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Q&A: 'Liberal Arts' star/writer/director Josh Radnor

Colleges and UniversitiesMoviesPoetryJosh RadnorRichard JenkinsAllison Janney

Asked what aspects of his “How I Met Your Mother” character he enjoyed exploring last season, Josh Radnor takes a mulligan. Outside of reconnecting with Victoria (Ashley Williams), Radnor can’t remember what happened to Ted.

College, on the other hand, clearly lingers more vividly in the memory of the star, writer and director of the excellent “Liberal Arts,” opening Sept. 21. Shot at Radnor’s alma mater, Kenyon College in Ohio, the movie chronicles 35-year-old Jesse (Radnor) as he returns for a favorite professor’s (Richard Jenkins) retirement party and strikes up a connection with 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). As someone struggling to move forward rather than keep looking back on the good old days, Jesse’s happy for this instant bond but uneasy about the different places he and Zibby are at in their lives.

From New York, the 38-year-old Radnor talked about feeling old, being rude to his parents and making movies to answer his own big questions. He also noted that, unlike Jesse, Ted’s snobbiness (such as the way he pronounces encyclopedia) is played for laughs: “His affectations seem so ridiculous.”

You got the inspiration for “Liberal Arts” when you went back to Kenyon and felt so much older than the students when showing them your first movie, “Happythankyoumoreplease.” What made you feel that way?
Aging’s a funny thing ’cause you don’t really notice it happening. Like one of the characters says in the movie, you always feel like you’re 19. And I just got around the students and they were totally lovely, but they seemed so much younger all of a sudden. When I was at college we all felt, “We couldn’t have been this young!” [Laughs.] It was also just this thing where I realized I was 35 and the students were 18 and 19 and 20 years old, and it was just baffling to me how this had happened that I had gotten to be so much older than these college students.

So it wasn’t you overhearing them singing Justin Bieber lyrics, or you walking in the room and them saying, “Who invited grandpa?”
No, I play with a little of that in the movie but mostly everyone was really happy. Plus I get a free pass from those people because college kids love “How I Met Your Mother.” So no one’s all that rude to me. [Laughs.]

The movie’s not based on you but there are connections to your life, from the Kenyon setting to you, like Jesse, at one point tanking your grades because of reading. What else did you experience that Jesse experiences? Being rude to your parents because you didn’t want to leave college? Or, as Jesse comments, being punched in the face for calling yourself a poet out of college?
That didn’t happen. I was really not pleasant to my parents when they came for graduation. I remember feeling like they were coming there to rip me away from this place that I loved and I wasn’t ready to go yet, and I kind of blamed them for college ending. It was silly. I share with Jesse—I wrote in his obsession with and his love of these British romantic poets. My senior year I took a class from a Keats scholar named Ron Sharp who is no longer at Kenyon, but he was an amazingly insightful and exciting teacher. He just taught these poems very beautifully, and I remember being electrified by his class. So I transposed that onto the Judith Fairfield character (played by Allison Janney) and made Jesse a bumbling, tongue-tied idiot when he’s around her because he’s so in awe of her intellect and passion.

Do you remember what you said to your parents when you were upset with them for pulling you out of that life?
No, not really. I just remember being a bit of a jerk. They were happy and wanted to celebrate and I was a little pouty. It wasn’t my finest hour.

Some filmmakers have their style but don’t seem to put a lot of themselves in their movies. When I watch your work I get the sense that someone seeing your movies is getting to know you a little bit. Do you feel that’s accurate, and if so, is that something you’re going for?
Making movies is really difficult. It’s really time-consuming and it requires a lot of you. I have a hard time separating—it’s not technical for me. It’s not just, “Ooh, I want to make something atheistically cool.” What I’m doing with a lot of these movies is I’m asking myself some really big questions personally, and I’m using the movie to work them out. And I feel like if I can get this whole army of people together to work out those questions and create this other reality where those questions can be asked it helps me, and by extension hopefully it helps the audience. I’m not making after-school specials. I’m not trying to educate anyone. I’m just trying to tell a good story and tell it very honestly. I’m all over my movies and I’m all over every character. Both movies. So I think if you respond to the material in “Liberal Arts,” like, yeah, we’d probably enjoy getting a cup of coffee together. [Laughs.]

For “Liberal Arts” were the questions you were asking yourself, “Can you believe how old I am?” and “What am I going to do about this?”
A little bit. I think it was about how do I do this aging thing with a certain amount of grace and without freaking out or getting angry with the universe for going on its merry way. There’s a really great definition of suffering that says, “Suffering is wanting things to be different than they are.” And every character in “Liberal Arts” is wanting things to be different than they are in different ways. So you start off with these characters who are fragmented and disappointed and living in resistance to whatever their situation is. And the journey of the movie for me was about characters accepting change ultimately and saying yes to whatever’s going on and because of that having their suffering be lessened.

So what impact did making the film have in your confronting these questions? Did you feel better?
Oh. That’s interesting. I feel like I grew up a bit in the making of this film. I got to both celebrate and love my college very publicly and also got to say goodbye to it in an indelible way. Because you really get the feeling by the end of the movie that Jesse’s moved forward. He’s moved on and he’s blessed that time in his life and he’s also contextualized it and let it be rather than be something that haunts him. I don’t know if my college experience was haunting me or was even that actively up for me. It’s just when I went back and this story started coming to me and I thought, “Well, this would be a really wonderful place to set a tale,” but then once I started doing it all these questions started coming up within me and I got to wrestle with them and work them out. Like, “How do we age?” And I was asking myself, “What’s the purpose of reading?” “What’s the purpose of a liberal arts education?” Everything has a blessing and curse element to it. It’s a celebration of the liberal arts institution. It’s also a recognition of its limitations and where it can get us in trouble. If you’re only living in the mind, if you’re only living an analytical life, that can get you in some trouble.

Do you have an idea if this notion of being 19 forever is something men feel more than women? I think men say it more often.
I don’t know. I did a Q&A at the Apple store in Soho last night and someone asked me about these protagonists who feel eternally youthful and can’t quite step into adulthood fully. There were about 70, 80 people there, and I said, “Who here feels like an adult?” and one older gentleman in the center raised his hand. And no one else raised their hand. [Laughs.] There were some technical adults there, but the professor character says that nobody feels like an adult and that’s the world’s dirty secret. I just read this Kurt Vonnegut quote—something to the effect of, “True terror is to wake up one day and realize that your high school class is running the world.”

Plus:
On Chicago: “Oh my God, when was I last in Chicago? Both my sisters used to live there so I used to go see them but now they’re gone. My college roommate lives in Chicago. He was Chicago born and bred and vowed to return and never leave. He’s a bankruptcy lawyer there now. I should probably plan a visit to see him soon. It’s been a while. I would probably just call Matt and tell him to take me—no one knows the town like him, so he would probably take my around. And hopefully it would be not in the winter.”
The most ridiculous question he’s been asked about “How I Met Your Mother”: A man who sent him a message on Twitter saying that he was sorry for Radnor due to the fact that the actor couldn’t watch the show, as a result of being on it.
His collegiate moments that fall more in line with the typical college movie: Radnor says he has them but prefers not to share, saying that some skeletons should stay in the closet.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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Colleges and UniversitiesMoviesPoetryJosh RadnorRichard JenkinsAllison Janney
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