Back in April, a paparazzi photo of Neil Patrick Harris caused quite a stir.
He was hideous.
The typically well-groomed song-and-dance man with the celluloid smile and chiseled jaw had lost nearly all his hair. His face was sallow, his eyes sunken beneath startling pronounced wrinkles, his nose suddenly protruding and turning down, even. And is that… a unibrow?
He looked like the kind of guy who would be mean to children.
“I knew someone would be there taking a picture that day,” Harris says, with a devious grin.
Harris—back to being the handsome, svelte actor who spent the better part of a decade diligently “suiting up”—is in a Manhattan hotel room to discuss his role in Netflix’s wonderfully whimsical adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
The characteristically expensive and ambitious Netflix series, which debuts for binging on Friday, was filmed shrouded in secrecy on a Vancouver soundstage, where Harris and the cast saw the light of day only a handful of times in costume as the characters from Daniel Handler’s beloved book series.
“I made sure I never smiled the entire time I was out there,” Harris says. “Anti-mugging for the paparazzi. In every picture I was grimacing and rolling my eyes and scowling because I wanted to be as Olafian possible.”
“Olafian,” of course, is in reference to Count Olaf, the maniacal and egotistical guardian to the precocious Baudelaire children, who are put in the charge of the abusive and money-grubbing eccentric after the death of their parents.
Count Olaf fancies himself an actor and an Adonis, despite his lack of any discernible talent or physical appeal. Still, he invents songs and dances around his dilapidated mansion, in between criminal misdeeds and the cruel torturing of the Baudelaire children whose fortune he’s after.
Requiring a larger-than-life sense of hamminess and a fair amount of athletic mischief and comedic meanness, it’s no wonder that Jim Carrey previously brought Count Olaf to screen in the 2004 film. And more than a decade later, you’d be hard-pressed to name an entertainer more apt for the role than Harris.
Of course, it took his own series of events, some even unfortunate (R.I.P., Best Time Ever), for he-who-was-Doogie-Howser to go from child star in his own right to the scenery-chewing villain who berates them.
Harris’s nine seasons on How I Met Your Mother was an incredibly long and defining amount of time, but his post-sitcom résumé is remarkably adventurous, including a Broadway show, a David Fincher film, and the aforementioned live NBC variety show abomination. He says it’s taken weathering all of those things to get him to the place to pull off a role like Count Olaf.
“I’m kitchen sinking it a bit,” he says. “In the best and the worst possible way.”
Harris arrived to the Vancouver soundstage at 4:30 every morning for his two-and-a-half-hour transformation.
There’s the hooked nose, wisps of hair around the crown of the bald head, and the sufficient amount of skin prosthetic required to achieve the aesthetic of a goblin-gargoyle-children’s-book villain, striking a careful balance so that, he says, the look was “theatrical enough to be outside of realism and yet real enough to not just look like a prosthetic headpiece from a haunted carnival.”
Tone is important when it comes to Lemony Snicket, after all.
It’s a series that is bathed in the childlike whimsy of Handler’s topsy-turvy universe, but which very practically and realistically explores how children cope with loss. It treats the plight of those saddled with, yes, unfortunate circumstances with dark, world-weary honesty.
Think more Roald Dahl than Harry Potter. Or, as Harris puts it, “It’s the kind of show that Joss Whedon would like.
“The story’s told from the kids’ perspective, and therefore the adults can be wider swaths of dark color, instead of having to be really true, realistic versions of things,” Harris says, responding to an admittedly navel-gazing question about what this performance might reveal about his capabilities as a performer.
“So I had the freedom to be just dismal without needing to explain why,” he continues. In other words, and perhaps for the first time, he gets to be bad.
It’s also the first time he’s played a character previously portrayed by someone else on screen. (Having appeared in several Broadway revivals and won a Tony Award for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, he’s done it before on stage—which is a different animal completely.)
