College is a fulfilling experience for many young adults, as it offers students one last chance to debate new intellectual ideas before they enter the real world and become mature adults. It also allows them to explore romantic relationships with people happy to debate these ideas, and defend those they agree with and question those they oppose. Once these students graduate from college, they often struggle with their strong feelings of nostalgia for their education and youth, even though they couldn’t wait to grow up when they were younger. This is certainly the case with the main characters in the upcoming comedy drama ‘Liberal Arts,’ which was written and directed by actor Josh Radnor.
‘Liberal Arts,’ which will be released theatrically and on VOD on Friday, follows newly single Jesse Fisher (played by Radnor), a university admission counselor in his mid-thirties living in New York City. He returns to his Ohio alma mater for a retirement dinner for his favorite English professor, Peter Hoburg (portrayed by Richard Jenkins). While back on campus, Jesse has a chance meeting with 19-year-old Zibby (played by Elizabeth Olsen), a precocious undergrad who loves classical music, improv and the ‘Twilight’ books.
Meeting Zibby awakens long-dormant feelings of possibility and connection in Jesse, as the duo strikes up a long-distance romance. Although Zibby is mature behind her years, the large age difference between the two heavily weighs on Jesse’s conscience. As he debates starting a relationship with Libby, Jesse becomes torn between moving forward in life and holding on to the memories of his own unforgettable undergraduate career. His life is also put into prospective after he meets upbeat party animal Nat (portrayed by Zac Efron); depressed student Dean (played by John Magaro) and his former, feisty Romantics professor, Judith Fairfield (portrayed by Allison Janney).
Radnor and Olsen generously took the time to sit down and discuss what it was like filming ‘Liberal Arts’ together during a recent roundtable interview at New York City’s Crosby Hotel. Among other things, the two actors discussed the chemistry they quickly developed together on set, how closely they stuck to Radnor’s script while filming and which books have influenced their lives.
Question (Q): The two of you had some really great moments together, and the chemistry seemed really natural. Was that something that did come naturally between you two, or did you have to work at it?
Elizabeth Olsen (EO): I don’t think we worked much at it. You know what, the first time I auditioned, and we read through every single scene in the script together, it was naturally fun. We worked well together.
Josh Radnor (JR): Yeah. That’s what you’re looking for when you’re trying to cast a movie.
EO: That was our first time meeting each other.
JR: Yeah. Chemistry’s not something you want to point out if it’s there. You just want it to be there. If a script’s well written, truthfully written, and the right person shows up on both sides to play the scene, there will be chemistry there.
Even if the characters are fighting, there’s going to be the right chemistry, because everyone’s appropriately inhabiting the part. I think that’s what was going on with us.
Lizzy’s so perfect for the role that people think I must have written it for her. They even share a name, Elizabeth.
EO: No one calls me that! (laughs)
Q: How long did it take for you to realize you had chemistry? Did it happen right away?
JR: You start watching dailies, and say, oh, this is working. This is great. But you don’t really know until you get the footage together and start looking at everything.
But I think there was a feeling on set, and you could feel it in the air, that this is working. But you also have to be careful, because you can watch what you shot, and it could have felt amazing (when you’re shooting), but you go oh no (when you see it). But happily, what we suspected we were getting we were actually getting.
Q: Josh, when you’re watching the dailies, do you look at it as an actor or as the writer?
JR: It depends on what is in front of me that needs to be looked at. If I’m watching feedback and see my performance, I need to see that we got what we needed.
It’s rough, but editing myself in two movies (‘Liberal Arts’ and his 2010 directorial and writing feature film debut, ‘Happythankyoumoreplease’), and watching playback right away, got me over that. You know when you first hear yourself on tape, you go, that’s not how I sound! That’s a horrible sounding voice! (laughs) You go through that as an actor the first few times you watch yourself on camera, and you say, I don’t look like that! But I’ve gotten over that.
It’s not that I have an opinion, good or bad, about it, but I know that’s what I look like. But I know I’m capable of just as much bad acting as anyone. So the great thing about editing yourself is to sift through all the footage and pick what you think puts you in the best light.
I’m holding all of those things in my head all at once. I’m looking at the moment and the take, and I’m holding the whole thing in my head as I go through as a director.
Q: Did you stick to the script, or when the actors came in, did they offer changes?
EO: No, we stuck to the script. Someone asked me if we improvised any scenes, they said some scenes seemed improvised. I said, there’s no improv.
JR: Well, there’s a little, walking up and down Middle Path, we were improvising.
EO: Oh yeah, that was in it.
JR: Richard improvises quite a bit. Allison comes from the theater, so she sticks to the script. There were a few moments of improv in the movie, but we pretty much stuck to the script.
EO: I also feel like you write in a style, almost like a playwright would. So you almost don’t want to stray from it, because there’s a common language that everyone’s speaking. Whether it’s pace or intelligence, there is a smartness to it that I would ruin if I started speaking off hand.
JR: I also labor over each um or … They’re all in a specific place.
EO: Like a playwright.
JR: Right. When a character pauses, for instance, there’s a reason. My characters search around for the right way to say things. I think that was particularly appropriate for this kind movie. It’s about words and articulating different thoughts and ideas.
That sounds kind of dry, and that’s not what this movie’s really about. But that’s what they’re doing in this academic environment.
Q: Do you think you could have written this movie 10 years ago?
JR: No, I don’t think I would have been drawn to writing a movie about getting out of college at 25. It’s a whole lot different than writing it at 35.
EO: You’re like, thank God. (laughs)
JR: In some ways, I think I was in the midst of mourning college and getting out of college in the same way Jesse was. So I would have no perspective on it. I kind of kicked that college nostalgia in my late 20s.
I’m definitely not feeling it now. As much as I loved college and the experiences, I don’t want to go back.
Q: Elizabeth, were there any college experiences you had that you brought into your character?
EO: I had such a specific experience at NYU, I’m still a six-year college student there. I have two humanities left, which I’m finishing in January. I’m very happy to say that.
But I went to acting school with theater nerds. When we had academics, it was to get the academics done the fastest way possible, so that we could put more hours into rehearsal.
So it’s the most boring thing to say I related to it when I went to college, because I went to college just doing this all the time. I was rehearsing scenes and working on plays.
But I can relate to it because I went to a really great high school. I came from a really academic class, and my friends were all academic people, almost in a competitive way.
So to have the conversations that Zibby does with Jesse, I had that. I’m very much an academic person because of that experience in high school.
Q: Do you connect to Zibby emotionally?
EO: Emotionally, yes, she’s someone who wants to jump ahead, and go straight to being an adult. I did that my entire life, until now, and I’m like, I’m a child, and I’m happy being one.
JR: It lasts forever, by the way.
EO: What, wanting to be a child? (laughs)
JR: No, no, no, I’m kidding. It doesn’t.
EO: I feel like it kind of does, but obviously it doesn’t. But for right now, I feel more youthful than I did when I was 19 years old. When I was 19, I took myself way to seriously. (laughs) I feel like there’s something like that with Zibby. I took myself too seriously for too many years.
Q: Josh, the work you did on ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ how does that influence the work you want to do away from that, as a director?
EO: Well, it’s interesting. These films I feel are very tonally different. There’s some thematic overlap a little bit. But I care about similar things as the writers of ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ but it’s a different style or take.
Film allows me to ask some really big questions, and have some time and space to explore them. I love the form of it. When I write a film, there’s a very particular thing I’m messing with. Like the question or concern I’m dealing with has to be big enough for me to dedicate a year or two of my life to it. If the question’s not big enough or rich enough, I’ll lose interest in it.
For this one, I had a very specific idea of this guy goes back to his college campus and falls for this young girl, and has never quite gotten over college. That felt like fertile material for just starting something.
The more I worked on it, the professors started coming into focus. We introduced Janney’s character and Nat and Dean and the different characters. It started to go deeper into exploring themes of aging, and growing up or not growing up, nostalgia, accepting change and resisting change. All these things that were really interesting to me started coming out.
Q: The voices are so strong in the film. Where these the people you went to college with, or were they just floating in your head?
JR: You know, it’s kind of like you’re writing and imagining things. You go to write something, and you go, oh, I’m kind of writing this. You don’t realize you’re doing it.
If I put myself in college, and I go, okay, we’re in college. I had a friend who had a manic episode when we were in school. So that was some of the Dean stuff coming in.
I loved my British romantic literature professor, but we didn’t have an affair. (laughs) But that thing with Jesse loving British romantic literature was ripped from my biography. So little things find their way in. But largely, it’s imagined.
Q: Why did you have a beard in the film?
JR: Well, I could give you some fancy answers, like he was hiding a bit.
EO: Is that what you were thinking about? (laughs)
JR: Well, the thing is, I hate shaving. If I don’t have to shave everyday, I prefer not to, because I have so many things on my plate.
The other reason is when I do shave, I look a lot like the guy I play on TV. He doesn’t have a hunchback prosthetic chin (laughs), but I at least want to distinguish it a little bit.
Q: So far, you’ve written rite of passage stories, and on some level, you reflect yourself in your stories. What does it mean to you to go through your 30s?
JR: That’s a good question. I don’t know, it’s hard to contextualize. On some level, ‘Happythankyoumoreplease’ was a 20′s story, and this is a 30′s story. They’ve done these studies that say your 20′s are your most unhappy decade.
EO: Really?!? Oh my ghosh! (laughs)
JR: It’s true. There is an increase in happiness that people noted with each decade. It’s a great relief, because if you believe the media, you’re only happy when you’re young. (laughs)
But I found all the things I used to obsess over as a younger person, I’m not longer obsessed with. I have new concerns, but they’re a little more cosmic. They’re not as petty, it feels like.
There’s a bit in ‘Happythankyoumoreplease’ where he says every five years you realize what an a**whole you were five years ago. I found on some level for that to be true. I think I was putting that in as a little note to myself.
If you look back on this movie, and you think it was silly, that’s a good sign. You’re updating yourself a little bit.
But I’m attracted to rite of passage stories because I’m not interested in people shooting each other or being cruel to each other, even though the cruelty seeps in. I’m interested in people growing up. As I’ve said, my movies are about good people getting better at being themselves. That’s what’s interesting to me.
Q: There were books in the film the characters discussed, but they never mentioned the names. However, there were poets and songs that you mentioned by name. Was that a conscience decision?
JR: Yeah, it was entirely intentional, for a few reasons. One, proper nouns in films kind of clang on my ears. If it’s Jesse’s favorite book and Dean’s favorite book, the only reason they would turn and say “I love ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace’ is for the benefit of the audience. I wanted it to feel very real. If they started talking about a book they love, they would start talking about it in shorthand.
Also, if you don’t know ‘Infinite Jest,’ and you don’t know about David Foster Wallace, I don’t think it would lessen your enjoyment of the film at all. If you do know it, you’ll feel like a smartypants and feel happy, perhaps.
The other reason they don’t start naming books is because when you say “I love this book, this is the best book,” people who don’t know it feel alienated. Or people do know it, and say, “I didn’t like that book.” Opinions start kicking in.
It’s the same way I didn’t name the college, because I wanted it to be everyone’s college. I didn’t name the book, because I wanted you to bring your favorite book to it.
The thing about certain poets, and what Zibby talks about with the music, it felt like it was past, and so timeless, it was public domain. So you could talk about it, because Beethoven is like Shakespeare. They’re old classic voices that will be around for hundreds of years.
I was trying to create a movie that’s new and fresh, but also timeless at the same time. There aren’t any references to Facebook or Twitter. I was trying to create a movie that’s as timeless as the buildings that they’re walking through.
Q: Would you like people to walk away and read ‘Infinite Jest?’
JR: Oh, I don’t have an agenda. But I’m a big David Foster Wallace fan, so I’d be happy if people found him or classical music. But again, you’re just trying to draw on what’s appropriate for the storytelling, and those elements are really appropriate for the story. I was trying to make a really good movie.
Q: You shot the movie where you went to school, Kenyon College. Is there something in the film that alumni and current students would notice that general audiences wouldn’t?
JR: Well, I just did a screening for some Kenyon alumni. I said, you’re the only crowd that’s going to be watching this and saying, “you started driving at the Kenyon Inn, and you ended up at the Caples parking lot a lot quicker than you would normally.” (laughs) They’re the only ones who could notice little driving editing things.
There are little location things they’ll know that we don’t really draw attention to. Lizzy and I have a nice scene where we start walking around campus, and we walk behind the science building. It’s a little more hidden area, but people who went there will know what it is. But I don’t think there’s any secrets just the Kenyon community would know.
Q: Are there any songs from the college in the film?
JR: There’s a song over the credits, called ‘I Want a Kenyan Man.’
Q: Can you talk about the inspiration for Zac Efron’s character?
JR: I started writing Nat because ‘Liberal Arts’ is on some levels a celebration of a liberal arts education, and is also a recognition of its limits. I think one of the things going on with Jesse is that he’s so in love with this academic lifestyle and mindset that he’s gotten a little lost in the book. He’s gotten a little lost in his head.
The book provided some kind of way for him to understand the world a little bit, in a richer way, has become an escape for him. After he meets Zibby, a lot of this movie is about him getting his head out of the book.
The reason I love Zac’s performance, and why I cast Zac, is because I didn’t think that part should be played ironically. He shouldn’t be this stoner guy; I actually believe everything’s Nat saying. It comes from a part of me that’s a little more spiritual, and that’s not in the lead all the time. That’s the part I was having a dialogue with in myself.
So Nat’s a guy who encourages Jesse to jump and say yes to things and follow me to this party and meet Zibby for coffee and stop thinking. It’s great when he says, “I’m going to tell you this story about this butterfly, and it will change your life.”
Jesse (Hara), my producer, I think said he’s like this drug dealer of positivity. (laughs) Nat says, come here, I got this story for you, I’m going to tell you this story and it’s going to blow your mind.
He’s just drinking water. He’s not even a student there, no one even knows what he’s doing there. It’s an important role for the movie, I think. Zac did a great job. Zibby likes Nat.
EO: I love Nat. (laughs)
Q: The writing in the movie is really impressive. One of the best lines is when Elizabeth says “you think it’s cool to hate things, but it’s not. It’s boring. Talk about what you love, and keep quiet about what you don’t.”
EO: That’s one of your favorite lines you wrote. (Radnor laughs) I had to say that so many times, so that I could say it as perfectly as he wanted. (laughs)
Q: Elizabeth, do you relate to your character, or do you think vampire romances should be burned at the stake?
EO: I believe in that quote. I’m like most of my friends, the beacon of positivity. I try to think positively about most situations.
When it comes to literature, however, I feel like my opportunity to do free reading is limited. So I put pressure on myself to read things that I have to read before I die.
I’m kind of pretentious to when it comes to things I read. If I have the opportunity to do free reading, I feel like I should expand in some way. I do enough stupid television watching that I don’t need to read it, too.
JR: But that’s a central argument of what is the purpose of reading.
EO: But I enjoy it. There are parts of books where I just want to get through, but I’m happy now that I read it. Whereas I might feel dirty if I read something else.
JR: I think you might be a little more in the Jesse camp.
EO: I might be in the Jesse camp. But I’m a positive person. I don’t want anyone to talk about things they hate. That’s boring.
JR: I think she wins that argument. On some level, that’s her knockout punch. I think we’re ripped by an epidemic of negativity and cynicism, especially on the Internet. Everyone’s opinion is flying around, and a lot of its negative.
A lot of time, people don’t even know what they’re talking about. (laughs) People are often having a bad day, and anonymously want to say that. To me, it’s more fun, and feels better to talk about something you love. The stuff that you hate, you won’t have to deal with it, anyway. You don’t need to wallow in that.
Q: Do you both read the reviews written about you?
EO: I do sometimes. This movie, I don’t really care to read what everyone says. It’s a personal experience of a movie.
I was interested in reading reviews for ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ because it was my first movie. I was also curious of what people thought of it, and what take they had on it. That was open to lots of different ways of figuring out the puzzle.
With this, everyone’s going to have a personal experience, depending on where they come from. I guess people do that with most movies, but this is a feel-good movie.
JR: I wonder if that line will affect people, and say “man, I want to trash this movie.” (laughs) But I was told to only talk about what I love.
I do my best not to read reviews. But sometimes people insist that I read certain things that are very nice. I should probably toughen up and read everything.
I sometimes feel like if say, you hate liberal arts colleges, or you hate romances, or you only like horror movies, you might not like this movie. Sometimes you feel critics are writing more about themselves than the movie. It’s frustrating.
But everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. My skin gets a little thicker every time I do this.
Q: If there’s one book you had to defend, what would it be?
EO: I don’t think I would have to defend this book, but ‘The Sun Also Rises’ is my favorite book. I don’t think anyone would fight with that. (laughs) Hemingway sucks! (laughs)
JR: Get some taste, Olsen.
But like Lizzie, I don’t know if I have so many things that would be so shocking to people. I feel like I have had some arguments as of late, I think it was about a movie.
Like the last three pages of the book Jesse reads in the bookstore that I never name, for me, I did that with ‘The Hours’ by Michael Cunningham. I thought it was one of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had. The last three pages to me are really devastating.
I felt like it was the three page summary of the heartbreak of being a human being. Whenever I went into a bookstore, that was one of the things I did, read the last three pages of ‘The Hours,’ all the time.
EO: I always go right to the food magazine section. That’s what I do in a book shop. (laughs)
JR: It’s so funny that you’re so snooty about books, but not with every other area.
EO: It’s only because of the time. I only read scripts, or am prepping for something. I read a lot of scripts. I definitely read one a day on a workday. Once in awhile I’ll give myself a weekend off.
JR: That’s good.
EO: I actually gave up on it for awhile.
JR: We have the same agent, and I ask if I should read a script.
Q: If there’s one book you could make illegal, what would it be?
JR: In the spirit of this movie, I don’t want to do that. I’d rather talk about something I love.
Written by: Karen Benardello