Mr. Showbiz

06.09.11

Neil Patrick Harris Hosts the Tonys

He’s only 38, but he has one of the most diverse careers in the business. As he prepares to host the Tonys on Sunday, Harris talks to Kevin Sessums about musicals, coming out, and fatherhood.

Neil Patrick Harris hosts the Tony Awards this Sunday night. It is his second time at the helm. He is becoming an expert at such duties, having also hosted Spike’s Video Game Awards, the TV Land Awards, and the Emmy Awards. He even won two Emmys himself, one for the first time he hosted the Tonys and the second for a guest-starring role on Glee

His current fans know him as the womanizing Barney Stinson on the CBS sitcom 'How I Met Your Mother.' But he has had one of the most diverse careers of anyone in the business and, though he only turns 38 on June 15, one of the longest. He starred as the title character of 'Doogie Howser, M.D.' when he was but a lad, and in 'Clara’s Heart' opposite Whoopi Goldberg, his first feature film, even before that. His other roles include, among many others, Jimmy Burden in the television adaptation of Willa Cather’s 'My Antonia,' costarring Jason Robards and Eva Marie Saint, Dr. Horrible in the web sensation Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and even a drug-and-sex-crazed version of himself in the two 'Harold and Kumar' stoner movies.

Onstage he has carved out a remarkable musical career. He not only starred in the Los Angeles production of 'Rent' as videographer Mark Cohen, but directed an acclaimed concert version of it at the Hollywood Bowl. He has appeared in three of Stephen Sondheim’s masterworks - as Tobias Ragg in 'Sweeney Todd,' as the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald in 'Assassins,' and, most recently, as Bobby in the New York Philharmonic production of 'Company,' which luckily was filmed and can be seen in movie theaters starting June 15, a rather nice birthday gift for himself. His Broadway musical debut was as the Emcee in 'Cabaret,' Kander and Ebb’s own masterwork.

During a break from his Tony rehearsals at New York’s Beacon Theatre, he Skyped me at my cottage on Cape Cod to discuss his hosting duties on Sunday and sundry other topics, including parenthood since he and his “better half,” as he lovingly refers to actor and chef David Burtka, had twins, Harper Grace and Gideon Scott, through a surrogate pregnancy last October.

I’ve never done an interview by Skype face-to-face on my computer screen but I guess during this week of all the Anthony Weiner revelations it’s somehow appropriate.

“Hosting the Oscars is a little masochistic in a way, but I would still definitely do it.”

(Pointing to sights unseen below the computer screen) Yeah, but there is nothing going on downstairs here right now.

Now that we’ve ... ah ... touched on the subject, I hope you steer clear of it on the Tony Awards Sunday. No jokes, please. Enough.

I don’t think we will. By Sunday that story will have played itself out in the news cycle, which is so quick these days—it won’t be relevant. Even with Charlie Sheen, when you said “winning” or “tiger’s blood” four days later it made for a bad punch line.

I once asked Hugh Jackman after he hosted the Oscars if he were worried that hosting such a show diminished his own stardom since by definition his role in the proceedings was to serve the stardom of others. Do you think there is that same danger for you?

No. I don’t think that way. Now if I were on a path solely to be an independent film actor, maybe. If I were on a Joseph Gordon-Levitt-y kind of path, then I could see that being a “personality” might have drawbacks. But being on a mainstream sitcom on CBS and subbing for Regis now and again, I think that in my professional world right now people recognize me as both an actor and a bit of a personality, and I’m fine with that. I enjoy being a hyphenate. I’ve always thought of my career as a plate spinner in the circus. My life has been filled with a lot of plates recently.

Does one of those hyphenates include dancer? Are you going to dance on the Tonys on Sunday?

I’m learning some choreography for the show but I’ve never taken a dance class. I’m learning on the fly.

Well, that’s rather arrogant of you since you’ve been in enough musicals. Are you too big for your Capezios?

A cardio-funk class—I should have at least taken one of those. But it’s always terrified me. I’m never one to be a dancer on the dance floor, even at a bar or a club.

And yet you are also a magician—another of your hyphenates—and when performing magic there is a kind of grace and choreography involved in that.

I do have decent body awareness but to watch the vocabulary and skill sets of the dancers I’ve been surrounded by in these rehearsals is daunting. When they say terms like ... well, I don’t know ... pas de bourrée … I go, “What the hell is a pas de bourrée?” 

Why do you think members of the LGBT community are so good at hosting awards shows? There’s you. Jane Lynch is about to host the Emmys. Rosie O’Donnell has hosted the Tonys. Ellen De Generes has hosted the Oscars and Emmys. We should add some new initials to the spectrum—LGBTASH—Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Award Show Hosts.

