Exclusive Interview: Josh Radnor on his Liberal Arts Education

November 30, 2012

Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Olsen in Liberal Arts. Photo credit: IFC

Josh Radnor is best known to most people as Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother. But Radnor has been making a name for himself in film circles for the last several years. His first film, Happythankyoumoreplease, won the Audience Award for Drama at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. His latest film, Liberal Arts, has been receiving rave reviews from critics and fans alike.

At its core, Liberal Arts is a coming-of-age story based on the idea that nobody really feels like an adult. A lesson 35-year-old Jesse, an admissions officer at NYU, learns when he goes back to his alma mater to attend the retirement festivities of a favorite former professor (Richard Jenkins) and starts to fall for 19-year-old co-ed (Elizabeth Olsen). The film also includes Allison Janney and Zac Efron. We talked to Radnor about how idea for the film originated, working with the incredible cast and if he plans to keep writing, directing and acting in his films.

Where did the idea for Liberal Arts come from? Is Jesse based on you or someone you know?
JR: No. What happened is that I went back to Kenyon College, my old alma mater where we ended up shooting the movie. I went back a few years ago to show Happythankyoumoreplease, my first movie, to the students. And while I was there I suddenly realized how much older I was than everyone. [Laughs] And it was a strange feeling because my memories of college were so sharp; it felt like I was just there yesterday. I was talking to my producer, Jesse Hara, about my visit and I told him how much older I was feeling and I said that I realized that if I fell for a student there, that would be inappropriate and he said that’s a great movie.

I just started thinking about a 35-year-old guy who doesn’t have much going on in his life and is pretty uninspired and feels like maybe his best days are behind him. He goes back to his college and he is fairly bewitched by this 19-year-old sophomore. That was kind of the idea for it and it became about a lot more things — about aging and time and growing up or not growing up. Nostalgia. All these big themes started to emerge from the story that started coming to me. It was more thematically autobiographical; it’s not personally autobiographical at all.

Do you read much as the character of Jesse does?
JR: Books are obviously very important to me and part of the movie is mounting a defense of the reader. But also there’s a double-edged sword because I think that Jesse, especially at the beginning of the movie, is clearly hiding from the world in books and I don’t think that’s the purpose of literature. I think literature should make us reflect on the world and engage more permanently with the world and Jesse [has become] a victim to his reading habit and he’s reading about life instead of living life. For me, personally, I try to split the difference. Reading is something I really love and am committed to. I always have a few books [that I’m reading] but I don’t think that I’m as diligent about it as Jesse and I’m not as obsessive about it as Jesse. The movie is about a character who has his head buried in a book and the journey of the movie is that his head comes out of the book and engages with the world more.

How long did it take to write the screenplay?
JR: It was one of those scripts that just tumbled out of me. I didn’t have to do a lot of research in terms of what it was like to go to a liberal arts school in Ohio. It was something that I just started writing immediately…. There was kind of an urgency to it as I was writing it. It felt like it really was going to get written. Sometimes you start something and you’re not quite sure if you’re going to see it through to the end and I knew this was going to be completed. I had a first draft in a few months and we got it financed fairly quickly. The producers were big fans of Happythankyoumoreplease and they had worked with Elizabeth Olsen before so it was an attractive project to them so the whole thing moved really fast.

There are some absolutely fabulous actors in this film. Did you have any of them specifically in mind when you were writing it?
JR: I’m a huge Allison Janney fan, I’ve always been a huge fan of hers and she is also a graduate of Kenyon College, where I went and where we shot the movie. So it was kind of like this double story where both of us got to go back to our alma mater and shoot the movie. There was something about when her name came up. A calm descended over me. I realized that was her role. She was amazing. She is amazing and she’s amazing in the part.

Elizabeth [Olsen] and I have the same agent. I didn’t know about her when I was writing the part but my agent said, “You’re really going to want Elizabeth Olsen for this role, I just started working with her.” And this was before Martha Marcy May Marlene had been at Sundance, so really no one knew who she was. But we met and I thought, yeah she’s really right for this part for a number of reasons. And Richard Jenkins, I wrote the role for him. He did a small cameo in Happythankyoumoreplease as a favor because we also have the same agent. So I wrote the part of the professor for him because I wanted to work with him for more than a few hours. The other parts were cast as we went. Zac Efron is a friend. I’d met him a few years earlier at the Maui film festival and we had stayed in touch so I asked him to do the role and he was happy to do it and Elizabeth Reaser, who plays Ana, the girl at the bookstore at the end, she’s an old friend of mine. She was at Julliard when I was at NYU and we’ve always wanted to work together. I think John Magaro, who plays Dean is one of the few that just came from a pure audition. I saw a ton of people for that role and he just really understood the role.

