After wrapping up her seven-season run on the TV Land dramedy Younger and learning that Disney+ would not be moving forward with an adult revival of Lizzie McGuire, Hilary Duff was in the final weeks of her third pregnancy when she received an unexpected offer to lead and produce Hulu’s How I Met Your Father, a standalone sequel to the hit CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother.
“This is my first lead TV show since Lizzie McGuire, which is so wild,” Duff tells BAZAAR.com over Zoom. “I just got a lucky phone call one day from my management that was like, ‘Hey, they’re making this version of the show.’ And obviously, I heard the title, and I was like, ‘What?! That makes me really nervous. I don’t know.’”
Created by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, How I Met Your Father centers on Sophie (played by Duff in the present and Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall in the future), who is telling her son the story of how she met his father. Like the original, HIMYF takes viewers back in time to the year 2022, when Sophie and her close-knit group of friends are in the midst of figuring out who they are, what they want out of life, and how to fall in love in the age of dating apps and limitless options.
Best known for their work on Love, Victor, Love, Simon and This Is Us, Berger and Aptaker wrote the pilot for another sequel to HIMYM in late 2016. But when they were elevated to co-showrunners with This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman in March 2017, they were forced to put a pin in their plans until production began on the final season of the hit NBC family drama.
With more time on their hands and the full support of Disney Television Studios, the longtime writing and producing partners set up a meeting with Duff, who agreed to read their script overnight. The next day, “I talked to Isaac and Elizabeth, who literally could sell me a bag of dirty laundry and I would buy it,” Duff quips. “They’re just brilliant. They’re so enthusiastic about what they work on, and they’re so involved and hands-on.”
“I’m like, ‘First of all, you guys know I’m nine months pregnant right now. Why are you offering me a job?’” she adds with a laugh. “Actually, only Isaac was on the phone call, because Elizabeth was on her way to have her baby as well, so it was just, like, babies and job opportunities! All of it was so great.”
Below, Duff speaks candidly about the challenges of growing up under the spotlight, her plans to release new music, and how she’s had to separate herself from her most famous onscreen persona.
What was it about the way Sophie was written on the page that resonated with you?
I just felt like I understood Sophie. I loved how effervescent she was and how she could put a positive spin on anything. Things aren’t really falling into place the way that she wishes they were, but she just keeps trying and trying and trying, and it sucks to keep trying and it’s hard—and people don’t, you know? She’s kind of like this breath of fresh air where she does keep trying and she believes in herself … kind of. And then, this lightning strikes on this night, and she meets all these people that are going to prop each other up all the way through, and there’s just an acceptance between this group of friends and who they are—that no one needs to be any different—and their adventure begins.
It was all very romantic, you know? Like, “Yes! Oh, yes, oh, yes, yes, yes!” The writing was so good, and then they hired the most diverse writers’ room, who are so funny, and it was off to the races. I’m really excited to be part of this project.
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There is an ease in your connection with the rest of the cast that reminds me of the friend groups on classic sitcoms. When did you realize that you were part of something special?
Honestly, the first table read where we all got to take our masks off and be in person. The complete casting was mostly done on Zoom. And then, once we narrowed it down to one person per character, I read with each one of them in real life after we got tested a million times. And then, we got to have our first table read in person, [when] I had COVID and didn’t know.
Yeah, that was cool … [smiles wryly]. But it was really the first day and everyone kind of finished the script and was like, “Holy shit, that felt really electric.” It was just that feeling of like, “Oh, I think we’re onto something special.” And that was it.
The way you describe it makes it sound like you guys caught lightning in a bottle.
I hope so! It’s kind of weird to toot your own horn before the show has aired and we realize whether anyone’s going to watch it or not. [Laughs.] But, really, the feeling of the table read being over and the amount of laughter and the amount of intensity that everyone would feel—we were just like, “Oh, that works. Yeah, yeah, yeah. All of this works.”
Throughout your career, you’ve played young women at very specific stages of their lives—Lizzie in her teens, Kelsey in her 20s, and now Sophie in her 30s. How would you say Sophie is alike or different from those other characters?
I have this habit of choosing these characters who are very relatable, and I feel like that’s just kind of who I am as a person. But I’m in a very different stage of my life in my 30s than Sophie is. Obviously, Lizzie is a teenager, so we don’t know where she is right now. But for Kelsey, she’s so different in her career path. She’s so confident in her worth in the workplace. That is very much not where Sophie is. Sophie wants to be a photographer. I think she thinks she’s a good photographer, but she has not had an opportunity to do anything except for wedding photos and Bat Mitzvah photos. And she just hasn’t had her moment, but she keeps trying. … I don’t know where her income is coming from right now, to be perfectly honest. [Laughs.]
