Metamorphosis

3.11.2014

By Aaron Hicklin

From Doogie to Barney to Hedwig, the shapeshifting career of Neil Patrick Harris is immune to typecasting.

Photography by Michael Muller

The first time Neil Patrick Harris went to Los Angeles, he found himself at the circus. It was 1987 and he was 14, visiting with his mom for his first paying gig as an actor, a small spot on a TV show. They were wandering along the Santa Monica pier, as tourists do, when they spied a tent, yellow and blue and shimmering on the shore. The tent belonged to Cirque du Soleil, establishing a foothold in California with Le Cirque Réinventé, a show that would eventually launch the troupe around the world. Oblivious to all this, young Harris took his seat anticipating elephants and tigers and sad-faced clowns. But the animals were conspicuously absent, replaced by athletic men and women who leapt and pirouetted through the air — first four, then six, then nine of them on a single bicycle, riding around the ring in formation. The show was like nothing he’d ever experienced. And like all magic, much of it seemed to defy either logic or physics.

“And then Denis Lacombe comes out and he has this famous act that he did, where he’s a conductor,” recalls Harris, windmilling his arms in imitation of the performer, affixed in ski boots to a small square trampoline, bending all the way to the left, then all the way to the right, thrusting a hand down his pants to retrieve fistfuls of batons, a sandwich, an outsize Flintstones-style bone, with which he frantically conducted his invisible orchestra. You can see how this might impress a young boy, especially one who adored Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. As the show ended, the audience began to filter out into the night. But Harris just sat there, the very last to leave, staring at the space where magic had blossomed.

“There was no stage door; they were just gone, into their circus world, and I could never, ever meet them or anything,” he says ruefully. “They were superhuman, and I was exhausted, drained of energy. My hands hurt from clapping, my face hurt from laughing. I remember taking the oversized program home and poring over every picture, memorizing every person’s name, because I was just baffled by that amount of creativity in one dose.”

Who wouldn’t love this story? As an encapsulation of how insanely bewitching the world can appear to a child, it’s perfect. It also serves as an insight into Harris’s fascination with the mechanics of performance, with the hows and the whys and the wheres of life. Of course, most kids have a desire to see behind the curtain, but you sense that in Harris the desire was that much greater.

“I’ll tell you a story that might explain the type of person I am,” he says one recent afternoon. “Back in the day you’d go to Universal Studios and groups would go from sound stage to sound stage. They’d pick volunteers to come up and join them for a bit — you know, ‘We’re going to green-screen you’ or ‘We’ll suspend you in a wire and turn you sideways, and then when we put the camera sideways it will look like you can do magic tricks.’ And I was the type of kid who would have volunteered to do just about anything. My hand was up very high for all of that. Not to be the center of attention — I just wanted to experience it.”

He has, he says, always been like this. Haunted houses, skydiving, bungee jumping, tightrope-walking, trapeze-swinging, riding the rollercoaster, you name it — so long as it doesn’t involve a ball (a celebrity basketball match is his greatest fear), he’ll do it.

“I love being scared, walking through a field of maize in October with people jumping out and frightening me,” he says. “I know they can’t touch me and I like the experience of it — weirdly, I think hosting the Tony Awards is almost the same thing. I’m out there, it’s live, something could go terribly wrong, but we have lots of outs and I have a teleprompter and we’ve already rehearsed everything. It’s fun and a bit dangerous, but I know I’m going to be all right.”

SLIDESHOW: EXCLUSIVE IMAGES OF NEIL PATRICK HARRIS

Lately he has caught his reflection in his 3-year-old son, Gideon. “He asks ‘Why?’ now, for everything,” Harris says. “We’re very similar. It seems he wants to break things down and figure them out. We both have kind of the furrowed brow — we want to get to the core of things.”

You can see this same combination of curiosity and fearlessness in a 1990 appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, when Harris was 17. Doogie Howser, M.D., the show that launched his career, was entering its second season at the time, and once you get past the voluminous mauve shirt and flapping floral tie (clearly, 1990 was a transitional year in fashion) it’s Harris’s self-assurance and charm that captivates. “I’ve been working on a mentalism trick,” he says breezily, before inviting his host to pick an item in an imaginary grocery aisle. Carson selects a tin of baked beans, and Harris asks him to supply a price. “I think it’s about $1.19.” Harris nods. “That’s what I have, $1.19,” he says, flipping over a card on his lap. The audience, on tenterhooks, erupts into laugher as Harris reveals — drum roll — a magnified bar code.

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