An openly gay man equally successful at playing a prime-time pussy hound and securing major endorsement deals, Neil Patrick Harris is doing just what closeted actors and their minders have called impossible. By By Bill Keith
Like his path or not, Neil Patrick Harris has charted it very carefully from child star to Broadway heavy hitter to sitcom scene-stealer. His stirring turns on Broadway in Assassins, Proof, and Cabaret proved that he had the chops to stick around in this business, but his outrageous cameo in the first Harold & Kumar set the stage for a role that’s outsizing the diminutive Doogie Howser to whom he was inextricably linked for so long. With three seasons and an Emmy nomination under his belt -- plus a new gig as the face of Old Spice -- Harris has found his work as Barney Stinson on CBS’s How I Met Your Mother is taking him down a somewhat unexpected path -- that of a Hollywood leading man.
When Harris came out in November 2006, shock waves didn’t exactly ripple throughout the country. Thanks to Perez Hilton’s yearlong campaign to “out” Harris, that he was gay wasn’t news. The fact that he was willing to speak about it, however, was. After the initial acknowledgment he provided to People magazine, Harris has been fairly quiet on the subject of his sexuality, though for this issue he opened up over drinks in a New York café.
OUT: Why does it seem like none of the gay child actors ever go the Diff’rent Strokes route and spiral out of control? You, Danny Pintauro, Chad Allen, Sara Gilbert: You’re all described by most accounts as well-adjusted. Did being gay affect that?
NPH: Maybe I felt a bit restrained when I was out and partying as a kid at trendy clubs, that I was putting on a bit of an act within myself -- like having to act like those chicks should sit with us at our booth even though I didn’t really enjoy it. Maybe that kept me from going out as much? But then again, I could rattle [off] more examples of people who are deeply closeted and turn to hard-core drugs and party all the time to escape it. But I like your statistics.
OUT: From dorky doctor to lady-killing lothario in 20 short years. Did you chart your career path to become “Leading Man Neil Patrick Harris”?
NPH: Am I? [Laughs] I don’t see it.
OUT: Is it what you’ve always wanted?
NPH: I definitely was fearful of being branded at an early age with a role that I enjoyed immensely but didn’t want to keep doing. And probably just out of boredom I was interested in playing crazy, interesting parts. As I got older the crazy roles just found me, I guess, like Barney -- that’s so crazy that that found me, but I love it. Being a leading man is fun, but I always find the periphery a more exciting environment. But hey, if someone wants to hand me the shoe, I’ll see if it fits.
OUT: How would you say the business has changed for gay actors in the past 20 years?
NPH: It’s all uniquely so personal to each person. I can’t say that the business is any different now than it was then, because I wasn’t 30 years old then and in a position to stand tall and say something. I think the fears that enveloped me then would be the same fears that would envelop people that are 15, 16, 17 now.
OUT: So your advice to a gay actor who is 16 now is no different than it would have been when you were 16?
NPH: Oh, no. Clearly there’s way more exposure and a much larger gray area with sexuality and the public’s opinion towards it -- on almost every level -- professionally, artistically, legally. What made it more unique 20 years ago was that there were less examples -- so that made it a shock. And I think the shock value has kind of worn off.
OUT: But is Hollywood still underestimating the American public’s acceptance level of homosexuality? The stigma still seems to be a reality in that business more than many others.
NPH: People in the business are equally as terrified now -- but I really find it a personal thing. And maybe I’m at the end of that era. I wouldn’t even want to stereotype today’s generation. But the majority of the casting departments are gay, and a lot of the executives are. I think it’s a matter of your abilities and how you carry yourself -- I don’t behave any differently toward you right now than when I am with David [Burtka, his boyfriend] in our apartment, watching American Idol. OK, So You Think You Can Dance. [Laughs] I can see why an agent wouldn’t want to sign on a real overtly effeminate male actor -- not because I have an aversion to them but because agents might know it limits their job opportunities.
OUT: You were hired for the Harold & Kumar movie before you were out of the closet. In the films you play yourself -- a markedly straight and strung-out version of yourself. Did writers know you were gay when they wrote the part for you or when you were filming it?
NPH: No. You know...that just never came up. Honestly. When you’re making a movie everyone is in their own motor home and then they call you in and you do your thing. You don’t really sit down and say “So -- who’re you fucking?” when you’ve only met a week before.
OUT: No, that’s more like a day on my job.
NPH: Yes, you probably do. You’re unique that way. The writers were very kind and accommodating and reverential, which was strange, at 29, 30, whatever -- it was crazy. But it was hilarious. I’m a magician at heart, so smoke and mirrors is great. The idea of smoke and mirrors tends to suggest suppression and the idea that you don’t want people to know about who you really are, but as an actor you kind of do want people to not know who you really are. I think it was nice to have a bit of a smoke screen in a way.
OUT: Did you do anything to hide your sexuality from the network or the executives on How I Met Your Mother?
