In his 43 years, Neil Patrick Harris has known many kinds of fame. As the gawky star of Doogie Howser, MD, the Nineties television show in which he played the 16-year-old resident surgeon of an LA hospital, he was a heart-throb for the preteen crowd. Later, during the 10-year run of How I Met Your Mother, he won the admiration of frat boys for his depiction of womanising one-liner-merchant Barney Stinson, while at the same time becoming the poster boy for gay acceptance in Hollywood (he came out in 2006).
On this side of the Atlantic he’s less known than he is in the United States, where he has appeared regularly on Broadway and hosted countless televised awards ceremonies, from the depths of the Spike Video Game Awards to the heights of the Tonys, Emmys and Oscars (of which more later). There are few actors who can nail a punchline or hit a mark as effortlessly as he can.
As a child, he was fascinated by magic and stagecraft, and the internal intricacies of his work seem to excite him more than the perks it affords. “I’ve always been a big fan of the Bryan Cranstons and the Alan Rickmans, who got to play juicy, interesting parts with amazing people and fantastic directors, but were able to still exist in the real world,” he says, over tea in a London hotel.
You expect former child stars to have a weird, ageless, Benjamin Button vibe, but Harris is sharply dressed, affable and funny, and talks about his life with an air of shrugging self-deprecation. “When you get to a DiCaprio level, when you become a Kidman, then your world is so different, because you’re a big movie star person, and everywhere you go you’re treated as such,” he says.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the circus performer who stands on stage, does a death-defying act and gets a standing ovation — then takes off the make-up and walks out of the tent and gets to exist like a normal, everyday person.”
It’s perhaps worth noting at this point that Harris does occasionally holiday with Elton John and David Furnish in the south of France, in a villa which, he writes in his memoir, “one can only assume Elton timeshares with God.”
His own crisp appearance can probably be accounted for by the 10-year run and subsequent syndication of How I Met Your Mother, for which he is thought to have earned more than $200,000 an episode.
There is a special, indelible sort of fame that comes from playing the villain of a children’s story, be it child catcher, puppy killer or witch. In A Series of Unfortunate Events, Netflix’s adaptation of the best-selling books by Lemony Snicket (the pen name of American writer Daniel Handler), Harris takes the part of the murderous Count Olaf, set on seizing the inheritance of three orphaned children. Harris’s own six-year-olds — a twin boy and girl — are too young to have read the books, but he imagines that any child would appreciate their atmosphere of desperate menace.
“Stories that are macabre, stories that are tragic and graphic, are kind of the way kids think,” he says. “Our son goes around pretending anything he can find is a gun, and when we say that’s not OK, he just switches to an invisible gun. You can’t stop a kid from thinking: ‘I will cut you, I will blow you up.’?”
Harris’s transformation into Olaf involved three hours in the make-up chair every morning; because Olaf is himself a master of disguise, this might on any given day include the addition of a prosthetic nose, a shock-headed wig, a bald cap, a long grey beard or fake breasts.
The production values are high, with the whole series being directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who created the gothic universe of The Addams Family films, as well as the blockbuster Men in Black trilogy.
“It feels like we’re making a feature film every episode,” says Harris. “Barry wanted everything aesthetically to have the same cinematic quality. All the sets are on sound stages, as opposed to on location, which creates a visual dynamic that I think is unique to the show. It’s very Edward Gorey, very Edward Scissorhands.”
According to Harris, A Series of Unfortunate Events will be Netflix’s most expensive show to date — a not inconsiderable boast, given that the first two series of its lavish period drama The Crown are said to have been budgeted at ₤100 million.
Doing it all
For someone who has done his time on TV series and in TV movies, the largesse of the streaming service helps to confirm the increasing respectability of the medium. “I grew up in a world where if you were on TV, you were a TV actor,” says Harris. “Casting directors wouldn’t hire you for movies, and movie people would never do TV, so you had this weird divide. But now you get to do it all.”
Harris got his big break when he was 13 years old, at a summer camp in New Mexico, where he grew up. There he was spotted by a playwright, Mark Medoff, who had written a film script with a leading part for a teenage boy.
For Harris, starring opposite Whoopi Goldberg in this weepy melodrama, Clara’s Heart, was “the professional equivalent of first love”.
Within three years Harris and his parents, both lawyers, had relocated to Los Angeles to facilitate his acting career. Harris managed, somehow, to navigate the obvious pitfalls of early stardom.
Although he was part of the child-actor party scene, he didn’t drink or take drugs, and he observed the missteps of his peers — now-faded luminaries such as Shannen Doherty, queen bee of Beverly Hills 90210, and Dustin Diamond, uber-geek of Saved by the Bell — from a sceptical distance.
Would it be true to say that he emerged from the experience unscathed? “There are all kinds of traumatic aspects to a youth of being scrutinised,” he says. “I was, I think, very worried that I would never get to act again. I’ve always wanted to work, and I’ve been very reticent about the fame and the acclaim, because it’s rare that you get genuine, un-agenda-ed acclaim. There’s usually another shoe to drop: ‘This is good but not as good as the last thing you did,’ or, ‘You’re the toast of the town!’ And then the toast burns.”
A case in point: last year, Harris hosted the Academy Awards. He gave it his all, singing and dancing his way through a show that lasted nearly four hours. He even stripped down to present one segment in his underpants, but to no avail: the reviews were bad.
“I try to make my comedy on award shows a little groan-y, because I think the host is there to make everyone feel comfortable,” he says, smiling ruefully. “I thought the show went really well. During the commercial breaks, everyone was so lovely: Nicole Kidman was giving me big thumbs-ups, Oprah was saluting me. Only when I looked at Twitter the next morning did I feel like, ‘I guess that was a swing and a miss’. I was bummed for about a week. But you live and you learn.”
He still does awards shows, although when he was offered the chance to become a full-time host, replacing David Letterman on The Late Show, he turned it down, fearing the routine would become stale.
“I’ve been seeking out jobs that are more escapist and more transformational,” he says, and in 2015 he tried his hand at a live variety show, Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris, a version of Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, which was summarily cancelled after one series.
Harris is, he admits, “a bit of a workaholic”, something that has become increasingly evident as his children have got older. “When they were brand-new babies, they couldn’t engage with you much, outside of a diaper change,” he says. “You could still come and go with relative ease. Now that they’re in school and needing a support system around, we’re trying to actively take on less. But I’m finding that even when I’m at home and I have a free day, I’m at my happiest when I’m going from floor to floor fixing things, and gluing things together, and building Lego. I’m always kind of working.”
It’s been 10 years since Harris came out. Back then, he was already dating chef David Burtka, who became his husband in 2014. Although their relationship was an open secret, with the couple often seen together on the red carpet, it became public thanks to the belligerence of celebrity blogger Perez Hilton. Determined to “out” Harris, he began soliciting for kiss-and-tell stories from any man who could prove he had slept with the actor.
Rather than be forcibly shoved out of the closet, Harris released a statement, in which he wrote that he was “a very content gay man living my life to the fullest”.
His publicist was anxious, but the work kept on coming; this was early in the run of How I Met Your Mother, in which he played an over-the-top ladies’ man, and before Harris got his biggest movie gigs, the most high-profile of which was 2014’s Gone Girl, playing Rosamund Pike’s creepy ex-boyfriend.
“There were probably jobs I didn’t get because of my being so public about who I am,” he says now. “But there were other jobs that I did get because the people behind them were impressed with my ability to stand tall. I think it’s the job of any actor, regardless of their ‘-ity’: to try not to be defined by only one thing.”
Don’t miss it
A Series of Unfortunate Events is available on Netflix from January 13.