Josh Radnor: The Importance of Being Earnest

Movies Features Josh Radnor
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Not everyone can be George Clooney. It’s hard to transition from established television star to respected film actor; just ask David Caruso. It’s even harder to make the jump to respected film director. And it’s harder still if the films you make are earnest, open-hearted affairs that fly in the face of the cynical zeitgeist of your time.

So how is it that one of the most exciting young directors working today, the guy who has blown away Sundance audiences with two straight films is…Ted from How I Met Your Mother?

Josh Radnor does it with a unique set of directorial gifts, including an unflinching and specific vision of the worlds he wants to create. And that vision sometimes leads him to dangerous terrain that he seems to navigate better than many of his peers. In his sophomore effort Liberal Arts, out this week, for example, he employs a device often attempted but seldom used successfully—the letter-writing sequence with voice-over of the characters reading the letters out loud. Other than Dangerous Liaisons, it’s difficult to think of a film that actually deploys the convention well; it can create an irresistible gravitational pull towards sentimentality and treacle.

In Liberal Arts, though, Radnor actually makes it work. And that accomplishment is all the more impressive considering, first, that he accompanies the scene with classical music and shots of New York (further risking cliché), and second, that it’s a scene he wasn’t able to explain well to his crew before it was actually executed. “That was something that I really had in my head,” he says, “that a lot of people weren’t privy to. Because on the page, without the music and without the other elements, that sequence wouldn’t have made any sense. That was something that I was just holding in my head.” It’s a sequence that shouldn’t work, should be cheesy and over-earnest, but somehow Radnor pulls it off.

But then, Radnor has made the beginnings of a career out of pulling off things that shouldn’t work. He’s the star of How I Met Your Mother, which has kept a high-level conceit running for eight years now. And his first directorial feature, happythankyoumoreplease, also flirted with sentimentality at moments. But it pulled back at just the right places, as evidenced by its Audience Award at Sundance, a festival not known to tolerate sappiness. “His movies are so positive,” says Cobie Smulders, his HIMYM co-star, “and he writes about these great topics that make you feel good about the world and about people and give you hope. And I think that’s such a great thing to put into the world. He could be doing anything, but with his movies you leave the theater, and you feel joy; you’re uplifted.”

But although Liberal Arts is similar in tone, it’s different from that first film in structure. “I love the form of happythankyoumoreplease,” Radnor says. “It’s this ensemble mosaic where you pop around to different stories and they all come together to create this kind of landscape. But with this film, there’s more of a propulsive quality to the plot; you’re following one story, largely. I think people are more used to seeing films that way. And I think you could possibly watch happythankyoumoreplease and think, ‘I’m not a twentysomething New Yorker, so why is this movie interesting to me?’ Whereas with this, the themes are resonant in a more universal way, in terms of aging, and nostalgia and growing up—or not growing up. You can enter the story from many different angles.”

Yet another difference with Liberal Arts was that Radnor was no longer a first-time director. But he didn’t let it go to his head. “I didn’t walk into Liberal Arts with my chest puffed out, saying ‘I am now a film director, and I will direct the hell out of this movie,’” he assures with a laugh. “You go in with the same amount of anxiety, maybe more anxiety: ‘Do I really know how to do this?’ I did know that I had a script I really believed in. I got a cast that felt totally appropriately chosen, each amazing in his own way. I used the same DP, the same production designer, the same editor. Jesse Hara, my producer, is a really close collaborator of mine. So I had my team together. Filmmaking is so collaborative, and even though I’m doing a lot on these movies, really I’m forming this community, and all of us are contributing our specific talents to it. I also knew what I was doing a little more.”

Despite his previous experience, he retained that very collaborative approach. “Most of the time, I would envision a room, but then my production designer would make the room eight times more interesting than I had imagined it—because I’m not a production designer. [Cinematographer] Seamus [Tierney] is going to light a scene, and he’s going to have ideas for shots that are way more interesting than my ideas. You’re holding true to your vision of the film; you’re kind of the torchbearer for the spirit of the movie. But you’re also allowing these other people to do their jobs. And that’s why you have to surround yourself with people you really trust, because they’re going to make you look so much better and smarter and more talented than you have a right to be.”

