Last year at Sundance, Josh Radnor was the toast of the festival with his second directorial effort, the warmly received "Liberal Arts." Now, Radnor returns to Sundance in a far less stressful role: a supporting part as Jeff, husband to Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) in "Afternoon Delight," a movie about a sexless marriage that gets interesting again (for better and worse) once Rachel invites a prostitute (Juno Temple) to live with them.
Full disclosure: this is the fourth time that I've interviewed Radnor and there is, at the very least, a small sense of familiarity between the two of us. Radnor is an interesting case study as far as career crossroads are concerned: an actor who is nearing the end of a long, successful run on a popular situation comedy ("How I Met Your Mother" will end after its next season) and has directed two full-length features -- "Happythankyoumoreplease" and the aforementioned "Liberal Arts" -- both of which won praise at Sundance but, unfortunately, never found an audience in theaters. (That's something Radnor is still trying to figure out.)
Last year at Sundance, we were on beanbags at that house.
Oh, yeah, the house! I remember that.
Is it a lot less pressure being here as an actor and not as a director?
It's super fun. It's super fun. Yeah.
Do you get to see movies?
I saw four movies, which -- I never got to see movies when I was here before.
In the past you've been the toast of the festival as a director.
Well, there's a thrill to bringing your own work. You know, when I showed "Liberal Arts," it's true it's a collaborative effort, but my fingerprints are kind of over everything. Whereas here, I describe it as the difference between being the violinist in an orchestra versus being the conductor of the orchestra. You know, you're directing, you're conducting. Here, I'm contributing to the overall sound. I'm contributing, you know, as well as I can.
I assume there's positives and negatives to being on both sides.
Yeah, yeah. And sometimes, you just want to play in that orchestra and other times you need to conduct it. But I'm having a great time, just because I feel like I'm having more of a quintessential Sundance experience this time. I've gone to parties, I've heard music, I've seen all my old friends.
You're not as busy, I'm guessing.
Well, I've been actually very busy, but not scheduled to within an inch of my life doing press. You know what I mean? But it's self-generated busyness.
It's interesting seeing you in a movie that you didn't direct -- just to see what kind of roles you're looking for outside of your "How I Met Your Mother."
I mean, I don't have an overarching design. You know, I'm not saying, "Oh, because I play a good guy on TV, I need to suddenly be villainous in a movie." I look at it more like: does this role has a kind of urgency for me in terms of, "can I not say no to it for whatever reason?" I'm in a nice position, because if I can say no to something -- like, I mean, I don't have to do something "just because." I mean, certainly, you're not doing independent films to make money. And, you know, there wasn't a design on, like, "Oh, I want to play a guy who's older or a guy who has kids."
Well, you're definitely playing someone who is 38 in this movie.
Yeah. And I feel like on the series, I'm playing someone younger, in many ways. And there's a frustration to that and there's also a kick to it, because it's fun because you can be actually goofier and sillier than you would normally be -- and kind of more immature. But, at the same time, there's a part of you that also wants to act your own age. You know? So it felt like a more mature role than I've been able to play.
You're kind of an enigma to me as far as where you're going to go after "How I Met Your Mother." I know you like directing.
You know, I might share your confusion, honestly. Yeah, I don't know. If I'm feeling something, I have a lot of different ways to express it, you know? I can write an article about it. I can write a screenplay about it. I can act in someone's thing. There's a number of different avenues that I can go down to express something, and I feel that that I'll be leaving the show in a very good place for me. You know, I probably won't be playing a young, single guy looking for love in the city for my next part. Like, there are certain things you don't want to do again.
I feel you've explored that pretty well.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I really don't know what I'm going to be doing -- and I really like that because I feel like I'm open to surprise. You know, surprising myself and being surprised.
You mentioned "Liberal Arts." It got such a great reaction at Sundance last year. And then when it comes out in the normal world, it just kind of like came out and just kind of went away.
Why doesn't a movie like that catch on?
I don't know. I mean, I literally don't know. I've actually been talking to people and I've said, "I need to understand film distribution better, because I really don't understand much."
That movie should have done a lot better.
Yeah. No, I know. Actually, it did very well on VOD and it's doing extremely well on iTunes and Amazon. The DVD's selling very well. So, it's being seen. It's just the theatrical model, for whatever reason, we couldn't get people to the theater to see it. And as a filmmaker, I'm trying to unhook myself from this idea that unless you have a brilliant, long, enormously lucrative theatrical run, that your movie somehow failed. And I don't believe that. I think both my movies have a kind of timeless quality to them. You can watch "Happythankyoumoreplease" now and be just as affected by it as in 2010 or whatever. They're aging well --so I'm building them to be sturdy. So I don't care if it takes my movies a long time to be found. I mean, my ego gets bruised and I feel like, Wait a second. Why? These movies are so euphorically embraced in Park City. I mean, genuinely, you know? And then they get knocked around by critics when they go out in the world. And I just feel like, I don't know, I feel like it's training me for something.
