In today’s society, TV, video games and Internet are the ordinary elements to connect to alternate reality. We are able to access what we want to watch or hear immediately. Immediacy is of great usefulness. However literature, mathematics, or music, a liberal arts education takes time and it’s crucial to have latitude to understand them. Being timeless and universal is a key to comprehending the meaning of liberal arts.
Actor, writer, and director Josh Radnor’s second directorial feature “Liberal Arts” tells the story of cheerless Jesse Fisher (Radnor), a university counselor and book lover in his mid-thirties living in New York City. He returns to his alma matar in Ohio for the retirement dinner of his favorite English professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) where he meets 19-year-old undergrad Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a lover of classical music. Instantly they connect, and the encounter arouses fond memories of college, romance, and anxiety in Jesse.
The main characters of “Liberal Arts” are wishing their circumstances were different, especially Jesse who believes his best days are behind him and is now having a difficult time stepping into adulthood. His return visit agitates emotions of longing to remain a college student and his need to bid farewell to that time and move on his life. As in his first feature film “happythankyoumoreplease,” Radnor depicts characters who are stuck between stations. It’s not because that’s the quality of being in your 20s and 30s, but more as if he understands that life itself is “in between.”
There are two other fascinating characters in the film. One is Nat played by Zac Efron who appreciates water and inhabits the college even though he is not a student. The other is Jesse’s college crush Professor Fairfield, played by Allison Janney. Nat is relaxed and completely present, and Professor Fairfield shines because she embodies an academic ideal and harsh reality at the same time. Their roles may not be as large as others, however they are scene stealers and the spirit of the film.
Take a moment and look at clouds. They are never still and keep changing their shapes, always on process. Liberal arts is like that. Experiencing process is feeling presence. All the characters surround Jesse as if to lead him to the real reason that he revisits the college, as if to remind us of what we are experiencing. This timeless story frees us from the deep end of the limitations of our mind.
COOL met with Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen and Richard Jenkins to discuss “Liberal Arts.”
Could you talk about the chemistry of working together?Elizabeth: I don’t think we worked much at it. The first time, when I was being auditioned and we read through every single scene of the script together, naturally just was fun and worked well.
Josh: And that’s what you’re looking for when you’re trying to cast a movie. You know, chemistry is not something that you want to point out if it’s there. Because you just want it to be there. If a script is well-written, truthfully written, and the right person shows up on both sides to play the scene, there will be chemistry. Even if the characters are fighting, there’s going to be a great chemistry because everyone is appropriately inhabiting the part. I feel that was what was going on with us. And Lizzie, she’s so perfect for the role that people think I must have written it for her. You don’t really know until you start getting the footage together and start looking at everything. There was a feeling on set, you can feel in the air, “Oh this is working.” But you have to be careful because sometimes you can watch what you shot and it all felt amazing and you’re like, “Uh-oh, I need a drink.” But happily, what we suspected we were getting is what we were getting.
Why did you choose to not name the titles of certain books, such as “Infinite Jest,”, yet Zibby is very specific about the titles of certain songs in her letters with Jesse?Josh: It was entirely intentional. Proper nouns kind of clang on my ear strangely in film. If it’s Jesse’s and Dean’s favorite book, the only reason they would say, “I love ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace,” is for the benefit of the audience. I wanted it to feel very real, so they can start talking about a book they love and just talk about it in shorthand. If you don’t know about “Infinite Jest” and you don’t know about David Foster Wallace, I don’t think it will lessen your enjoyment of the movie at all. If you do know it, you’ll feel like a smartypants and you’ll feel happy, perhaps. When you start naming books like that, either people don’t know it and feel alienated by it or they do know it and they say, “I didn’t like that book.” Opinions start kicking in. In the same way I didn’t name the college because I wanted it to be everyone’s college, I didn’t name the books because I wanted you to bring your favorite book to it. We talk about Wordsworth and Keats and Blake, and the stuff that Zibby talks about with the music; it felt like it was so timeless and established. It was public domain, so you could talk about it. Beethoven is like Shakespeare, Wagner is like Wordsworth in terms of these old classic voices that will be around hundreds of years from now. There’s not any references to Twitter or to Facebook or anything that would date it. I’m trying to make a movie that felt as timeless as the buildings they’re walking through.