There is just a lot of creativity and theatricality in performers who happen to be gay. Maybe there’s a success in numbers, so by the law of averages we are going to get these jobs. Also, I think there is a kind of comfort level needed to host these things, so if you’re out, there is a comfort you have in your own skin that translates well. I know that hanging out with Jane Lynch is just a remarkably fun time because she is so honest about who she is that I think that can’t help but come across in a hosting situation. Your job as a host is to make everyone feel comfortable.

Is part of that comfort the perception that an awards show host is a non-sexual role so the audience doesn’t have to contemplate that part of you while you’re hosting?

Maybe. There’s that, yeah. But it’s finally like hosting a great dinner party.

And we gays know how to throw a dinner party. And, yes, I’m aware I just perpetuated a stereotype. What did you think of the job James Franco did at the Oscars this year? He seemed to be perpetuating his stereotype as a stoner—or even as a practitioner of performance art—whatever it was it wasn’t exactly one’s usual concept of hosting.

David and I took a family trip to Hawaii with the babies and we were literally in the air during the Oscars. By the time we arrived, it was the last five minutes of the ceremony.  I did go online to kind of see how it went, but I just didn’t feel like I needed to spend three or four hours of my family vacation watching a tape of it. 

Would you host the Oscars if you were asked?

Definitely. There are just some things that are bucket list-y things, yet hosting the Oscars is one of the biggest target potentials for failure ever as a job. It’s so thankless. It’s watched and judged by so many so it is a little masochistic in a way, but I would still definitely do it.  Maybe I should be more in the movie world before I did it though.

Well, David Letterman is not of the movie world and he hosted.

And the response was not very good.

John Stewart did it.

Well, John Stewart is a unique beast.

Let’s get back to James Franco—not to dwell—but he does insert himself into the cultural conversation so we might as well insert him into ours. You have as varied a career as he does, but the one difference is that you are an out gay man. He instead flirts with the gay question about himself as a construct for his art. He played Harvey Milk’s lover. He played Allen Ginsberg. He is about to release a CD of duets with a female impersonator. He carved the late actor Brad Renfro’s name into his arm with a knife and photographed it as part of an installation at the Venice Biennale that was a tribute to James Dean, who was gay according to his close friend Elizabeth Taylor. He is about to direct a movie about another gay actor Sal Mineo, a buddy of Dean’s. He posed for the cover of a transgender magazine in drag. Some say he is courageous to make such choices and yet the incessant blanket blatantness of it all has become, in essence, coy as he seems to codify gay sexuality without coming clean as to why it so inspires him. He is becoming both the organ grinder and the monkey. Yet maybe that’s his whole point. 

I don’t spend a whole lot of my time concerning myself with who people sleep with, but I really applaud James’s fearlessness in everything that he does. I think that anyone at his level who continues to educate himself constantly at school and that will then go on a soap opera for a benefit that is unquantifiable and that will do these art projects that you have mentioned  ... I mean, to expose yourself that much in so many different avenues and still seem mysterious and still seem desirable and still seem to have all this potential energy still there is fascinating. I’m a big fan.

But you’ve just brought up something I think is also fascinating. When I bring up someone’s sexuality I am not bringing up the subject of who they sleep with. Even the Anthony Weiner media scandal inspires this dialectic if nothing else, and that is the difference between one’s sexuality and one’s sex life. You have made public that you are a gay man—it is a part of your identity—but that does not give us the right to know anything about your sex life. Those are two completely different things and yet so many people conflate the two because they only see gay men as sexual creatures and therefore not, well, fully human in the way that heterosexuals are since their sexuality is woven into their personae: who they are dating or their choice of a spouse, their children, their family life. By living your life openly with your partner David and your children you have made people confront the notion that gayness is something that is woven naturally into our lives as well. It is not something to be furtive about. It’s not just about fucking.

NPH:  I hear what you’re saying entirely. But Franco has an inclusive ... ah ... chemistry, so the result is that everyone is drawn to him, which he probably uses to his advantage when he needs to. As far as my own coming out as a gay man, I just looked on it as an inevitability.  I am a relatively transparent person so once I fell in love with David and we were living together I wasn’t about to create a false construct and force us to live within it, which would make me claim to be someone I am not. I could not live a lie and would not ask him to live one. And I never looked on it as the big end-of-my-career moment. I did think there might be more of a negative backlash than there was so I was glad to see there was as much support—and quite frankly, as much indifference—as there was. The only negative reaction really was, “Who really gives a shit?”

