Josh Radnor on 'Liberal Arts,' 'Twilight' and His Future on 'How I Met Your Mother'
It's hard to say why, but there seems to be a hesitation on the part of popular society to accept Josh Radnor as a filmmaker. While his co-stars on "How I Met Your Mother" -- Jason Segel and Neil Patrick Harris, in particular -- have faced little resistance as they pursued other projects, Radnor, as a recent Gawker post illustrates, is still referred to as "Guy from 'How I Met Your Mother.'"
In 2010, Radnor's directorial debut, "happythankyoumoreplease," premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie clicked at the festival, earning the Audience Award, but bombed with critics and fell flat at the box office.
Now, Radnor is back at Sundance with "Liberal Arts," a film that received a standing ovation at its premiere. In "Liberal Arts," Radnor plays Jesse, a somewhat depressed admissions counselor at a New York City college who is invited by a former professor (Richard Jenkins) to give a retirement speech in Ohio. There, Jesse meets a 19-year-old student named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) and an ill-advised relationship develops between the two.
I met Radnor, whom I've interviewed twice before, at a house off of Main Street in Park City, UT. A house that features its own private screening room equipped, of course, with beanbags that Radnor's publicist suggests that we both lie down on (we didn't). In our discussion, Radnor shares his opinions of David Foster Wallace and "Twilight" -- both figure prominently in "Liberal Arts" -- and reflects on his first film, "Not Another Teen Movie." He also addresses the rumor that he's writing a book about the Amazonian ceremonial drug Ayahuasca, and talks about his future (or lack thereof) as Ted Mosby on "How I Met Your Mother."
The beanbags would be very intimate.
But I want it on camera. This is what showbiz looks like.
The audience cheered when Jesse played the age game: When he was 16, she was zero.
Yeah, the math.
Have you ever had to do the math?
I haven't ever explicitly written down numbers, but I've done some quick computations in my head.
My girlfriend is eight years younger than me.
That's not bad at all.
But I've done the "When I was a senior in high school, she was in fourth grade" thing.
Well, you can't do that. That will get you into trouble. Horrifying.
I'm going to say something, but I don't want you to take this the wrong way.
Oh, God, I'm already going to take it the wrong way.
"Liberal Arts" is the Josh Radnor movie that I was hoping "happythankyoumoreplease" would be.
Oh, cool. I can take that. I'd rather be progressing than regressing. Is that it?
That's the whole interview, actually.
"I'd like to go on record saying that I prefer your second film." Great!
Do you think this one has the chance to have more mass appeal than "happythankyoumoreplease"?
I hope so. But, to be honest, "happythankyoumoreplease," if it had gotten more distribution, it could have hit a nerve, I think. We won audience awards with almost every festival we went to. But I think "Liberal Arts" is a better film. And I hope that I would think that because I want to keep getting better. I think with "happythankyoumoreplease" you can look at it and think, "It's only for those people." But I know plenty of people in their 50s and 60s who really fell for that movie. The themes are pretty big even though the demographics seem specific. In this one, I feel like it's about aging on many different levels.
There's a book that's never mentioned by name in the film as being an inspiration for a couple of characters. Was it David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest"?
Have you read it?
I read half of it in 1997. And I've always told myself that I was gong to get back to it. I read his first novel, "Broom of the System." So I think that makes me a second-string Wallace fan. But I was a huge fan of his essays -- those are some of the most pleasurable reading experiences I've ever had. And I was devastated by his suicide. It took me a long time. I can still work myself into a lather thinking about it.
It makes me angry. For the selfish reason of, "How could you take this away from us?"
I read something that said with his death some special portal in the universe closed off. He was downloading stuff that no one else was downloading.
John Krasinski adapted "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men." Would you ever try to adapt Wallace?
I don't know. I think, to me, he's unadaptable. I read him and its just so about the interior of his characters. And not a ton happens, really. So I think that's really hard.
Your character, Jesse, can be pretentious at times. Especially about books. I think we all have pretentious moments. How much of that comes from you?
I think a lot of people do that as a personality assessment when they look at someone's bookshelf. It's not a great thing, but ...
"'Superfudge,' that's an odd choice for a 32-year old."
