Q&A With Josh Radnor '96
Josh Radnor spoke with the Collegian about working with Lizzie Olsen, how Allison Janney is like a S
Published: Thursday, September 1, 2011
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
Josh Radnor '96 wrote, directed, produced and starred in Liberal Arts. His character Jesse returns to his alma mater and starts a relationship with a student. Radnor, who also stars in the television show How I Met Your Mother, made his film directorial debut in 2010.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space. The full interview is available online at www.kenyoncollegian.com.
Did the story or Kenyon filming plans come first?
Kind of neither. I went back last spring to show my first film Happythankyoumoreplease and while I was there, being there [just inspired me]. I mentioned these things to my producer, Jesse Hara and he said ‘that's a great movie' and immediately a light bulb went off and I saw this movie. I went to Spain for three weeks by myself last spring and just travelled around and I started writing the screenplay while I was there.
You never know how fast these things are going to move: from script to screen Happythankyoumoreplease took about 4 or 5 years. When something is working, the writing is a little more effortless and this was one of those occasions — I wrote the Liberal Arts script very fast. In about 3 or 4 months I had a first draft and then things just moved pretty fast in terms of getting financing for it.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought that I wrote it specifically for Kenyon. I wrote scenes in the chapel, in the theater, in Middle Ground, in the Bookstore. Once we were actually on the campus and location scouting, everyone kept saying, "Wow, this is the easiest location scout we've ever done," and I'm like "Yeah, because I wrote specifically for these places." There's no other place for it. This is where it needs to be filmed.
What was your return to Kenyon like? Which Kenyon did you represent in the movie: the current Kenyon or the one you remember?
One of the things about Kenyon is its sturdy dependability– you get back on campus and you're like, "Yep, this is pretty much how I remember things." There are obvious changes - we didn't have the athletic center when I was there and Middle Ground was called "The KC" and little things like where the hell are the magazines in the back of the Bookstore (because that was a big thing when I was there, to hang out and read magazines for hours and hours). But largely it feels like people who are at Kenyon now are having a very similar experience to what I had – just with more cell phones and Internet.
A lot of the movie is about a kind of timelessness or a kind of Eden or Brigadoon-esque quality to the College that you step into a world and it's just preserved, not much has changed. As with most of my movies, I really try not to drop too many modern references: there's no mention of Facebook and Twitter and any sort of modern fad thing going on because I want my movies to age well. One of the things about Kenyon is that the College ages well, it looks better over time. So I was really just trying to hook into that spirit and that spirit of the school.
How did you handle the relationship between the older college alum and the young student? How did you dodge the inherent creepiness of such a relationship?
I really wanted to preserve the integrity of both of these characters. It's more of a sweet, almost connection than an actual line-crossing. The character that I played has all those concerns that you asked about. It's not just some amoral guy, he's not un-tormented by this stuff. He asks himself, "Why am I so fascinated by this 19-year-old?" He asks her this question at one point — she says, "We connect very well" and he says, "I know, but I don't know if that's because you're advanced or because I'm stunted.'' I think it's that kind of thing.
How did you cast? Why did these actors fit the roles?
Some of this was just happy accident. I wrote this part, this professor that's retiring, I wrote it specifically for Richard Jenkins and, happily, he agreed to do it.
With Elizabeth, we also have the same agent, all three of us have the same agent. And I showed [my agent] the first 40-45 pages of the script and then she called be immediately after she read it and she said, "I have your Zibby. Her name's Elizabeth Olsen. I just started working with her and you're not going to find anyone better."
I didn't totally trust her because I thought, well she's [Olsen's] agent, she's just being a good agent. I met a bunch of people and I met Lizzie and [my agent] was right, she was just the person for the role.
Why did you cast Allison Janney?
For that part we had a long list of people that we had been discussing and when her name came up, it sort of leapt off the page. I think that's who this role is really supposed to go to. I'd met her once before, just very briefly, but I've always been such a fan of hers and I love the fact that she had gone to Kenyon and that we'd had all the same professors and performed on the same stages. Again, I was just so happy that she wanted to do it and we had so much fun. I adore her and in some ways she has no idea how good she is. I described her like a Stradivarius — any note that comes out of her, any note that you want to play, is just gorgeous.