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'HIMYM' exec producer shares the Britney experience

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Britneybarney_lGiven the relatively mind-blowing announcement Monday that Britney Spears would be taking a break from custody hearings and hospital visits to guest star on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, we, along with the rest of everyone, were curious as to how that all went down. Spears will appear March 24, in the comedy’s post-strike season’s second episode, as the receptionist for Ted’s tattoo-removal doctor (and new love interest), Stella. HIMYM co-exec producer Craig Thomas was kind enough to give EW.com the scoop on how it all went down, describing the tabloid target as a low-key scene stealer who just wanted to do a good job.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You have Britney Spears on your television program.
CRAIG THOMAS: We do.

How did that happen? Did she really call you?
We were in the middle of a rewrite of the episode that’s shooting this week, and I kid you not when I tell you, the character we were writing a week ago today could not be, like, a nerdier, mousier, shier, sort of adorable little side character in the episode. Not the main character in the episode whatsoever. We were starting to audition people, didn’t find anyone perfect. And then we get a phone call, like Thursday, midday: “Britney Spears read the character breakdown and she likes the show and she wants to play the part.” When you’re writing that role and you’re describing it as a nerdy receptionist, Britney Spears is not the first name that comes up. But when we talked to her people, they were like, “Yeah, she just wants to do something small and funny and get to come in and play a character.” She wanted to act. And it all started to make more sense. They wanted to see a script right away, so like last Thursday evening — we weren’t even done with our rewrite, and her people were gonna see her at like 6:30 for dinner. So we just sort of hit print and sent it over to her and figured she’d either like it or not. And turns out she thought it was really funny, and it was confirmed 24 hours later that Britney Spears was doing the show. It happened very quickly, and it was out of nowhere, and we did not seek it out at all. But ultimately, it has worked out rather nicely.

More after the jump.

When you say “her people,” who are you talking about?
This was her acting agent. I think she was looking at a couple different shows, and ultimately she responded to this show the most.

There’s this perception that she’s not doing anything lucid, and so the notion that she’d have a master plan just seems incongruous.
I don’t know. She seemed to have a very clear idea of what she wanted to do.

You didn’t mind casting her sight unseen?
Greg Malins [a consulting producer on HIMYM] was at Will & Grace when she did an episode there. And from the moment he heard about this — I mean, we were literally sitting around the table in the writers’ room, rewriting the script, and our assistant Matt comes in and says, “You’re not gonna believe this, but they’re pitching Britney Spears for this role of Abby.” Malins, from moment one, was saying, “Just watch. She’s gonna be great. She’s gonna steal scenes.” He should have made some sort of bet on this. He would have made money.

Is Neil Patrick Harris [Barney] okay with that? He likes to be the one stealing the scenes.
He got the script Saturday, but he was promoting Harold and Kumar at South by Southwest. He read the script from afar and just texted Carter and I, like, “Please, please, please give me a scene with Britney!” He didn’t have one in the original script, but we came up with a tag at the end of the episode that’s just between him and Britney’s character, and sure enough, it’s hysterical. When you watch it you sort of feel like it leaves the door open for Britney’s character to come back, too.

How much focus is her being around stealing from the business of making the show? Has it been a zoo over there?
Not at all. It hasn’t felt like having one of the most famous people in the world on our set at all, because there’s no paparazzi on the lot, there’s no photographers, there’s no press. Her mom and dad stopped by for a few minutes and were really nice. She’s just been low-key and has wanted to do a good job. We all very quickly forgot that it was supposed to be this big huge deal. It sort of feels normal. Like, a guest actor coming into our show and doing a nice job and being cool about it. It had none of the Britney Spears that you see in the press, this experience.

Talk a bit about the episode itself.
It’s a very sweet, romantic comedy episode. I think it’s maybe the best one of those we’ve ever done, actually. Josh Radnor [Ted]: very good at that stuff. This one may be the best episode of season 3, I think. And on top of that, it’s gonna get a lot of extra press, because Britney’s on the show.