When you’re watching the film, do you look at it as the writer or as the actor?Josh: Depends on what is in front of me that needs to be looked at. If I’m watching playback and trying to see my performance, I need to see that we got what I needed.
Elizabeth: It sounds so terrifying.
Josh: Yeah it’s rough, although editing myself in two movies and watching playback right away got me over that. When you first hear your voice you’re like, “Ack, that is not how I sound, that’s a horrible sounding voice!” You go through that as an actor first time on-camera. I’ve so gotten over that, I just know that’s what I look like. But I also know I’m just as capable of as much bad acting as anyone. So the great thing about editing yourself is you get 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, the take, whoever I’m looking at, I’m also holding the picture of the whole thing in my head as both the writer and director.
Elizabeth, was there anything in your own college experience that you related to with your character and the film?Elizabeth: I had such a specific experience at NYU. I’m still a sixth year college student there and I have two humanities left. Which I’m finishing in January. I’m very happy to say that. I went to acting school with theatre nerds, and, when we had academics, it was get the academics done the fastest way possible so we could put more hours into rehearsal. I went to college just working on scenes and rehearsing plays all the time. But I went to a great high school and came from a really academic class, and my friends were really academic people, almost in a competitive way. So to have conversations like Zibby does in the movie with Jesse, I had that. I’m very much a rooted academic person because of that experience in high school.
What about emotionally?Elizabeth: Emotionally, absolutely. She’s someone who wants to jump ahead and just go straight to being an adult. And I’ve had that my entire life probably, until now, and I’m a child. And I’m really happy being one.
Josh: It lasts forever, by the way.
Elizabeth: What, wanting to be a child?
Josh: No, no. Childhood. I’m kidding.
Elizabeth: I feel like it kind of does. Obviously it doesn’t. But right now, I feel more youthful than I did when I was 19 years-old. When I was 19 years-old I took myself way too seriously. And I think there’s something like that with Zibby.
Josh: You’re supposed to.
Elizabeth: And I took myself way too seriously for too many years.
Can you talk about the inspiration for Zac Efron’s character?Josh: “Liberal Arts” is a celebration of a liberal arts education and a recognition of its limits. Jesse is so in love with this kind of academic lifestyle and this mindset that he’s gotten a little lost in the book, a little lost in his head. The book, which maybe provided some way to understand the world, has now become an armor or an escape for him. A lot of this movie is about a guy who’s getting his head out of the book. The reason I love Zac’s performance and that I cast Zac was I didn’t think that part should be played ironically or as like a stoner guy who’s just saying nonsense. I really actually believe everything that Nat is saying. It’s coming from the part of me that’s a little more spiritually awakened, that’s certainly not in the lead all the time. That’s the part I was having a dialogue with in myself. So he’s a guy that encourages Jesse to jump and say yes to things, and “follow me to this party,” and “meet her for coffee,” and “stop thinking,” and “I’m going to tell you the story of this butterfly and it’s going to change your life.” Jesse, my producer, said, “He’s like a drug dealer of positivity.” And he’s not even a student there. No one know’s what he’s doing there. It’s an important role for the movie, and I think Zac does a great job.
So far you have written rite of passage stories, and at some level, yourself reflects in your story. So, what does it mean to you to go through your 30s?Josh: Whoa…that’s not a small question. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to contextualize. At some level, “happythankyoumoreplease” was a twenties story, and this is a thirties story. Your twenties, they say — they’ve done these studies — are your most unhappy decade.
