You probably met Josh Radnor as Ted Mosby on long-running sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” but he’d like the chance to re-introduce himself. Radnor's sophomore feature effort, "Liberal Arts" (out in limited release Friday), concerns the angst of a 35-year-old New York admissions counselor, Jesse (played by Radnor, who also wrote and directed the film), who graduated from college but never really matriculated into adulthood. When Jesse returns to his midwestern alma mater for his second-favorite professor’s retirement, a chance meeting with 19-year-old student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) and the blossoming relationship that ensues, force him to decide whether he’s going to grow up or stay stuck in the past.
Radnor explained that Jesse is grappling with some of the same arrested development as his "HIMYM" character, but said that he hopes his movie delves slightly deeper into life, love and early adulthood in New York City than his day job does.
“It’s, to me, a kind of loving but hopefully honest exploration of some really deep questions about nostalgia and aging and growing older, the purpose of reading, of a liberal arts education, of how the kind of analytical mind can both save you and turn on you,” he said. “There’s a lot of things going on in ‘Liberal Arts’ maybe that you can’t quite tackle in 22 minutes on television.”
Radnor spoke with Moviefone on a press day ahead of the film’s release and answered our nagging questions about channeling a teenage girl, being 19 forever and who, exactly, he thinks is "HIMYM"’s titular mother.
They say to write what you know. Your character, Jesse, is not so different from you. You don’t have too much life experience as a 19-year-old girl though.
You think?! In an early draft there are a couple more colloquial things that I was trying to do to point to her youth. I softened some of that and let her be as sophisticated as she wanted to be. What’s so great about Lizzie is there’s this great kind of mash-up of elements with her: She’s very sophisticated, she’s got kind of an old soul, poetic quality to her, but at the same time, every once in awhile, she’ll remind you that she’s a young person. She’s got this adolescent goofiness that pokes out at points. [But] this is not a pro-dating-college-students-when-you’re-too-old-to-do-that movie. I don’t think anyone would see the movie and think that. [To imaginary audience:] Hello! Who’s with me!
In the movie your character’s favorite professor talks about feeling forever like he’s 19 years old, even though he’s obviously not. Is there a certain age you feel inside?
I remember I had a friend in college who felt like a 50-year-old, like he’s just waiting to be 50. And he still feels like that, and it’s just amazing. It always felt to me like he was a little out of place there. I think that there’s definitely some truth to that feeling, that you always feel like you’re a little bit 19 and adulthood is basically a put-on. We’re all acting like we’re responsible enough to do all this stuff and we’re really not, we’re all these scared 19-year-olds who have been given far too much responsibility. But at the same time, I feel like -- and maybe one of the reasons I wrote the movie -- was to allow myself to grow up, or to retire some of the old thoughts or parts of my personality that were no longer all that useful. Maybe it’s a matter of kind of adjusting to whatever age you are and realizing that’s perfect.
So many important set pieces -- Kenyon College, a hotly contested vampire book that’s obviously “Twilight,” David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” -- go unnamed. Was that intentional?
Not naming the books and everything was very intentional. The music, I name Beethoven and Wagner, Wordsworth, Keats, Blake, these are people who are canonized and kind of in the public domain. Because I was going for that timeless quality that the college evokes, I was careful only to list things that had earned their place in the pantheon, whereas some of the more modern references I felt, one, if two characters are discussing “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace, they don’t really need to say “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace. They probably wouldn’t say that. They would only be saying that for the audience’s benefit. The second is that once you name something, people have a response to it. They have an opinion about it. So if I say, “This is my favorite book,” people either say, “I don’t know that book,” and “Oh, should I know that book?” Or, “Oh, I read that book, I don’t like that book,” and suddenly their arms are folded.
There’s also a lack of social networking in the movie. Zibby and Jesse communicate through hand-written letters.
I want the movies to age really well, so my movies don’t have any references to Twitter or Facebook or anything that we’re talking about these days because in 30 years I want these movies to be really watchable and feel really relevant, so I want to be careful of that. If I talk about something that’s too kind of hot button today, I think it dates the movie.
Your character bonds with another troubled college student, Dean, over “Infinite Jest,” and he says that the book sort of consumed him. Is that book important to you personally?
I’m a huge Wallace fan, and I’ve read almost everything by Wallace. Right when I was in grad school, I was traveling and I was backpacking and I brought Wallace and it was this terrible travel companion because it was so heavy! I read half of it, but I keep meaning to go back to it and finish it. He’s a really important writer to me and I was really devastated by his suicide so partly the scene with Dean in the hospital was a way to both celebrate and love him, and a way to be a little bit angry at him for leaving us.
What other books have made a personal impact on you?
Certain books are really important at a time of your life, like I remember my senior year of high school just being bowled over by “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and I don’t know if that book would stand up to scrutiny of myself right now. I remember right when I got out of college reading “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and felt that that book was really telling me something. Again, I don’t know if I revisited that book if it would still do that. I think that the mark of a great book is that it will meet you wherever you’re at and you’ll feel and experience something new and different each time you read it.
The movie is really kind of sweet and earnest, in a time where it seems like cynicism reigns supreme.
That’s how I see the world. I don’t know a lot of evil people, and if I do, I try to get away from them. I try to surround myself with good people, and as a filmmaker it’s interesting when people call my films nice or earnest. I wonder if that’s a criticism a little bit? I don’t think it is, coming from you, but earnest can be kind of a dirty word. I think we’re in a time where to be cynical or negative is considered to be sophisticated. “Oh, you’re seeing the world clear-eyed because the world is really nasty.” But I think the world is very complicated and complex and varied, I think the world is a lot of things and it’s up to us to decide what we’re gonna lean into and what kind of world we’re going to create, because it’s a much more participatory process than we realized. Cynicism is kind of like folding your arms and stepping back and commenting on things, like the old guys in The Muppets, just throwing out comments all the time, whereas there are other people on the ground really trying to affect things and improve their lives and the lives of other people. I think it’s noble and I think it’s cool. The same way that Zibby says talk about what you love and keep quiet about what you don’t, I really believe that.
So “How I Met Your Mother “has been on for a little bit now...
117 years. Kidding.
...and this could be the last season. Do you want it to be the last season?
Right now I really feel like, I have four, four-and-a-half months a year to play with every year, and the idea of having 12 months, mapping out a year, to have all that time, feels really exciting to me. At the same time, if they can work out some sort of deal with all of us and with the writers, none of us are saying like “Get me out of here,” anything other than “Man, if we finished after eight, that would also be amazing.” I think that they need to figure out something, because they have to let the writers know if they’ll be ending this year or next year. It’ll all be figured out in due time, but I think we need to get this figured out for the writers.
I’ve been watching the show forever, and I have to ask: Do you know who the mother is?
No, and there’s a nice little tease about that at the first episode. I think it’s a good sign that people ask about that a lot, because there’s real investment in the show, but at the same time, for me playing the character I’m playing it forward, I have to play it with some naivete, so it serves me better not to know anything. I don’t try and do a lot of snooping around, I just go week to week and see what misfortunes befall poor Mr. Mosby.
So what you’re saying is that Marshall’s the mother.
Marshall might be. Fingers crossed.