In Depth

Getting to Know ‘Your Mother’ Takes Time, Radnor Says

“How I Met Your Mother,” one of CBS’ top comedies, recently was renewed for its fourth season. It’s also been in the news lately for casting Britney Spears in a small, recurring role.

Talking with the star of “Mother,” actor Josh Radnor, the cast would rather be known for scooping up some Emmy nominations than rubbing shoulders with Ms. Spears.

“We certainly have been getting a lot of attention lately. But getting nominated? That would be fantastic,” said Mr. Radnor. “I certainly wouldn’t say no to one. None of us would.

“I think we’re a show that’s a bit more of a slow burn than a fast, right-out-of-the-gate, grab-a-lot-of-attention kind of show. People are starting to see it more, whether they caught it on an airplane or their friends told them to watch this. Comedies take a little longer for people to warm up to, but our show really grows on you. You spend a night out with these people and you go, ‘That was really fun. Let me see what they are up to again this week.’ The next thing you know, you’re really looking forward to seeing them every week.”

“Mother” has been recognized with Emmy nominations in the past, in particular Neil Patrick Harris as supporting actor in a comedy, for his performance as Barney.

Mr. Radnor could be considered the lead of the show, since he is the “I” of the title, but like “Friends,” “How I Met Your Mother” is an ensemble show. So he could conceivably be nominated as lead or supporting actor in a comedy.

“I have no idea how to answer all that stuff,” he says, “because all that kind of award stuff, it would be such a crazy thing on top of what is already a great thing. It’s impossible for me to speculate, but I would love for us to get more awards, but I also don’t think that matters. As long as we stay on the air, we’re doing a great job and that’s what we’re going for. Also, if you start thinking about awards, you get in trouble. It’s served us to be the underdog, and if we start thinking about the show in terms of awards… well, you don’t want to be an awards-baiting show. That’s certain death for a series, so I think we just want to keep doing what we’re doing.”

As originally pitched, “How I Met Your Mother” was a comedy with a hook: The action is narrated through flashbacks from the future as Ted—Mr. Radnor’s character—tells his children how he met their mother. “It was kind of a gimmick to get the pilot on the air to turn it into a series. I think in some ways it’s the blessing and the curse of the show, because it’s not the essence,” he says. “You have these friends hanging out in New York and it’s a coming-of-age story, but you also have this mystery going of who is the mother.”

Now, going into the fourth season, the mystery of the “mother’s” identity has become very important to some fans of the show—almost too important.

“People are a little too obsessive about who’s the mother. Just enjoy the show,” said Mr. Radnor. Referring to the cult classic “Twin Peaks,” he added, “It’s like who killed Laura Palmer? There are plenty of ways that we can play it. It can be someone we met before, it could be Ted opens the door on the last episode and in the last moment, we never see her—which would really upset people. But I think we’re going to keep it going until we can’t anymore. You don’t want to kill the buzz too soon, as it were.”

The show has built up a loyal following, in large part because the series is about the characters, not the situation. “That’s one of the reasons I love doing it. This show sounds real. Ted and Barney and Lily and Robin and Marshall are talking in their own very specific voices,” said Mr. Radnor. “One of the dangers, I think, with comedy is you can hear the writers room rather than hear the characters talk. Our show does a great job of letting the characters talk.”

The five characters are all in their late 20s and live in New York City. According to Mr. Radnor, they reflect real people. “The writers are really committed to that. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I feel like I’m watching my life. It feels really real.’ Or, ‘That just happened to me,’” said Mr. Radnor, citing a recent example when a girl came up to him to tell him that the episode in which Robin hadn’t shaved her legs was out of her own life. “‘The same exact thing happened to me,’ she told me,” he said.

If there’s one nomination Mr. Radnor really hopes “Mother” receives, it would be for “Mother’s” mother—director Pamela Fryman. “She’s the real unsung hero of our show. She’s directed every episode and she really goes such a long way toward setting the tone of the workspace and what happens when we get in front of the camera,” said Mr. Radnor. “She’s just a delightful person and there’s just no space for anyone to misbehave, not that anyone has or does. It’s just not that kind of set. I think we just all like each other. We know that we have a good thing going.”