Most actors take a leap of faith when signing on to a new role, looking beyond the numerous variables that can derail a project and focusing on what calls to them in the work. So when Cristin Milioti -- the actress who has been making the role of Mother in How I Met Your Mother feel like the distant past since the series ended in 2014 -- received the barest of ideas for a new episode of Black Mirror, she took that leap. And the results were thrilling.
“They asked me to tape myself reading one scene that was two pages long,” Milioti recalls to ET of her audition, where she didn’t fully know what the episode was about. “I was so overjoyed when I read the script, because I was dreaming about this and looking very actively for something like this for a really long time. I couldn’t believe it when I read it. I had no idea, when I read those couple of pages, what that character goes through.”
The episode, “USS Callister,” was regarded as the best of Black Mirror’s fourth season and, like season three’s “San Junipero,” it became a breakout hit thanks to its heady mix of science fiction, gender politics and technology -- all filtered through the wicked spectrum of the series. In it, Milioti stars both as a newbie programmer named Nanette Cole who works at a large tech company for seemingly nerdy boss Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) and his handsy right-hand man Walton (Jimmi Simpson), and as the unwitting new member of the spaceship Callister, part of a secret virtual reality game created by Daly to gain control, as Captain, over those he feels has wronged him.
“On one hand, you’re playing a mumblecore office film and the other hand, you have this larger-than-life, stakes-super-high, sci-fi virtual reality world,” Milioti says. “It’s like a dream come true to be able to go back and forth between that. You get to flex so many more muscles that way.”
With its obvious nods to Star Trek through set design and costumes, the virtual reality scenes are more colorful than anything Black Mirror has done in its past. But it does little to obscure the dark behavior of Captain Daly, who rules his crew with an iron fist, forcing his female staff to kiss him and punishing anyone, including Nanette, who resists his orders. In the aftermath of #MeToo, there are clear parallels in the episode to the troubling issues raised by both Gamergate and Harvey Weinstein’s reign of terror in Hollywood.
Not content with being a virtual action figure, however, Nanette rallies the crew to come up with a plan to overthrow Daly, using her coding skills to connect with her surprised “real-world” self for the cause of assisting her avatar.
“Everyone can relate to this story,” Milioti says. “This story was obviously prescient for the times we are in right now, and it’s so incredible to see a woman take the lead like that, to outsmart the villain and to be the hero. But I think, regardless of one’s gender, everyone finds hope in the story of someone you don’t expect saving the day. That one person can make a difference. Sometimes it’s the person you least expect.”
For the 32-year-old actress, diving into the Black Mirror role meant walking around in a skimpy Trek-style costume and bouffant on a cold set as part of Daly’s fantasy -- but it also led to one of the coolest lines of the season, a profane (and unprintable) outburst when she discovers her character is missing, by Daly’s design, her genitalia. “I could have done 50 takes of that line,” she says with a laugh. “I couldn’t believe I got to say that. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.”
It also gave her the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream, when (SPOILER) Nanette takes control of the captain’s chair after having thwarted Daly on both sides of the digital divide. “I was beside myself. I’ve always dreamed of being the captain of a ship,” Milioti says. “I pretended to do the same things little boys do when they were younger. And to get to do that as an adult is incredible.”
Yes, Milioti stars in one of the rare Black Mirror episodes with a “happy” ending, though she says if you really dig down into what happens, it’s not quite as positive as it seems on the surface. “It’s a hopeful ending depending on how you look at it. They’re still trapped in that world, it’s just like, Nanette is living her best life in that world,” Milioti says, conceding that “she’s trapped and not able to escape and still with the same memories and experiences she has in the real world -- but, yet, she’s realized her potential.”
In true Black Mirror fashion, she concludes with a cryptic take: “She outsmarts the bad guy and you do see the hero win, and that is very hopeful, but since it’s Black Mirror, there’s still a really dark element to it. In the fake world, she’s killing it as the captain of the spaceship, but in the real world, what are the ramifications?”
For years, Milioti, who won a GRAMMY and was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway production of Once, was primarily known as the Mother from the final season of HIMYM. But she continues to to branch out, with roles on the short-lived A to Z, The Mindy Project and FX’s Fargo anthology series, and a return to the New York stage with Lazarus and the sci-fi adjacent show After the Blast. She’s comfortable with her time on HIMYM, but she’s starting to notice that people see a different side of her.
“I’m forever grateful for that experience. That was an experience that I loved,” she says. “But I think my goal as an actor is to do as many varied roles as possible. It’s great that when I interact with people who recognize me in some way, it’s from many different things. And that’s, like, an enormous compliment, because that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to play as many different people as differently as possible.”
And for the “USS Callister” episode of Black Mirror to land with such an impact both with fans and critics is a “huge compliment,” Milioti concludes. “You never know how people will receive things, and for it to be received the way it has is beyond. It’s one of the things I’m proudest to be a part of.”