But besides Britney’s cameo, you think the episode will make viewers hang around?
I think people will be surprised to see Britney playing this role, and I think people will enjoy that she’s really good in it. But aside from that, it just has to be a great How I Met Your Mother episode. Hopefully, extra people will watch, but we really want to make our fans happy, too.

You’re still on the bubble for next season. If you can’t get the audience in with this carrot, is CBS going to think even harder about renewing the show?
Boy, that’s a tough question. Obviously, it would be great if more people watched and said, “Hey, that’s a great show!” But all we can do is make great episodes. So it’s hard to think about that. I think we’ve given a great episode for CBS to sell to people and, hopefully, bring extra folks in.

And have them stick around.
Let’s hope.

Has the cast hazed Britney at all, or are they giving her a pretty wide berth?
Alyson [Hannigan, Lily] was really bummed out that she does not have a scene with her. Alyson really seemed to love Britney, and I think they hung out a bit on Monday and Tuesday, and then at the end of the day Tuesday, Alyson really wanted to become friends with Britney, but she was lamenting the fact that she doesn’t think she made quite enough inroads to do so. I think Britney felt comfortable here.

Yeah, but I was on-set the day Mandy Moore was there, and everyone was still sort of staring. Britney is Mandy Moore times a hundred. Everyone’s looking for signs of the crazy.
Yeah, I mean, it didn’t seem like that big a deal to our cast. They liked her and wanted to befriend her. The only sign that Britney Spears was on our set, the only thing that was a little odd was that there were helicopters flying over our soundstage. Thank god, not close enough or loud enough to affect filming. The paparazzi can’t come on the Fox lot, so the helicopters, I guess, were hoping to shoot her on the 10-foot walk from the door to her trailer — because apparently, that would be a really great photo? So we joked that Jason Segel [Marshall] should just try to run up to her and kiss her as though they’re dating and see if it gets a $10-$15 million bump for Forgetting Sarah Marshall [which features Segel] when it opens in a few weeks.

So has your experience with this made you think that all this tabloid hoo-hah is being reported incorrectly, or that Britney’s just both of these people at once: the train wreck, and the competent comedic actress?
Boy, I feel like I don’t know her well enough to really comment on that. All I can say is that various friends and family have been emailing me, like, “What’s going on?? Has it been weird?” And it hasn’t been weird at all. It seems like she just wanted to come in and play a funny small part, and that’s just what she’s done. There’s been no real connection to the paparazzi part of her this week.

Craig, have you been hypnotized?
I swear to god! I see no evidence of that whatsoever. You do feel, though, when you realize there are literally helicopters following this girl around — like, “What is WRONG with the people in those helicopters? Why can’t people leave this girl alone?” It seems pretty absurd. You can’t help but feel sympathy for how weird that must feel.

When you say “her people,” who are you talking about?
This was her acting agent. I think she was looking at a couple different shows, and ultimately she responded to this show the most.

There’s this perception that she’s not doing anything lucid, and so the notion that she’d have a master plan just seems incongruous.
I don’t know. She seemed to have a very clear idea of what she wanted to do.

You didn’t mind casting her sight unseen?
Greg Malins [a consulting producer on HIMYM] was at Will & Grace when she did an episode there. And from the moment he heard about this — I mean, we were literally sitting around the table in the writers’ room, rewriting the script, and our assistant Matt comes in and says, “You’re not gonna believe this, but they’re pitching Britney Spears for this role of Abby.” Malins, from moment one, was saying, “Just watch. She’s gonna be great. She’s gonna steal scenes.” He should have made some sort of bet on this. He would have made money.

