Josh Radnor wrote, directed and stars in "Liberal Arts." (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
When "How I Met Your Mother" star Josh Radnor attended Kenyon College, a private liberal arts school in a tiny Ohio town, he never wanted to leave. He loved starring in campus theater productions and the long nights discussing John Updike and Raymond Carver with classmates.
He did everything he could to prolong the collegiate experience — becoming a tour guide for prospective students, helping the admissions office interview applicants. And when he graduated, he went right back to school, enrolling in an acting program at New York University. But, like it or not, he eventually had to go out on his own.
"I was suddenly unhooked from the academic calendar and just missed meal plans and living a life of the mind," the actor, 38, recalled of leaving academia. "It was a big adjustment just to learn how to feed myself and figure out how to be an adult without that regimented schedule."
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That kind of culture shock and a later return visit to the Kenyon campus resulted in "Liberal Arts," which Radnor wrote, directed and stars in. In the independent film, which hit theaters here Friday, Radnor plays Jesse, a thirtysomething college admissions counselor who heads back to Kenyon to celebrate his favorite professor's retirement. When he arrives on campus, he meets a wide-eyed 19-year-old sophomore named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), and the two fall for each other despite the considerable age difference.
Olsen, who attended NYU, said she initially responded to the script because she felt it captured her natural speaking style. "Josh and I," she said, "we're both academic, and sometimes that can come off as esoteric or pretentious."
Audiences at the "Liberal Arts" premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January praised the film's relatable nature, and the movie has been greeted warmly by critics (The Times' Betsy Sharkey called it "a light and lively comedy of manners about college, literature and a midlife crisis that hits earlier than expected").
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Radnor's 2010 directorial debut, "HappyThankYouMorePlease," didn't fare as well with critics. And after a tepid reaction from buyers at Sundance two years ago, that film barely got a theatrical release, grossing just over $200,000 by the end of its brief run. ("Liberal Arts" may not fare that much better at the box office: Over the weekend, it debuted with just $30,000 from four locations.)
"In my insecure moments, I feel like at first people thought I was just an actor from a TV show who was making a movie," said the actor, sitting in the living room of the Hollywood Hills home he shares with his girlfriend, actress Julia Jones. He was surrounded by a variety of spiritual paraphernalia, including an altar decorated with a menorah, a statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha and a vase filled with carnations.
Radnor, who has been practicing meditation for 10 years, seems far more grounded than Ted Mosby, the character he has portrayed on "How I Met Your Mother" for the last seven years. On the popular CBS sitcom, Radnor's Ted is a hopeless romantic — the fiercely loyal guy among his group of friends who has so idealized love that he struggles to find his perfect girl.
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"It's funny that Josh got onto a long-running TV show," said his childhood friend Jesse Hara, who produced both of Radnor's films, "because part of what Josh loves so much about it is that there's a schedule and a regimented lifestyle to it. He's a good student."
Still, with the program entering its eighth season, its unclear whether Radnor and the rest of the cast, which includes Jason Segel and Neil Patrick Harris, will sign on for another year.
"It's the kind of thing where you have to acknowledge the blessing of the show that brought you a certain level of stability and recognition, that helped lead to all of these other things that are very seductive," said Radnor. "I have four months of the year to play with in terms of writing and directing, which is really what I'm loving now. Then your mind goes, 'What if I had 12 months of the year to myself?'"
Were that to be the case, Radnor says he'd choose to step away from television for a while to make films full-time. He's already working on another screenplay, and although this one is a bit less autobiographical, he said he does work best when he writes from his own experience.
"I'm a little less hungry as an actor than I used to be," Radnor acknowledged, reflecting on his most recent filmmaking experience. "When you're a director, you're the conductor of the orchestra, and when you're an actor, you're playing the violin. There's a thrill to each of them, but as the conductor, you get the fuller sound."