Josh Radnor has relocated from CBS to PBS — and to the 19th century: The How I Met Your Mother alum returns to TV by starring as an arrogant, innovative surgeon working at a Union Army hospital in the Civil War-set drama Mercy Street (debuting Sunday at 10 p.m.). “I was on the lookout for not repeating myself, so anything that came along that was a lovestruck guy looking for love, I was like, ‘No, I think that’s been done for me,’ ” Radnor, 41, tells EW. “This felt as far from that world as possible.” That said, he hopes that fans aren’t intimidated or alienated by the notion of a PBS period piece. “I don’t think you have to be a Civil War buff to appreciate this,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like a museum piece. It’s got a real pulse to it.” Here, he shares the stories behind the TV shows, movies, books and music that got his own blood racing in EW’s “Pop Culture of My Life.”
The TV show you wish you could have been on:
I love comedy against a stark or tragic backdrop, because it says something about how we survive and how humor can be this coping mechanism against various horrors. That was part of the innovation around M*A*S*H. Mercy Street is set in the hospital in the Civil War, so that’s a show that [the writers] were influenced by. I always respond to things that are funny-sad or sad-funny, and M*A*S*H is right in that sweet spot.
The book or author you’ve reread the most times:
P.D. Wodehouse’s Jeeves books. They’re literary antidepressants. I find it hard to be in a down mood when I’m reading those books, and the way he plays with language is so delightful to me. There’s something amazing about a guy writing 50 books with the same thing going on — Bertie gets into hot water and Jeeves saves the day — but each one feels fresh and exciting.
The first record you bought:
I remembering going to the Record and Tape Outlet in Columbus, Ohio, with my mom. My town was very Grateful Dead/Led Zeppelin/Pink Floyd-centered, and I heard about The Wall and I wanted to get it, but my mom didn’t have any idea what it was and the guy working there was kind of winking at me like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m going to get your mom to agree to buy this for you.” Obviously if my mom had known there was a song “We Don’t Need No Education,” she’d be like, “Turn that off!” He made it seem a little less provocative than it was. The music was an interesting mix of dissonance and melody, and I was definitely thrown by it. Some of it I really liked and some of it I found really disturbing.
The movie that doesn’t get its due:
This is somewhat controversial, and I’ve found it a great litmus test for people I really like: Joe Versus the Volcano. I remember seeing it with a bunch of friends in high school and no one liked it, but I loved it and it made me question my own taste. Over the years I connected with a whole army of people that really love that movie. It’s a great fable. Maybe it was mismarketed as this Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy and it’s not really that at all — it’s far more insane than that. I’m a big Tom Hanks fan, and he has this moment where he thinks Meg Ryan is dying and he’s been at sea for days and hasn’t had a drop of food or drink and this enormous moon rises up and he’s talking to the moon or talking to God — just talking to the vastness of the universe — and I find it so touching. It’s one of my favorite moments in movies.
The book you most recommend to friends:
American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar. It’s a gorgeous book about a Muslim boy growing up in Milwaukee in the early ’80s. I thought it was a really sincere exploration of what it means to have faith and a spiritual dimension to your life. I wrote him a fan letter because I was so moved by it, and then we had coffee and became friends, and then a couple years later I was doing his play Disgraced on Broadway. I guess that’s also a plug for writing fan letters.
The TV show you most recently binged:
Transparent. Jill Soloway is a friend of mine. I did her first movie Afternoon Delight, and I just love her sensibility and her tone. That’s a really sad-funny tone, a little more emphasis on the sad. It’s one of the saddest shows around, and I mean that as a compliment. It really digs pretty dip into the darker crevices of what might be going on with us. It’s so beautifully acted and shot and directed — its vision is very complete.
The song you would like to have played at your funeral:
Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata. I almost picked the Third Movement of Symphony No. 9, but I thought that was maybe a little grand for people, and “Spring” Sonata is a little more compact and beautiful. I want to have a more modest funeral. I’m quite Beethoven-obsessed these days. It doesn’t even sound like classical music in that it felt like it was composed a couple hundred years ago. It sounds like it was composed at the dawn of time and somewhere far in the future. It is cosmically great music.
The TV show or movie that made you want to become an actor:
Tootsie. It’s my favorite movie — there’s no question. There was something so romantic about this idea of living in New York City; even the struggle of it seemed exciting to me. It’s a story about loving what you do and getting in your own way and falling in love — what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. It’s a deceptively rich and deep movie, on top of the fact that it’s totally hilarious. I feel bad for Dustin Hoffman when I do meet him that he will have to either listen to me talk about it or, God help him, hear my Tootsie impression.
A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1399, on newsstands now