Neil Patrick Harris is Skyping me
from his home in New York. Dressed in a white T-shirt, he sits in front of bookshelves jumbled with knickknacks, antique cameras and family photos. Before we begin, I tell the actor that my childhood crush was Doogie Howser—the prodigy doctor whom Harris so notoriously played in the early ’90s. “Ahhh, that’s why you wanted a Skype interview,” he jokes. “So now I can tell you that I’m not wearing pants.” He points to his bottom half hidden under a desk.
And we’re off. That well-known Harris wit bounds right out of the gate. I’ve been watching Harris’ oeuvre—a stoned spoof of himself in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle; an obsessive ex-boyfriend in Gone Girl; the wisecracking host of the Tony Awards, Emmys and Oscars—to decipher what it is that makes NPH, as he’s nicknamed, so irresistibly likable. His easy sense of humor—equal parts bawdy and silly—plays a large part. But I suspect there’s more beneath the slick charisma and easy grace that allows him to make you feel enamored and comfortable all at once, whether onstage, through a screen or even over a static-ridden Skype connection.
During our interview, Harris, 44, reveals he’s home for the weekend with husband David Burtka and their 7-year-old twins, Harper and Gideon. He packs a tight schedule these days—filming on set in Vancouver Monday through Thursday and taking a red-eye home most weekends. During a recent three-week break, Harris squeezed in more work, filming a new game show for NBC and a commercial in Los Angeles before zipping off to Rome and the French Riviera with family and friends. “I [took] a couple of weeks off to get a tan,” Harris says. He sticks out his arm as evidence, then makes an incredulous face at its paleness.
It was a well-deserved vacation for one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors. This month, he plays a miniaturized human in Downsizing, a social satire about a man who tries to improve his life by shrinking himself. The movie stars Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig as leads, and Harris and Laura Dern—who plays his wife—act as salespeople for the smaller way of life. Although the part is a bit more minor than we are used to seeing for the actor, Harris signed on because “anytime I can work with a director like [Alexander Payne] and a solid cast, my interest is piqued.”
But while he played it “small” for the part, he’s mostly been playing the big personality of Count Olaf for A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Netflix show based on the popular series of books by Daniel Handler, who writes under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket. The gothic tale of three wealthy orphaned children returns for its second season this coming spring.
Count Olaf is an aspiring actor who employs increasingly maniacal schemes to swindle the kids of their fortune. Given that his character uses a plethora of disguises, the role requires major transformations that range from prosthetics to wigs. “I had never acted in prosthetics,” Harris says. “This is a character who is a fully realized person and looks nothing like me, so I had to figure out how to make my face move in human ways, even though I’m wearing latex on top of my actual face.”