Writing, directing and acting in your own feature film while starring in an Emmy-winning comedy? It’s a miracle Josh Radnor, star of How I Met Your Mother, has any time to sleep. Wonderland talks to the triple threat about his touching coming-of-age drama Liberal Arts – which premiered at London’s Sundance film festival on Thursday – , co-star Elizabeth Olsen, and postgraduate nostalgia…
How did you hit on the idea for Liberal Arts and setting it in Kenyon, your old college?
I went back to Kenyon to show my first film two summers ago. I was surrounded by all these 19 year olds and it was the first time I’d felt old! I told my producer about it and said I realised that if I fell in love with a student there, it would be borderline inappropriate. He said, “That’s a great movie.”
Are you a lot like Jesse, the protagonist? He can’t move on from his uni days, which seems to be partially why he falls for a student there.
In some ways, he’s me at 27, when I hadn’t quite gotten over the college experience. After Kenyon, I went right into grad school, so when I got out I felt I’d been kicked out of paradise. I was still wanted a little to crawl back into the womb of the meal plan, just think about ideas all day long and read books and drink. For many years I would think about college and have this sharp pang of sadness about not being there. I put that into this 35-year-old character.
If you could sum up Liberal Arts in five words, what would it be?
It’s a movie about love, change, books and ageing. It’s about growing up.
So what were you like in college?
When I was in high school, I was very focused on getting good grades. I kind of loosened up on the GPA obsession when I was in college. And what’s true in Liberal Arts is my excitement about the Romantics – I studied with one of the world’s leading Keats scholars, Ron Sharp, and I would never miss a class. It felt like a borderline spiritual experience to be spending time with these poems.
So far, you’ve written, directed and acted in both of your films. Is that becoming a habit?
I’m trying not to act anymore! With Liberal Arts, I came close to losing my mind a few days because I was in basically the whole thing.
What was it like acting next to Elizabeth Olsen?
A great pleasure. She’s the rare young actor who’s not overhyped – she’s just really special. She obviously has to do photoshoots and red carpets, but I don’t think that’s where the true enjoyment lies for her – she likes playing characters. She’s in it for the right reasons.
How did it feel bringing Liberal Arts to Sundance London?
London feels like a good city for the movie. It feels like it’s a place that values literature. Liberal Arts is really about books. It’s about a love of books. You can enjoy the film without being a big reader but if you love reading, you’ll enjoy it a lot more.