Zac Efron’s character is absolutely hilarious. Were you at all surprised by just how funny he was in that role?
JR: No. The trap with that part is that someone would play it ironically and play it as a kind of clueless drugged-out silly philosopher and that’s not how I wanted it to be. I actually believe everything that character says. What I was trying to do with that character was have someone who was wise but in a non-academic way – not in an analytical way but from a different place – more of an Eastern, spiritually enlightened character. But I also had written him to be funny, so he’s got a lot of joy and he’s not cynical at all. The thing that appeals to me about Zac is he’s got a very open, sincere quality and I just had the feeling that he would be a good match for the material and I think I was right because he was really great in the movie.

Zibby is written in a way where she’s a lot more mature than her years.
JR: I think that’s what confuses Jesse is that he’s faced with this beautiful person who’s incredibly sophisticated and articulate and until he discovers that she reads vampire books there’s nothing about her that makes him feel in any way other than he’s talking to a contemporary. And Elizabeth Olsen is similar in that she’s incredibly sophisticated and wise beyond her years and she’s got that real old-soul quality but at the same time, every once in a while her youth shows. Her kind of adolescent goofiness comes through. That was why she was so perfect for the role. It’s just this perfect collision of elements that make Zibby both seductive to Jesse and also incredibly confusing.

There’s a line in the movie that I loved. “No one feels like an adult. That’s the world’s dirty secret.” That just struck me.
JR: I did a Q&A at the Apple store in Soho right before the movie opened and we were talking about this idea and there were about 80 people in the audience of varying ages and I said, “Does anyone here feel like an adult?” And one guy who was probably in his 70’s raised his hand and he was the only person in the audience who raised his hand. So I do think it’s this weird phenomenon, this idea that no one…. That adulthood is this kind of a nebulous thing that we talk about but a lot of people don’t really feel it.

It actually emerged from a conversation I had with my dad years ago and he was talking about diet. He was talking about how he always feels like he’s 19 and he always wants to eat like he’s a 19 year old, but he can’t because his body processes food differently. And it wasn’t a very weighty conversation, excuse the pun, but I remembered it and when I was thinking about this conversation between Jesse and his professor that came back to me – this idea that he’s always felt 19. Like a lot of the best lines you write, it’s something just kind of tumbled out. It wasn’t something I thought much about. The next thing I knew I was writing, “No one feels like an adult. That’s the world’s dirty secret.” And it seems to be a line that really resonates with a lot of people.

When you started writing screenplays was there always the intention to act in and direct the movies too?
JR: I was just looking to be an actor in them and I was thinking of having someone else direct. Then I realized with Happythankyoumoreplease, the tone is very delicate. I did a lot of readings with actor friends in New York and LA and I found that some people really got the tone and some either were a little too jokey with it or a little too heavy with it. There was a very delicate kind of middle ground that it wanted to live in. I found that I was able to say certain things to help people find the place. Something I’ve noticed as an actor is the director is really what I call the gatekeeper of the tone. The tone is so important, especially in movies like this and you have to make sure that everyone is on the same page. As we started to get a little closer to getting the movie made, my producer, Jesse, and my agent, Rhonda, got very behind the idea of me directing and they didn’t want to hand the project off to anyone else. I was, of course, terrified. I didn’t really know how to do it but I just surrounded myself with fantastic people and I learned a ton. I was still terrified to do the next one. I did a pilot with Rob Reiner years ago and he told me he was really scared on the first day and I said you still get scared and he said if you’re not scared on your first day of filming it’s time for you to retire – that a certain amount of nerves and butterflies when you’re about to start is a good thing. Terror properly harnessed can be good fuel.

It seems like a huge task to take on all three of those things.
JR: When I’m directing my next one, I’d really love to not be in it. So I can just be behind the camera. That feels like something that really appeals to me at this point.

Is that the direction you’re looking to go in?
JR: No, no. I don’t want to stop acting, but I think that doing it all was…. It’s a big task. It can be [overwhelming] but it’s also manageable. If you surround yourself with good people, which I have, it’s entirely doable. There were just certain moments in both movies when I didn’t have to be in front of the camera. Those were my favorite days. So I’m trying to pay attention to that.

Do you have a favorite scene or moment from Liberal Arts? Or something that surprised you that came across differently than you thought it would on the page?
JR: Everything comes across a little differently because you get great actors elevating the material and showing you things about it and revealing things that maybe you weren’t conscious of that are very much there. That’s one part of the collaboration that I love. Certain things you have a hunch about but you’re not sure they’re going to work but then they do and that’s a real thrill.

One of them for this was the letter-writing sequence with Jesse and Zibby. She gives him a CD of classical music and asks him to write her letters about the music. It’s this old-fashioned, quaint thing that I wasn’t sure would work and it’s scored with all of this classical music but it’s one of the sequences in the movie that I’m most proud of. I think it’s really affecting and really beautiful with all the music playing. The whole third act of the movie, I feel like it’s – everything kind of comes to an end and wraps up. There’s a nice sequence of scenes that we build to. All the Allison Janney stuff and all of the Richard stuff and the Dean storyline and Zibby and Jesse meeting Ana… all of it. I think it’s a satisfying series of scenes.