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Grad Expectations – Josh Radnor

TV's Josh Radnor heads back to school as the writer, director and star of the wistful "Liberal Arts"


Josh Radnor and Elisabeth Olsen in Liberal Arts (Photo by Kevin Moss)

LOOKING AT JOSH RADNOR’S EVOLVING CAREER—from starring in TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” to writing, directing and starring in 2010’s Happythankyoumoreplease and this year’s Liberal Arts—it’s hard not to see parallels with another young sitcom star turned indie filmmaker, Zach Braff. Both “How I Met Your Mother” and the now-defunct “Scrubs” showcase a hopeless romantic whose occupational smarts dwarf his dating know-how; the lessons learned (and often explained in voice-over montages) never quite seem to stick. And both Liberal Arts and Braff’s 2004 Garden State deal with themes of nostalgia, aging and, ultimately, hope as an emotionally confused man returns to an important place from his past to do some growing up.

Yet where Garden State‘s Andrew is a deeply troubled character with whom the audience sympathizes more than identifies, Liberal Arts‘ Jesse is a disillusioned college admissions director whose rocky transition into adulthood seems altogether relatable. The turning point comes when he’s invited to the retirement dinner of a favorite professor back at his alma mater, Kenyon College (which Ohio native Radnor also attended). There, Jesse meets a 19-year-old theater student, played by Elizabeth Olsen, who catches his eye and intellect. Dealing with their 16-year age difference as well as his lingering nostalgia for the good old days forces Jesse to do some serious soul-searching—and as you might expect, leads to at least one voice-over montage.

Play recently caught up with Radnor to talk about heading back to school, the importance of being earnest and why it took him so long to join the Twitterverse.

It’s been about 15 years since you graduated from Kenyon. What was it like to be back on campus for filming? They’ve upgraded a few things— like there’s this enormous, beautiful athletic center now. But the great thing about Kenyon, which was founded in 1824, is that my father and my younger sister also went there, and we all had classes in the same buildings as Rutherford B. Hayes when he was a student. That’s one of the ideas I played with in the movie: a kind of timelessness and sturdy dependability of a place amid life changes. Kenyon still feels very much like the same school that I went to.

How did you come up with the story for Liberal Arts? I went right from Kenyon to NYU for grad school, so I didn’t quite unhook from an academic calendar until I was 25. Afterward was a tough time, and I started to really miss certain things about college life—though by the time I was 35, I wasn’t really holding on to it the way Jesse does. And two years ago, I was showing my first film to students at Kenyon and I couldn’t figure out how I was suddenly almost twice their age. I thought, No way were we this young when we were here. I started thinking about time and growing up and aging and regret and nostalgia—and this story came out of that.

A word that tends to crop up in descriptions of Liberal Arts is “earnest,” a quality that’s usually in short supply in Hollywood. Why do you think that is? Sometimes when I hear the word “earnest,” I bristle a bit because that’s often conflated with naiveté. Somewhere along the way, being cynical or slightly negative about things became a default position, culturally; it came to represent sophistication. It’s a real risk to be an optimist.

Telling stories about people being victimized and beaten down and retreating inward is not as interesting to me. What is interesting to me is watching people grow up and get out of their own way. Those are the stories I want to tell.

Nostalgia is another theme in Liberal Arts, with things like handwritten letters and mix CDs being featured throughout. Can one assume your own embrace of technology isn’t a particularly enthusiastic one? I’m what you’d call a “late adopter.” I’m never the first person to have the latest gadget, and I look to them more for their most basic uses. It took me forever to join Twitter!

In Liberal Arts, I was trying to create a world that was unhooked from that kind of stuff. There’s no Twitter, there’s no Facebook, it’s pen and paper, it’s conversations. I do get a little worried when you have five people at a table and they’re all on their phones. There’s always something depressing about that.

Let’s talk a little about the casting, starting with Elizabeth Olsen as Zibby—how did that come about? A stroke of good fortune. I sent 45 pages of the script to my agent, and she called me immediately and said, “Well, I have your Zibby. I just started working with her, and you’re not going to want anyone else.” And this was before anyone had seen Elizabeth do anything, before Martha Marcy May Marlene had been at Sundance and all that.

And you landed Emmy winner Allison Janney (“The West Wing”) to play one of Jesse’s former professors. What was she like to work with? She was a total delight. When her name came up [for the role of Professor Fairfield], there was this calm that descended on me, and I thought, “Yeah, that’s who that is.” Plus, she went to Kenyon.

That probably didn’t hurt her chances! How did she feel about returning to campus? She hadn’t been back in a number of years, so she was really excited. We actually had some of the same professors.

Going back and forth from acting to writing to directing, do you ever just want to pick one and stick with it? I sometimes play that game in my head: “You’ve go a decide, you’ve go a decide.” I think that if you told me I had to stop acting, I would be pretty OK with that. Looking back on the past 12 years or so, I got to do a ton of stuff that a lot of actors don’t get to do—I starred on Broadway, I was in a long-running TV show—so I think I’d have some peace about that. The writing/directing feels new to me and more unexplored, so if I had to choose, I think I’d lean into that a little bit more. But that’s not to say that I want to stop acting, because I don’t.

Any advice for actors thinking about directing themselves in a movie? If you really feel like it’s something you need to do, then do it, because it can be done. But I’m planning not to be in my next movie, just because I found my most joyous moments were directing scenes that I wasn’t in.

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