Is Neil Patrick Harris [Barney] okay with that? He likes to be the one stealing the scenes.
He got the script Saturday, but he was promoting Harold and Kumar at South by Southwest. He read the script from afar and just texted Carter and I, like, “Please, please, please give me a scene with Britney!” He didn’t have one in the original script, but we came up with a tag at the end of the episode that’s just between him and Britney’s character, and sure enough, it’s hysterical. When you watch it you sort of feel like it leaves the door open for Britney’s character to come back, too.

How much focus is her being around stealing from the business of making the show? Has it been a zoo over there?
Not at all. It hasn’t felt like having one of the most famous people in the world on our set at all, because there’s no paparazzi on the lot, there’s no photographers, there’s no press. Her mom and dad stopped by for a few minutes and were really nice. She’s just been low-key and has wanted to do a good job. We all very quickly forgot that it was supposed to be this big huge deal. It sort of feels normal. Like, a guest actor coming into our show and doing a nice job and being cool about it. It had none of the Britney Spears that you see in the press, this experience.

Talk a bit about the episode itself.
It’s a very sweet, romantic comedy episode. I think it’s maybe the best one of those we’ve ever done, actually. Josh Radnor [Ted]: very good at that stuff. This one may be the best episode of season 3, I think. And on top of that, it’s gonna get a lot of extra press, because Britney’s on the show.

But besides Britney’s cameo, you think the episode will make viewers hang around?
I think people will be surprised to see Britney playing this role, and I think people will enjoy that she’s really good in it. But aside from that, it just has to be a great How I Met Your Mother episode. Hopefully, extra people will watch, but we really want to make our fans happy, too.

You’re still on the bubble for next season. If you can’t get the audience in with this carrot, is CBS going to think even harder about renewing the show?
Boy, that’s a tough question. Obviously, it would be great if more people watched and said, “Hey, that’s a great show!” But all we can do is make great episodes. So it’s hard to think about that. I think we’ve given a great episode for CBS to sell to people and, hopefully, bring extra folks in.

And have them stick around.
Let’s hope.

Has the cast hazed Britney at all, or are they giving her a pretty wide berth?
Alyson [Hannigan, Lily] was really bummed out that she does not have a scene with her. Alyson really seemed to love Britney, and I think they hung out a bit on Monday and Tuesday, and then at the end of the day Tuesday, Alyson really wanted to become friends with Britney, but she was lamenting the fact that she doesn’t think she made quite enough inroads to do so. I think Britney felt comfortable here.

Yeah, but I was on-set the day Mandy Moore was there, and everyone was still sort of staring. Britney is Mandy Moore times a hundred. Everyone’s looking for signs of the crazy.
Yeah, I mean, it didn’t seem like that big a deal to our cast. They liked her and wanted to befriend her. The only sign that Britney Spears was on our set, the only thing that was a little odd was that there were helicopters flying over our soundstage. Thank god, not close enough or loud enough to affect filming. The paparazzi can’t come on the Fox lot, so the helicopters, I guess, were hoping to shoot her on the 10-foot walk from the door to her trailer — because apparently, that would be a really great photo? So we joked that Jason Segel [Marshall] should just try to run up to her and kiss her as though they’re dating and see if it gets a $10-$15 million bump for Forgetting Sarah Marshall [which features Segel] when it opens in a few weeks.

So has your experience with this made you think that all this tabloid hoo-hah is being reported incorrectly, or that Britney’s just both of these people at once: the train wreck, and the competent comedic actress?
Boy, I feel like I don’t know her well enough to really comment on that. All I can say is that various friends and family have been emailing me, like, “What’s going on?? Has it been weird?” And it hasn’t been weird at all. It seems like she just wanted to come in and play a funny small part, and that’s just what she’s done. There’s been no real connection to the paparazzi part of her this week.

Craig, have you been hypnotized?
I swear to god! I see no evidence of that whatsoever. You do feel, though, when you realize there are literally helicopters following this girl around — like, “What is WRONG with the people in those helicopters? Why can’t people leave this girl alone?” It seems pretty absurd. You can’t help but feel sympathy for how weird that must feel.