Radnor, 38, grew up in Bexley, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, where he attended Orthodox Jewish day schools as a child. When he was at Kenyon, his father, a medical malpractice attorney, and mother, a high-school guidance counselor, wanted him to get a liberal arts degree, but he chose theater instead, winning an award named after another famous alum, Paul Newman. After a short stint studying in Israel, he moved to New York for grad school, getting his M.F.A. in acting at NYU. He’d thought his first big break came in 2001, when he was cast as the lead in the WB sitcom Off Centre, but he was replaced before the show aired. Instead his career got launched on Broadway in 2002, when he starred in The Graduate opposite Alicia Silverstone and Kathleen Turner. It was another three years of single-episode guest appearances on shows like ER, Law & Order and Six Feet Under, though, before landing his role as Ted in How I Met Your Mother.

In addition to his cachet as a network television star, Radnor is just a likeable guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. That could be part of the reason he was able to assemble such an impressive cast for happythankyoumoreplease. Among the cast members was indie icon Zoe Kazan (a screenwriter herself), who remembers: “We ended up talking for two or three hours, which is really long for an initial meeting. I missed my next appointment, and he was late to his. It felt like one of those long conversations people only have in college. I liked the heart of the movie. I think he’s got a real positive spirit, and I think a lot of less mainstream film is bleaker in its outlook. I really appreciated how ‘glass half full’ his mind’s eye was.”

“In his work he’s so vulnerable,” agrees Smulders, “and sweet, and open about his insecurities. I find it so sexy and charming and appealing.”

It’s one thing to make a quirky little film with a cast of indie favorites, but it’s quite another thing to gather the kind of big-name actors in Liberal Arts—Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Elizabeth Olsen, Zac Efron. Possibly the biggest land mine of a role is Zibby, Radnor’s age-inappropriate possible love interest. It’s important that the character naturally have a self-possessed quality, unusual for her age. Radnor found his Zibby in Olsen. “She’s got this old soul, sophisticated quality—she can be really articulate, she can hang with the adults,” he says. “And at the same time she has this kind of leftover adolescence that pokes through every once in awhile. There was a lot of skill and craft that went into her portrayal, and there’s also a lot of her essence that is just really right for the role. You can see it in her physicality sometimes. She gets loose-limbed and kind of adolescent in her enthusiasm.”

Olsen, of course, is a Sundance favorite as well, having burst onto the scene in Martha Marcy May Marlene in 2011. But it wasn’t her past performances that inspired Radnor; in fact, he cast her in the part before he or anyone else had even seen Martha. Fortune intervened in the form of the agent the two actors share, who advocated early on for her casting. “I was really in a fortunate position,” laughs Radnor, “to be tipped off early on to which horse to place my money on.”

On her side of things, Olsen knew good writing when she saw it. “My agent secretly had me read the script, even though Josh had told her not to show it to anyone, because she was convinced that he was going to cast me in it. So I read it pretty early on, and around the same time I saw happythankyoumoreplease too. And both those spoke very well of Josh. It was just one of those scripts that sounded fun to say, and fun to do.”

Olsen was especially drawn to Radnor’s authorial voice. “You know how, for some playwrights,” she muses, “you read three different plays of theirs, and you can still recognize a common voice? I really just enjoy the way he writes. I enjoy the actual syntax. And some scripts, you just think ‘I’ll change it to make it easier to say in my mouth.’ But with his films, you would to say it just like it’s written, because it has such a personal style to it.”

Radnor called on an old friend for another key part. Veteran character actor Richard Jenkins had had a small role in happythankyoumoreplease, but Radnor wrote him a central part in Liberal Arts—the retiring mentor professor. “I stole some biographical facts from a really dear friend of mine, who was a history professor of mine at Kenyon,” says Radnor. “We actually shot those scenes at his house. But largely I was writing it for Richard Jenkins. There are certain lines that come out that are so—Jenkinsean? Is that a word? When Zibby’s trying to get her mom to play the improv game, and she says, ‘Hand me that lemonade, hand me that lemonade,’ I could just hear Richard saying ‘Jesus, Susan, hand her the goddamned lemonade.’ There were all these parts that I just knew, ‘Richard Jenkins will nail this.’”

Of course, Jenkins can nail more than just comedy, and Radnor wanted to make sure there were some powerful dramatic moments for him as well. “He’s particularly devastating in that scene where he asks to keep his job a few years longer,” Radnor says, “and the scene in the bar where he tells Jesse that since he was 19 he’s never felt not 19, that nobody feels like an adult. He’s a really soulful, really funny, really deep and complicated guy. And, he just classes up your movie. He’s been in both of mine so far, and I’d be really happy if he was in every one I ever did.”

