben Queen was like, “Well, they could break up or get married. It could go either way.” And that never crossed my mind. We’re kept very much in the dark about it. We don’t know which way it’s gonna go. All that Ben will tell us is that the eight months comes at the end of Season 1, if we’re lucky enough to be given a full season. Season 1 covers the eight months. I don’t know what Season 2 would be. Ben Feldman and I joked about them doing it like True Detective. If there’s a Season 2 of A to Z, it will be Colin Farrell and Elisabeth Moss.
When you’re dating a guy who thinks his parents are the perfect couple, is there ever any way to truly live up to that ideal?
MILIOTI: That’s interesting. I’ve never thought about that, even though we’ve joked that, in his house, there’s a giant portrait of his parents’ wedding photo. But, I think there’s enormous pressure there. There is a will they or won’t they element because you don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the eight months, but it explores what it’s like to let someone into your life, and not just have the unicorns and rainbows in your eyes part of falling in love. It also shows the hard part of falling in love where you begin to become a unit and what that means for your life, the way it was before you met this person, and your friends, and your job. They start to seep into your entire life. For Zelda, that’s very different and very new.
Unlike Andrew, Zelda clearly doesn’t have relationship role models. How does that affect her approach to relationships and romance?
MILIOTI: I think she’s very pessimistic and very guarded. What’s different with Andrew is that he breaks down her walls in a way that no one else has. As comforting as that may be, I think it’s even more terrifying for her.
Zelda is closed off but not cold, and Andrew is a bit dreamy but not too over-the-top. Were there a lot of discussions about how to find that balance?
MILIOTI: Yeah, there were a lot of discussions about that, actually. I think that fear was that I was a little too cold, initially. It was a tricky balance to find, to make them believable people and to see their chemistry, in a realistic way. I think that is accredited to our main director, Michael Patrick Jann, who did Reno 911! and Drop Dead Gorgeous. He’s like our dad. He makes sure that we’re always aware of those levels, and he always talks to us about keeping that in mind. He grounds us and lets us go as far as we want with the comedy, but then brings it back to a truthful place.
Typically in these types of relationship stories, the guy is the one who lives in reality while the girl is the one who believes in destiny. Is it refreshing to get to play the opposite of that?
MILIOTI: It is, and I actually think it’s way more true to life. I would say that most of the women that I know are more like that than the men. I think that’s just been said to us in television and film, for a long time. It’s been my experience that women struggle much more with that than people realize. I think it’s a more realistic portrayal of a woman than I have read or seen, and that’s what I’m always drawn to. I think that’s important to have in something like a national television show. It’s important to portray a woman realistically, and not just as a bridezilla.
After joining a show like How I Met Your Mother, where you had to find your place among the groove that was already established, does that give you a new perspective when people come onto this show and try to find where they fit in among you guys?
MILIOTI: Oh, my god, yes! I try to really go out of my way. I really try my best to always introduce myself and talk to guest stars because that’s the most terrifying thing in the world. I was so warmly welcomed at How I Met Your Mother. I’ve guested on shows before where it’s no one’s fault, but you eat lunch by yourself. It can be tough. You come into this thing and you don’t know where to sit, so I do try to keep that in mind, definitely.
Were you surprised that the ending of How I Met Your Mother became one of TV’s most polarizing endings, or were you expecting people to have strong reactions to the ending of a show that they’ve been watching for so many years?
