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Josh Radnor on His Directorial Debut and Issues With Woody Allen

Josh Radnor was an NYU student long before he moved to L.A. to become Ted on How I Met Your Mother. In between seasons on the show’s fake New York set, he decided to write a movie about a group of foundering twentysomething friends in real New York. That strikingly titled romantic comedy, Happythankyoumoreplease, winner of the Audience Award at Sundance 2010, screened to famous people, like leather-daddy Ed Westwick, on Wednesday and hits theaters for the masses today. We spoke with Radnor about L.A. versus NYC, his complicated feelings about Woody Allen, and how the cast of HIMYM vacations together.

Didn’t you start writing this movie on vacation in Hawaii with Jason Segel?
That’s correct. I was already deep into the screenplay and he was writing Forgetting Sarah Marshall at the time, and we just hung out for a week in this house he had right by the ocean. It was pretty amazing.

Do you take joint vacations often?
You know, he got a house in Hawaii for a month, and Ali Hanigan and her husband had come out to visit him right before I did. And then Cobie Smulders came for the last two or three days that I was there. Neil Patrick Harris didn’t make it out to Hawaii, but everyone else did.

Why set this movie in New York when you’ve been living in L.A. forever?
Well, I went to grad school at NYU and then I lived in and around New York for a year and a half after. There’s so much nonsense tossed around about L.A. and how horrible it is and “don’t go out there” and all that stuff. So I went out to L.A. and I was pleasantly surprised. In the film, Zoe Kazan and Pablo Schreiber’s characters, they’re kind of having this debate about New York versus Los Angeles, and I think some people see it and think my heart is in New York — and that’s actually not true. I think what’s wonderful about L.A. is what’s horrible about New York and vice versa. One of the things that Charlie [played by Schreiber] says about L.A. is that it’s this blank canvas that reflects you back at you. So if you’re happy, L.A. is great. If you’re not, L.A. sucks. Whereas New York is, like, its own kind of energy. It’s got its own character and either you’re in the flow of that and things are going great, or it’s kicking your ass. There’s really no in between.

The movie’s set on the Lower East Side, right?
Yeah, my character Sam’s apartment is in Chinatown. We shot at a bar on Houston called Botanica that I used to go to. This is a below–14th Street movie. These people are East Village, Lower East Side. They shop in thrift stores. They have the same T-shirts they had in college. It was very important to me to get the kind of economics of it right; they didn’t have a lot of money. It’s really hard to be poor in New York — I was really poor when I lived in New York.

How influenced are you by Woody Allen?
I went through this very serious Woody Allen phase in college and a little bit after college. I still see his movies. I have a line in the movie about Woody Allen [suggesting that he trades quality for quantity by being so prolific] that’s gotten a little bit of attention. It’s interesting, because I had cut the line and then I saw the Larry David movie [Whatever Works] and I restored it. It wasn’t my favorite of Woody’s, let’s just say that. I know there’s probably a little bit of, “Who does this kid think he is?” But in a way, it’s a compliment to him, because if you name-check someone in your movie, you kind of love them anyway. I learned a lot — I digested a lot about making movies from him. He makes movies that I want to make. I hope the Wood-man isn’t super offended.

Why did you cut the line in the first place?
Because it’s kind of a dig and I wasn’t all that comfortable with it, because the spirit of the movie is very generous and I didn’t want it to seem like I was knocking him or something. But it also seemed like something that Mary Catherine [Kazan’s character] would say. She’s such a New York creature, and it just struck me as something that was appropriate, for her to have an opinion about Woody Allen.

Why did you want to write this, and did it have anything to do with being tired of being on How I Met Your Mother?
I’m pretty clear that I probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you without How I Met Your Mother. So I don’t sneeze at it at all. But the thing is, as an actor and also someone who writes, there are going to be certain muscles that are atrophying, that you’re not going to be able to work out when you’re just doing the show. So there was a kind of restlessness that set in. I also wanted to give myself a great film role.

Were you not getting offered them?
Well, I was getting offered roles that I didn’t want to do. I turned down a movie where I was like, I don’t know why I would be in this. There was no urgency or feeling of, “Well, this is a story that I want to contribute to telling.” I’m trying to say that as nicely as I can.

Your HIMYM character, Ted, is sometimes criticized for being too sweet and bland.
No, I like the fact that he’s sweet. The whole series, if you look at it, it’s a gender flip, because all the women are like these tough, unsentimental, gun-toting, trash-talking girls, and the guys are all sweet, we love relationships, we want to watch Field of Dreams by the fire. Except for Barney. He’s an alien.

Were you at the stage of trying to find yourself, like the characters, when you wrote the film?
I feel like it was more like me six years ago. I’m not dealing with the same things that those characters are dealing with, currently.

If this movie was you six years ago, where are you now?
Well, I stopped drinking. That was actually a big deal. I didn’t go through any harrowing rock-bottom experience. I just made a decision to stop drinking. And Sam, in the movie, he gets a little carried away with himself and gets drunk and wakes up in the morning and is a little bit haunted by his promises of the night before. So not drinking has taken some anxiety out of my life. I think a lot of the existential angst that Sam feels, I’ve taken steps toward alleviating some of that.