Josh Radnor on LIBERAL ARTS, his film’s TWILIGHT aversion, and how much longer How I Met Your Mother will air

Two years ago, a tiny movie from a first-time filmmaker about a group of young, attractive New Yorkers struggling to balance their various romantic entanglements and impending adulthood, surprised festivalgoers by winning the coveted Audience Award at Sundance. Written and directed by Josh Radnor, best known as the lead on the hit CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE won over audiences in Park City, Utah. And his sophomore feature, LIBERAL ARTS, elicited a standing ovation at the press and industry screening I attended.

Based in part on Radnor’s time as an undergrad at Kenyon College, and shot on location at the Ohio school, LIBERAL ARTS tells the story of Jesse (Radnor), a 35-year-old college admissions counselor who’s trapped in a state of arrested development. When his second favorite college professor, Prof. Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), asks him to return to college for his retirement ceremony, Jesse finds himself on a journey of self-discovery involving an enchanting young sophomore, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who harbors a crush on him; a hippie with some sage-like advice, played by Zac Efron; and his fiery former British romantic literature professor (Allison Janney).

Sundance Channel sat down with Josh Radnor to chat about LIBERAL ARTS, his own college experiences—first at Kenyon College, and then at NYU, if he’s ever romanced a much younger woman, and how much longer How I Met Your Mother will last.

So this is your second film at the festival and you’ve already been branded a vet.
I don’t feel like a veteran! It’s a bit of a whirlwind because it always falls in the middle of shooting [How I Met Your Mother], so they give me a half-day off here and a day here, so next thing I know I’m on a plane back to shooting. But I’m so happy it snowed here because when you come out you want the full effect.

How autobiographical is LIBERAL ARTS?
I’m not really writing autobiographically, it’s more… thematic-autobiographical. The movies [HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE and LIBERAL ARTS] are kind of companion pieces on some level since you could argue that both films deal with accepting change on some level, which I think is maybe the key to life.

Did you crave change growing up in Ohio?
I didn’t know any different, but once I fell in love with being an actor, there was no place that was calling me more than New York City. It was this very romantic idea of being a theatre actor in New York.

What was your undergrad experience like at Kenyon?
There’s 1,600 students and nothing really to do but read books, have conversations, and drink, so you get the whole thing: the meal plan, the dorms, pulling all-nighters for papers, all that stuff. I really wanted that. I wanted to read books that had nothing to do with getting employed afterwards. I think part of the great thing about a liberal arts education is it prepares you in so many ways to be a thinking person in the world, but also prepares you in no way to actually step into a job other than giving you analytical skills and personality skills that are invaluable. The movie is both a celebration of a classic liberal arts education and an acknowledgment of the limits of that.

Where did the character of Zibby come from?
I have a friend named Zibby Allen in L.A. and I stole her name. Are you asking me if I’ve had an affair with a 19-year-old?

No, but… have you?
When I was 19! But not now. I’ve never had to do the math, so to speak.

And how did you recruit Elizabeth Olsen for the role of Zibby?
We share an agent so I got 45 pages of the script to him and then he said, “I have your Zibby.” And then I met her, and I agreed. But I hadn’t seen any of her movies. I read her right after Sundance, so she was already much-ballyhooed with MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. I think after these really intense roles she had played she was looking for a palette-cleanser; something a little lighter.

What sort of college kid were you? They have frats at Kenyon, right?
They do, but I never found much reason to join. My sister went to Indiana University and the Greek system is something that makes the college smaller, and there’s no need to make Kenyon smaller since it’s so small already. And you end up going to the parties anyway. Plus, I always get nervous when there’s no women around and it’s just a room full of guys. I think, “Someone could get stabbed! This could go dark.” But I was socially nomadic—didn’t really have one specific group of friends—which you could do at Kenyon.

When did you realize you wanted to become an actor?
My junior year I played the Emcee in CABARET, and that was a light bulb moment for me when I realized, “Okay. I love doing this and I think I have some skill in this area.” And it gave me a reprieve from the adolescent self-consciousness that I was feeling.

Are you still nostalgic for the good ol’ days in college?
I think I burned through a lot of the nostalgia, and this movie is perhaps my last gasp of it. And I sometimes am writing movies to help myself move through something, and I don’t even realize I’m doing it.

Your character isn’t very kind to the TWILIGHT books.
[Laughs] I wrote all that stuff and thought maybe I should read them, and I read the first 100 pages of the first one. I don’t bear the books or movies any ill will; I just thought Jesse would be the kind of guy who judges people by their bookshelf. But I love that argument because I think she wins it.

Since you’re only signed on for one more season of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, are you going to stay on for more?
I don’t know. I think we’re going to get into that soon, but we’ll see.

Are you really grateful that you were fired from your first sitcom, OFF CENTRE?
Oh yeah. My Dad thinks that was my great career break—that I got fired from my first pilot. That was fantastic, and six months later, I was on a John Well series [THE COURT] with Sally Field. Before HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER came along, and because of that experience, I thought I was never going to do a sitcom. I was very bitter and freaked out by it because it was traumatic. But it was actually this weird, great break in my career because I got very selective about what I wanted to do, and it was this real punch to the gut that stung at the time, but now I look back on it and think, “Oh wow, what a valuable, awakening experience that was.”

Do you want to angle more into filmmaking and move away from acting?
I’m always trying to run away from acting one way or another, and then I’ll do a play and fall back in love with it. If I had to choose I would say there’s more to explore as a writer-director, and if I had to stop acting tomorrow I would feel a sense of great accomplishment because I’ve got to do some great stuff the past couple of years. Writing and directing movies just seems limitless, like endless possibility. But I still love acting.

Presented by Sundance Channel and The Daily Beast. Check out all of The Daily Beast's dispatches from the Sundance Film Festival.