Radnor’s ready to graduate

A scene from Liberal Arts
A scene from Liberal Arts

Launched into the TV spotlight with How I Met Your Mother, Josh Radnor is now establishing himself as a film star, writer and director. And it means going back to college, as SHEREEN LOW discovers

In the flesh, it’s difficult to differentiate Josh Radnor from his How I Met Your Mother alter-ego.

He is Ted Mosby through and through: from the preppy clothes (he’s wearing a navy blazer, blue shirt and jeans) to his mop of dark brown hair. Even Radnor’s way of speaking (he often thinks over words and re-starts mid-sentence) and mannerisms all scream Ted.

Having played the unlucky-in-love architect in How I Met Your Mother since 2005, the 38-year-old is now looking at a future beyond the TV series, with a second stint in the director’s chair.

Liberal Arts is a comedy drama which he wrote and in which he stars, alongside Elizabeth Olsen and Richard Jenkins.

And it’s no flash in the pan: when it premiered in the US it marked Radnor’s second standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival, following his directorial debut, happythankyoumoreplease, which won the festival’s audience award in 2010.

“A standing ovation at Sundance is something you can’t overstate. It is a thrilling moment in your life. I remember thinking both times, ‘Appreciate this. This is happening. Enjoy this. It doesn’t last that long’,” he says.

Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year-old who struggles to contain his feelings after a chance meeting with student Zibby (played by Olsen) during a visit back to university.

He admits a trip back to his old college inspired the film, but denies the story is based on his own experience.

“I think my movies are thematically autobiographical, not literally,” he says.

“It was the first time I had been back there in a while, and I suddenly realised I was considerably older than the students there, but the memories of being in college were so vivid and felt like yesterday. It was baffling and horrifying.”

He continues: “For Jesse, the acceptance has to do with his past - specifically his college years - and the painful suspicion that his best days are behind him.”

Like Jesse, Radnor had a ball at university, where he graduated with a degree in drama.

“College and I got along terrifically well. Maybe too well. Graduation felt less like a celebration than a banishment,” he admits.

He reveals that directing himself in both his films has been the most challenging thing he’s ever done, but adds: “I wrote the roles for myself, obviously, so I know where I need to be, and I depend on my producer to be another set of eyes.”

Radnor acknowledges there are some similarities between Ted and Jesse: “They’re both unapologetically erudite, and they both overthink things certainly. But Jesse is not obsessively on the hunt for a mate the way Mr Mosby is,” he explains.

Unlike Ted, the actor - who is rumoured to be dating fellow actress Julia Jones - is in no rush to settle down.

“I don’t have a timeline for wife, kids and all that stuff. It seems like a fairly big decision you don’t want to rush into,” he says.

The Ohio-born thespian has only compliments for leading lady Olsen, whom he describes as “fantastic”. He cast her before her stand-out turn in Martha Marcy May Marlene, following his agent’s recommendation.

“She kept me on my toes! She’s a very brilliant and intuitive screen actress, and it’s not something you can teach,” he says.

“There’s nothing you could ask of Elizabeth Olsen that she couldn’t deliver. She has the poise and comfort that it takes many actors years to achieve. I’m still learning how to do it myself.”

Zac Efron, of High School Musical fame, also makes a comedic cameo appearance as a hippy.

“We met at the Maui Film Festival two years ago, and really hit it off and had some great conversations,” he says.

“I think a lot of young actors have this kind of ironic, posing, cool, distant quality but he has this great sincerity, is really enthusiastic and wants to do good work. I think he’s really funny in this movie, and I wanted to de-Efron him.”

While he is best known for his role in How I Met Your Mother, Radnor has also appeared in TV shows such as ER, Six Feet Under and Law & Order, as well as being an accomplished Broadway actor.

He now hopes to make a name for himself as a filmmaker, much like Tootsie and Out Of Africa director Sydney Pollack, his idol.

“People think of the first film as an actor directing, whereas with the second, I feel more like a filmmaker,” he reveals.

“Making films to me is the most exciting thing and it feels like there’s so much more I want to do there. It engages all of me. There’s no part of me that’s jaded as a filmmaker. I’m still so enthusiastic about it and it all feels very new. In some ways, it’s like running home and saying, ‘Look at what I made at school today’.”

He has started writing a third film: “I don’t know if it would materialise yet. It’s so much stranger than anything else I’ve ever written. It could be a spectacular failure, or it could be pretty great,” he concedes.

While he’s obviously ready to move on, he’s aware that playing Ted is “a huge blessing”.

“I’ve gotten all the benefits from TV and it has helped me so much and it’s done so many wonderful things for me. It’s glib to say that I can walk away from it, but I’ve done eight years on a TV show that not many people get to do,” he says.

With the eighth series of How I Met Your Mother returning on US screens, and the ninth still up in the air, Radnor reveals he’s ready to say goodbye to his alter-ego.

“I think we’d be OK with that. If it’s the final season, I hope the ending will be satisfying,” he says.

“I have been living with this character for a long time, and I have this protective feeling about him.

“So I hope it’s everything he’s dreamed of.”