Opening this Friday in limited release is writer/director Josh Radnor’s excellent drama Liberal Arts. The film marks How I Met Your Mother star Radnor’s second directorial effort after 2010’s Happythankyoumoreplease and centers on a 35-year-old whose yearning for his glory days of college is intensified when he strikes up a romance with a 19-year-old college student (Elizabeth Olsen) over a shared love of music and literature. The film simultaneously captures the essence of being young and free as well as the post-college feeling of thinking your best days may be behind you. Radnor’s script is filled with insightful, funny characters that are perfectly embodied by the likes of Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, and Zac Efron.
During a recent phone interview with Elizabeth Olsen, who plays the young, soulful Zibby with the charm and emotion of an actress twice her age, she talked about how she first got involved with the project, her self-proclaimed literature nerdom, where she falls on the argument over reading as entertainment vs. enrichment, and working with a lead actor who was also the writer and director. Olsen also talked briefly about Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake, confirming that they start filming in mid-October. Hit the jump to read the interview.
ELIZABETH OLSEN: Josh and I actually share the same agent, so when he was writing it—I actually just started working with her and auditioning when he just started writing it—she told him I think after she read like 30 pages, “I have the girl for you, I found your Zibby.” Then fast forward like a year to a year and a half later—he had, I guess I would have the same problem that you don’t really just want your agent to set you up with your people you want to go through everything on your own—and so he agreed to sit down with me and I really just thought the script was really funny and sweet, and the idea of playing a character that wasn’t tormented was exciting to me (laughs). We sat down and we read through every single scene for like an hour, hour and a half, and he still didn’t officially give me the job so I had to wait like a week (laughs). But yeah, so that’s how it came to be.
I think this is going to connect with a lot of people, not only with those currently in college but also those dealing with the post-college experience. Did anything from the script jump out at you as familiar from your time at NYU or was it pretty different?
OLSEN: Not from NYU, just because I went to theater school in New York City and I feel like that’s just so different from this liberal arts private land of learning. But there’s the idea with every single character-with Richard Jenkins, with Allison Janney, probably every character except for Zac Efron’s character—that everyone is going through this process of trying to accept being happy where they are. They either wanna live in the past or in the future, and I think that’s something that people go through universally. I think that’s kind of the best thing about it at the end is really just stepping back and being happy with where you are.
Books and literature play a huge part in the film, which is funny because that’s become such a rare thing in films these days; the go-to pop culture references tend to be all TV and movies. Did Josh give you any specific books to read in order to prepare for the role?
OLSEN: No actually, I went to a really great high school and I took a few AP classes in literature and language and things like that. The only type of writing I like to do or enjoy doing is academic writing, so I’m already inherently that type of person. I’ll still remember that my senior year of high school I wrote an essay on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that I’m still proud of to this day, so I’m already kind of a nerd when it comes to literature and theory (laughs). I wish I could have more of that in life, but I don’t because I’m always reading scripts or things to prepare for movies when I’m reading. But I am gonna go back to school in January and the only two classes I have left are Humanities, so I’ll be able to take a literature class I’m really looking forward to taking just because I find those types of classes really stimulating, and even if you can’t really have a conversation with someone candidly about it it’s something that you’ll always have something to learn from when it comes to taking a literature class. I kind of wish that you could just go and take a class whenever you feel like it.
There’s a very interesting debate presented in the film about books as entertainment vs. books as enrichment, and I’m sure this particular conversation will ring true for a number of people. Do you fall on one side of that argument?
OLSEN: Yes, I don’t read books for entertainment (laughs). I was just telling someone because someone asked me if I’d read a Twlight book, and if I have the opportunity where I have the time to have free reading, I am 100% gonna read a classic that I feel like I have to have read before I die. The last time I had a chance to have a free reading time I read Anna Karenina, because I was like, “Well I have to read Tolstoy.”
The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year to an extremely positive response. You had a similar experience last year with Martha Marcy May Marlene. What’s it like to have that great reception and then have to wait a while for everyone else to see it?
OLSEN: Well with Martha I had like such anticipation for it, but with this movie it’s more of a—it’s a movie that makes you feel good afterwards (laughs). Honestly people are just gonna have different opinions when it comes to reviewing just based on how much they related to it or not, but for some reason for this movie I probably won’t care too much about reading the reviews just because I feel like it’s one of those movies that you’re gonna have a personal reaction to or you’re not. I enjoyed it, I didn’t know how much I was gonna enjoy it because you never know, because it’s kind of up to someone else at the end of the day, and watching it at Sundance was so much fun. It felt like an interactive experience, so I’m excited to watch it again actually, I usually don’t watch them with an audience for a second time and I’m really excited to see it again tonight.
What’s it like to work opposite a lead actor who’s also the writer and director?
OLSEN: It’s definitely a different experience, but he’s also the editor so that also helps because I feel like a lot of times if a director is not in the editing room, when you’re on set you kind of get confused on how many shots you need to take, and Josh just knew every thing he needed to do to get what he needed. So it was actually very specific and very effective, and he was thoroughly organized.
OLSEN: Yeah absolutely. Actually when I was in high school I used to say that I just wanted to be old, I wanted to have the stories to tell, and now I’m in a totally different place where I’m like, “I’m very happy being where I am.” I don’t need to go back or rush for it, I’m happy with where I am right now. Which is, I think, a better feeling (laughs).
A lot of people are really eager to see Spike Lee’s take on Oldboy, do you guys have a start date on that yet?
OLSEN: Yeah, it had to be pushed a little bit because of the hurricane because they’re filming in New Orleans, but it’s mid-October basically.
There’s kind of some more graphic material in the original, is Spike really going for it?
OLSEN: Oh my gosh yeah, there’s no reason to do a remake if you’re gonna do less-than.
Liberal Arts opens in limited release on September 14th.