This is not how one of Time Magazine’s "100 Most Influential People" should be acting. This year alone, he’s donned fishnets and high heels to throw a nightly temper tantrum, grown a mustache so astonishing an entire cowboy town broke into spontaneous song in its honor, become romantically entangled (and more than a little obsessed) with “cool girl,” Amazing Amy, and disavowed at last his Lothario tendencies to become the most smartly dressed new father in New York City. And those are just the things Neil Patrick Harris was paid to do.
In his so-called real life – blurred, perhaps, by the multiple times he has portrayed “Neil Patrick Harris” in films like Harold & Kumar and The Muppets, not to mention that one moment he’s wowing Magic Castle’s elite Hollywood audience with a breathtaking run of prestidigitation, then marrying his longtime boyfriend, David Burtka, with whom he shares parentage of 4-year old twins, then tap-dancing and punning, equal parts jester and debonair, on just about any television show that hands out trophies – the 41-year-old is just as hard to pin down.
For Harris, remaining accessible and yet tantalizing has become something of an art form, a survival skill devised in the decade after the former child actor had become a household name (courtesy of ABC’s late ‘80s hit, Doogie Howser, MD). In 2014, audiences hoping to cozy up to the really real Harris through the actor’s work in projects like Broadway’s Tony-winning Hedwig and the Angry Inch, David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling Gone Girl, and How I Met Your Mother’s final season will find him about as tangible as Keyser Söze.
Even in his new book, Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography, ostensibly the actor’s life story, Harris remains almost impossible to truly know, even as he’s spilling his guts with a charming, irresistible combination of tomfoolery, pathos, true confessions, dada-ist sketches, and Stephen Sondheim quotes. And yet, a conversation with him reveals one simple fact: there are few mysteries in the world more entertaining than Neil Patrick Harris.
We usually begin all interviews with a snippet of Nigerian poetry, so here you go: “Magic becomes art when it has nothing to hide.” What do you think?
(Laughs) That’s very cryptic, isn’t it? I don’t know that I can agree with it on principle − because I’m a magician. And unfortunately, in magic, there’s lots to hide. I think magic becomes art when it’s extraordinarily well hidden to the point of seeming as if there is nothing to hide. A (David) Copperfield is only successful when he makes it appear as if there is no possible explanation, right?
Indeed. Let’s talk about the book. It’s almost infinitely entertaining. There are magic tricks in this sucker.
My buddy, (magic consultant and author) Jim Steinmeyer, helped me come up with some tricks that would work within the book. So I break the wall of the book and give you these instructions: you go get a deck of cards and you perform the instructions exactly as they’re written and then the magic happens right there in front of you. It happens to you. What other book does that? I’m very pleased that the little boy from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who had his nose pressed up against the glass counter at The Magic Shop called Fool’s Paradise all those years ago, is now friends with and able to get advice from some of the greatest magicians of our time. It makes me very happy.
From the outside looking in, and particularly as recounted in your book, you seem to effortlessly pull off this very cool hat trick, combining a persona that is equal parts Cary Grant, Tyler Durden, Kermit the Frog, and PT Barnum.
(Laughs) I didn’t want to only be known as the little boy who played a doctor on television, so I was always seeking out new challenges, new ways to redefine myself. Sometimes the choices seemed random or weird or chaotic. But at 41 now, I look back and go, through whatever circumstances, those were some pretty great opportunities and choices. I’ve been challenged to try new things and it’s also left me in a nice position creatively where people can believe me in more than one type of role, whether that be actor or host or author or villain or song and dance man or stoner. I’m very lucky that way.
Now that we’ve read your autobiography, what do we still not know about Neil Patrick Harris?
Um, nothing. That’s literally every single thing that’s happened in my life. No. That’s not true at all. Seriously, the notion of having a memoir be relatively lightweight and comedic, almost like a parody/humor book, is more effective for me. As a magician, there are a lot of things that I keep close to my vest. I’m able to tell a story about hanging out with Elton John and David Furnish without revealing or betraying a confidence that they have in me. What we did together is sacrosanct to us. I have no interest in a memoir being tell-all and salacious. I’ve gotten to work with a lot of fun people and had some crazy experiences, and I’ve tried to tell those stories without breaking anyone’s trust.
