BH Interview: 'Liberal Arts' Director Navigates Career, College Nostalgia

Josh Radnor says carving out a career in Hollywood comes down to which voices in your head one takes seriously.

“Making a living in show business is very difficult. A lot of people get defeated by the voices in their own head,” Radnor, the star of the long-running “How I Met Your Mother” and a promising film director, tells Big Hollywood.

He recalls what an uncle told him when he revealed his intentions to become an actor – “I hope you’re good at waiting tables.”

“That’s entirely unhelpful,” he says. “You have to let some voices in and keep some out … a lot of it is giving yourself permission to say, 'I have a right to do this. This is where I’m headed.’ No one’s going to give you that permission but yourself.”

That may sound a tad New Age-y, but it’s clearly working for Radnor. The sitcom star made a charming debut as writer/director with 2010’s “Happythankyoumoreplease,” and his latest film brims with insight and self-confidence.


“Liberal Arts,” opening in wider release this weekend, finds Radnor starring, directing and writing a May/December romance that shouldn’t make audiences feel too uncomfortable. Just a little.

Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year old college applications specialist who visits his alma mater and falls for a 19-year old co-ed (Elizabeth Olsen). Jesse knows the age gap is too large to be ignored, but he can’t help falling for a college cutie with an old soul and (mostly) great taste in literature.

Can an appreciation for the "Twilight" sage come between them?

The actor turned auteur knew from the start of the project he didn’t want to get bogged down in the “ick factor,” the notion that his film’s main relationship would turn away audience members.

So he wrote Jesse as being tormented by his attraction and unwilling to ignore the ramifications of their age and lifestyle chasm.

"That creepy male fantasy, that’s not what this movie is," he says.

Olsen helped make Jesse’s romantic impulses more understandable.

"She does have this collision of elements about her that are perfect in the role," he says of Olsen, who made a dramatic splash last year in "Martha Marcy May Marlene."

"For all her old-soul wisdom, she also has this absolute goofiness that comes out once in a while," he says.

College movies typically involve toga parties, beer bashes and other R-rated antics. Radnor says he experienced some of those clichés, but they didn’t resonate like other parts of his college days.

"I encountered new ideas and new perspectives, like having your mind blown by a brilliant professor or brilliant insight," he says. "[College is] getting outside your thought system, learning to live with a paradox. If you do that, it leads to a richer, more enjoyable life. it leads you to be employed."

In addition to his film and TV work, Radnor has appeared on Broadway in the 2002 run of "The Graduate." For now, Radnor refuses to declare a career major.

"I get asked to choose a lot of what am I … is there a form I have to fill out?” he asks. “I love the theater. It’s my favorite place to be as an actor, but I’ve certainly gotten bit by directing bug. It feels the most exciting to me. It’s the least explored."

Radnor, who says he conquered his own college nostalgia at the age of 27, shot “Liberal Arts” where he graduated - Kenyon College in Ohio. The film’s crew, featuring folks from New York and Los Angeles, were a little shell shocked to be on such an isolated campus.

“I told them, ‘in a few days, you’re never gonna wanna leave,’” he says.


Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies


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