The line about feeling 19 immediately spoke to Jenkins in the script when he read it. “There are no loose ends when Josh writes,” Jenkins says. “Everything comes full circle. And his writing doesn’t really sound like writing. It sounds like smart people talking. It sounds like Josh, actually. Josh is a smart guy and very articulate, and he writes the same way. I wish I could be that articulate. That thing about the future being a little tough to face, so we all want to hightail it back somewhere. I understand that; I think we all do. I’m 65, and at this time in my life you lose some friends, and you look forward at the future and think ‘Now what? What’s in store for me?’ And I like the fact that he says we’re all 19 in our head. I don’t think I’d ever heard anybody say that in a movie.”

Lack of specificity is an endemic problem for beginning directors, but actor after actor points to Radnor’s specific vision as a strength. “It’s so uniquely his film,” says Olsen. “He was there from the first word on the page to the last cut of the movie. So he always had an idea of what he needed to go where he thought he wanted to go. It’s very specific. If there was something I wasn’t hitting, he’d just tell me exactly what he needed me to hit, which was incredibly helpful. A lot of directors might try to steer you a way to make you think you got there on your own, instead of just straightforwardly telling you what they need. And there’s something so refreshing about someone blatantly telling you, I need you to say it with this intonation, or at this speed, very technically, so it can work better in the edit. He knows the rhythm he writes at, and he knows the rhythm he’s going to edit at. That’s usually not the case.”

“He knows what movie he has in his head,” Jenkins agrees. “You know, I’ve done a lot of films, and I have my own opinions about things as an actor. And he was always ahead of me. ‘Did you think about this?’ ‘Yes, I thought about that.’ What you come to realize is, there’s a reason he’s directing it and you’re not. But he let me do my work; he let me find my way. If I needed to change something, we talked about it. Sometimes I’d do scenes two or three different ways, to see.”

Another Radnor topic on which Jenkins is especially qualified to opine is his films’ similarities to those of Woody Allen. Jenkins has worked with both men, with Radnor on both his films and with Allen on Hannah and Her Sisters. “They don’t work in the same way at all,” Jenkins says, “but I do see a similarity in the final result. They’re both really smart guys, and they use that intelligence in the movies. Their love of music and cinema and books, their great senses of humor, they use all that.”

Radnor is reluctant to entertain the comparison. “First of all, in any conversation about Woody Allen, I want to be careful to say, I’m very aware that he has directed over 40 films, many of them masterpieces, and is one of the great geniuses of modern cinema, and that I’ve directed—two films. So I don’t want to overstate this comparison, if we end up talking about this. There’s no ‘Well, Woody and I…’ here.”

The comparisons are unavoidable, though. Both directors make smart, analytical, talky, generally New York-centric films, of course. In Liberal Arts, there’s even a sequence of New York City images set to classical music, which can’t fail to remind viewers of the classic opening to Allen’s Manhattan. But even that wasn’t completely a deliberate homage. “It was half-accidental,” Radnor insists. “You know, certain influences enter your bloodstream and are not completely conscious. I had very much fallen in love with classical music; that part of the script is true. And I wrote most of the script listening to classical music. Something about that music just fires off different neurons. So I’m listening to this music, and I’m at this college, surrounded by Wordsworth and Keats and Blake, and it seemed to me that that music occupied that same space. And I thought it would be a very beautiful thing to have Zibby introduce Jesse to this music, and to have the music alter him in a very profound way. So I started creating this letter-writing sequence. And I wasn’t consciously thinking about Manhattan, but there’s something about New York City that setting it to this grand music seems to work, cinematically. They seem to be paired nicely together.”

In both men’s oeuvres, though, there is a willingness to open one’s deepest self up to examination and reflection, and that’s the deeper spiritual connection they have. It’s that comparison that finally convinces Radnor to talk about Woody. “It’s interesting that you use the word spiritual in connection to Woody Allen,” he says. “I mean, clearly the guy is an inspiration to me; clearly I love his movies. But, like a real fan, I wrestle with him, and I argue with him, and I get angry at him. I have a real relationship with his movies. But the difference, as far as I can tell, is one that’s entirely of worldview. And it’s a worldview that has almost admirably remained unchanged in all the years he’s been making movies. He still doesn’t believe in any sort of order to the universe.”

