Gateway Books: Josh Radnor on Liberal Arts and How I Met Your Mother

Writing, directing and starring in his second film, how to legally reference Twilight and what's next for Ted Mosby.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Liberal Arts was my most memorable movie at Sundance this year, not just because I liked it. I had met a lovely sophomore film student at the fest and we went to see this movie together. It is about a 34-year-old who goes back to college and hooks up with a 19-year-old college student (Elizabeth Olsen). The film was nice enough to do the math for me right there. Nine months later, I finally got to talk to Josh Radnor about it. He wrote, directed and stars in Liberal Arts as Jesse, the alumnus who returns for his professor (Richard Jenkin)’s retirement party.


CraveOnline: Do you have dreams like I still do, where you’re back in college and you have one more semester to go, but you’re also still “now” so you’re trying to coordinate your adult life with this one last semester of college?

Josh Radnor: [Laughs] That sounds like a harrowing dream. Do you have that regularly?


Every few months. I’m like, “I can do this junket on the weekend, but go to this class during the week.”

Yeah. No, I can’t say specifically I’ve had that dream but it did take me a while to kick the college nostalgia. Not as long as it took Jesse in the movie but it was a very real thing for me.


Did that subconscious or conscious desire to go back inspire the film?

Well, I went back. I’ve been back a number of times over the years. I’m from Columbus and Kenyon’s about an hour north of Columbus and my parents are still there, so I’ve been back a number of times over the years but I did go back two years ago to show Happythankyoumoreplease, my first movie at Kenyon. That was the trip that really inspired Liberal Arts and the idea of setting a movie at a college.


Is artistic taste an important debate to have like Jesse and Zibby have?

I think so. I think it is but also Jesse is pretty rigid in his opinions about the reasons we read and the merits of reading certain things over reading other things. Zibby is much more of a populist I suppose when it comes to reading and feels like why would you subject yourself to reading something that you don’t like? Whereas Jesse is more of the feeling well, it’s good for you and you should read it because it’s good for you. I loved writing that argument because I think it’s up for people culturally to have that argument but at the same time, I think Zibby wins the argument. I suppose if you’re talking about a teenager who reads, let’s say, a vampire book, I think given the entertainment landscape of what they could be doing, lost in all sorts of devices and all that, there’s still something touching to me about someone reading a book and flipping through pages of an actual bound book. I know not everyone starts out reading high literature. If you read enough you might be drawn to some other things, so maybe those vampire books are what they call gateway books. I just coined that term. I don't know if there’s a thing called gateway books.


How did you come up with the legally vague vampire book?

Well, I have a conceit in the movie that I don’t really say what the books are. There’s a number of other books that are alluded to or held and discussed and the titles aren’t talked about. Two reasons I did that. One, I always find proper nouns kind of clang on my ear in movies. It always feels like you’re trying to say, “Why I love Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace…” If people love the book and they’re holding it and talking about it, they don’t really say the title. They just go about discussing the book. The second reason is I wanted everyone to bring their favorite book to it, whatever was, “Oh, this is my favorite book. I have to read the last three pages in any bookstore that I’m in.” If I name the book, people will either say, “Well, I didn’t read that” and they’ll disconnect, or they’ll say, “I read that and I hated it” and they’ll disconnect. Maybe they’ll say “I love that book” but largely I wanted for people to bring their own favorite book to the party. It wasn’t entirely for legal reasons. Actually I didn’t even consider that.


Well, it’s a funny joke that we all know what they’re talking about but it’s never mentioned.

We didn’t get a clear shot of it but the title that we came up with for the book is called Lunar Moon which is just so silly.


So the only hiatus movies you’ve done are the ones you directed yourself?

Well, I just shot another one that I was just acting in. I just wrapped a few days ago on that.


Is that a rare and unique challenge for an actor on a television show to write and direct a movie in the hiatus?

Well, it’s certainly a challenge. I can’t speak to how rare it is. For me it’s become less rare as I’ve now done two of them. It’s been a great thing to be able to use certain muscles that don’t get flexed all that much on the show. I’d like to do it again. I would really like to just direct though and maybe sit one out as an actor, see what that’s like.


How do you feel you improved as a director from Happythankyoumoreplease to Liberal Arts?

I like the kind of mosaic of Happythankyoumoreplease. I liked following three, three and a half different stories. That’s a kind of style that I do enjoy, but I think there’s something more streamlined about this. I mean, you’re really following this one story with a couple of different tributaries, but it’s largely told from Jesse’s point of view. And I think there’s something maybe a little more narratively satisfying about that for people. A lot of it’s just a confidence game. The shoot of Liberal Arts was really difficult because I was in so much of the movie. And you’re shooting a lot of pages every day on a pretty compressed schedule, but at the same time I had the confidence of knowing that I had done this once before. Even though every movie’s a different beast and requires different things, I had this kind of knowledge of what shooting a movie was about and what I would need in the editing room, because that’s really what you’re doing when you’re shooting the movie. You’re trying to get all this raw material so that when you get in the editing room, you have tons of choices and all this different stuff to play with and different ways to tell the story. I was much more aware of that process and what I might need for the editing room, and frankly what I didn’t need. I think we were a little more economical about what we shot in this one.


What were your thoughts on the possibility of “How I Met Your Mother” adding yet another year?

It’s hard to say. I think if this show ended after season eight, I don't think there’s any of us that would feel that we had had anything other than a great run. Eight years is a really long time, and especially because the enthusiasm for the show just seems to grow with each season. I think a lot would have to happen before we commit to more but I think it has to happen within some reasonable timeframe because the writers really need to know if they’re going to be wrapping up the story at the end of this year or the end of next. I can’t really speak beyond that because I don’t really know.


Would you like to know this is it, this is the finale and we’re finally building up to the end?

You know, there’s so many moving parts and pieces to the whole thing. The part of me that worries about Ted Mosby and his fate only because I’ve lived with him pretty closely for a long time, all I can say is I want him to land on his feet and be okay. I assume that’ll happen sooner or later.


Have you shot the season premiere yet?

We have shot four episodes so far.


Where do we pick up Ted?

We pick up exactly where we left off. Ted and Victoria were driving off into the sunset together. They stop the car before they get to the actual sunset, so that’s all I’ll say. Complications ensue.


What can we say about Richard Jenkins before we wrap?

Well, all good things really. He’s not just one of the world’s great actors. He’s just a terrific guy and he’s a joy to be around. I feel really lucky. He’s actually the only person besides me that’s been in both of my movies so if I’m lucky enough to get a repertory company together of great actors who appear in my movies, he would be the first person that I would want to formally sign up. I’m a very, very big Richard Jenkins fan.


Was it a unique character to write for him?

Yeah, we had some talks after he read the first draft. I kind of hit on this idea of him not wanting to retire. He loved it and it was a great thing for him to play because he also really connected when I wrote the speech about him always feeling like he’s 19. He called me and said, “That’s exactly right. I felt all those things.” So kind of unconsciously, without knowing it, I was writing things that were very personally playable and relevant to Richard. He just ran with it. I don't know, he’s just great. That guy’s great.