Metamorphosis

3.11.2014

By Aaron Hicklin

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

Harris talked frankly and at length about the experience of coming out for an interview with Out in 2008, and still flinches at the backlash he provoked from some readers by describing himself as an “example of normalcy,” when in fact all he meant was that he and Burtka were a relatively boring, domestic couple like so many others. Or, as Colbert joked with him on his show last year, “Your threat is that you make gay seem not threatening — it’s almost as if your happiness does not take my happiness away.” In its way, that has been the most revolutionary thing about Harris’s career as an out gay man — coming out didn’t alter the perception most people already had of him. He was still Barney Stinson and he was still America’s sweetheart, and he could be both at the same time. Coming out as gay neither defined nor limited him in any way. “I’ve found that a lot of girls have no issue with me being gay,” he says with a laugh. “They still want to marry me. And I love that.”

Harris draws some pride from the fact that he gets cast in straight roles without having to canvass for them — and not only on television. This summer you can catch him as Amanda Seyfried’s boyfriend in Seth MacFarlane’s new movie, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and as Rosamund Pike’s ex-love interest in David Fincher’s big-screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl. Harris loved Fincher’s highly structured approach to directing, in which nothing is improvised, nothing left to chance. “We had to rehearse the sex scene with David, like every inch of it — ‘Then you put your mouth on his dick here, and then this number of thrusts, and then you ejaculate,’ ” recalls Harris. “It was weird because we’re technically breaking down the sex scene. He wanted it to be almost robotic, that we know exactly where we are, position-wise, where everything goes. And yet, through all of that, the whole ‘I’m gay’ element was never even thought about.”

SLIDESHOW: EXCLUSIVE IMAGES OF NEIL PATRICK HARRIS

Much, much harder than dating Seyfried or banging Pike, it turns out, is wearing heels and a dress. “Hedwig is bringing up a lot of super insecure things within me,” concedes Harris. “I have never thought drag was intoxicating, I’ve never had a fun drunken Halloween in drag, never been in heels, really. I’ve lived my whole life being attracted by masculinity — it’s why I like guys. I’m not a super effete person, and I have to turn into that, and in doing so it brings up a lot of homophobic insecurities within myself.”

For Mitchell, this is precisely what makes Harris so suited to the role. “I always thought being a kid in that world, growing up in the public eye and being gay, must have been really hard — there must have been a real loneliness that came with that,” he says. “And when you play Hedwig, you have to plumb the depths of loneliness to see what’s in there to make it work. I have an instinct about him that he needs to play Hedwig, and I love the idea that audiences will be coming and seeing America’s sweetheart playing this role — they are going to feel safe going to that place with him.” Harris is not one for self-pity, but as Mitchell was saying this, I remembered an earlier interview with Harris, in which he recalled a crystallizing moment prior to meeting Burtka: “I remember being in my mid-20s, lying in bed thinking, I’ve never taken a shower with anyone before; I’ve never had any kind of long-term relationship. I remember thinking that the rest of my life would be solo. I wasn’t weepy when I thought that — it was just a realization that I had gone this long being self-sufficient. Thankfully, the world changed and perceptions changed and my life went to the East Coast, where there’s a much greater acceptance of anonymity and freedom.”

Once again, Harris is in the midst of relocating — from Los Angeles to Harlem, where he and Burtka have bought a new home and will raise their children. He says he prefers to live in a part of the world that has real seasons, but one suspects that Harlem also offers the tantalizing opportunity to live a life more like Carradine’s. Maybe one night after Hedwig, he’ll exit the stage door and grab a sandwich on his way home. You may even catch him riding the subway. Harris says he sees playing Hedwig as a jump-start to a new phase in his life, an opportunity to take on more of the parental responsibilities that he was forced to surrender to his intense TV schedule. “I won’t ever be able to play someone like Barney again because he’s so unique, but we had over 200 episodes,” he says. “And my exclusivity deal is done with CBS.”

He waits another beat, and smiles. “So finally I’ll be able to do more porn.”

SLIDESHOW: EXCLUSIVE IMAGES OF NEIL PATRICK HARRIS

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