Josh: Yeah. And there is an increase in happiness that people have noted with each decade; which is a great relief because, if you believe the media, it looks like you’re only happy when you’re young. But I found all the things I used to obsess over as a younger person I’m no longer as obsessed with those. I have new concerns but they are more existential and cosmic in a really nice way. They’re not as petty. There’s a bit in “happythankyoumoreplease” where he says, “Every five years you realize what an asshole you were five years ago.” I found that to be true, and I think I was putting that in as a little note to myself. Like, “If you look back at this movie and you feel like it’s silly, that’s a good sign. You’re updating yourself.” 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 can seep in because we’re human beings. I’m interested in people growing up. And, as I’ve said, my movies are about good people getting better at being themselves.
One of my favorite lines is Zibby’s, “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.”Elizabeth: Personally I believe in that quote. I, with probably most of my friends, am the beacon of positivity, and I try to think positive about most situations. When it comes to literature, however, I feel like my opportunity to do free reading is so limited that I put this pressure on myself to read something that I have to read before I die. So I’ve never read anything superfluous, I guess.
Josh: Were you reading Tolstoy?
Elizabeth: I was reading “Anna Karenina.”
Josh: Which I’m halfway through, by the way.
Elizabeth: It’s a lot.
Josh: So good, though.
Elizabeth: So, yeah, I’m kind of pretentious when it comes to what I read. I feel like if I have the opportunity to do free reading I might as well expand in some way. I do enough stupid television watching to also read it too.
Josh: But that’s an essential argument of that argument, which is “What is the purpose of reading?”
Elizabeth: But I enjoy it. There are parts of “Anna Karenina” that I’m like, “Ugh, I want to get through it,” but I’m happy that I have read it, whereas I might feel dirty if I read something else.
Josh: I think you’re a little more in the Jesse camp, actually.
Elizabeth: I might be in the Jesse camp. But I’m a positive person and I don’t want anyone to talk about things they hate. That’s boring.
Josh: I think she wins that argument and that’s her knockout punch. Because I do think we’re gripped by an epidemic of negativity and cynicism, especially the internet. It’s made everyone’s opinions flying around and a lot of them are so negative and a lot of times people really don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re just having an emotional response, or a bad day, and they’re allowed to anonymously say that. To me, it’s more fun and it feels better to talk about something that you love, and the stuff that you hate, you won’t have to deal with anyway. You don’t need to wallow in that.
How did you sympathize with the character?Richard: I went to a small private school in the Midwest, in Illinois and loved every minute of it. I love going back and every time I get there you say, ‘Why couldn’t I just be in college again?’ But I understand that; I understand being nineteen in your head all the time. I think we all do, don’t we?
Reading literature, listening to music or looking at paintings can be liberation of your mind. I think that applies to acting too. What do you think about that?Richard: It’s interesting. For somebody like me, it’s a way to learn things, to be exposed to different things, different people, different cultures, different worlds and different ideas. I’m a little lazy so it’s good for me. I’m forced into these things. I’ve worked in a lot of different countries. I went to India and did a play and toured there in 1980 for five weeks, with “Of Mice and Man.” I played George. I wouldn’t have gone to India. I’m was a week in every major city. It was amazing. And then I went back and I did “Eat, Pray, Love” there for a month, in an ashram which something else I probably would never. So it’s a great profession for somebody like me, who is curious but little lazy.
Do you read reviews of yourself?Richard: I do. I try not to and I’ve always said ‘no’ but end up doing it. I’ll tell you why I do. We don’t do this in a vacuum. I don’t do it for myself. I do it to try to connect with somebody watching it. That’s why I do it. That’s my art. I can’t write, I can’t paint, but this is what I do, this is what I love to do. We all have things that are human, that we understand about each other. There’s a universal language. And to connect with somebody watching is what I’m doing, to make them understand something about themselves or the world. So I read reviews. It hurts when somebody doesn’t like it because basically it’s saying, “We don’t like you.” Sometimes they’ll say, “The character did this,” but still, as an actor you go, “Oh, that was me. I’m sorry, that was me.” I’m 65 years old and it still bothers me. We were talking about it last night, my daughter, my son-in-law and my wife and I at dinner. I was saying, “I’m 65 and it still makes me crazy. I still worry about it.” But I do. I don’t think it’ll ever change because in my head I’m nineteen.
