By Aaron Hicklin

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

Harris tells a story of seeing Keith Carradine on Broadway in The Will Rogers Follies when he was 15 and being invited backstage afterward to meet the star — a true behind-the-curtain moment. “I’m looking at where the sets fly in the wings, and how everything compacts, and how that massive set was really only two walls that are now in the corner, and I meet Keith Carradine,” he says. “He’s very polite, shows me around, and then at the end, he puts on a baseball cap, says goodbye, and walks out the stage door to go down the street and get a sandwich. I was, like, That’s amazing — that this guy who was just getting standing ovations and singing songs in the spotlight in New York can just open the stage door and leave it and go to his own thing.” Just like Lacombe and his fellow performers at Cirque du Soleil, disappearing back into their private circus world.

Harris is careful to clarify that he doesn’t yearn for anonymity, but it’s obvious that he considers fame a by-product, not a reward, for what he does. Like a lot of actors who received massive attention as children, he finds acknowledgment a little awkward. “Do you know the feeling when a birthday cake is in front of you and everyone is singing ‘Happy Birthday’?” he asks. “There’s that weird, uncomfortable thing, of I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react. Am I supposed to look at every person or look at the cake? I want it to be over with — it’s that feeling that all the attention is on you, and they are waiting to see what your reaction is.”

Some of that attention may be about to dissipate. On March 31, Harris will make his final appearance on How I Met Your Mother, the long-running CBS sitcom that rebooted his image from teen nerd Doogie Howser to slick, skirt-chasing, catch-phrase king Barney Stinson. A few weeks later he will reappear on Broadway in Hedwig and the Angry Inch as Hedwig, the East German transgender glam rock singer who first crashed into our consciousness two decades ago at New York club SqueezeBox. Originated by Mitchell and his musical collaborator Stephen Trask, Hedwig is about as radical a departure from Stinson as it’s possible to imagine, a parable on identity, gender, and finding our place in the world that will require all the stamina Harris possesses. And then some.