Talking With Josh Radnor About How I Met Your Mother’s Finale and Keeping the Blue French Horn

Josh Radnor, actor who used to play Ted Mosby. Photo: Ron P. Jaffe/CBS

Last night, on the divisive series finale of How I Met Your Mother, after nine seasons and 200-plus episodes, Ted finally met the mother. And he also re-met Robin. Vulture was able to talk to the mother-meeter himself, Josh Radnor, about the end of the show. He makes a case for the ending, defends the Ted haters, gives details about a possibly revelatory cut Robin-Ted scene from the finale, and reveals where he currently is hanging (or not hanging) the blue French horn.

Since the show was all about meeting the mother, what was it like to finally film that scene where you tap her and say hello and get under the umbrella?
That was actually Cristin [Milioti, who played the Mother]’s audition scene and they didn’t really change a word from when we first read it together. It was also the last scene we filmed on the very last day of filming, so emotions were running high on both fictional and nonfictional tracks. All the writers, cast, network and studio execs — everyone who worked on the show in any capacity was there watching. There was a big delay while we waited for them to get the rain right, so everyone had a chance to really take in the moment. 

I always found working with Cristin to be such a joy, so when it came time to shoot it, I just tried to will myself into the character’s shoes and connect with Cristin and not think of it as this huge, iconic moment. I mean, Ted may be nervous approaching her but he doesn’t know it’s, like, the biggest moment of his life. So we did the scene a bunch of times and it felt good and real and effortless and then people made a few speeches and we all went to MacLaren’s for a final drink.

How long did you know how it would end?
They had mentioned to me the twist about the mother in the first season, and I kind of put it out of my head. I didn’t know if they would actually want to come back to it and do that, especially after Cristin, because she was so wonderful and the fans seemed to really take to her. So I asked them “Are you guys still doing that?” And they said yeah.

Were you aware that people had essentially called exactly what happened?
Yeah, but I think that was intentional. It’s not that people cracked some code. They were laying that in, so that it would be discussed and slightly less jarring for people.

It wasn’t this big surprise ending. They wanted it to feel justified.
Yeah, I think so. It was going to be shocking no matter what and they wanted to soften it a little bit or at least get people talking about it. There were a couple of hints along the way: Ted’s big speech to the mother in “The Time Travelers.” That was the first time I heard people talking about that possibility.

Do you think the kids were right at the end? Did Ted tell this entire story so that they would be fine with him dating Robin?
It was interesting that they filmed that in the first season. It really cut together beautifully. But, yeah, it’s really interesting. There’s a jarring disconnect between fans who had five minutes to process that information and kids who had six years. The kids were in a completely different emotional space than a lot of fans of the show. But yeah, that seems plausible. The story wound around in so many different directions that I don’t know that you could reduce Ted’s storytelling to one overarching theme, like “This is all about how much he loved Robin.” That certainly took up a lot of real estate in the story, but it’s also about all of the other lessons he was imparting.

You’ve lived in this character for so many years, do you think he thought about Robin when he was with “The Mother”?
They cut a scene that Cobie [Smulders] and I shot between Ted and Robin. I thought it was a really important scene and I talked to Carter and Craig [Bays and Thomas, HIMYM’s co-creators and co-showrunners] about it. I understand why they cut it, but I thought it laid in that Robin had been thinking about Ted all these years more than Ted had been thinking about Robin. But who knows?

It’s weird to speculate on something that isn’t actually real. [Laughs.] It’s an imagined story, but you also have to wonder what happened in the six years after she died and what was that like for Ted. Obviously, he’s been mulling over his past and sifting through things. And there was that comment about Robin always coming over for dinner, so they’ve clearly reestablished a contact and a deep friendship. 

Can you tell me a little bit more about what happened in the cut scene?
It was a scene after they ran into each other on the street. They had lunch the next day. I don’t want to go too much into it because they obviously cut it for a reason, but I thought it was a really sweet and sad and funny scene. It also talked about Robin having a run-in with a bull in Spain. They’re so densely packed, these episodes, and they’re always long. We shot more than could be in the episode, which we always do, so some stuff has to go.