MILIOTI: I was totally expecting that, and I think they were, too. Maybe I’m speaking out of turn, but I even had conversations with the crew about it. Everyone knew that it had enormous potential to be a polarizing ending. There’s no way that you’re going to please all of America, or all of the fans. We had such an incredibly passionate fan base. I think some people loved it. A lot of people didn’t. Some people thought it was perfect. Some people thought it was not. I actually really enjoyed that. For a show to have that much impact and to have that big of a debate, it means that you were doing something right. So, I really loved it, but I totally saw that coming. It was a polarizing way to end the show, but they stuck to their guns. That was the decision they made nine years ago, and I really applaud them for that. I think that’s incredible. They were like, “No, this is how we always wanted to end it, and that’s what we’re gonna do.” People are still talking about it. One of the things that was so amazing about that show was that they always tried to be very life-like. They had incredible inside jokes, and it was hilarious. So many of the things that happened on the show were part of zany, weird comedy, but it was always grounded in life. It always came back to a very heartfelt place, and they always tried to be very true to life. I think that’s what the ending was. You have to hold on to what you find because life has this way of throwing you curve balls that you never expect.
When you’re telling a story like the one you’re telling in A to Z, that first kiss is hugely important. How many times did you have to shoot that scene, and are there any funny outtakes that we’ll see later?
MILIOTI: Oh, my god! We’re only on Episode 7 and I cannot keep a straight face to save my life. We had a stunt guy in an episode the other night, waiting to jump off a ladder, and he was poised in a very dangerous position, and right before he jumped, we had to cut seven times because I couldn’t keep it together for a poor man whose life was on the line. I couldn’t stop laughing. I don’t remember if we laughed a lot during the kiss. I think we did because we had to do it to the point that it was so crazy that we were still eating each other’s faces. They had to do these crazy camera movements that took a really long time, spinning around us. It was over and over and over and over again. Eventually, it just gets ridiculous because all you can hear is the sound of each other’s faces smashing, and it’s silent. There’s no orchestra swell. You’re standing by a pond, pressing your face against each other, and it’s so weird. There might be some good outtakes there, but I’d say the blooper reel for this show, should we ever have the good fortune to have a blooper reel released, is pretty epic. I spend most of my day trying to keep a straight face. It’s incredible. I hurt my back laughing, the other day.
What can you say to tease not only the journey that Zelda and Andrew take together, but also her personal journey, this season?
MILIOTI: It’s interesting. I have a lot of questions for Ben Queen. I know some stuff that’s coming up, that’s a window into her past, and we’ve shot stuff that’s really interesting. My favorite episode, so far, delves into her past and you get to meet her extended family. That was so incredibly informative to me, but we didn’t know that was coming. We get the scripts as they’re released. But, I think that she is an enormously complex character. When you see what she came from, you begin to piece together why she is the way she is, but what a long journey that must have been. I think that that’s interesting. We begin to explore ways that her past bleeds into this persona that she’s made for herself. And people do that. They say, “I am a lawyer and I have a very clean house.” People get very attached to these things that they feel about themselves, and the line gets blurred between the personality you make for yourself and what your personality actually is. Things like falling in love can really shake that up, and they often do. That’s why it’s so crazy. That’s why you feel like you’re on drugs when you fall in love. Suddenly, you’re like, “I haven’t done my laundry in eight weeks.” That’s something that we definitely explore, and that’s something that’s very true.
How does the dynamic between Andrew and Zelda change when they’re with their best friends, especially since Stu (Henry Zebrowski) and Stephie (Lenora Crichlow) have their own history?
MILIOTI: That’s one of my favorite parts of the show. The times that I can’t keep a straight face are when the four of us are together. The dynamic is so multi-layered. These are our best friends that we both live with. Stephie has been Zelda’s plus one for everything. That’s just how they’ve always rolled. They’ve been a team, and now the dynamic is shifting. That’s really hard, and that’s also what’s hard about growing up sometimes. You feel this dynamic shifting. People get into relationships. They get married and have kids, and all of a sudden, you can’t just pick up and go get coffee, or go away for the weekend together, or go to a costume party together. It becomes a thing you have to plan. I think that’s a bottomless well of material, the four of them as a dynamic. Zelda doesn’t care for Stu, and Stu doesn’t care for Zelda. Stephie doesn’t like Stud. There’s so much going on there, and it’s very real.
A to Z airs on Thursday nights on NBC.