Neil Patrick Harris on abrupt 'Doogie Howser' cancellation, working with 'a lot of breasts' on 'Harold and Kumar' and doing drag for 'Hedwig'
The acclaimed actor offers an unfiltered look-back at his greatest hits, including "Starship Troopers," "How I Met Your Mother," "The Matrix" and more.
“Having been a child actor that then became an adult actor, it seems like there’s this unspoken concern by others that it’s something you’re not supposed to discuss,” Neil Patrick Harris says candidly.
That thought crossed the mind of Harris — the popular stage and screen actor who rose to adolescent fame as the eponymous lead of ABC’s popular sitcom Doogie Howser, M.D. in the early '90s — as he pondered whether to play a (very, very) heightened version of himself in 2004’s sleeper hit Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.
“So a lot of people would be like, 'Are you OK if we talk about that?’” continues Harris, now 49. “Yes. I lived that. I have no problem with that at all. So I think the fact that, in those movies, the piss was clearly taken out of it, and me, in a sort of fun, aggressive, alpha way seem to make people feel like I was not afraid to engage with my past, if that makes any sense.”
Harris has been on a roll ever since. Harold & Kumar gave his career a second wind, eventually leading to arguably his most identifiable role and lucrative project to date: the womanizing Wall Street bro Barney Stinson on CBS’s long-running TV ensemble comedy How I Met Your Mother.
He was nominated for four Emmys for HIMYM, won two for guest-starring on Glee, has hosted the Tonys, Emmys and Oscars, and won a Tony for his lead role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway. A-list filmmakers like David Fincher (Gone Girl) and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix Resurrections) have come calling.
Harris remains incredibly busy at the moment. The father of two just wrapped a limited guest star run on Broadway’s Peter Pan Goes Wrong (marking the first time he and husband David Burtka, who was on off-Broadway’s revival God of Carnage, were simultaneously on stage), will soon be seen in a 60th anniversary special of the BBC's Doctor Who and is about to start production on Season 2 of Netflix-to-Showtime's acclaimed rom-com series Uncoupled. He also just launched a website for his popular lifestyle and culture newsletter, Wondercade.
In a new Role Recall interview with Yahoo Entertainment, an unfiltered Harris reflects on the highlights of his legen… wait for it… dary career.
How co-starring with Whoopi Goldberg in Clara’s Heart (1988) jumpstarted his career:
“I mean, Whoopi Goldberg is an absolute icon. She has persevered through almost as many chapters as Madonna. And she’s always been truthful and authentic to herself. And so when I was an unknown kid from tiny-town-middle-of-nowhere New Mexico and was asked to be in a movie opposite her as one of the leads, it was cray-cray. Which I think is, is a term the kids use today. It was an absolute game changer.
“I had no real inclination to be in the entertainment industry outside of loving the musical revues at theme park shows. I had never been to New York or seen a Broadway show. I was just fairly precocious and didn’t have much fear acting in front of the people. And so then all of a sudden I’m in Saint Michaels, Md., learning what a camera on a dolly track is and what marks are that you’re supposed to hit and how lights work. And it was such an education. I got to do that on such a high level, a Warner Bros. feature film opposite Whoopie Goldberg, who’s an amazing human. And she treated me like a person, not a child. She educated me about so many things with such dignity. It was one helluva way to start working.”
On how his confidence as a young actor on Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-1993) mirrored his character’s confidence as a teenage doctor.
“My confidence level was high… Again, acting wasn’t something I had been pushed to do by my parents. I have remarkable and amazing parents who both were lawyers for a long time. And so they were very savvy and are very thoughtful people, and treated us like regular humans. So I think my confidence in my skillset during those years, I wasn't rattled by being younger in an adult environment. ... And so having to have three hours of school every day in a trailer that was the schoolroom, while filming nine hours a day on set with nine, 10 pages of dialogue, and doing that for months and months, it was so fun and so exhilarating in its own way. And I think the fact that I was treated maturely kind of helped with the role, 'cause Doogie had to spout off a lot of medical jargon, and carry himself with a confidence that he knew all this stuff, which I didn’t as Neil know, but I guess that’s the gig. Loved that role. That was fun.”
