Josh Radnor is whisking me around the globe with vivid reminiscences of his travels. We are in a snug corner of a West End hotel, and Radnor, who hails from the American Midwest, has reached Peru in his narrative. It was here that he was jolted awake one night by a sudden inspiration — specifically, a single line of dialogue that popped into his head: “Put some armour around that gooey little heart of yours.” He spent the next hours weaving the line into a sequence for a new script, one featuring a caustic woman professor at a small, upscale American college. It would grow into his second feature film, Liberal Arts, and the splendid Allison Janney would play the acid academic. More of that later.
Radnor then whizzes us on to Maui, where, several years ago, he ensconced himself in the house of Jason Segel, his co-star in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother. It was there that he started writing his first feature film, a comedy called Happythankyoumoreplease, which went on to be a hit at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Then we move on to Poland and Spain, countries where he is regularly recognised and accosted by local fans of his Emmy-winning sitcom, and on through the forests of the Amazon — the point being that, for Radnor, wanderlust is a way of life, an experiential conduit to personal and intellectual growth.
“When you’re living in LA, you tend to think the same thoughts all the time,” he says, sipping a demitasse of English breakfast tea. “When you shake it up and travel, it interrupts your rhythms and inspires you to think in a different way.”
That sounds rather grand for a man whose small-screen life revolves around a sitcom about the zany misadventures of a college architecture teacher named Ted, who hangs out with four friends in bars, looking for true love. Yet Radnor calls How I Met Your Mother, now in its eighth season, his “patron”. He points out: “It allows me to say no to things I’d rather not do, go to places I’d like to see and take time off to figure out what I’d rather be doing.”
Like two of his characters, Ted in HIMYM and Jesse Fisher in his new film, Liberal Arts, Radnor up close is both a tiny bit dorky and wittily amusing. (Evidence of both? He once dragged his girlfriend on a walking tour around Vienna, to all the locations Richard Linklater used in Before Sunrise.) In Liberal Arts, the 38-year-old drops a few years to play a 35-year-old admissions counsellor from New York City who becomes crippled by nostalgia when he returns to his Midwest college for a professor’s (Richard Jenkins) retirement party, and slips into an inappropriate romance with a sophisticated sophomore, played by the rising star Elizabeth Olsen.
Taking its name from that peculiar American undergraduate degree in which wide-ranging study yields searching intellects and limited job prospects, Liberal Arts was inspired by a trip Radnor made to his own alma mater, Kenyon College. “But if you’re asking whether I slept with a 19-year-old student when I went back, I did not,” he says, smiling. “I went back to show my first movie, and I just had this horrifying realisation that I was considerably older than everyone there. It was that time in life where you suddenly feel old, or older. I couldn’t figure out how all this time had passed.”
Raised in Ohio, in a conservative Jewish household (“My childhood wasn’t exactly Dickensian”), Radnor attended Orthodox schools and had romantic visions of a New York stage actor’s life — “A few Law & Orders, maybe a Woody Allen movie one day” — until circumstances brought him to Los Angeles in 2003. He hit the jackpot two years later with How I Met Your Mother. His roots are strong: he belongs to Reboot, a Jewish networking group whose members are whisked out of state for theological pondering. There’s a strong moral backbone, too, to Liberal Arts: Jesse opts not to sleep with Olsen’s Zibby when he discovers a particular personal detail — unexpected decorum in a tale of modern-day youth.
“I’m interested in virtue as a motivating force for a person,” Radnor says. “We’re in a time where everything is permissible, so it’s almost revolutionary to show a character imposing their own barriers — ‘I won’t cross this line.’ We all have to weigh the consequences of our behaviour.”
Radnor’s film has an old-fashioned vibe — Facebook and Twitter don’t get a look-in. Instead, this is a world of old books, classical music and reflections on poetic notions of honour, in a gilded citadel of learning. In one comic sequence, Jesse unleashes a verbal barrage against anyone who finds literary sustenance in the Twilight novels. “I’m really not trashing Twilight readers,” says Radnor, whose girlfriend, the actress Julia Jones, pops up in both Breaking Dawn films, “but I did enjoy writing that scene, because I could argue both sides.”
Radnor’s biggest challenge on Liberal Arts was stamina-related. “Certain days, I just didn’t want to be acting,” he says wearily. Not that you’d know it to watch his film, in which he is the cuddly mensch personified. Comparisons with Woody Allen might seem glib — he’s an intellectually avid, neurotically funny Jew who, in Liberal Arts at least, prefers younger women — but he is the transparent influence on Radnor’s style. “Don’t overstate the comparison,” he warns. “I love a lot of his movies, but I also get angry at many of them. There’s an antagonistic line about Woody in my first movie, and one journalist asked me, ‘Were you, as Freud says, trying to kill your father?’”
Radnor has a craving for metaphysical exploration, describing his search as “incredibly broad”. “I’ve been reading Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, which is this fusion of all mystical traditions and getting at the heart of what they’re pointing to.” He is even plotting a memoir about his spiritual awakening in the Brazilian jungle, which he calls “Eat, Pray, Love for those who would rather be reading McSweeney’s”. It sounds ominously dire, but how many sitcom actors can say that?
Is Radnor feeling jaded about How I Met Your Mother, which is still sailing towards its final revelation of which girlfriend Ted ends up marrying? He loves the job security, but wants to wallow more in the angst of low-budget film-making. “Feeling a little dissatisfied can be great fuel,” he muses. “However, that’s also one of the great traps of life, thinking, ‘I should be somewhere else other than where I am.’ ”
Radnor is good at arguing both sides of every equation, which means that staying the star of a snuggly sitcom while working as an indie film-maker is an achievable ambition. Nobody is forcing him to choose, for now. Just don’t ask him where he wants this path to lead. “I feel as if my idea of what I’d like to happen is always going to be less interesting than what actually happens,” he observes. “I like being open to that weird feeling of letting something other than intention guide you.”
So it shouldn’t be at all surprising to discover that the script Radnor is now writing, with an eye to its becoming his third film, is “defiantly not a romantic comedy”, and that he won’t be starring in it. He stays vague on details, but reveals that it is inspired by the Huxley tome he is voraciously consuming; and that London is just a short detour on his way to the Continent, to seek out the mental nourishment he needs to finish the job.