Now that you’re such a family man it’s ironic your last stage triumph was as the lonely bachelor Bobby in Company. You’ve worked with Sondheim before so did he help you with your approach to the role?

I did get to have a conversation with Mr. Sondheim that involved overall questions about the show that I had never found answered before. There’s a lot of Bobby in stasis during that show, in which he removes himself from the scenes, and I didn’t know quite what that meant except in a structural sense. He told me that Bobby sings about all those photos up on the wall which are all his friends, to look on it just like that. He said Arthur Laurents used to do that out at his house in Montauk, hang all the headshots of his friends up on the wall of his house there as a way to remember moments he shared with them.  He said, think of this show as taking place all in the instant that you are just glancing at these pictures on the wall. When you look at, say, the pictures of Harry and Sarah, you’re thinking, “Oh, I remember that one time when that scene happened.” So when that’s over we go on to another picture at another time. It’s not exactly linear, so that you’re not taking what you learn from one scene to another as you tend to do as an actor. He told me that I had to look at each scene as separate entities that do not conjoin. He said you could do a production of Company and mix up all the scenes and it would still make sense—except for the last one because it’s the one that takes place currently. That last one is the one in which he gets drunk with Joanne who was played by Patti LuPone in this version.

What was so interesting about Patti’s performance to me—I saw it the second night of the run—was that she decided to kind of throw away her big solo, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” knowing that no one could top Elaine Stritch’s original version, and instead bore into the character in the scene work and broke our hearts with a mesmerizing acting performance instead of a singing one.

Wait till you see her in close-up in the film version of it. The tears are streaming down her cheeks in that drunken club scene. It’s devastating. It’s going to be in over 600 theaters with one screening a night like going to a Broadway show.

Has Sondheim become a kind of mentor to you since you’ve done several of his musicals?

I just find he has such complicated specificity regarding how he does everything that it is ... I don’t know ... Shakespearean in its design. You can just sing his songs as written or you can delve into why a note goes higher here and then higher here and then not quite as high the next time. There is a reason for that. And the more you investigate it the clearer it becomes.

Well, his love of the intricacy of puzzles finally lies at the core of his art.

And I’m a big puzzle guy as well. We do have that in common. Even his rhyming structures could be looked on as puzzles.

Once your womanizing days are over on CBS would you like to do a variety show? I told Jackman—only half in jest—that he was a combination of Gary Cooper, Gene Kelly, and Rosalind Russell. He especially loved the Roz Russell reference. You’re sort of a combination of Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, and Lyle Waggoner. You’d be perfect hosting a variety show. All these award shows you’ve done could be looked on as practice runs. Let’s pitch it.

I’d LOVE that. I’ve spent so many decades learning lines and having to regurgitate them that I think there would be something nice to having a secondary career that is just being myself and showing people what I find interesting. So if that were to come along in a way that was financially quantifiable I’d jump at. In my kind of career you’re always trying to catch the next fish so I feel as if I’m always fishing. But now I’m about to be 38 years old and I have two kids and a fantastic better half in David, so I’m ready to filet the fish and settle down for a while and have some poi.

How are your twins, Harper and Gideon?

They are fantastic. They are not crawling just yet. She is able to sit up now for extended periods of time without toppling over. This morning we were playing music and she was sitting upright and started shaking her head in rhythm to the music for the first time.  Here. See. (The proud dad, he happily holds his cell phone up to the computer screen and shows me the video of his daughter’s first performance.)

When it becomes legal to marry in California again will you and David get married?

Yeah. Definitely.

In Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, when the character of Hammer is finally injured and experiences pain, the line he delivers is that he needs “someone maternal.” There are social conservatives who would, no doubt, want me to ask you what would you say to Harper and Gideon if, when they get a little older, they say the same thing to you and David?

Hmmmm .... I’d ask them in what way. David and I both provide them with interesting elements like that—even maternal ones. But we are also surrounding them with great women. Their nanny is from Cork, Ireland, and she is amazing and hilarious. I don’t know. I’ve never even contemplated that. I don’t think that David and I are so hyper-male that there will be this big gap of anything missing.

David was once so sweet to my niece when she visited me in New York. We went to see the Bernadette Peters production of Gypsy and she fell in love with David in the role of Tulsa. Later that week we went to a Christmas party at Andy Tobias’s and David walked in and she almost fainted she thought he was so cute.

Tell her I had the same reaction the first time I ever saw him walk into a party too.

Well, you’re the one who ended up having kids with him. Congratulations.  

Kevin Sessums is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on Mountain will be published by St. Martins Press.