On wrapping Doogie Howser unexpectedly after four seasons:
“It was super-strange because we never had any kind of resolution to the show. It went four seasons. And they never told us that the fourth was going to be our last. We just weren’t picked up through a fifth. So we never had like a proper farewell or goodbye, you know, ‘See you later.’ It was just, ‘Uh-oh, we’re on the bubble… Oh no, we didn’t get picked up.’ But that’s all right. Four years got us in the syndication. So cha-ching.
“I have no idea where it would’ve gone. I’m asked that a fair amount. Like, ‘What do you think would happen?’ And that’s not my place to answer. Maybe he’s a gynecologist… That’s always my answer.”
On breaking out of the “TV actor” pigeonhole with Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi fascism satire Starship Troopers (1997):
“When Starship Troopers happened, I was in L.A. auditioning a lot and getting very little because I was a TV actor. It was a very divided time back then, [you’re] in either being on movies or TV. You know, Toby Maguire was a TV actor before he was allowed to become a movie actor. So it was interesting. But Paul Verhoeven didn’t have any kind of bias in that regard. And I think he was interested in casting very white, forward-thinking soldiery type of people. And because of my games-theory mentality, I got cast as Carl Jenkins, the one that can speak to animals. It was great. It was very exciting. I was a little envious of the rest of the cast because they all got to wield guns and go and do military training with [retired Marine] Capt. Dale Dye in the forest for weeks. And they all bonded and got physical training at the Sony gym. Me, I got to walk in wearing a trench coat and say, ‘We’re done here, carry on,’ and then walk out. So I didn't get to play as much as they got to, but I still got to be in a movie. And I just showed our kids that movie, they’re 12 now. And it holds up really well. Yeah. That was one of the first big CG films, and a gentleman named Phil Tippett created those bugs and they look so realistic still. I just assumed after this many years that you’d notice the animation of it all, but it holds up. It’s a good film. … I wish it had been more successful.”
On being wary about poking fun at himself (and Doogie) — and then working with “a lot of breasts” in the Harold and Kumar trilogy (2004-11):
“Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg created that. I think they were just fans of mine. Not die-hards, I guess they just thought I was pretty cool. I think they wanted to have someone that you assumed based on their past was fairly nice and milquetoast and peppy. And in turn you find out that they’re hardcore and very, very sexual and on a bender. I think that was their clever conceit. And so I met with them. I was actually in New York doing Cabaret on Broadway as the MC. And they were super nice and they thought it would be funny. I was wary. I just wasn’t sure about being written into something as yourself. I’m just never sure what the intentions are. Because I have great respect for [Doogie creator] Steven Bochko and for those four years on Doogie Howser. I thought it was really good work. And so I would never want to sign up for something [where] those then become the punchlines of jokes 'cause I try not to be too disrespectful. And that was not their intention at all. So I signed up and said, ‘Sure.’ I worked for just a few days. And wow, there were a lot more breasts [than I imagined]. There was a lot of breasts every time I’d go and film. So that was interesting for me.
“But I loved it. We did three of them, right? Yes — 1, 2, and the Christmas one. I think they realized that people loved the Harold and Kumar franchise, but they would wait to watch them at home cause they could probably get stoned while they watched it. And so the big opening weekend box office was not an incremental raise, it was just kind of like, ‘Oh, we'll just wait until it’s on a streaming service. And then we can eat nachos.’ It’s hard to get investors to buy into that.”
On his first time meeting How I Met Your Mother (2005-14) co-stars Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, Cobie Smulders and Alyson Hannigan:
“We all wound up screen testing together, like chemistry testing. They get a few people for each role to go in front of the executives and do the scenes in various combinations. And I had been friends with Alyson Hannigan 'cause we were both child actors from before, and so we knew each other. So that was awesome. And I had done a play with Josh Radnor right before that where we were lovers. It was a John Robin Baitz play [The Paris Letter] where we were both completely full-frontal naked. And that was a big thing to overcome as a person, as a human, as an actor. And so we had our own whole fun chapter together. And so I was excited by the idea of the three of us participating. And then Jason Segel, I had known from Freaks and Geeks, and I don’t know that I ever met Cobie until we did the first read-through.
“I didn't have high expectations for it. I thought that the title was too long. This was in the world of Cheers and Friends. So I just thought How… I… Met… Your… Mother would look terrible on a mug and hard [to read] in the TV Guide. It quickly became an acronym [HIMYM], apparently. And then we did it for nine years. It was probably the most fun I’ve had on a single gig in my whole life.”
On playing back-to-back straight alpha males in Harold & Kumar and HIMYM around the same time he publicly came out as gay in 2006:
“I felt more constricted before I went and did theater. Once I did the West Coast versions of Rent in Los Angeles and La Jolla, and then after that I got to do Cabaret and Proof in New York, once you’re on stage in New York and you’re more full-bodied, I became more empowered by who I actually was as opposed to feeling like I was needing to stay within a metaphoric, and I guess literal, box.
“But I felt that it was just so much fun [doing those roles]. It was delusional fun, Barney. 'Cause every week was something just so random. Midway through every week you’d get the script of what you’re going to do the next week. And it was always just hilarious and over the top and an adventure. Oftentimes when you sign up for a television show, you’ve only read the pilot episode and you have to sign a contract. That means you’re going to commit to seven years of playing the same character. And so you have no idea what Season 2 or 3 will bring much less 6 or 7. It could go in a very different direction. And you could wind up being the super-nervous, insecure, whiny, annoying friend [laughs], and then every week you’re that over and over. And that would be less fun to play. Barney was just the antithesis of that. Every week was a different playbook. A different catchphrase. He was just so voracious in his appetite for fun. He got to wear sharp suits, he drank scotch. He lived the life, gay or straight. That was wildly fun to play.”
On starring as the aspiring supervillain in Joss Whedon’s web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008):
“I loved it so much. That was filmed during the writer’s strike [of 2007-08]. No one was working. And Joss Whedon and his brothers [Zack and Jed], and Maurissa [Tancharoen], who’s married to Jed, they all had written this thing. And I had wanted to work with Joss for ages. And so he called and asked if I wanted to be a part of a thing. And I said yes without even asking [what it was]. And it turned out to be this musical and it was so groundbreaking in so many ways. And of that I am just really, really appreciative 'cause I was just along for the ride. But I think that holds up still very, very well today. The songs are great. And it was really one of the very first pieces of longform content that was only available online. … And now to see just how far we’ve come in such a short time, shifting to almost a majority of the content being online. And everyone being a part of it. It was nice to be at the forefront of that.”
On taking the Broadway stage to star as the titular genderqueer East German rock singer in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2014):
“It was unbelievable. I’ve used this word a couple times in this interview, but I’ve lived some voracious chapters. Barney was voracious in his own way. Count Olaf in A Series Unfortunate Events was voracious in his over-the-top acting style. And Hedwig as well, it was all in. I feel like that’s the choice you have as an actor is like, ‘How all in are you going to go?’ You don’t want to be overacting all in, like hamming it up, but like, how committed are you to what it is that you're wanting to do? So when they would write something as Barney Stinson and I was like, ‘Yes, of course I’ll do that and I’ll try and add onto it.’ I'll do a spit take in the middle of it 'cause I think it’s appropriate. Like I’ll go all in.
“So when Hedwig came around, I had never done drag. I had seen John Cameron Mitchell do that show off-Broadway. And even when I saw it, I never thought to myself, ‘Oh, to get to do this part would be the best.’ I just thought, ‘Wow, John's amazing… What can’t that guy do?’ And now I’m asked to do it. So a lot of it was committing to physicality, committing to an acceptance of self, of memorization of all that stuff. Turning into some kind of like Bowie-style rock 'n' roll star, which I had never really been. There were a lot of 'I had never really beens.' I had never really been a female and had never really been a rock star. And so to get to do all of that in a one-woman show and on Broadway, and then have it be like the hot ticket and have people really excited to be there and have old, rich white people from the Upper East Side sitting next to die-hard, super-queer, super-awesome Hedwig fans and have them all crying at the end of this show, and learning different things or maybe the same things together, was really empowering, for them and definitely for me. I really loved it. I can’t believe how many years have passed. I wish I could do it again.”
