Neil Patrick Harris may be approaching 50, but to a generation he will always be the child prodigy Doogie Howser, the 14-year-old doctor he played as a teenager. “It’s a little bizarre that people – what is it, 30 years later? – still refer to me as that. People say: ‘Hey, Doogie, I like your new show!’ But hey, better than anonymity, I suppose.”
It is a long time since Harris, 48, has been anonymous. He made his acting debut at 15, starring opposite Whoopi Goldberg as a disillusioned teen in Clara’s Heart, a drama about a Jamaican woman who moves to Baltimore to become the housekeeper for a rich family. Since then, he has established himself as a versatile actor in musical theatre, film and TV (most notably the sitcom How I Met Your Mother) and a host and presenter of high-profile awards shows such as the Oscars. His CV is particularly impressive when you consider how often child actors struggle to establish adult careers, or find themselves traumatised by their formative experiences.
So, how did he succeed where so many have failed? The way he tells it, being a teenage actor was exciting enough on its own to stop him from being distracted by the worst excesses of fame. “I love process,” he says, emphatically. “I’ve always really been most excited about learning how things work. Fame is a bit of an ether fog and you can get overwhelmed by the treatment, as opposed to the work.
“I loved being in an apartment building I’d never been in, in a town I’d never been in, and meeting people. I don’t think I was ever really caught up in the size of my dressing room or my salary or getting free sweaters from Adidas. When you get lost into that world, fame fleets, right?”
Harris is video calling from his farmhouse in East Hampton, on Long Island in New York. He lives with his husband, the actor and chef David Burtka (they have been together since 2004 and married in 2014), and their twins, Gideon and Harper, who were born to a surrogate in 2010. His day has been spent “dealing with kids in schools and parent-teacher conferences and dad life”.
Harris embraces domesticity, sharing snippets of home life on his Instagram – so much so that his 1,000th post featured self-aware mocking from his twins (telling him to “stop staring at your phone all the time!”). He came out publicly as gay in 2006, after the second series of How I Met Your Mother, immediately making him one of the most high-profile out actors. In a 2008 interview with the LGBTQ+ magazine Out, he described himself as “striving to be an example of normalcy”, because of the relatively conventional family life he and Burtka led. Nonetheless, it caused a backlash.
“People were bothered by that use of the word ‘normal’,” he says. It is a topic he talks about carefully – not defensively, just with consideration. “I think one of the most exciting parts about queer culture is being able to live your most fabulous life. But I’m about to go down and fix things with superglue and build stuff in workshops and organise and fix. That’s my happy place. But there’s no one that loves the extreme more than myself.”
We are speaking before the release of The Matrix Resurrections, in which Harris plays a mysterious character called the Analyst. Such is the secrecy, there is little he can say about his role, but he says he was blown away by the original film’s technical accomplishments and remains “blissfully unaware” about its convoluted meaning; he isn’t especially paranoid that we are living in a Matrix-style simulation. (That said, he knows which pill he would take: “Oh, red pill, for sure.”)
“I have an insatiable desire to accomplish and do more things. I love bungee jumping and fire eating and travelling and white-water rafting – my bucket list is long. I think that’s kind of what life is about: experiential education. I figure that’s my red pill.”
Harris may seem an incongruous choice for a serious sci-fi franchise, but his career has been full of zags, which he puts down to being an extroverted, curious child. He spent his younger years trying desperately to find a creative outlet in Ruidoso, his small home town in the mountains of New Mexico.
“There were not a lot of artistic outlets aside from howling coyote paintings and making bolo ties,” he says, drily. Harris grew up with his parents, who were lawyers, and his older brother. He sang in a church choir and played various instruments in a band; by 10, he was directing plays at his local theatre. “But there was really no opportunity to act on any level except at the country club, where they would put up a weird play twice a year.”
His choir director encouraged him to attend a drama summer camp run by the playwright Mark Medoff at New Mexico State University. Medoff took a shine to Harris and encouraged the teenager to audition for Clara’s Heart, which Medoff wrote. When Harris landed the role, he was delighted – despite the pressure of being in the public eye.
“I think every kid develops insecurities around what it is that they are doing, right?” he says. “If you’re a jock, then you’ll have insecurities about not being brainy and if you’re a Dungeons & Dragons player then you’re insecure because you’re not physical enough. So, I did have a little bit of a spotlight put on me. But, simultaneously, I was getting to do these very interesting bucket-listy things that everyone would love to do.”
He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in Clara’s Heart. Doogie Howser, MD followed shortly after. His affection for the show, for which he earned another Golden Globe nod, is clear. “I’m very proud of that role,” he says. “That was my formative college years, even though I was barely in high school.”
But, as with college years, there are some scenes that are best left in the past. Earlier this year, a cringe-inducing clip of the show went viral on Twitter. In it, Doogie is led into a dark room by an adult nurse; she says she likes younger men, then pushes herself against him and undoes his trousers (it turns out to be an uncomfortable birthday prank).
