After nine seasons as Ted Mosby on the Emmy-winning series How I Met Your Mother, Josh Radnor is returning to his theater roots in not one, but two new plays. The actor, director and screenwriter is currently starring in the world premiere of Richard Greenberg’s The Babylon Line through July 7 at New York Stage and Film & Vassar's Powerhouse Season at Vassar College—he'll then switch gears to play Isaac in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced, beginning September 27 at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway. Radnor chatted with Broadway.com about returning to the Great White Way for the first time since The Graduate, his “lazy” HIMYM line-learning habits, the homicidal Sondheim character he'd love to play and his dragalicious kiss with Hedwig star Neil Patrick Harris.
After How I Met Your Mother, we’re so happy to see you jumping back into theater—what made you want to do these two plays?
Oh, just to make the folks at Broadway.com happy. [Laughs.] When the show ended and I was asked, “Do you want to do a new Richard Greenberg play at Vassar?” I said, “Well, yeah, of course I do.” That’s a no-brainer. And I know [Disgraced] playwright Ayad Akhtar—I wrote him a fan letter after reading his fantastic novel American Dervish, and we had coffee in the city one day and became friends a couple years ago. He said he had always wanted me to do this role, but I was never available, so then when the Broadway production came up, they offered it to me, which I was thrilled by ‘cause it’s a really special, wonderful play.
Doing Broadway this time around is going to be a little different than when you were last here as an up-and-coming actor.
I did The Graduate in 2002, and I used to tell people I was famous for 15 minutes on a half block of West 45th Street, and then around the corner, I’d be totally anonymous again. Things have changed over the years in some really wonderful ways, but sometimes it can be strange and disorienting. New Yorkers leave you alone, but students and tourists come up and want to say hi, most of which is really lovely, but you’re bound to have some strange encounters. At least they all turn into good stories.
Now that Disgraced has won the Pulitzer, do you feel any added pressure to do it justice?
Its award-winning status hasn’t made me nervous, but I think it’s recognized justly as an important play. Ayad is one of the most exciting voices in theater right now—he grew up loving Philip Roth and Saul Bellow and Woody Allen movies, and I think he’s attempting to do for the Muslim-American experience what those authors did for the Jewish-American experience. It’s thrilling to watch someone tackle that so eloquently and empathetically. Right now, it’s more exciting than daunting, but talk to me in a couple months and I might feel differently. [Laughs.]
Why did you want to sink your teeth into The Babylon Line?
This is my fourth time at Vassar—I was an acting apprentice here when I was in college and it’s a real artistic home for me. When they call and offer me something, I take it very seriously because I love it here. I’ve never done a play of Richard Greenberg’s before, but I’ve seen quite a few and I think he’s one of our most eloquent and exciting playwrights. I was nervous going into rehearsal because the part is tough and it’s pretty epic. I’ve never had to learn this many lines before. You don’t want to approximate Greenberg, because then you hear the actual line and you’re like, “Well, that’s 100 percent better than what I just said.” So you really have to get it perfect.
But didn’t you get lots of practice learning lines quickly from How I Met Your Mother?
Oh no, we were the laziest group of line learners, because we never shot in front of an audience. We would gather around the script supervisor’s table and just jam the lines right before we went. Sometimes I had these page-long speeches and I would have to learn those, but largely we got really good at throwing it on its feet quickly and approximating professional acting. At some points our director would have to say, “Professional acting guys, come on, professional acting now.”
Have you gotten to see Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig yet?
I saw it last Sunday night! He was phenomenal. He came out in the audience during “Sugar Daddy” and planted a big kiss on my forehead, which humiliated me and also made me very happy.
You sang with Neil in How I Met Your Mother—would you ever want to do a musical?
I did a benefit of She Loves Me a couple years ago with Kelli O’Hara, and I would love to do a production of that. We’re talking about it a little bit, but there’s nothing set. I started off in musicals, and I still think it's the most adrenaline-producing, fun thing, so I’m always open to it.
What’s your ultimate musical dream role?
I just saw Six by Sondheim on HBO and I thought that was so amazing. In a number of years, I’d love to do Sweeney Todd, and I love George in Sunday in the Park with George. I also really love original work, so I’d love to originate something.
See Josh Radnor in The Babylon Line at Vassar College's Powerhouse Theater through July 6.