“He kind of has this ’60s, Sartre-esque idea of the world being this existential mess,” he continues, “and that we have to just grab joy while we can, because we’re all going to be dead soon, and death is the very, very worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. I just don’t believe any of that. For whatever reason, I just believe that the world has an elegance to it that we can’t always see. That there are things working on our behalf that we’re not quite sure about. I feel like it’s ultimately rigged towards something more positive. And once we realize that, we can conspire with that force.”

And now we’re getting closer to the heart of what makes Radnor one of the most compelling young filmmakers around. He’s not making happy movies that feel ephemeral; he’s making movies about happiness that stick with you. He’s making films of substance. “This can be used in a beautiful way as a filmmaker or as a horribly megalomaniacal thing—but you are creating a reality,” he muses. “I’m sitting there, I’m dreaming up these characters, this world, these situations. And then I have this whole army of people that help me manifest it. For me, it’s a lot like casting—a big part of casting is, ‘Do I want to spend time with this person?’ The same thing with the contents of my scripts. I’m not that interested in exploring evil. I’m not that interested in exploring what drives men to violence. Those aren’t the questions I sit around and ask myself.”

“Someone asked me what my films are about,” he continues, “and the most succinct definition I could give is that they’re about good people who are getting better at being themselves. I start characters with great dissatisfaction, great sense of dislocation, great sense of something wrong. There’s been a betrayed cultural promise. And then they go through a series of events that aren’t all that dramatic; they’re just life things that happen. But those things are seismic to them and alter them. So by the end, hopefully there’s some sense of a more settled quality or an idea that things are going to be okay. Nat tells Jesse that everything is going to be okay, and he says he doesn’t believe it. But later he says, ‘Maybe I’m starting to.’ Maybe the problem is not the situation; maybe the problem is my perception of the situation.”

If that sounds unusually deep for a sitcom star writing a romantic comedy, that’s because it’s unusually deep for a romantic comedy. It’s one of the keys to Radnor’s success, says Kazan: “He’s so smart, and he’s got a good sense of humor, so those things cut through the feeling that it might be too sweet. When I met him, I saw that he knew what type of movie he wanted to make; it was so clear in his mind. He definitely knows what he wants.”

For Radnor, though, it just seems like the natural choice. “If I’m going to spend a couple of years on a movie,” he shrugs, “I want the questions to be big and juicy and terrifying to me and grand enough to hold my attention for that long. I want to ask those big questions. And I’m being given the opportunity to work them out publicly. Rather than going to therapy, I get to make a movie.

happythankyoumoreplease, when you peel away all the trappings,” he adds, “was really a metaphysical movie about people learning that the universe hears you. That you can talk to the universe and ask for more of something. And that’s Zac Efron’s character in this movie; he’s this non-academic, non-analytical guy. I always think about him having read a lot of Terence McKenna and spent a lot of time with psychedelics, and he’s now past all of that and just drinking water and happy to be alive. And he wants to spread the love. He’s like this Jiminy Cricket character, this spirit guide that just keeps showing up, to the point that Jesse isn’t even sure whether he’s just imagining him.”

Movies about the metaphysics of happiness, especially those with Zac Efron as a Jiminy Cricket spirit guide whose wisdom includes the admonition that “Everything is OK,” ironically end up being very divisive. Rapturous Sundance reactions aside, some critics have dismissed Radnor’s films due to their sunny tone. “When people describe my films as nice or earnest,” Radnor says, “it always sounds like there’s a little condescension there, like the films aren’t sophisticated, because they’re daring to be sincere. And I feel like, in some ways, it’s tipped so much in the other direction, and that cynicism and negativity are considered sophisticated and clear-eyed, and to be a realist is to realize how miserable the world is and how humanity is unsaveable on some level. In my own quiet way, I’m trying to say that we can be the ones that bend it. Everything’s available to us; what are we going to highlight? And to have a large number of eyeballs on your work, even in a small scale like the indie-film scale, it’s a great honor. And if people are going to pay attention, what do I most want to say? What do I most want to explore? What kind of conversations do I most want to encourage? And this feels to me more in line with who I am and the things I’m concerned about.”

