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Interview: Josh Radnor Returns to Kenyon College For ‘Liberal Arts’
CHICAGO – In “Liberal Arts,” the magical new film written and directed by Josh Radnor, characters have conversations that are actually worth listening to about subjects that are actually worth discussing. It reminds viewers of just how flat and perfunctory movie dialogue can become when it only serves to move along the plot.
Radnor stars as Jesse, a 35-year-old New Yorker who returns to his former school, Kenyon College (Radnor’s real-life alma mater), for his beloved professor’s retirement party, and becomes smitten with a 19-year-old sophomore, Zibby (played with beguiling radiance by Elizabeth Olsen). Hollywood Chicago spoke with Radnor about his love of classical music, his conflicting feelings toward Woody Allen and why he enjoys balancing film work with portraying Ted Mosby on “How I Met Your Mother.” Yet perhaps the best questions of all were inspired directly by Radnor’s dialogue.
HollywoodChicago.com: The script for your your first film, “Happythankyoumoreplease,” makes a sly reference to Woody Allen. Has he been an influence on your film work?
Josh Radnor: Well certainly. In some ways, you’re always looking around for inspiration and permission. You see that this person “did it and it can be done.” As an actor, I was starting to feel that there were certain parts of myself that were not being used, so then I started writing. The directing thing came about almost half-accidentally. I was urged by various people to attach myself as director for my first movie, and low and behold, I fell in love with it. It seems to draw on a lot of my skill set, not just professionally but interpersonally. Woody Allen is someone who showed me new things. In college, I watched a lot of Woody Allen. It’s funny because he’s both an inspiration and also someone I wrestle with and I get angry at [laughs]. I have this whole contentious relationship with him and he probably doesn’t know much about me at all.
Writer and director Josh Radnor.
Photo credit: Kevin Moss. An IFC Films Release
The biggest difference between me and Woody Allen is he’s directed over 40 films and is a towering genius of American cinema and I’ve only directed two, so I don’t want to overstate any comparisons. At his best, he was capturing a cultural moment and letting people into both his own psyche and his own really sharp view of the world and relationships. I can only hope to be doing something of that sort with my own work. All you can really do is try and be honest as much as you can. His worldview is so deeply different from mine. He really believes that the world is chaos and orderless and I believe the opposite. I think there is some kind of elegance and order to the universe that we probably can’t see most of the time, but I believe it’s there. I draw a great deal of inspiration from him as a storyteller and obviously as a comic genius.
HollywoodChicago.com: What inspired you to use your own alma mater, Kenyon College, as the setting for “Liberal Arts”?
Radnor: A lot of college films are about the anarchic partying of college. I haven’t seen a film that was as directly about books and professors and classes and ideas and all these things that were really meaningful to me in college, not to say that I didn’t do my fair share of partying. There’s something about what college did to me in terms of my imagination. It altered me and challenged me and confronted me with ideas that I had never thought of before. I thought it was a fertile setting for a story like this. With Kenyon, you can’t beat the production design. I joked to someone that they had been working on the production design since 1824. In the film, I use classical music and talk about Wordsworth and Keats. There’s this feeling at Kenyon that the sturdy dependability of the architecture mirrors the sturdy dependability of the classics that you’re reading. So it all felt of a piece.
If Kenyon hadn’t let us film there, I would’ve been really heartbroken because it wasn’t just any chapel or any bookstore or any theater I was writing about—it was those particular places. I think I was able to photograph them with my DP in a different kind of loving intimate way than I would’ve some other college that I wasn’t really acquainted with. When I hit 35, I showed my first film at Kenyon and I was shocked because my memories of being at college were so vivid that it felt like it was yesterday, but suddenly I was nearly twice as old as all of the students there. So it was a little baffling. I started thinking about aging and nostalgia and growing up or not growing up and change. Both of my movies are, on some level, about accepting change and characters resisting change.
HollywoodChicago.com: One of your old teachers in the film, Peter (Richard Jenkins), required his students to read books that he personally hated, and you end up thanking him for it. What is the benefit of reading a book that may conflict with your own beliefs and tastes?