Did you feel like "Liberal Arts" got kicked around by critics?
I feel like it got less kicked around than my first movie, but it still got knocked. And I think in some ways, it gets unfairly knocked. I make movies about people transforming and they're not beholden to a kind of cultural storyline about how dysfunctional we are. They're actually opening to the possibility of us kind of growing up and transforming, which I think "Afternoon Delight" is also about. So that's why I think I responded to the script, because it shows transformation. But I think that the people who are finding "Liberal Arts" right now, it feels to me like they feel like they're discovering this like it's theirs -- like it's this little secret. No one was forced into seeing it. Sometimes movies take off and it becomes you can't participate in the cultural dialogue unless you've seen that movie. And these movies feel like people love them in a way that it's like your favorite band. And like I said, any way people want to see this movies, I am fine with. It just feels like there are so many ways to see a movie nowadays. And people are going to keep discovering it, and that's fine with me.
Again, I was really surprised by the box office.
I don't understand how much money it needed to kind of bolster it.
What have people told you when you've asked them about distribution?
I actually asked very pointedly -- and they haven't gotten back to me. I went into this bookstore in DC called Politics and Prose, which is one of the best bookstores in the country. And they were excited to see me and they were happy I was there. And, you know, they knew the show -- and they didn't know the movie. And I talked to the people distributing it and I said, "We need to get in touch with readers." Because in my opinion, there's never been as full-throated a defense and celebration of reading in movies that I can think of as "Liberal Arts." It is about books and reading and words on a page. You know, that is really a huge part of that movie. And I thought, Man, if these people don't know about this movie, we didn't do something right. So again, I don't know how to do this better. I'm still learning. I mean, obviously, I would love some huge impresario to take control of my movies and just say, "We're taking this all the way to the moon."
You just said earlier that you think by the time "How I Met Your Mother" ends, I guess, next season, you'll feel like you're in a good spot.
You've directed two movies at this point. I mean, I feel that's better than just playing Ted Mosby-type roles in movies on the side. After the show ends, do you feel you can write your own ticket a bit?
Well, I can write my own scripts. I mean, I can sit down and write stuff for myself. It's also a nice thing, because there's that tough catch-22 about, "You can't direct unless you've directed, but how do you direct unless they let you direct." And I feel like I've directed two features, that, you know, are well received. So I feel like whether it's a script I wrote or someone else wrote, I'm in a position where I can say, "You know what? I've done this before."
Directing-wise, what do you want to do next? Are you writing again?
I'm writing two scripts. I had an old idea that I returned to -- I wrote on a tear for a month, when I wrote about two thirds of it. It's too big to get together for this hiatus. I need a substantial amount of money -- and it's got some visual effects and a big star in it.
So this is a little different than what you've done before.
This is very different -- but I can't get it together for now.
I mean, it would be a little bit of animation. A little bit of kind of like a hybrid-y thing, but only in certain sections. I'm being very cryptic because I'm very superstitious -- so that's why I won't really tell you what it's about. But it's too big to get together quickly. I need more time to write it and I need more time to figure out who I'm going to be making it with. Then I'm writing something smaller that is kind of designed for speed. I'm trying to write something that has very few locations, very few characters so I can really -- I want to keep shooting. You know?
I'm surprised you're not filming something right now.
Well, if I film something this summer, which would be tough to do but it's possible. You know, a movie every two years -- especially with the show -- feels like pretty productive. But, yeah, I'm really happy when I'm writing. When I'm being creative and when I have something that I can put down. You know, if you go out and you overhear a conversation or you have a thought, you have a receptacle to go home and say, "Oh, this would be great in this script." Your antenna's out in a different way, and I love that time.
I get the impression that another television show doesn't really interest you.
I think that it would have to be such a can't-say-no kind of opportunity. And I don't know about [devoting] 10 months of the year on a television show. I want to have more time for doing my own stuff and working with other people. The idea of working on features -- my own and other people's; a month here and two months here -- it appeals to me a little bit, especially after doing this one thing for so long. As much of a blessing as it is, it has been this one thing. And I think a lot of actors or creative people have a restlessness to keep going into new things -- challenging things. So I'm looking forward to that time where I can go from this to this to this to this and look back on my year and say, "Wow, there was a lot of variety in the things I was doing."
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.