Q&A: Audiences Swoon for Josh Radnor’s ‘Liberal Arts’ at the Sundance Film Festival

Director Josh Radnor at the premiere of Liberal Arts. Photo by Calvin Knight.

Bridgette Bates

On Sunday afternoon, when writer-director Josh Radnor debuted his second feature film, Liberal Arts, to a liberally enthusiastic audience at the Sundance Film Festival, the Eccles erupted with a sustained explosion of applause, laughter, and full-on whistles that lasted throughout the entire screening, culminating in a standing ovation.

Radnor’s first film happythankyoumoreplease premiered in the Dramatic Competition at the 2010 Festival and took home the Audience Award. And judging by last night’s screening, his follow-up appears poised to follow a similarly crowd-pleasing trajectory.

Radnor, best known for his lead role in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, wrote, directed, and stars in Liberal Arts, which follows the story of Jesse Fisher, a dejected, 35-year-old New Yorker, who returns to his college to pay tribute to his favorite professor (Richard Jenkins) who is retiring. Jesse falls for an ebullient 19-year-old student (Elizabeth Olsen) who shakes Jesse out of his slump.

A nostalgic ode to college, the film takes place on the leafy campus of Kenyon College (Radnor’s alma mater) and is filled with love, life, and learning; plus, two Buddha-esque Zac Efron cameos, and the occasional binger. Radnor as well as fellow actors Olsen, Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro, and Kate Burton were present for the high-spirited Q&A following the film excerpted below.

For the actors as well as the director, what is it like to work on a television show verses a film?

Radnor: Allison Janney was on a television show. (Jokingly turns to Janney) Weren’t you? (Audience applauds and laughs.)

Janney: In a film like this you don’t have a lot of time to rehearse. You just get in there and do it. When I was on a show like West Wing (audience applauds) I didn’t know how long that was going to last. I would check in with people, ‘Am I still playing the same character?’ It was such a luxury to be on a television show that lasted that long, and to be an actor that has a steady job is extraordinary. But doing this film was also unbelievably rewarding. To just jump in and trust Josh, who is such a wonderful director and is so passionate about what he does – it’s fun to be around people who love what they do. I like it all. But I like when I get paid money too (Audience laughs).

Radnor: (To Janney kiddingly) What are you saying?

My editor, Michael Miller, mentioned a great thing, ‘In a movie, you have ninety minutes to two hours and everyone has to resolve their arc, so there’s a complete journey. In a TV series, no one’s arc can ever be resolved on some levels.’ And they [How I Met Your Mother] are really trying to keep my search going (audience laughs). People get mad at me as if I had something to do with it.

The story has every emotion you could possibly feel. How did all the parts come together?

Radnor: I have this idea that a really good, positive, nourishing time on set will somehow show up [on screen]. I am also big on gratitude – my whole first movie was dramatically about giving gratitude. So no matter how bad my day was, I went around and thanked everyone by name. That was something I learned from Pam Fryman, my director on How I Met Your Mother, who is an amazing example of being a gracious leader.

A movie is not just a movie—I read this somewhere before—but it’s also a documentary of the people who made it at that time in their lives. It’s like a little time capsule. I do my best work in a positive environment, so I try to make people feel like they can do their best work.

A question for Elizabeth Olsen (audience applauds): It’s another amazing performance that you’ve given on the screen at Sundance, can you talk about what it was like making this movie?

Olsen: I didn’t want to put myself through torture after doing three really traumatic movies. I wanted to do something fun and lighthearted… where you could say funny lines with great syntax. Josh and I, and many of the people on this stage, have the same agent, and she showed me these pages when he only had 40 of them. Ever since I read it, I wanted to do it. He probably didn’t press for me at first.

Radnor: (Jokingly shrugs to Olsen) I didn’t know you were my crush yet (Audience laughs).

Q: (Referring to Radnor’s introduction where he thanked his parents and mentioned they had cameos.) It’s great you put your parents in the movie, where were they?

Radnor: My dad was the guy sitting behind me at the retirement dinner and my mom gives the withering, disapproving look at the end of the retirement dinner. (Audience laughs) She’s a natural.

Q: What did you enjoy the most about directing this movie?

Radnor: I like getting to work with people I admire so much. I wrote this part for Richard—he did a favor for me in my first movie and did a small part, so I was desperate to work with him more extensively. I didn’t know I wrote this part for Lizzy, but I did. And I’ve always been such a huge Allison Janney fan, and she also went to Kenyon College, so it was great that we both got to come back to our alma mater to film. I come from theatre, and ensembles are where I came of age. I like being a part of something and having a common purpose where you are all in it together.

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