Josh Radnor On Why We Need New Metrics of Success In Our Work

The actor/director shares how his film, "Happythankyoumoreplease," led to some unexpected lessons.

Image by Benjavisa/ Getty Images

The opening track on Jason Mraz’s 2012 album, Love Is A Four Letter Word, is a cover of “The Freedom Song,” originally written and recorded by a Seattle-based band called Luc and The Lovingtons. In May of 2013, Felipe Canete, one of the members of Luc and The Lovingtons, passed away suddenly from a previously diagnosed heart condition. He was 37, married with a one-year-old son named Rio.

A few months after Felipe’s death, I was invited to a memorial celebration-jamboree at Jason’s house north of San Diego. I had never met Felipe or any of the Lovingtons but I’d known Jason for a few years and a number of our mutual friends would also be attending and playing music.

Milling about waiting for everyone to arrive, I was introduced to Felipe’s widow, Katy, who immediately insisted we had met before. This is, as you can imagine, an occupational hazard for people on long-running television shows (I had just started filming the ninth and final season of How I Met Your Mother) and I’d gotten fairly used to people insisting we’d gone to summer camp together in the 80’s. This also puts one in an awkward bind where you have to gently say “I don’t think we know each other, but I’m an actor so….” And then the dreaded prompt: “What might I have seen you in?” which leads – if one has the energy for it – to a half-hearted resume recitation. But Katy had never seen or even heard of How I Met Your Mother so we just dropped it and migrated over to the performance area.

The evening was beautiful. Luc and The Lovingtons emerged in a kind of tribal conga line to kick off the festivities. In the many vivid stories and reflections people offered, Felipe came through as a genuinely loving, passionate, engaged, wonderfully-spirited human. There was something in the way people shared about him that made me certain we’d have been friends had we met before he died.

As the night was winding down, a smiling Katy came up to me with some ‘mystery-solved’ relief in her eyes. “Happythankyoumoreplease…” she said. “You did that movie.” I said “Yes!” And she said, “That was Felipe’s favorite movie. We watched it all the time. Whenever anyone asked for a movie recommendation, that’s the movie he would recommend.”

I was stunned.

Happythankyoumoreplease was the first film I wrote and directed. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010 where it won the Audience Award for Dramatic film. Due to some distribution hiccups and headaches, it was released over a year after it premiered at Sundance. Despite winning Audience Awards at nearly every festival we played at, the film did not light up the box office.

I was heartsick about this for a time. But then: Years passed and people kept discovering and recommending the film. And telling me how deeply it had affected them. No less than three women have told me that a pivotal third act scene between Tony Hale and Malin Akerman convinced them to give a man with whom they were underwhelmed a second chance, resulting in marriage.

Our metric for success, it seems to me, is off. The sole measurement that carries any cultural weight is economic. There’s no reliable diagnostic test or statistical model for ‘hearts opened’ or ‘wounds healed.’ But a good film seen at the right moment has the potential to do those things. The two films I’ve made (Liberal Arts is the other) aren’t mythic battles between good and evil. They’re about good people getting better at being themselves. They’re modest in scale and grand (I think) in emotional-spiritual ambition.

So there I was, post-musical memorial, hearing that this man I’d never met – but had just spent an entire evening celebrating and getting to know – dearly loved my film. It was intensely moving to me. It felt like Felipe and I had met in some liminal cosmic space and shared a hug.

You make a film with the best of intentions and the loftiest of hopes, and at a certain point things are out of your control. You send it out into the world, like a message in a bottle, and hope it washes up on the right shores. I’m grateful my film found its way to Felipe and that it gave him some real joy, just as he gave joy to so many before he left us.

I thought I had made Happythankyoumoreplease for the whole world. Until the night I realized I had made it for a musician in Seattle.

If you enjoyed this story from Josh, check out his other pieces on Thrive:

-Josh on spirituality 

-Josh on fame and the mindset shift that changed his life

-Josh on finding purpose in pain 

And sign up for Josh’s Museletters here.

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