I also think that [Sophie] wouldn’t let a guy treat her badly, and Kelsey very much did not have that element of her life sorted out. She was in a bunch of toxic relationships, and it’s so funny that someone can have some parts so locked in and some parts so … not. Obviously, someone from the outside looking in can be like, “What are you doing?!” But you can’t see it for yourself. I think that Kelsey didn’t have good intuition, and I think Sophie has really good intuition of what’s right and what’s wrong. But Sophie has a lot of work to do to become whole before they’re really going to stick her in a relationship that could last, and I think that’s what the adventure is going to be.
Lizzie McGuire was a cultural touchstone for an entire generation. You’ve talked about how you initially wanted to separate yourself from Lizzie to create your own identity, but later grew to love and appreciate her for what she meant to so many other people. Do you have fond memories of those years, or do you feel like you were caught between two worlds as an actress and musician, with all these heightened expectations?
I think that’s a multifaceted question. When I look back, I didn’t have any problem with her while I was shooting. I felt very much like I was her and she was me. I was too young to really do a deep character dive. I was going through the exact same things that she was going through, and that was a pivotal moment for the audience. The people who were watching Lizzie McGuire were just forming their own identities, and she was right there along with them, and I think that’s what makes her so lovable and beloved … and famous! [Laughs.] Really, really famous.
And I think that that was what was hard about it. [It] was just not being able to go anywhere without someone shouting that at me, calling me Lizzie or whatever it may be. It was like I couldn’t go anywhere, do anything, and that made me want to so deeply be just myself. And the pressure of being her was a lot at 18, when I was very much forming a different version of myself, than at 14.
And that’s where my music came into play, and I think what was so cool was that I had this big following when, maybe, the industry wouldn’t quite accept that I was a singer. The fans were so ferociously behind me that I made an impact. I was going on an arena tour, and the fans were the ones that forced me to be on the radio—not the radio stations—so I really owe them so much. And then it was like, maybe [at] 24, 25, I was like, “Oh, I love Lizzie, and I love all that she did for me, and I get it. I get it all.” [Laughs.] But it just took me a moment to come back to her and accept that.
Do you have any plans to record and release new music in the near future, or will you continue to put that on the back burner to focus on acting?
No, I actually have just been talking to my husband [Matthew Koma] about it. I’m starting to imagine myself in the studio again, and I think the problem for me is accepting it happening on a scale of it being self-serving. [Laughs.] I hate going to a concert when they don’t play the hits. … And so I want to play the hits, but I also want to make something very authentic. And also toying with scale … I would, in my previous lifetime, sell out arenas, and this [next tour] would definitely be a little club tour. I have three kids, and I would never uproot their life to go on some [tour]—not to say that I could go on a world tour yet, but who knows? I probably wouldn’t uproot everyone like that, so it would just have to be more strategic.
My last record is coming up on seven years, and the music industry was changing so much at that time and has now changed so much, and I’ve been out of it for such a long time. I would just be like—again, just like Sophie—trying to find my footing. But if I do something authentic, I feel like the people that matter would love it, and so I’m starting to get to that point.
In past interviews, you’ve openly talked about the difficulties of growing up under the spotlight, and those challenges have been compounded by social media and this notion of viewing a celebrity as a brand. How would you say your sense of self and understanding of fame has changed in the two decades since you first started on Lizzie McGuire?
Some therapy has helped. I think becoming a mother really helped me carve out what I really care about and being at peace with who I am, and that really is the ultimate for me. [It’s] just like, “Who I am under this roof [at home]?” That role is the most important role to me. My career path is not normal. It’s wild to try to explain that to my nine-year-old [Luca]. The questions he will ask are so simple, and I’m like, “How do I make it so … simple? It’s so complicated.”
But, really, therapy has helped. Because when gossip magazines, and then social media, came [about], everything you do is talked about and highlighted. It’s really a lot of pressure, and I think letting go and just not caring, not reading and knowing that it’s not real, and that probably next week something else is going to come and replace it, and then it’s forgotten about. Everything is so fickle now, because everything is moving so fast. We’re processing information so fast that I think I just try to hang onto what’s real in my household, in my world, and that’s been the easiest way to become a full person.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.