From showrunner Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) and Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller, the NBC drama series Rise follows Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), a dedicated teacher who sets out on a mission to take over the school’s lackluster theater department and turn it into what he believes it can be, even if no one else sees it. And as he works with the students in the high school production of Spring Awakening that he’s directing, not only does it revitalize his passion for teaching, but it gives the teenagers a new outlook on their own lives, families and relationships. The series also stars Rosie Perez, Marley Shelton, Auli’i Cravalho, Damon J. Gillespie, Amy Forsyth, Ted Sutherland, Casey W. Johnson, Rarmian Newton, Joe Tippett and Shirley Rumierk.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actor Josh Radnor talked about the appeal of Rise, what he likes about collaborating with Jason Katims, how he’d like to get to do a production of Into the Woods, if there’s another season, how he views Lou Mazzuchelli, what it’s been like to work with this young cast. He also talked about the more dramatic career path he’s been on since How I Met Your Mother ended, his band with Ben Lee, and wanting to direct more, in the future.
Collider: When Rise came your way, what was the appeal for you? Was it Jason Katims, or was it something specific about the show?
JOSH RADNOR: I think it was all of it. It was the content of the show, what it was about and what it was saying, the world that it was, that I knew so well and cared about so deeply, and it was Jason and Jeffrey [Seller]. I’ve always loved Jason’s aesthetic and the content of his shows, and the energy, the realness and the authenticity. I feel like he writes the kind of shows that I watch and am like, “I wanna be on a show like that.” And then, when he calls you for a meeting, you think, “This could be great!”
How did you find Jason Katims’ approach to working?
RADNOR: It came pretty easy. The pilot was directed by a great director, named Mike Cahill, who I really clicked with. Everything’s a gamble. Some things, on paper, look like a sure fire bet and they don’t work. Other things, you never see coming and they turn out great. This had a lot of wonderful elements, but you don’t know until you get everyone there and everything set. I remember going to that first table read and we read through the first two episodes. There was a huge blizzard and I was actually late because the subways weren’t running on time, and the kids started singing. There was this moment where everything shifted in the room and I was like, “This is really special. I might have stumbled into something special.”
Did you know, from the beginning, that the production for this season would be Spring Awakening?
RADNOR: Yeah, it was in the pilot script. By the time it got to me, it was Spring Awakening.
Have you had conversations about what other shows you could do?
RADNOR: Yeah, we’ve talked about it, just as a fun thing. I spent a day or two with the choreographers, running through our favorite musicals and casting them with all of the available actors, but that’s up to Jason. I think he’ll land on something great.
Do you have a personal favorite?
RADNOR: I did Into the Woods, in between my freshman and sophomore year of college. We actually had that pretty well cast, among the high school kids in the show. I mentioned that to Jason and told him to watch the PBS recorded version of the Broadway cast, but I have no idea where they’re gonna end up. This is a talented gang.
How do you view Lou Mazzuchelli? What kind of a guy is he to you?
RADNOR: Lou messes up so frequently, and sometimes his passion gets the best of him and he’s rude or he’s ill-tempered or he’s paying more attention to the school than to his family. He’s a very complicated guy. He’s a really good guy. His heart is in the right place and he’s well-intentioned, to say the least. He messes up quite a bit, but he also owns it when he does, which is a great mark of maturity or someone who’s doing their best to get there.
It seems crazy that this guy thinks that he’s the one who can save the theater program, in a town that clearly isn’t interested in and doesn’t care about theater.
RADNOR: Yes, but that feels very true to me, in terms of arts programs and how their budgets get slashed first, which I think is just egregious. I was completely transformed by stepping into the theater, and I also sang in school. I think that arts and storytelling, in all its many forms, is as vital as air, water, shelter and food. We just wouldn’t be able to live without them. You can’t quite call yourself human without art. You don’t even have to be someone who makes it. You can be someone who’s in the audience and is transformed by it. That artist-audience relationship is essential to the whole deal. I just feel like it’s a show that’s firing on all cylinders. For me, it’s all the things I care about, in the world. To be a part of something that feels like it has the potential to reach a lot of people and be impactful in a really great way, that’s win-win.