“I remember the scene and I remember filming it,” says Harris, who had not heard it had resurfaced. “I appreciate that you shouldn’t be doing certain creative things like you used to. But I also was in Cabaret on Broadway, where the Emcee was encouraged to wander through the audience and sit on anyone’s laps and grope the ensemble. [But] we do live in a world where you have to be much more cognisant of everyone being OK with everything. So I applaud that.”
After Doogie came TV shows and a few films (including Starship Troopers), but the gamechanger was his role as an obscene, fictionalised version of himself in 2004’s Harold & Kumar Get the Munchies. He played a womaniser high on ecstasy who steals the title characters’ car. He says he enjoyed parodying himself. “The fact that they were [fans] and that they enjoyed my company made it feel like we were all doing it together. And I thought that was a pretty badass version of myself.”
It secured him the role for which he is best known, How I Met Your Mother’s commitment-phobic lothario Barney Stinson. Harris spent the best part of a decade on the show, which first aired in 2005, and received four Emmy nominations. But his character’s attitude to women and his elaborate pickup artist schemes haven’t aged well.
“Well, my take on How I Met Your Mother is that it was not all real,” he says. “The structure of the show is future Ted [Mosby, the central character] telling his children the story. In doing so, he’s fictionalising the narrative and he’s talking about his friend who was the wing man, the buddy, the guy that was always wanting to party and have fun and make any experience an event. So, I think of Barney as this weird anti‑superhero, who when he failed would just make up a story to make him succeed.”
As for the practice of re-analysing past shows with a modern lens, critiquing their supposed insensitivities, Harris is unsure. “Some people will be offended by it in retrospect – and there’s not much one can do in retrospect. But the experience of making that show for nine seasons was very good energy … and there was never a sense of doing things with bad intent.”
Harris has taken on more serious projects, such as Downsizing and Gone Girl – not to mention his devastating role in this year’s critically acclaimed It’s a Sin, in which he played one of the first victims of the Aids epidemic in the UK – but more often starred in family films and TV shows. He has done voice work, too, and performed regularly on stage, from his first role as Mark Cohen in a 1997 tour of Rent to a Tony‑winning turn in 2014’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He also appeared in the Stephen Sondheim musicals Sweeney Todd, Assassins and Company.
“Every single time I worked with him, I made sure to really try to recognise the fact that it was actually Stephen Sondheim and I was actually talking to him,” he says. “I think he’s one of the absolute greats. To get to interact with him was just phenomenal.”
They shared a passion, too. “He was also a games and theory guy and did crossword puzzles. So, we would email each other often about: ‘Did you see this?’ or: ‘You should try this puzzle,’ or: ‘What do you think of this escape room?’” he says, laughing. “I know that, for someone whose mind was as sharp as Steve’s, I guess I can take a little bit of happiness in knowing that he maintained sharpness until the end.”
His work as a presenter – from the Oscars (he was the first openly gay man to present them) to the Emmys and Tonys – allows him to channel the work of one of his idols, Jim Henson, the only person to whom he has written a fan letter. If Henson is a hero, he sees himself in a more surprising form. “I consider myself very sort of Kermit the Frog/PT Barnum/circus carnival sideshow barker,” he says. “What I’m skilled at is setting the tone. I don’t need the spotlight. But I’m good at telling everyone the game we’re about to play. That’s the Kermit the Frogging. Plus, I move my arms wildly, so I guess I took that from the frog.”
Partiality for Kermit, the circus, escape rooms, puzzles and a CV packed with children’s films and TV – it is almost as if a part of him hasn’t quite grown up. “Have you seen my office?” responds Harris, gesturing behind himself to a walnut-panelled attic featuring a steampunk lamp, a stuffed white rabbit leaping out from the wall and a framed portrait of the magician Chung Ling Soo.
“I’ve always loved entertaining and entertainment,” he says. “Jim Henson was one of my idols, because he was an adult who chose to try to educate kids and entertain adults through puppetry, which many feel is so childish. But I love magic, I love circus and I love games.”
As well as The Matrix Resurrections, Harris will star in the Netflix series Uncoupled, written by Sex and the City’s Darren Star. The show follows the life of Michael, played by Harris, whose husband walks out on their 17-year marriage. The show provoked controversy in November when the actor Ada Maris published an open letter criticising what she viewed as egregious stereotyping, after reading for the role of a Latina housekeeper.
“I valued what she was saying – and I heard her,” says Harris, who wasn’t involved in writing the show. “I would not have wanted to be made to feel uncomfortable as an actor auditioning. So, they made the decision to just eliminate the role. And I applaud them for making that decision.”
After such an eclectic career, are there any roles, scenes or characters he regrets doing? He considers the question for half a minute. Not really, he says. “I don’t want to sound pollyannaish about it, but I’m often appreciative that the choices that I have made were pretty net positive – and I mean that not as how it was received, but how it was to create. I do feel like failures give us the greater opportunity to learn. If I’m too concerned about doing something wrong, then I’m not going to push my boundaries.”
Is there anything he wants to try his hand at that he hasn’t yet? After a long pause, he says: “I’ve never been able to ride a unicycle. I’ve got to figure that one out.”
The Matrix Resurrections is in cinemas from 22 December