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.”
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.
Apart from showcasing Harris’s preternatural ability to hold an audience, this early appearance establishes themes that have carried the actor through his career: charm, timing, a skill for comic subterfuge. And, yes, a weakness for hokum and goofiness. (His children, no surprise, are budding puppeteers — as I experience on a Skype call from his Los Angeles home one evening.) It’s those same instincts that come to the fore when Harris hosts the Tonys or engages in mild pratfalls, such as inhaling sulfur hexafluoride with Kelly Ripa.
“It always amazes me when Oscar-nominated actors go on award shows and read the teleprompter as if they have never seen it before,” he says. “And I know they’ve already vetted it, that their publicist or manager has already agreed to it, and yet, there they are, standing there, with that kind of ‘Who wrote this shit?’ attitude while monotonically reading off these words. Then again, I’ve gotten to do theater and know what it feels like to stand in front of live people, and a lot of movie people don’t do that ever.”
Harris has always been a theater nerd, taking annual trips as a child from his home in New Mexico to New York to cram as many shows as he could into a week. He still has the Playbills to prove it.
The director and writer John Cameron Mitchell tells a touching story of meeting Harris in 1991, during a performance of The Secret Garden, a musical based on the classic children’s novel, in which Mitchell was then appearing. “He wanted to stand backstage and watch how the show happened, from just behind the proscenium,” he says. “He stood there with a big grin on his face and watched us all coming off and on, doing the whole show. He’d been in TV and the stage was a wholly delightful place — to see the inner workings of it was, I sensed, so much more exciting to him than being on a TV or film set.”
When, last October, I went to see the sleight-of-hand magic show Nothing to Hide, which Harris directed, I was transported to a similar childhood place, thoroughly befuddled — and enchanted — by a series of card tricks that seemed to defy logic. By the show’s end I felt the same giddy joy and possibility of life that we often struggle to recapture as adults. For an hour in that theater the world was again a magical place. Harris seems like someone who never let that feeling slip. Growing up, he says, his two idols were Jim Henson and Walt Disney, two men who capitalized on bringing their inner child to their craft. Not coincidentally, they were also masterful technicians. When I point out that Harris’s enthusiasms — for the Muppets, for magic, for the circus — are the same enthusiasms that animated him as a child, he wrinkles his forehead for a moment. “It’s interesting you say that,” he says. “I never think of it as a childlike thing, but it is.”
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.
On a frigid morning in February, Harris, wearing a snug plaid shirt and jeans, is ordering pineapple juice in a New York hotel. (“It makes me feel tropical,” he says, pausing, “and it makes my semen taste delicious.”) It’s the day after his first full Hedwig rehearsal, one spent in fishnets and heels, capped by a Drama League gala in his honor at which he was serenaded by Audra McDonald and Stephen Colbert, among others. “I started rehearsals fucking yesterday, so my mind is all over the place,” he confesses. “I’m thinking, What happens if I get the flu? What happens if I get a nodule on my vocal chord?” Unusually, Harris will not have an understudy, a decision influenced by Mitchell, who recalled performing the show on his back if he felt like it, without the audience being the wiser. “I could dump during the show, I could do whatever I wanted,” Mitchell says. “I went to the bathroom with the wireless mic, just because I could.”
Harris has also managed to persuade his producers to skip the traditional Wednesday matinee, adding a late night show to Saturday instead. “What I didn’t want is to do a matinee and 20 minutes in, have whole groups of people getting up, turning down their hearing aids, and walking out,” he says. “That would distress me, because part of Hedwig is Iggy Pop in all of his fucked-up glory. So I’m looking forward to squatting down in front of the first row and having people spit in my mouth. It’s that kind of show. I’m anxious, one night, to fall backwards and be led on my back by people with their hands outstretched.” He pauses. “I don’t think that will ever happen, but that’s the vibe I’m looking for — that’s the vibe I have to embrace. I don’t fucking care — you gotta go to a nasty place.”
Listening to Harris, you get the sense that Hedwig is the vehicle he’s chosen to liberate himself from the strictures of television, which is pretty much the reason Mitchell wrote the play in the first place — “an opportunity to improvise, to go crazy, to see where the night took you.” Mitchell notes that Harris could have chosen to play it safe for the rest of his career. “A lot of younger actors in the Hollywood system are often the most courageous later on,” he says. “They are either destroyed by it, or they’re like, ‘All right, time for me to rebel.’ They’re the ones who want to try out for Shortbus, or they want to do Nymphomaniac with Lars von Trier.”
Yet the risks almost always appear to pay off. It was a risk, if a calculated one, for Harris to play himself as an outrageous horndog high on ecstasy (“It’s a fucking sausage fest in here, bros. Let’s get some poontang.”) in the 2004 stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, a role predicated on exploding his milquetoast Doogie Howser persona. And it was a risk of a different kind to star as a villain in Joss Wheedon’s pioneering, musical web series, Dr. Horrible’s SingAlong Blog, though one that dovetailed nicely with Harris’s enthusiasm for digital and social media (he’s an inveterate Twitterer and Instagrammer). But the biggest, least calculated risk that Harris took was to come out in November 2006, at a moment when he was established in the public imagination as the winking, womanizing rogue with a reputation for stealing the best lines on How I Met Your Mother. He and his partner, David Burtka, had been together for several years at that point — they met on a New York sidewalk — and the announcement neatly upended preconceptions that a gay man could not play straight. As Harris puts it, “I was equally horned up as Barney pre– and post–coming out.”
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.”
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.”