NPH: I didn’t release a statement to them, but at the first How I Met Your Mother barbecue I brought David. I feel like it’s important to be proud of who you are, so I didn’t feel like, “I should bring my friend Stephanie to this barbecue, or I’ll lose my job.” Thankfully, I live in a time where I don’t have to worry about that.
OUT: Fair enough, but do you think the network would have been behind your hiring if you had been openly gay at the time?
NPH: Well, I think if I was an outspoken activist, they probably would have had some concerns that people wouldn’t have believed me in the role completely. I think the majority of people just want to see how talented you can be. And if I’m going to play a leading male heterosexual in a role, I’d better act like that for that picture and the audition and represent well, and I would hope that would still get me the job.
OUT: On the flip side, you were playing gay roles long before you came out.
NPH: Yeah. That was tricky for me.
OUT: Was that a game you were playing? You seemed to be pursuing those roles -- the gay friend in The Next Best Thing, the emcee in Cabaret, an "ex-gay" on Will & Grace --
NPH: No game. I thought it was clever. But internally. I figured if I kept working, it was an inevitability that someone would make that a story. I didn’t know how it would happen. So I thought when I got the job for The Next Best Thing -- the Madonna movie with Rupert Everett -- I thought, That’s kind of clever. I got to be on Will & Grace where I was an "ex-gay" with Sean Hayes, and I thought that was kind of clever too. When you look back you see there are some steps that I took.
OUT: You also played your How I Met Your Mother costar Josh Radnor’s lover, right?
NPH: Yes, in A Paris Letter. Playing gay in the theater is more fulfilling than on film because you can create a whole character and a backstory and you get to chip away at something over a long period of time. When you’re acting on film you sort of have one afternoon in front of a crew to just do it. And you don’t want to then be too overt and like that stereotype. But when I was doing A Paris Letter with Josh, I was playing someone overtly flamboyant from the ’60s seducing him, and if I did that on film, I think it would look like I was acting too hard. It’s one of the fun things one wants to do as an actor, to play the flamboyant gay guy. But when you are gay that ends up being offensive to people. Say I was asked to play a flamboyant steward in an Airplane!–type farce. It would be a difficult decision to say yes to that role at this point because a lot of people would accuse me of making a mockery of gay people.
OUT: Did growing up in Hollywood make it easier or harder for you to come out?
NPH: I think it was harder. Actually, I think it was easier for me, because I was around a lot of people who were gay and I was around a lot of people who were very confident. I was surrounded by people I could talk to freely about anything, and they were very successful emotionally and otherwise.
OUT: And yet...
NPH: And yet, part of the coming-out process is figuring out who you like and what that means and how to act upon it. Being an actor reduced my level of anonymity. I couldn’t just go to some bar and walk in and ask someone out on a date, because there was too much awareness of me. So it made it more difficult in that sense. I couldn’t be, like, “Maybe I like this kind of guy” or “Maybe I’m into this” -- I couldn’t really experiment. I sort of had to narrow my gaze from afar. If I had any regret, it would be that strange lack of anonymity that created panic within myself that I would be found out. But I think that’s everyone’s big fear.
OUT: You don’t regret that you didn’t get out ahead of Perez Hilton forcing your hand in your coming-out process?
NPH: Hmm. I’m just glad it wasn’t based on scandal. I didn’t want there to be some “we got footage” story where I have to make some sort of statement about some event that happened. But I’m not that scandalous...I don’t have a lot of random sex --
OUT: This interview just got a lot shorter.
NPH: [Laughs] But I’m not -- I’ve never done cocaine. I’m not a crazy partyer. I don’t stay up and rent private jets and go on yachts and whoop it up in Miami. I found a guy that I’m head over heels for and we have similar interests and we spend our time together.
OUT: You and David have been together for 4½ years. When you first started dating you were out personally but not professionally, right? Did that create some early relationship tension?
NPH: No. If anything, it probably gave us more exclusive time together because we weren’t out in public places. We’d have dinner and then hang out. But he has had lots of interesting chapters as well. His first boyfriend -- they had twins together. So they were involved in the whole surrogate/making babies/two dads-with-babies-in-strollers thing, so he’s lived with scrutiny in many ways that I haven’t.
OUT: But dating someone whose every trip to the airport is now covered on blogs must have some distinct challenges.
NPH: Well, there has been one other negative element about being out publicly as a couple. He and I are both actors, and I’ve been trying to be protective of him so that his identity wasn’t linked so much to mine so that he could succeed on his own. But by being so, it creates its own strange dynamic. Because if we walk hand in hand down the red carpet together, then he’s known as being linked to me. But if I walk down the red carpet and he goes ahead of me, then it looks like we’re not proud of being with each other. So that’s been tricky. It requires a lot of communication between us.
OUT: Are you thinking about marriage?
NPH: Well, I think if and when we do, we’d probably announce it after the fact as opposed to making the big announcement that it was going to happen.
OUT: But it's important to you?
NPH: Yeah. We both wear rings, and I’m giddy when I see all the pictures of people so happy standing there, confirming the love they wish they could have expressed for a long time.
OUT: Like the 75-year-old couples --
NPH: It’s unbelievable. I think that speaks way more than the “God Hates Fags” signs.
OUT: You’ve come under fire from a lot of gay people for what was perceived as a reluctance to come out.
NPH: My job is jester -- not advocate. I’m on a situation comedy responding to [Josh Radnor’s character] Ted Mosby and his wacky adventures -- that’s my job right now. If people want to comment about where I go to dinner, they are welcome to, but it’s not my job to respond to those statements. The Internet stuff threw me for a loop because I didn’t understand where the vitriol was coming from. I thought I had been representing well, and in turn it seemed like I was quickly condemned to step to the plate, and I was fine with that.
OUT: If you aren’t an advocate, though, you realize that you’re a role model whether you like it or not.
NPH: I’m striving to be an example of normalcy. Because I’m noticed as an actor, people are aware of what’s happening in my life, and that I can’t change, and if I tried to, it’d be an uphill battle. I’d be angry and bitter. I’m a big proponent of monogamous relationships regardless of sexuality, and I’m proud of how the nation is steering toward that. Then you can look around and say, “I really deeply feel like I’m in love with this person, there are people who feel the same thing, and those models are normal.” The “normal” couples were sort of in the shadows for the past 15 or 20 years because you sort of needed other people to come forward and speak out.
OUT: Do you remember the first person you saw that you related to as a gay man?
NPH: The first face that empowered me was Danny Roberts from The Real World: New Orleans. I think before him I’d never seen anyone wear [homosexuality] so comfortably. He was around my age. I could look to him as a role model -- if you could say that, even though he was on a reality show. He represented a way that I could behave and stand tall comfortably without being an overt advocate and without being someone hiding in the shadows. I liked that.
OUT: You recently did an interview with Howard Stern where you talked to him about whether you are a top or a bottom and the first time you had sex with a man. But before doing this interview with Out, I was asked to submit a list of questions.
NPH: My team has to be very conscious of what steps I make [and] when, so they’re just the most productive and positive they can be. And I’m spearheading that team. [If] I get misquoted once, that misquote becomes its own story in other places, and then that looks like I went to those periodicals and said some crazy statement to get attention to myself. Then people react: “Who is he to say that stuff?” I feel much more like a politician in interviews now because you have to be specific about your sentence structure. Because if something is taken out of context, then there are a lot of ramifications.
OUT: You’re referring to the Associated Press story that erroneously suggested that you didn’t want Britney Spears to guest-star on How I Met Your Mother?
NPH: Yeah. I had to do a lot of damage control because I didn’t want people to think I’d said something that I didn’t say. I literally craft a statement. I send it to people and say “What do you think of it?” and “Should it be more of this or that?” and then I send it to a specific outlet that we think is the best outlet for that, and then everyone comments [like,] “Oh, well, maybe CBS talked to him and someone wrote a statement for him.” Which didn’t happen, but then you can’t respond to that. I come up with that stuff myself. I want to be able to be open enough to be on Regis and Kelly and speak my mind and not just seem like a corporate puppet. Because I’m not.
OUT: Speaking of Live With Regis and Kelly, you’ve often guest-hosted with Kelly Ripa. How great is that gig?
NPH: Kelly Ripa is the greatest. She’s got it all. She’s got a great life; she works an hour and a half a day. She’s funny, she’s sexy, she’s savvy, she plays the Kelly Ripa part, and she gets the joke. And it’s so fun not to have to memorize lines. You go out there, you spend 20 minutes just talking about stuff. You interview people and you don’t really even have to know what you’re talking about because someone behind them has the cards with all the questions on it.
OUT: And they love a gay cohost over there at Regis and Kelly. You, Sam Champion, Anderson Cooper...
NPH: Mmmmmmmm. Anderson. He’s dreamy. Just dreamy. I’ve been a fan of his since season 1 of The Mole. I just thought he was so cool when he talked in this cool, low, secret-agent voice -- “If you can accomplish this task...” Listen, no one can tell anyone how big their steps should be or when they can take them. You can take issue with someone making overtly denying statements, and you can take issue with people straight-up presenting themselves as someone that they’re not -- because I think that’s kind of shady and not very stand-up. But you can’t fault someone for going through the process at their own time. You can’t. But again -- to speak to the public nature of things -- it is in our capacity to respect the job descriptions that people have separate from the life that they live. And I don’t care about the person on the news…I literally tune in to hear the news. I might find them dreamy, but I don’t really need to know much more about them.
OUT: Right. That’s the third time you’ve referred to Anderson Cooper as “dreamy.”
OUT: So two years after coming out, why is now a good time for you to do your first interview with Out?
NPH: I like the magazine. I’m a subscriber. I didn’t think I’d be in bad hands or that there’d be some sort of “We’ve got to get this statement out of him in some way.” Plus, fall fashion seemed like a good time as opposed to the summer swimsuit issue, where’d I’d have to go on a fast for a couple of months and get a crystal meth addiction. Ah! See! Now a meth quote is going be everywhere. Now you have your story.