A Man's Man
By Bill Keith
Like his path or not, Neil Patrick Harris has charted it very carefully from child star to Broadway heavy hitter to sitcom scene-stealer. His stirring turns on Broadway in Assassins, Proof, and Cabaret proved that he had the chops to stick around in this business, but his outrageous cameo in the first Harold & Kumar set the stage for a role that's outsizing the diminutive Doogie Howser to whom he was inextricably linked for so long. With three seasons and an Emmy nomination under his belt -- plus a new gig as the face of Old Spice -- Harris has found his work as Barney Stinson on CBS's How I Met Your Mother is taking him down a somewhat unexpected path -- that of a Hollywood leading man.
When Harris came out in November 2006, shock waves didn't exactly ripple throughout the country. Thanks to Perez Hilton's yearlong campaign to 'out' Harris, that he was gay wasn't news. The fact that he was willing to speak about it, however, was. After the initial acknowledgment he provided to People magazine, Harris has been fairly quiet on the subject of his sexuality, though for this issue he opened up over drinks in a New York caf'.
OUT: Why does it seem like none of the gay child actors ever go the Diff'rent Strokes route and spiral out of control? You, Danny Pintauro, Chad Allen, Sara Gilbert: You're all described by most accounts as well-adjusted. Did being gay affect that?
NPH: Maybe I felt a bit restrained when I was out and partying as a kid at trendy clubs, that I was putting on a bit of an act within myself -- like having to act like those chicks should sit with us at our booth even though I didn't really enjoy it. Maybe that kept me from going out as much? But then again, I could rattle [off] more examples of people who are deeply closeted and turn to hard-core drugs and party all the time to escape it. But I like your statistics.
OUT: From dorky doctor to lady-killing lothario in 20 short years. Did you chart your career path to become 'Leading Man Neil Patrick Harris'?
NPH: Am I? [Laughs] I don't see it.
OUT: Is it what you've always wanted?
NPH: I definitely was fearful of being branded at an early age with a role that I enjoyed immensely but didn't want to keep doing. And probably just out of boredom I was interested in playing crazy, interesting parts. As I got older the crazy roles just found me, I guess, like Barney -- that's so crazy that that found me, but I love it. Being a leading man is fun, but I always find the periphery a more exciting environment. But hey, if someone wants to hand me the shoe, I'll see if it fits.
OUT: How would you say the business has changed for gay actors in the past 20 years?
NPH: It's all uniquely so personal to each person. I can't say that the business is any different now than it was then, because I wasn't 30 years old then and in a position to stand tall and say something. I think the fears that enveloped me then would be the same fears that would envelop people that are 15, 16, 17 now.
OUT: So your advice to a gay actor who is 16 now is no different than it would have been when you were 16?
NPH: Oh, no. Clearly there's way more exposure and a much larger gray area with sexuality and the public's opinion towards it -- on almost every level -- professionally, artistically, legally. What made it more unique 20 years ago was that there were less examples -- so that made it a shock. And I think the shock value has kind of worn off.
OUT: But is Hollywood still underestimating the American public's acceptance level of homosexuality? The stigma still seems to be a reality in that business more than many others.
NPH: People in the business are equally as terrified now -- but I really find it a personal thing. And maybe I'm at the end of that era. I wouldn't even want to stereotype today's generation. But the majority of the casting departments are gay, and a lot of the executives are. I think it's a matter of your abilities and how you carry yourself -- I don't behave any differently toward you right now than when I am with David [Burtka, his boyfriend] in our apartment, watching American Idol. OK, So You Think You Can Dance. [Laughs] I can see why an agent wouldn't want to sign on a real overtly effeminate male actor -- not because I have an aversion to them but because agents might know it limits their job opportunities.
OUT: You were hired for the Harold & Kumar movie before you were out of the closet. In the films you play yourself -- a markedly straight and strung-out version of yourself. Did writers know you were gay when they wrote the part for you or when you were filming it?
NPH: No. You know...that just never came up. Honestly. When you're making a movie everyone is in their own motor home and then they call you in and you do your thing. You don't really sit down and say 'So -- who're you fucking?' when you've only met a week before.
OUT: No, that's more like a day on my job.
NPH: Yes, you probably do. You're unique that way. The writers were very kind and accommodating and reverential, which was strange, at 29, 30, whatever -- it was crazy. But it was hilarious. I'm a magician at heart, so smoke and mirrors is great. The idea of smoke and mirrors tends to suggest suppression and the idea that you don't want people to know about who you really are, but as an actor you kind of do want people to not know who you really are. I think it was nice to have a bit of a smoke screen in a way.
OUT: Did you do anything to hide your sexuality from the network or the executives on How I Met Your Mother?
NPH: I didn't release a statement to them, but at the first How I Met Your Mother barbecue I brought David. I feel like it's important to be proud of who you are, so I didn't feel like, 'I should bring my friend Stephanie to this barbecue, or I'll lose my job.' Thankfully, I live in a time where I don't have to worry about that.
OUT: Fair enough, but do you think the network would have been behind your hiring if you had been openly gay at the time?
NPH: Well, I think if I was an outspoken activist, they probably would have had some concerns that people wouldn't have believed me in the role completely. I think the majority of people just want to see how talented you can be. And if I'm going to play a leading male heterosexual in a role, I'd better act like that for that picture and the audition and represent well, and I would hope that would still get me the job.
OUT: On the flip side, you were playing gay roles long before you came out.
NPH: Yeah. That was tricky for me.
OUT: Was that a game you were playing? You seemed to be pursuing those roles -- the gay friend in The Next Best Thing, the emcee in Cabaret, an "ex-gay" on Will & Grace --
NPH: No game. I thought it was clever. But internally. I figured if I kept working, it was an inevitability that someone would make that a story. I didn't know how it would happen. So I thought when I got the job for The Next Best Thing -- the Madonna movie with Rupert Everett -- I thought, That's kind of clever. I got to be on Will & Grace where I was an "ex-gay" with Sean Hayes, and I thought that was kind of clever too. When you look back you see there are some steps that I took.
OUT: You also played your How I Met Your Mother costar Josh Radnor's lover, right?
NPH: Yes, in A Paris Letter. Playing gay in the theater is more fulfilling than on film because you can create a whole character and a backstory and you get to chip away at something over a long period of time. When you're acting on film you sort of have one afternoon in front of a crew to just do it. And you don't want to then be too overt and like that stereotype. But when I was doing A Paris Letter with Josh, I was playing someone overtly flamboyant from the '60s seducing him, and if I did that on film, I think it would look like I was acting too hard. It's one of the fun things one wants to do as an actor, to play the flamboyant gay guy. But when you are gay that ends up being offensive to people. Say I was asked to play a flamboyant steward in an Airplane!'type farce. It would be a difficult decision to say yes to that role at this point because a lot of people would accuse me of making a mockery of gay people.