By Emily Rome
September 16, 2012 at 01:30 PM EDT
IFC Films

When actor Josh Radnor visited his alma mater in spring 2010, he was struck with a realization that hits many 30-somethings returning to their colleges – that the current students walking paths and studying in the same halls he had about 15 years prior looked so young.

“It was just this startling moment when I realized that I was nearly twice as old as the students there,” Radnor said of visiting Kenyon College to screen his directorial debut, happythankyoumoreplease. “It was really strange because my memories of college are so vivid. I felt like I was just there yesterday, and suddenly I was looking at these students saying, ‘We weren’t this young when we were here in school.’”

The How I Met Your Mother star then took that sentiment and turned it into an audience favorite film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Liberal Arts, Radnor’s second directorial endeavor, premiered at the Utah festival in January and began rolling out in theaters this weekend. (You can watch the trailer here.)

Liberal Arts, which Radnor also wrote and stars in, was shot at Kenyon College and in its surrounding village of Gambier, Ohio. Making the film gave Radnor the opportunity to both revisit his alma mater for the summer 2011 shoot (where the film crew stayed in student housing and ate in the dining hall, and current students filled several roles in the production and as extras) and also to delve into themes of nostalgia and change and what happens next after four years of a liberal arts education.

The film features Radnor as Jesse, a 35-year-old admissions counselor at a university in New York City. When he returns to his Midwest college for a professor’s (Richard Jenkins) retirement party, he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old, sophisticated sophomore with whom he soon becomes romantically entangled. A discussion with producer Jesse Hara following Radnor’s 2010 visit to Kenyon was the springboard for Liberal Arts.

“I realized if I fell in love with a student there, that would be kind of inappropriate, and [Hara] said, ‘That’s a great movie,’” Radnor recalled.

The actor is careful to note that the film is not autobiographical. There are definitely differences between Radnor and Jesse: The character hasn’t visited his college for many years, while Radnor has taken several trips back to talk to students and to visit family and friends (the school is about 50 miles north of Columbus, Ohio, where he was born and where his parents still live). Jesse has an idealized outlook on his college years and is dissatisfied with his life in New York, while Radnor says, “Any kind of crippling college nostalgia that I had was pretty much done by [age] 27, 28 maybe.” Still, Radnor, now 38, admits that he shares a romantic view of college with the character.

“As Jesse says, ‘This is the only time you get to do this. You get to sit around and read really great books and talk with people about ideas.’ I do miss some of that,” Radnor tells EW. “It seems that the world is not all that encouraging of that or it doesn’t even give you much time for that. So I think there’s something really special about the time and space granted to encounter new ideas and wrestle with things and to kind of live more comfortably with paradox.”

At a screening of Liberal Arts in Los Angeles on Saturday, though, it seemed like the entertainment industry hasn’t been devoid of occasion for Radnor to think and talk about ideas and reference the masters. During a Q&A following the Landmark Theatre screening (which was organized for Kenyon alums, parents and prospective students), Radnor found plenty of opportunity to mull over his writing and directing process, all the while quoting both Winston Churchill and modern critics and referencing practices of ancient Greek artists.

Among the Kenyon crowd in the audience was Harlene Marley, one of Radnor’s theater professors, now retired, who made the trip out from Phoenix for the event. She told EW that during Radnor’s talk with the audience he definitely sounded like someone who had spent four years at Kenyon “and then some. He’s extremely well-spoken.” She recalled that when she taught him, he was “a really good college actor. He was also really smart. He was the kind of student you liked to have in class because he acts well enough to pretend to be attentive,” she said with a laugh.

Marley got a nod in the ‘thanks to’ section of Liberal Arts’ credits (“It’s a first!” she told EW). She was clearly an influence on Radnor, who was her student before graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Drama in 1996, and she also taught another alum who appears in the film, Allison Janney. The actress plays the hard-bitten but alluring English professor who Jesse claims was his favorite teacher at the school. Janney ended up tapping into her memories of Marley for her performance.

“I didn’t base her [on Marley] in the writing at all, but… when I was directing Allison, the thing I told her on the first day was, ‘Don’t be afraid of her grandiose qualities. Don’t be afraid of over-enunciation and speaking in a very theatrical manner,’” Radnor said. “Allison started doing it, and she said, ‘Wow, it really reminds me of Harlene.’”

“I channeled [Harlene] a little bit,” Janney told EW while at the Finding Nemo 3D premiere last week. “I haven’t told her yet, but she’d get a kick out of it.”

The screening in Los Angeles this weekend was one of multiple screenings of Liberal Arts for Kenyon alumni in 11 cities across the country. Sarah Kahrl, Kenyon’s vice president for college relations, has been orchestrating the screenings as a liaison between the college and the film, though Liberal Arts is certainly not an advertisement for the college. Along with its romantic view of college years, it presents a cynicism about what good can come of such an education. Jesse tells Zibby, “I was [an] English [major] with a history minor, just to make sure I was fully unemployable” and drops sarcastic remarks like, “A liberal arts education solves all your problems.”

Radnor told the Landmark Theatre crowd that he sees the film as “both a celebration of liberal arts education and also a recognition of its limits.”

Despite the side of the film that’s jaded about what comes after four years at a liberal arts school, Kahrl considers the opportunity to bring alumni together for screenings “pure gold for us.”

“It’s a very realistic view,” she says. “I think the film would not be authentic if the characters didn’t express doubt about where they’re going.”

Following Liberal Arts’ premiere at Sundance, EW critic Owen Gleiberman called it “the best movie about college I’ve seen since I don’t know what,” though Radnor contends that the film is “more a movie about being out of college than being in college.” He says the film played well at a recent screening for 2,000 current students and professors in Kenyon’s athletic center, but he wondered “if there were certain things that [the students] might understand a few years from now that they didn’t then. It’s hard to tell a college student that it’s tough to be out of college because they have no context for it.”

But Radnor still believes Liberal Arts is a film with entry points for people of several ages and types of college experiences – from 19-year-old Zibby to fellow student and college-loathing Dean to 35-year-old Jesse to Jenkins’ reluctant-to-retire professor. In fact, there is no mention of Kenyon in Liberal Arts. The Ohio college at the film’s core remains nameless because, Radnor hopes, audiences will feel “like it could be their college.”

Liberal Arts opened in Los Angeles and New York on Friday and will continue expanding to more cities later this month.

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome

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