Josh Radnor is well known for his nine-season run as Ted Mosby on the sit-com “How I Met Your Mother.” Now three years removed from that role that spanned 208 episodes. Radnor is coming to Temple of Aaron on August 24 for the St. Paul synagogue’s Annual Fundraiser. Radnor chatted with TC Jewfolk about growing up Jewish in Columbus, Ohio, being picky about roles, and Ted’s favorite holiday.
When you do speaking engagements like the one at Temple of Aaron, what do you tend to focus on?
This will only be my second or third Jewish themed evening. I do mostly college speaking. When I first started out, I had something more prepared, but the most spirited part was the Q&A. I create an open loose atmosphere and share a bit about how the twists and turns of life brought me to the stage. And then I engage the audience and something really beautiful generally tends to emerge from a conversation between myself and the audience. I was invited to give a sermon at a synagogue in Orange County, which was a pretty great experience, and did a Q & A after that. I don’t know that I’ll do anything as formal this time. But I’m excited and happy to talk about growing up Jewish in the Midwest and what that was like. I think growing up going to a day school, I remember feeling steeped in biblical stories and it gave me a love of narrative, and that’s certainly what I’ve done with my life. I think it’s not an accident that so many people raised Jewish go into story telling of some kind. That may be something I touch on. I think being Jewish is a lovely, complicated thing, and I’d also be happy to talk about that complication.
Is the narrative and storytelling that you see in the Bible stories and holidays how your career path was shaped or was there other factors?
I think it’s hard to unpack. A lot of factors go into choosing to do what we do. I think there is something about a bar and bat mitzvah that’s a very challenging ask of a young kid to stand up in front of a congregation; I did my whole Torah portion, and it instills a level of confidence hopefully. I think my becoming an actor was more about I was good at a lot of things but acting was the first thing I ever thought I could possibly be great at. I had a facility for it right when I stepped on the stage in high school. I don’t know where it came from exactly, but I knew that it helped me feel quite alive and different within myself. It connected me to a community of people that I loved and felt safe with. That was probably more than the Jewish stuff, but I think it’s all linked up together.
I have a 12-year-old so I’m living the bat mitzvah thing all over again.
It’s kind of an amazing thing in that it’s expected of you. It’s hard to wiggle out of that one. You’ve got to do something to earn the party.
It should be a struggle is some sort of perverse way.
Setting a bar kind of high has kept the Jewish people going.
Does your Judaism impact how you look at potential acting roles?
I think so. I think certainly as an actor, but also as a writer/director perhaps more in terms of what kind of themes I’m interested in exploring and the questions I ask myself. My movies and even my essays and things I write are somewhat Talmudic in that I dig underneath the surface of things and ask a lot of questions from a lot of different angles. That certainly feels like a Jewish impulse.
You’ve done theater, TV and film. Do you have a preference in the medium you act in?
I probably feel the comfortable these days, well always, probably, in the theater. I’ve now spent many, many hours in front of the camera and feel like I have a hang of it. It’s a tough thing if you grow up in the theater like I did. It’s less to do with the medium and more the role and where I feel in the moment and what role speaks to me that I can do not for professional reasons but personal reasons.
Do you feel like you’ve been typecast as a certain type of personality after such a long run on one show?
Well, no. I mean certainly, I’ve never spent as long playing any character especially since few people play a character that long. The typecasting more up to me in terms of just saying no to work that seems to think I would hit the same notes. I turn down roles that feel like they share DNA with that character. I’m going to direct another film next year, and I’ve been trying to make a film but I’ve been so busy as an actor since I left (“How I Met Your Mother”). I did “Mercy Street” where I played a morphine addicted surgeon in the Civil War, which is pretty far from “How I Met Your Mother.” I did a play on Broadway, I did a play at Lincoln Center, I wrote a play. I’m not one of those actors that need to be acting all the time, even though I’ve been acting quite a bit the last couple years. My directive is that I’ve done it and I’ve thoroughly explored it. I’m doing a show (“Rise”) for NBC and Jason Katims that we start shooting in the fall and airing in the spring that’s a much different role. It’s a matter of being smart about which roles I take and which roles I say no to.
I’m excited about that show as a fan of the Katims-helmed “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” and the depth of character he explores in those shows.
Oh yeah. Shooting the pilot was a real thrill. I loved collaborating with him. I really trust his taste and vision. He was someone I’d jump at the chance to work for.
Having spent as much time as a writer and director, has that allowed you to see and hear what writers and directors are telling you in setting up a shot or a character?
Certainly the technical aspects of filmmaking I had to learn on the job as a director. I think my storytelling instincts and writing instincts were present as an actor, even before I started directing. I always had a strong sense of what was playable or less playable. Even before I was on “How I Met Your Mother,” I was encouraged by my agent to pass on things that I didn’t like or want to do. I’ve always had a high standard of the kind of material I want to work on. It turned out well. I’ve worked a little less than others, but I’m pretty choosy. The upshot is I look back on the things I’ve done and I stand by almost all of it.
When you’re picky, I’d think there’s a little more pride in the finished product. Do you see it that way?
Acting in film and TV, it has the potential to go lots of places. It was very intimate, shooting “How I Met Your Mother.” I traveled all over the world and there were fans on every continent. It was always startling to me how broad the reach could be. Given that, I tend to be careful about what I put out there. Maybe that’s quite a Jewish impulse: Taking care what I’m putting out into the world. Is it contributing something positive to the world or is it just contributing anxiety and toxicity that perhaps we don’t need any more of. Having some responsibility. It’s the concept of Tikkun Olam. I like being a part of what could be more healing collectively and through the narrative, rather than something that’s wallowing in darkness.
It feels like the role of the new show seems that there’s a little Tikkun Olam in that role.
Yeah, definitely. I really liked the opportunity to be a part of a show where the teachers are heroes. If there’s an under celebrated segment of our society, it’s certainly teachers.
How much of Ted Mosby is you in real life?
That’s an impossible thing to answer. The writers take a little bit of stuff from your life. My acting teacher at NYU said it’s a said it’s a 50 percent meeting of you and the character. You try to lend a little bit of yourself to the character. No one who really knows me would confuse me with that character. I look like him. The rhythm of my speech is kind of like his. I don’t have red cowboy boots or stalk women. I found him easier to play once I realized he was an absolute separate thing from me. It was fun to play him but never mistook myself.
Josh Radnor isn’t going to steal a blue French horn off the wall?
No, he would not.
What would Ted’s favorite Jewish holiday be?
I bet he’d like the ritual of Passover and revelry of Purim.
I really love Passover, and also, weirdly, I like fasting on Yom Kippur. I find that there’s something in stepping outside the monotony of routine and stepping into reflection.
Tickets are still available for Josh Radnor at Temple of Aaron’s Annual Fundraiser online, or contact Executive Director Ken Agranoff.