I wanted to ask you about the criticism that some had with the finale. People have been saying that we’ve spent nine seasons being told this is a show about the mother and a show about Ted being ready to meet the mother, but then that was sold out, with it being about Robin. Especially after we spent seasons being told to really believe in Barney and her.
Well, I don’t know. I haven’t had a lot of time to prep a defense if that’s what you’re asking for. [Laughs.] I thought the title of the show was always a bit of a fake-out. It was more of a hook to hang the thing on. Really it was more about these are the crazy adventures and these are the lessons I had to learn before I met your mother.

But, also, part of the DNA of the show is they lead you one way and then they pull you back. You think you’re watching one thing in an episode and then it turns out you’re watching something completely different. I think that the twists in the finale were in keeping with that.

There are so many opinions floating around. There have always been people that thought that Barney and Robin were perfect together, there have always been people that thought it didn’t make sense. There are people that wanted Ted and Robin to be together. There are people that thought they didn’t work together. So I just feel that part of the divisiveness and part of the anger and also part of the enthusiasm all speaks to something really great. I think if you’re going do something new and bold and daring, you’re going to upset some people and you’re gonna thrill others. I think it’s better to do that than try to have some homogenized, safe ending that was never really what the show was. The show was always bold and daring and questioning assumptions and leading you where you thought you didn’t want to go, but realized at the end that that was where you belonged.

I’m a fan of the finale and obviously I’m a fan of the show. I think people are having to deal with grief on a number of levels. There’s grief in the episode, but then there’s grief at letting the show go. People are in various Kubler-Ross stages of grieving and when they contextualize it and step back and maybe even watch the finale again or revisit the show, I think when the dust settles people will feel pretty complete.

The pilot sets up Ted as this very romantic and idealist guy who believes in “the one.” Do you think the ending and the show as a whole validated Ted’s worldview?
There are different ways to be romantic. A 27-year-old romantic is different than a 52-year-old romantic. He never seems to lose his sense of optimism or that things will work out in the way they’re supposed to. But who knows? There’s that six-year gap after the mom’s gone. Who knows what’s going on with him? But I think he’s one of television’s great optimists. It’s in keeping with the character that he doesn’t seem to be someone who’s resigned and has kind of just turned inward. He’s clearly a good dad. He’s clearly trying to impart some great lessons to his kids. Then his kids give him a little kick and try to take care of him. Ultimately, it’s a really loving cycle they established.

So I listened to your episode of  “WTF With Marc Maron” yesterday and you talked about when the show started, you felt very close to Ted and saw him as an extension of you, but as the show went, on you diverged. At this point, how does it feel to say good-bye to that part of you?
Well, I’m also in the process of letting it go. Although, when I’m not around the show, it doesn’t feel all that alive in me. But at the same time, nine years is a big chunk of life, so certainly, there are parts of me that are tied up in him.

He frustrated me. Some of the frustrations that people might have felt with him, I felt all those, too, except when you share a face with someone you get blamed for it. When he was being heroic or something, I was really behind him, but when he was being kind of silly, I had to play him just as sincerely.

Something I actually found really appealing about Ted is he’s a totally self-deprecating narrator. All Barney’s stories are, “This is how awesome I was” and “This is how awesome the night was,” and Ted is like, “This is what a fool I made of myself,” and “This is how I made these mistakes, really big mistakes in my life.” He’s a humble person and in some ways he has taught me humility. He was never a character that you felt like he’d just walk into a room and heads turn, “There’s Ted!” No, he’s like bumping into furniture all the time. But he’s great, and he wins in the end; he gets both girls.

You got to keep the Blue French Horn. Why was that the item that you picked, and where is it right now?
I’m staring at it. It’s just lying up against the wall in my living room. I really haven’t found a place for it yet. We started to get asked that question as the ninth season rolled around, like, “What are you going to take from the set?” I didn’t realize that’s a thing. I asked for it pretty late. Carter was going to take it, but they had a little discussion and said, “I think you should have it.” To me, it’s the most iconic prop for Ted and it’s a symbol of both his romanticism and also his slight insanity. It is a stolen item, but it represents the lengths to which he’ll go to win someone. And, I don’t know, there was no other thing I would rather turn and see hanging on my wall. 

That’s all the questions I have. Thanks again.
Thanks so much, man. Did we cover everything? I’m a little morning fogged-over. Is there anything else you want to talk about? I just feel like I’m just getting started and it’s hard to make sense of that finale and nine years of a show. 

Josh Radnor on How I Met Your Mother’s Finale