While comparisons made between his and Jim Carrey’s takes on Olaf are a certainty, Harris says that because the 2004 film attempted to condense all the books into one film and the Netflix series is devoting two episodes to each installment, time constraints dictated two very different performances.
“I think it forced Jim Carrey to rely on Jim Carreyisms as opposed to being able to fully invest in Olaf as a character,” he says. “I think we’re allowed to be more true to the source material because we have more time to do so. So I wasn’t really conflicted by comparison.”
There’s a lot going on in A Series of Unfortunate Events.
It’s a visual wonder with broad comedy and grand set pieces. It breaks the fourth wall. It’s cynical but also an achingly authentic commentary on adulthood, and how we can be blinded by our flaws and mistakes instead of growing from them.
The show is a smattering of tones and styles, and all of them need to be perfectly executed to succeed. It requires a wrangling and, as Olaf, Harris serves as the de facto maestro. Under his arch watch, you feel confident that it will go off. Because somehow, with Harris and all of his wild pursuits, it almost always does.
“I think I gained confidence as Barney Stinson,” he says.
We’re talking about his post-HIMYM career, and he immediately cites playing Barney’s voraciousness as a big explanation for his growth.
“He, as a character, would take on adventures. His failures would become successes and he would make boring stories more exciting through embellishment. He was just trying to out-exist the world,” Harris says.
Internalizing that allowed him to “springboard with a lack of neuroses and fearlessness” that made him able to do Hedwig and the Angry Inch, James Cameron Mitchell’s rock musical about an East German, genderqueer singer.
It’s a role that was “personally very confrontational for me,” he says. “Because as a gay guy who had never donned drag before, to play someone who was not only transgendered, but 20 years over it, I had to get over my own isms in front of people live every night. And not only get over them but not even be nervous about them.”
Barney Stinson’s bravado, he says, helped inform that. “But then that all feels so big that it feels awesome to do a David Fincher movie where bigness is a deficit.”
Harris played a pivotal supporting role in Gone Girl, Fincher’s chilly adaptation of the 2014 beach-read thriller. “David would say, ‘Let’s go again, Neil, you did the eyebrow thing again. Stop doing the eyebrow thing.’ He’s calling me out on an eyebrow lift, when I had just been doing scenery chewing as Barney Stinson. But I like being challenged.”
It’s the most challenging venture of Harris’s career—and arguably one of the biggest failures—that was actually most influential in preparing him for Lemony Snicket.
“Best Time Ever was an exercise in masochism,” Harris laughs—first, though, a groan at the very mention of the show.
The weekly live variety series was part Fear Factor, part game show, part hidden camera series, part musical, part magic show, part improv showcase, and part Reese Witherspoon death watch, with Harris emceeing and starring in the whole thing.
The way Harris recalls production is akin to sprinting through a marathon: Donning prosthetics to rush-shoot a hidden-camera gag with barely time to catch a breath before attempting to learn how to breathe fire in 90 minutes and then next thing you know you’re climbing a ladder next to Witherspoon wearing harnesses that seem like it would only maybe catch you if you fall.
Then it’s time to do it again the next week. At the network, and certainly for Harris, there was an unbridled sense of accomplishment that the show even went off each week.
“But when you’re watching at home you have no appreciation of that,” he says. “You’re just watching TV and you want it to be fun and you don’t give a shit.” Ratings, in turn, were dismal. Despite being one of network TV’s most expensive and highest-profile gambles ever, it was swiftly canceled.
But on Netflix, there are no ratings. There are no gambles, because budgets are seemingly endless. There’s rarely anxiety about pulling something off, because creative visions are hardly checked or called into question.
“I could take the fearlessness of the Best Time Ever mentality into the performance of Count Olaf, but not care about the immediacy of the success,” he says.
It took failure (Best Time Ever), risk (Hedwig), confidence (How I Met Your Mother), and control (Gone Girl) to pull it off. It’s a series of events, for sure. But, it becomes clear, Harris wouldn’t consider any of them to be unfortunate.