Josh Radnor Talks Memories, Poetry and Liberal Arts
Published: Thursday, September 6, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 00:11
At long last, Liberal Arts, the very first “Kenyon” movie and second feature film by Josh Radnor ’96, premiered to the Kenyon community on Sunday, Sept. 2. The Collegian’s arts and entertainment editors sat down with Radnor for a talk about John Keats, filmmaking and not sleeping with his actual Romantic literature professor.
The Kenyon Collegian (TKC): In the movie, Jesse describes the class taught by Professor Fairfield as transformative. Was there a class like that for you at Kenyon?
Josh Radnor (JR): There were a few, but one thing I did take from my own story was how amazing my British Romantic literature class was. There was a really amazing professor here at the time named Ron Sharp. It was my senior year and, for whatever reason, those poets completely landed me at the right time — Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge and Blake. That is something that I do share with Jesse — that enthusiasm for those poets. Obviously, I never slept with Ron Sharp.
TKC: Do you have a favorite among those poets?
JR: Keats, I suppose. But, there’s something about Wordsworth. Wordsworth was the first poet we studied. I remember his “Ode on Immortality.” It felt like some sort of divine transmission when Ron Sharp took us through that poem. There’s that line about how “our birth is but a sleep and forgetting.” We come here and we actually forget where we just came from. I remember it exploded my idea of this being all there is. It was this very cosmically-expansive poem that made me feel both bigger and smaller at the same time. I really think that what he was getting at in that poem was something quite massive.
I draw inspiration from those poets — and also Emerson and Thoreau. A lot of them were reading the Bhagavad Gita and being inspired by Eastern thought, and that book is very important to me. I just love the idea of these Western minds wrestling with these Eastern concepts. And Ron Sharp actually told us the story that I stole for [Allison] Janney’s character about teaching “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and, instead of saying “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” he said “Beauth is trudy, trudy beauth.” He told us later that a lot of Romantics teachers have done that. When they say it out loud, for some reason, they switch it up. I completely ripped off that story from Ron Sharp.
TKC: When you were filming, did you get to visit old professors?
JR: Yes. Peter Rutkoff’s been a friend for years. Howard Sacks is still in touch. Some of these people were extras in the film. It was terrific. I feel that the longer you’re out of Kenyon, the dynamic changes between you and the professors. Suddenly, they feel more like colleagues. The playing field levels.
I stole a lot of Peter’s biography, including his name, for the Professor Hobart character, even though I wrote it for Richard Jenkins. I was always hearing Richard Jenkins’ voice in my head. The story about Hobart running away to France because he hated America, but it was actually because he had a Fulbright, was a Peter Rutkoff story.
TKC: When you were in college, how did you picture yourself as a 30-something?
JR: Oh man, if I did picture that at all, I think I really wanted to be an actor, and I wanted to be an actor in the theatre in New York. That was my dream. I think I was trying to temper my expectations a little bit. I thought that maybe, hopefully, I could be an actor who lives in New York City.
I would do plays all year-round and maybe do a Law & Order guest spot and maybe one day do a Woody Allen movie. I had this very romantic idea about what it would be like to be an actor in New York City.
A variety of things conspired to take me to the West Coast, where my career changed. I try to remind myself sometimes during my less charitable moments with myself, when I’m not feeling all that great for whatever reason, that my college self would be so supremely excited about what’s going on with me right now and my high school self would be over the moon.
That’s always a startling moment, because one of the things about Hollywood that’s really toxic is that you’re never successful enough. There are always people who are so much more successful than you, so it’s hard to just kind of pinch yourself and be grateful for where you are. It’s something that you have to work on constantly. I came to tell stories with film and the people around me are helping to support that. What else could I ask for?
TKC: Were you a drama major?
TKC: Do you have any advice for Kenyon students who want to act or to make films?