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. Or even like their DVD collection. But I think that when Jesse pulls that book off of her shelf, I think he's unconsciously -- or consciously -- looking to drive a wedge between them. And part of the way to drive a wedge is to say, "You read this junk and I would never read this junk; therefore, we can never be together." I'm sure you can look at it as, "Oh, that guy hates vampire books." But that's not the case, I don't know those books. I know that ["Twilight"] is a cultural phenomenon and people are very passionate about it. My whole thing is that I want to explore why you read books, what's the purpose of reading, and maybe that it's not that cool to hate something just because it's popular.
I've seen the movies.
They might be horrible! I have no idea. But her argument in favor of taking some enjoyment from them is totally valid. And I think she wins the argument. And she says that line: "You think it's cool to hate things. And it's not. It's boring. Talk about what you love and keep quiet about what you don't." If I'm saying anything in that moment -- and I'm not making a message movie here -- but I do feel that there's so much hatred. We are so vocal about what we hate.
It would be interesting if you said right now, "This is a message movie, and the message is that I don't like 'Twilight.'"
[Laughs] That is not me who said that.
"All the work put into this movie was just to share my feelings on 'Twilight.'"
I made this movie to take it down. To take down the franchise.
That's my headline.
Because the power of indie film can stand up to Summit Entertainment. It's boundless.
How does Elizabeth Reaser feel about the "Twilight" jokes?
Oh, boy, did she love it. She loved it. She got such a kick out of it. I think that's one of the great in-jokes of the movie: that Reaser is in the "Twilight" movies. She has a really funny, healthy detachment from the whole thing. I think she knows what it is and she is desperate to do other things in addition to that. Which everyone is, if you've been doing one thing for too long. You can talk to her about it, but she got a real kick out of it.
I didn't know if there was a "the less I say, the better," type of situation there.
She was not offended.
Gawker recently posted a story that you're releasing a book about your experience with the ceremonial drug Ayahuasca in the Amazon.
Yeah. Well, let me just say: That story happened and I don't know how. There isn't a publication date.
I'm curious what that experience is like.
Well, that would be something I'd rather talk to you about off-the-record, if you want to talk about it. For me, it's like, I would never write a book about drugs because drugs are not interesting. But I don't know when or if that book will be out. I'm still kind of working on some stuff. But, you know, it was just something that happened. It just got out and now I'm just shifting my way though. Kind of getting it back to what I want it to be, if anything. I did sell a book, I just don't know when it's going to come out.
You mentioned the notion of desperately wanting to do other things if you've been doing something for too long. In your perfect world, how much longer would you like "How I Met Your Mother" to last?
Well, we're only contracted for one additional season after this season. And that would take us to eight.
Is that what you want? Just one more?
It's a weird thing. Because I've kind of orientated the last seven years around being on the show. I know mid-August we start, we end early April. We have three weeks on, one week off every month. Two weeks for Thanksgiving. Three weeks for Christmas -- you know what I mean? I kinda know the drill. And it put me on a schedule that I actually find really appealing. So I know how to budget my time and I know how much time I have to make a movie, if I can do that. I can travel. The "ups" are a lot bigger than the "downs" on this thing. But it has to be a full-cast decision. We all have to be on board.
If Jason Segel left, you wouldn't continue?
I have no idea how that would look. We're such an ensemble that it would be hard to think of not having the five of us there.
Is that being set up at all with Marshall and Lily moving to Long Island?
No. I can tell you that's not. It's funny when I'm asked plot questions because they all blur together. And we sometimes shoot them out of order. And I'm so scrambled with what's aired and hasn't aired. So I don't really know.
Every time I'm flipping through channels and see "Not Another Teen Movie," I always forget that you're in that.
That was the first movie I ever did, yeah.
Was that a fun experience?
No, it wasn't particularly.
Well, now I feel bad bringing it up.
Oh, no. It's totally fine. It was two or three days. But it was my second time in L.A. and I met this casting director and he's like, "I've got this small part in this movie. Come in and read for it." I came in and I had the offer the next day. It was suddenly weird. I came to L.A. and I did a pilot, this movie and then I went back to New York. And, you know, it stuck around. It has its fans.
I spoke to Chris Evans a few months ago, he is still a fan.
Yeah. I mean, that movie has some laughs in it. It's outrageous. But I like the part. The part was funny. A guy who knows the tropes of stuff and is really self-aware. It was a good fun part. I had never been on a movie set, so it was really weird to be thrown in like that. Trial by fire.
Mike Ryan is the senior writer for Moviefone. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter