Josh Radnor: Actor-Writer-Director-Musician
Though it’s difficult to make people believe it, fame and fortune will not make you happy. Josh Radnor learned this first hand, and quickly began seeking new truths.
Josh Radnor is a well-known actor, filmmaker, and musician. He is most familiar for his role as Ted Mosby in the hit CBS TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother (2005–2014).
Radnor was born in Columbus, OH, and studied at Kenyon College and New York University. He starred in the Broadway adaptation of The Graduate in 2002 and had guest roles in a number of television programmes before landing the main role in How I Met Your Mother. He subsequently starred in the period medical drama Mercy Street (2016–17) on PBS, the musical drama Rise (2017–2018) on NBC, and the Amazon Prime drama Hunter, which premiered in 2020.
He has directed two feature films, Happythankyoumoreplease (2010), which won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, and Liberal Arts (2014). In 2014 he starred in the Broadway premiere of the Pulitzer-winning play Disgraced.
Radnor has also released two albums of original folk music with songwriter Ben Lee: Radnor and Lee (2017) and Golden State (2020).
Over the years, he’s worked as an actor, a writer, director, and musician. But at heart, Josh Radnor says he just feels like a storyteller.
Josh Radnor: It’s the only thing that really lights me up, you know? And I can do it in eight different ways, but I want to stay creative my whole life.
For 208 episodes, he was Ted Mosby, protagonist of CBS’s international smash-hit sitcom, How I Met Your Mother. The show ended in 2014.
Radnor: I mean, the writing was really sharp on that show, and some of the funniest lines, I think on television that I’ve heard were on that show.
(clip from How I Met Your Mother):
Ted Mosby: Good morrow, fair gentles! Look what I won at the Renaissance Fair.
Radnor: But there is a feeling of, kind of, imprisonment. You got a keyboard of human experience and expression, and the sitcom asks you to play one octave.
AJC: Or half an octave, and only the black keys.
Radnor: Right, and then I think that I was like, “Oh, wait, I got all these other keys. I got all these other keys.”
AJC: And I can do harmonies.
Radnor: Yeah, I can do all this stuff. I can do… yeah. So part of the excitement of the three years of not being on the show was I did a play on Broadway, I did a Richard Greenberg play at Lincoln Center, I did a PBS series called Mercy Street about the Civil War for two seasons, started a band with Ben Lee, I sold a book that I’m writing. You know, it’s been a constant exploration of the other keys.
AJC: But you were an actor. You, in your own head, were a very ambitious actor.
AJC: Were you worried about the fact that you’d achieved success, however you were going to define it, in terms of being a jobbing actor, and now you were feeling this emptiness? That must’ve been quite a shock.
Radnor: Yeah, it was. It demanded a wholesale reevaluation of a lot of things in my life, because I found that the very things that society had kind of promised me, like, “Oh, you’ll get some fame. You’ll get some money. You’ll get some attention. You’ll get steady employment. You’ll get all of these ‘actor’ cash and prizes and then, you’ll be happy. Then, you’ll be fulfilled. Then, you’ll be satisfied.” And I found it was like the reverse. Like, I got a little depressed. I was hungering. My spiritual hunger got deeper because I felt like it was proven to me that the things of this world are not the things that will make me happy.
AJC: But did you have the first reaction that most people have in that situation which is, “Get over yourself, you’re not being grateful enough”? How did you react to it internally, initially?
Radnor: I think that I can hold two opposing ideas at the same time, you know, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said. I get that this is a great gift, and it’s not enough for me to make me feel creatively expressed. And I think the other thing is, I had done a lot of theatre, I had done some TV, I had done little film stuff, but the show started getting so popular and on a show like that, people think that’s who you are. If they don’t know you from other things, they’ll say, that’s who you are. You’re that guy. And I felt—
AJC: Both inside television and on the street, right?
Radnor: Yeah, but I felt boxed in. I felt like, “Wait, wait, wait. There’s way more to me than this guy.” And so, there became an urgency, like a creative urgency to do other things.
And so, five years into sitcom stardom, Radnor took on his first big solo project: writing, directing, and starring in Happythankyoumoreplease, an earnest look at a group of young New Yorkers struggling to define love and themselves.
(clip from Happythankyoumoreplease):
Charlie: You know, I’m not crazy about that shirt.
Charlie: I’m your boyfriend.
Mary: Well, if you find the “My man’s a hot stud” T-shirt, Christmas is right around the corner.
Annie: He looks like he should be making balloon animals at birthday parties.
Happythankyoumoreplease made a big impression, earning critical acclaim and the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award. But getting it made hadn’t been easy.
Radnor: People really liked the script and were fine with me starring in it and didn’t trust me to direct it. And at a certain point, my producer and I had to say, “I think we should direct this,” because we started having conversations where people didn’t understand the tone of it, and I was like, “Oh, this could really get away from me. I think I’m the best person to communicate to other actors what the tone of this thing is.” That’s kind of how I see directing. It’s being like a gatekeeper of the tone. I remember directing Malin Åkerman, who I think gives a beautiful performance in Happythankyoumoreplease, and it was based on a friend of mine. It was a very specific role. I’d never seen her do anything like that, but she read for me, and we had a great vibe, and she was really great at taking notes. And for about a week, I really directed her. Like really strongly. And then there was this one day where I was like, “Oh, she’s dropped in. Like, she’s just completely dropped in.”
AJC: She owns the character.
Radnor: She had it.
(clip from Happythankyoumoreplease):
Sam: Close your eyes.
Sam: I just want you to listen to me. Humor me, please?
Sam: It’s not easy to be adored. You in particular, you have a tougher time with it than most. I get that. But I want you to give it a try. Think of it as an experiment. I promise, I will be very wonderful at adoring you, Annie. It’s an area where I think I’ve got a great deal of talent. You’re worth that adoration, Annie. You’re worth it. And the fact that you don’t believe it has nothing to do with whether it’s true or not. It is true for me. And that is all that matters.
AJC: And where’s that coming from with you? You just see what it’s going to look like in your head?
Radnor: I’m not a dictator and I’m not a puppeteer. So I want actors who will bring in stuff and surprise me. But at the same time, there are things that I like honored, you know?
AJC: Such as?
Radnor: I labor over the words. I don’t have highly improvisational sets.
AJC: Right, I get that, yeah.
Radnor: You know, when I say, “you know,” I mean, “you know.” When I write, “dot, dot, dot,” I mean, “dot, dot, dot,” you know? There’s a particular way I hear speech that feels certain words are italicized. And I think that when the actor honors them, it frees them up.
In 2012, Radnor wrote, directed, and starred in another celebrated indie flick, Liberal Arts. But before long, he would again find himself hungry for a new challenge. This led him, in early 2017, to learn the guitar. Only months later, he had formed a folk duo with his friend, the Australian musician and actor, Ben Lee.
(Radnor & Lee singing):
So let us move
To distant places
Thoughts of home
Need not detain us
Radnor: It’s humbling to stumble at something. You know, where you’re like, “I’m a beginner.” And I think, in a weird way, being in a band that’s getting some attention and playing live and playing with Ben so intimately, it’s given me this impetus to get up to speed so we’d become a two-guitar band kind of quickly. You know, I actually have a vision of what that will look like. So I’m not just playing, you know, into a void. I’m actually saying, “No, this is for a reason.” I’m going to play. Whether I’m playing alone or with Ben, I have a vision of actually making this a part of my creative life for the rest of my life.
(Radnor & Lee singing):
Of serving two masters
Radnor’s next big challenge returns him to the world of film, for an upcoming, as yet untitled movie being filmed in Poland. But he won’t be on screen.
Radnor: I’m just curious for the experience of, “What will it be like to be behind the camera, properly being the director the entire time? Without a split focus.”
It’s this curiosity that has propelled Josh Radnor through a wealth of artistic explorations over the past two decades. The next 20 years may yield even greater riches.