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.