Radnor: I haven’t had anyone ask me about that. It actually came from my dear friend who was a history professor that the character is based on. He taught us a book for two weeks, and at the end, he revealed that he thought the book was crap and challenged us to say whether we bought this kind of thesis or not. But he taught the book for two whole weeks, and I just thought it was this amazing lesson in what a great teacher is. It’s not someone who has an ideologically rigid agenda about what they are going to teach. A great teacher is someone who confronts their students and themselves with ideas that they might not even agree with. Especially given that we’ve narrowed our list of where we get our information from, it feels like people have solidified in their positions. Rather than confronting someone with new ideas, they don’t even encounter new ideas. They’re just in this echo chamber of shared opinion. That’s the opposite of what a liberal arts education is about: taking it all in and wrestling with it and opening up to the idea that something and its opposite can be true all at the same time—living with paradox. Jesse tells Peter, “I love this experience of learning from you because you had us read books by authors that you hated.” He gets the value of that, and it’s important for him to let Peter know that.
HollywoodChicago.com: That’s how you grow as a person.
Radnor: Yes, absolutely. We have this idea that something is good if someone agrees with us, but not necessarily. The most fertile, robust environments come from where there’s a spirited disagreement. I just worry sometimes that we’re not in a fluid state culturally because we’re so locked down in our opinions that we can’t really hear anything anymore.
HollywoodChicago.com: That seems to be why Congress can’t get anything done.
Radnor: [laughs] Yeah.
Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Radnor star in Radnor’s Liberal Arts.
Photo credit: Jacob Hutchings. An IFC Films Release.
HollywoodChicago.com: Jesse applies the improv principle of “just say yes” to his own life, until he finds himself in a situation where he feels he has to say no. Has that principle enhanced your own work?
Radnor: [Spoiler Alert] Yeah, I always felt like the rules of improv were actually great life philosophy rules—this notion of saying yes and then adding something to it. But with that being said, it can only take you so far because, at a certain point, saying no also becomes very important [laughs]. I think we’re in a time where you can say yes to anything. The reveal of Ziggy being a virgin is a nice, surprising moment in the movie, but I also think that it speaks to a larger thing that I’m wrestling with. In the ’50s and ’60s, it was all about restriction and repression and the rebellion was about breaking free of that. Nowadays, it’s like that war has been fought and now you can do whatever you want. Anything is available to you. So it falls on each individual to create their own ethical code of conduct. A lot of movies are about justifying why an older guy would sleep with a younger girl, and I didn’t want to make that movie. I wanted to make a movie about a guy who was finally accepting how old he was rather than going down kicking and screaming.
HollywoodChicago.com: My favorite sequence in the film centers on the written correspondence between Jesse and Zibby as they connect over classical music. Where did that sequence come from?
Radnor: As a filmmaker, that’s the sequence that I’m most proud of. It’s one of those things that could only exist in a movie. I love how the music is underscoring everything and sometimes swells up. It was the first thing that my editor and I worked on. We spent about three and a half days getting the assembly of that together. I write while listening to music and it’s very difficult listening to music that has lyrics when you’re writing. It’ll either influence you or it disrupts the flow of things. I found that classical music is a great thing to write to. It seems to fire off different neurons and click you into a more lyrical space. In the last few years, I’ve fallen for classical music so when I was writing “Liberal Arts,” I was listening to a lot of classical music. At a certain point, it felt like the music that I was listening to as I wrote could be a really wonderful part of the movie.
The classical music shares the same space as those great poets and poems. I thought it would be really moving to have Zibby introduce Jesse to this music and watch how it affected him. It could’ve gone really wrong, it’s a very delicate sequence—it could’ve been very corny, somehow—and it really treads that line. It gets very close, but there’s also some good laughs in there about how the “Così Fan Tutte” piece makes everyone more attractive in New York. I’ve had a lot of people say that they’ve had a similar experience with classical music. I’ve found that one of the antidotes to losing your mind in traffic in LA is listening to classical music. It has a palliative effect and it can really calm you down.
HollywoodChicago.com: How has balancing your filmmaking with your acting on “How I Met Your Mother” enhanced your work overall?
Radnor: As complicated and interesting as that character is that I play on TV—and I do think that he’s written very well and has shown a lot of colors over the years—I’m still only drawing on a certain skill set, so different parts of me are feeling underused. I somehow find that when I’m editing my movies, for instance, I enjoy doing the sitcom a little bit more. It almost feels like a break from editing. I get to come in and play with these funny people and it gives me a little more balance. When I’m only working on the show—if I’m not writing something or editing something—I can get a little restless. My director Pam Fryman told me during the first season that “you’re never going to get everything you want creatively from this show.” No one does from anything. You’re going to have to find other ways to supplement it—whether it’s doing plays in the off-season or writing and directing. It’s helped me achieve some sort of balance and sanity to be doing these other things, and that’s not to say anything negative about the show. The convention of it just isn’t going to hit all those things that you need to have hit creatively.