On getting the call from David Fincher to play an incel in the twisty 2014 thriller Gone Girl:
“The Game is one of my favorite movies of all time. And David Fincher’s style of camera work, his knowledge of the film format, he’s on another [level]. I speak of him with such reverence because I have just such a respect for him. And he also loves games and puzzles, so every time we chat it’s in that head space. But yeah, he’s a stickler for subtlety. You know, he’ll do many, many, many, many takes to sort of remove the bits and the mannerisms that actors are doing. He just wants it all to be pure. And it shows in his work. So it was great to be an interesting character within one of those films.”
On what drew him to play the villainous Count Olaf in Netflix’s episodic A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017-19):
“I was fan of [director and producer] Barry Sonnenfeld. I had known him from dinner parties at friends’ houses and always just thought his work was great. I went to the set of Men in Black, too, once and got to see all the puppets and the big sets and saw Barry Sonnenfeld from afar. And I just think he’s a really impressive director, the way he shoots stuff. The idea of relocating myself to Vancouver from New York while we had young children was not my favorite plan. But when Barry sat with me and showed me, a lot of visuals of what the sets would look like, his pitch was strong. I had never done prosthetic work to that degree. So that was something I was interested in, is how one’s face can still articulate with another layer of face on top of it. Whether a raise of an eyebrow needed to be 30% larger in order to get the prosthetic to do the same thing or not. So I was very technical about it all, but it also filmed almost entirely on soundstages, and very little of it was enhanced with green screen. … They would build entire villages… Just from an artistic production design standpoint, I think I certainly don’t consider it a kid’s show from that vantage point.”
On how Lana Wachowski set the tone on the fourth Matrix movie, The Matrix Resurrections (2021):
“It was really Lana Wachowski. I keep talking about the directors of all of these things 'cause I think that’s where it starts. Because they helm the ship and they dictate pace and vibe 'cause you’re on a set all day. So if the director’s screaming and mad at everyone, then everyone’s cowering and talking amongst themselves. And if it’s too loosey-goosey and we’re just having fun, then you’re not doing the work. Right. So it’s alchemy, and Lana’s remarkable at finding people around her that are epically talented and wanting to be a part of her adventure. She films like no one I’ve ever worked with. You don’t rehearse when you arrive on set, and you’re going to start filming soon. So you’re mic’d up and you just start going. There’s a guy with a steadicam and Lana’s draped over his shoulder and she can control the zoom. And so she’s just like pushing him around and finding shots and saying, ‘Do it again. Say it again like this. Now try it like this.’ And no one’s rattled by it. It’s almost like a painter painting, and being inspired and painting a different color. Like that's what it felt like every day. You were a little bit nervous and your adrenaline was pumping and you knew you were in the safest of hands 'cause she’s remarkable.
“I have regrets that that movie came out in that window of time when things were released simultaneously in the movie theaters and also streaming [on HBO Max]. 'Cause I just think The Matrix 4 deserves to be seen on a big giant screen because of its scale. And I think by allowing people to watch it on their phones, which, at least I guess they’re getting to watch it, I don't think it had quite the impact that it could have or should have. So that was a bummer. But I really enjoyed the work and enjoyed the process.”
On his personal connection to Uncoupled (2022-present), where he plays a middle-aged gay man who re-enters the dating world after ending a long relationship:
“Uncoupled was sort of Neil at his actual age in a very alt version of his actual self. I wasn’t having to put on a wig and a dress, or a bunch of prosthetics, or a suit and a glass of scotch, in order to act. I was having to sort of pull from how I as Neil at 49 would actually feel if my relationship ended so suddenly and the rug was pulled out from under me. So it was weirdly personal in its own way. That said, it’s [Beverly Hills, 90210 and Sex and the City creator] Darren Star [laughs]. And so it also allowed for a lot of funny [moments] and a lot of real estate porn and a lot of sort of bingeability. And I enjoyed that as well.
“I’m very, very happy that it’s moving to Showtime. As much as I’ve had a great relationship with Netflix, I’m not convinced that the half-hour comedy format is their sweet spot. They have a lot of content that they’re promoting in all sorts of ways. And this was a very sort of specific sell. I think now that audiences know and have responded to the characters, I think we have more stories to tell with these people. And so I think on Showtime it’ll be awesome.”