The controversy was heated enough that one critic asked Radnor, given that “Revolution” was the Sundance theme the year happythankyoumoreplease won the Audience Award there, what exactly made the “little crowd-pleasing comedy” revolutionary in any way. Radnor told the critic (and later the awards show audience) that in a world of overwhelming cynicism and bleak independent films, optimism was absolutely a revolutionary choice. He later wrote a memorable Huffington Post piece that had the air of a manifesto, exploring the idea further. “I absolutely still stand by everything I wrote,” he says. “That still expresses what I want to do in my movies.”

Given that tendency of Radnor’s, his old professor’s admonition in Liberal Arts to “put some armor around that gooey little heart of yours” has the ring of experience to it, perhaps springing from some advice someone had given Radnor himself about show business. “No one said that specifically,” Radnor insists, “but you know, it is a kind of show business adage. You have to remain gooey in that you have to access all these emotions, but professionally you have to develop this thick skin, and it’s really a difficult balancing act. I was never really thinking about show business at that point; I was more just thinking about the plight of being a sensitive person in the world who feels that your nerve endings are kind of exposed. She’s railing against what she calls ‘the emergence of your kind like an infection, all these effete overarticulate man-boys who never learn to toughen up.’ I was almost thinking of a Maureen Dowd-type person, who seems to be enamored of these tough guys, and Jesse is the antithesis of what she values in men. He loves the poets and he wants to stare googley-eyed at his professor while she reads him Wordsworth, and she’s having none of it. I think that obviously I don’t really believe that. You can’t watch my movies and think I’m advocating we all put some armor around our gooey hearts. I’m advocating probably the opposite. Let’s take off the armor.”

And it’s that armor-removing that’s so threatening to those who’ve been trained to strap that armor in as tightly as possible. Cynicism can be quite protective, and when people’s defenses are exposed they can react very harshly. “I think that’s exactly right,” Radnor agrees. “All those existential philosophers and the nihilists and everything, that was a post-Hiroshima response. That was, ‘We might not be here tomorrow. We can actually incinerate ourselves.’ But you swing so far in one direction, and then you realize you’re only playing with half a deck.”

The dissatisfaction with the cynical drift of the Western world over the last few decades has led Radnor in some surprising directions. “I had to learn to unshackle myself from this Western, scientific mindset that only something that can be proven is worth putting faith in,” he says. “And I feel like we’re just as naïve and ignorant as anyone in the 16th century. We don’t know what we don’t know, and yet every generation has this great arrogance. Voltaire said something like “Doubt is an uncomfortable position, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” I’m much more comfortable in saying that I don’t know. And not only does that allow for believing in all sorts of wonderful things; it also allows for the possibility of us changing and growing in ways that are inspiring.

“I was in Africa this summer,” he continues. “Now, I read the Bhagavad-Gita a lot; it’s a big book for me. I’ve found a lot of Eastern concepts to be very enlightening for me. They’ve awakened me to where the West is missing some of these pieces. And what was said to me—this has been said before, I’m not breaking new ground—was that in Africa, they’re impoverished where we’re not, and we’re impoverished where they’re not. And it just occurred to me, why should we care about Africans? Why should we care about poverty? Why should we care about anyone who’s not us, or our immediate family? Well, for me the answer is, what if we’re actually everything? What if we have to care about the whole world, because it’s all part of the same cycle?”

Maureen Dowd, Woody Allen, Nietzsche, Sartre, Hiroshima, and the Bhagavad-Gita, all from a Kenyon grad. Radnor should be sounding like a pseudo-intellectual poseur at this point, but he’s not. These are ideas and issues and people that he really does wrestle with. “Josh is extremely intelligent,” Smulders agrees, “but he doesn’t use it to try to make himself sound bigger or better than he is. He’s constantly reading, constantly bringing new music into my life. He doesn’t go around quoting and making you feel like a dummy. He just has a piece of his mind on everything. It’s very inspiring for me, that thirst for knowledge.”

None of it should work. The CBS-sitcom-star-turned-film-auteur. The heartwarming comedies that Sundance audiences go wild for. And especially that letter-writing scene that has been the pitfall of so many directors in the past. But, armed with impeccable comic timing, a deep intelligence, the courage to be open to goodness, and that irresistible openheartedness and earnestness, Josh Radnor does have a knack for pulling off the improbable.