You’re married now, a father of two children, and are wrapping a banner year. What’s next for you? How has the mission changed since landing the role of Barney Stinson almost a decade ago?
I loved doing How I Met Your Mother, but I wasn’t trying, personally, to change hearts and minds. I was trying to chew on scenery and give you a good laugh after your long day of work. I feel like that has been my job as an actor in my 20s and 30s. I’m a smaller piece in a bigger puzzle, right? I get hired to do a certain thing. It’s not necessarily to be a purveyor of high intellectual art. It’s more like a magic trick or a circus performer, which is not to take anything away from magicians or circus performers. That’s just what my role has been. Now that I have kids of my own, I feel like I’m more interested in telling stories, in making things, and I’ve started a production company called Prediction Productions and we’re going to start producing content that we think is informative, whether that be meaningful and thought provoking or instructional and educational. I want to start making things that have the potential to make bigger ripples. That’s toward the future.
The role of Barney Stinson could have been so one-note, though the writing, obviously, got more complex as the show went on. But in your performance, there was always this whiff of gravitas or sadness, even when Barney was simply hamming it up with his friends.
Yeah? Good! Between you and me, that’s what made that chapter of my life so exciting. Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, who created the show and are our contemporaries, they loved combining the comedy and the pathos. When you have people as talented as Josh Radnor or Colbie Smolders or Jason Segel, who can be very sincere and beautiful, you can put someone like Barney Stinson in there and let him be a wild and crazy Steve Martin guy. When Barney’s afforded the chance at pathos, it’s really moving then. It’s surprising. If it was just broad comedy – Mr. Bean or something just overtly comedic – it might seem out of place, but because our show prided itself on being sincere, I was able to be both very funny and then suddenly be pining over Robin and it has a little more impact.
Many audiences have been very surprised to see you turn up in Gone Girl. Landing that role must have been a game changer for you, yes?
For sure. To get the call that (director) David Fincher wants to sit and have lunch with you to talk about his next movie, it took the wind out of my lungs. I’m a massive fan of his work, back to The Game. Remember that Michael Douglas movie? That movie is my life. My husband threw a scavenger hunt for me on my 40th birthday. I traveled across the country for a week with him, solving clues, hunting treasure. Besides Clue, The Game is my favorite movie. Getting to be on set with David Fincher in a major movie of a book that is one of my favorites, it’s just an embarrassment of riches. It’s the big leagues. All you can do is work hard, be quiet, go back to your trailer, and pray that you didn’t f*#k it all up.
Do you ever look at your own life in a Choose Your Own Adventure way? You seem to be following your bliss, marching to the beat of your own drummer, whatever cheesy aphorism you want to apply.
I’m in a fortunate position these days in that I get a little more say in what I choose to do. Most actors don’t get that choice. You’re waiting by the phone for your agent to call and tell you there’s an audition at three and they’re faxing – faxing! Look at how old I am! – we’re emailing you the pages and don’t be late and good luck. All you can do is hope the jobs you get aren’t terrible. I’m at a place now where I have a little more choice and I think people are starting to see what I’m interested in is kind of random – magic and tightropes and pratfalls, but a lot of other stuff. I think people are maybe, maybe, beginning to see I can do a lot of different things believably. That makes me happy. Also, the way that I process information as a human being is kind of methodical. I’m overly analytical. I probably would be a decent chess player because I tend to spend too much time in my own brain thinking of: If I make this choice, let’s weigh out what the possible results will be. Then I weigh them out. Usually I do that pretty quickly – even mid-conversation or mid-interview. I’m always thinking ahead: if I answer this way, it might be construed that way. If I answer this way…
But you wouldn’t do that during our interview, would you?
(Laughs) No. Never! (Laughs) That might seem guarded, but when you’re looking at a career, you don’t want to be impulsive all the time. That creates extra work sometimes in having to clarify what you said. You don’t want to upset the balance of everything by saying or doing the wrong thing. It’s one reason I’m so grateful that [husband] David Burtka is in my life. He is such the opposite of me. He does what he feels and lets the cards fall as they might. There’s something so free and pure about that to me and I sometimes wonder if I wouldn’t get a better night’s sleep if I just made cleaner, simpler decisions. I’m just not wired that way.