Get Out of Josh Radnor’s Way
On Hollywood's strategically arranged calendar, large-scale potential blockbusters begin to surface in March. This year, a pair of expensive spring spectacles proves this point: Battle: Los Angeles, a massive alien invasion flick, and Sucker Punch, an all-sexy-young-girl survival epic set in dream worlds and overflowing with samurai, dragons, zombies and Gatling guns.
But amid the extraterrestrial anarchy and chicks-with-guns phantasmagoria comes Josh Radnor’s directorial debut, Happythankyoumoreplease. Also written by the Bexley, Ohio, native, Happythankyoumoreplease is an intimate, funny and warmhearted look at six twentysomethings coming of age in Manhattan; the film won the Audience Award after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010. It’s exactly the kind of movie Radnor would want to see this March if he hadn’t made it. “I like movies that feel relatable, where I can locate myself emotionally,” says the 36-year-old. “I’m not someone who’s going to call you up and say, ‘Let’s go see this big comic book movie adaptation that just opened.’”
Dialogue-heavy character studies are nothing new for Radnor. Since 2005, he’s starred on ABC’s hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother, about, of course, metropolitan-located friends dealing with relationships and other dramatic facts of life. Thanks to the perks of an R-rating, Happythankyoumoreplease is a bit more provocative, yet there are unavoidable similarities. “Maybe it’s laziness on my part,” he says, with a laugh, about the commonality. “I don’t want to research how the FBI was catching criminals in the 1950s. Things like that don’t really interest me. I want to work on things that are emotionally close to me, and this movie and How I Met Your Mother both fall into that same kind of world.”
Radnor’s partiality toward more stripped-down fare stretches back to his high school days. During his sophomore year, Radnor — son of a now-retired trial lawyer (his father) and elementary school teacher (mother) — tried out for a school musical, following his older sister’s lead. Though he was a novice on stage, Radnor snagged a lead role. Suddenly enamored by acting, he then worked at a theater in Columbus, Ohio, over the summer. “I didn’t know any actors growing up; no one left Bexley, Ohio, and said, I’m heading for Broadway!’ or, “I’m heading for Hollywood!’” Radnor says.
In 1992, Radnor enrolled at Ohio’s Kenyon College. There, he won the coveted Paul Newman Award, an honor named after the college’s most respected alum, the Academy Award–winning actor, and given to the institution’s best male performer. After graduating from Kenyon in ’96, he entered the M.F.A. program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, placing him in the city in which he met an agent and began auditioning for television pilots. Radnor remained in theater as much as possible, even starring in a Broadway adaptation of The Graduate in 2002. Off stage, though, his efforts to break into network television weren’t as successful. “It was just day after day after day of auditioning and getting close to things but missing out,” he says. “Bombing things you thought you were going to be good at but you weren’t... Maybe it’s a little like childbirth, where you forget how painful it was, but there were days when I would come home and be like, What am I doing? This is brutal.”
Salvation fortunately came in the form of How I Met Your Mother. “Once we started shooting the pilot, everything just came together,” Radnor recalls. “We felt the chemistry between the cast, and we felt like we had really smart people creating the show. It just felt like, Okay, this might be the one.” How I Met Your Mother is currently in its sixth season, while running endlessly in syndication. “People really feel enthusiastic about it in a totally sincere way. It’s amazing to be a part of something that’s so beloved. I’m also aware that a lot of people don’t watch it. [Laughs] It hasn’t overtaken the world, but the people that do love it, like, really, really seem to love it.”
The origins of Happythankyoumoreplease date back to How I Met Your Mother’s first season, which is when Radnor began working on the screenplay. Two years’ worth of writing led to two more years spent meeting with actors and raising the finances. “There’s just an issue with first-time directors,” he says. “Some actors just won’t work with first-time directors, as a rule. And then it’s the catch-22 of how do you become a second-time director, then?” Luckily, NYC-based independent film production and finance company Paper Street Films stepped in and supported Radnor’s directing wish. Over the course of 22 days in summer of 2009, the rookie auteur shot Happythankyoumoreplease, which co-stars familiar faces Malin Akerman (Watchmen) and Kate Mara (127 Hours).
The production wasn’t without its first-time jitters. “My [director of photography] said something amazing to me after I freaked out during a production meeting; I just thought that people were going to ask me questions for a month and I wouldn’t know any of the answers,” Radnor says. “He was like, ‘If you know all the answers to something, there’s no reason to make a movie. Making a movie is about not knowing, and showing up and figuring it out.’ And that really liberated me.”
With his first movie in the can, Radnor is already looking ahead to his next director’s job, a self-written and recently completed screenplay that’ll no doubt remain small in scale yet rich with emotional interplay. “Doing [How I Met Your Mother] and trying to create my own work feels like a really good balance right now,” he says. “Would I like to have a big amazing film career? Sure, of course, but I also feel pretty happy with where things are going right now. It’s so easy to get dissatisfied in this industry and talk about where you’re not, and where you’d wish to be, but sometimes you have to stop and appreciate what’s going on right now.”
(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of ANTENNA.)