Did you have a favorite actor when you were growing up?Richard: Oh yeah. Marlon Brando. That was the guy. But for me, Michael Caine. When I saw the original “Alfie”, I was in college at the time. I was an actor but didn’t know if I wanted to do this or if I had any talent, then I went by myself to see “Alfie.” And this guy comes on the screen, I think, “God, how can you possibly be a part of something like this? This is what I want to do.” I’ve never met him. I don’t know if I could meet him. I went back and watched it the other day and it was still as good as I remember. So he was a big influence. But Brando, he was the guy, still is. Spencer Tracy. But I didn’t appreciate Spencer Tracy until I got a little older and started watching all of his stuff. Incredible. So far ahead of his time.
When I went to Michael Caine’s Talk, he said ‘Acting is behavior.’ Do you agree with that?Richard: Sure. For me, it’s kind of letting everything go. It’s the easiest thing and the most difficult thing in the world. When you’re doing it right, it’s absolutely effortless. It’s tough to just let everything go. It’s tough to be naked emotionally. I think Meryl Streep said, “It doesn’t get easier, it gets harder. Because you know what it takes to be good.” It could be terrifying for me sometimes. But I’m a slow learner so it’s taken a long time.
What did your parents think about you being an actor? Were they encouraging?Richard: Yeah. I came to find out when I was nominated, they did the article in my hometown paper, DeKalb, Illinois. I had a teacher in 9th grade I did a play with. The only play I did before I went to college, and I told her I wanted to be an actor. So I came home and told my dad that I wanted to be an actor. He didn’t say anything to me but my mother called this teacher and said, “His father is freaking out. He wants him to to be a dentist.” My dad was a dentist but he didn’t realize I had to go to dental school and I couldn’t do that. So she called my dad and said, “Leave him alone. Let him do it. He can do this.” And he goes, “He is 9th grade. How can you think–?” She said, “He can do this. He wants to do it. Let him do it.” And I didn’t do it in high school, I did other things. I tried to be a stand-up comedian. First thing, you have to be funny. I wasn’t. So he supported me, they both supported me. I never knew that he went through that angst. Because for years and years I made no money, for a long time. We had a daughter; we had no money. But he never said anything, he was very supportive. I wish he’d lived long enough to see the nomination, my mom too. But they saw me on-screen. I was in a Woody Allen movie, “Hannah and Her Sisters,” I had one scene. “I bent down to get my popcorn, I heard your voice,” he said, “I looked up and you were gone.” So he had to stay through the whole movie to see it again.
Have you ever thought of writing or memoir?Richard: Actually, I took a trip. My wife and I went from Vancouver on the train through the Canadian Rockies to Calgary. It was this tour on the train. It was beautiful but we never saw an animal. There was a poetry contest on the train, which I won. This is my writing:
I love the wilds of Canada,
The mountains, trees and streams,
But I’ve yet to see an animal
Except on my plate with greens.
You’ve been constantly working in film and you were nominated for an Academy Awards. How do you see your position in film right now?Richard: I’m a character actor. That’s what I always was. Before “The Visitor” or after “The Visitor.” That’s what I am. But I’ve had an opportunity to do some really fascinating roles since “The Visitor.” Thanks to “The Visitor” and Tom McCarthy. This time in my life and these opportunities, it’s just amazing to me.
text by Taiyo Okamoto
“Liberal Arts” opens in NYC today (Sept 14)
DIRECTOR & WRITER: Josh Radnor
CAST: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron