Neil Patrick Harris on why he loves to be badThe American actor returns to the small screen as the evil Count Olaf in new Netflix series, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Here he talks to The Red Bulletin about why he loves being bad
THE RED BULLETIN: A Series of Unfortunate Events is a very dark show. Why is that?
NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: Barry Sonnenfeld sat down to explain to me what his vision of the series was before I signed up for it. It was so dark and fully realised and almost Cirque Du Soleil. When you go and see a Cirque tent show and you’re suddenly just emerged in this world that’s unlike a world that you’re in, but metaphoric in weird ways. One of his visions was darkness, and it all sort of needs to stem from Olaf being truly mean because these kids are terrified of him. If he isn’t awful, if there’s any sort of sense of redemption in him, then you wonder why they don’t just leave. They have to be terrified of him, so when he slaps Klaus and knocks him to the ground with no remorse, just indifference, then he’s terrifying enough to be a true villain. I was happy to dive into that.
How much did you enjoy playing a mean character?
It was fun and freeing in a weird way, mainly because I didn’t look like myself. I think I would have had more self-doubt if I was trying to be a real asshole but looked like myself. I wouldn’t want to come across too overtly bad as Neil. But when I looked as garish as Olaf did, it was very easy to go there and to embrace it.
After playing so many different faces of evil, was it easy for you to keep Olaf on set and not bring him home to your family?
The family is in New York and I was in Vancouver, so it was more complicated to be face-timing with my kids, looking like the horrible monster of a man while wishing them good night and sweet dreams. It was its own dynamic. But no, I love it. I mean, I am 43 and I have been doing this since I was 13. I’ve been around the block as an actor a few times; it’s a great gift when you get the chance to be this Machiavellian.
The character is very theatrical. Was it difficult to keep a straight face? Did you often break character?
All the time! That is the joy of filming it – you can try ridiculous things and there’s no audience there. Olaf has a lot of monologues. He loves to hear himself talk and pontificate, so there was a lot written where I would be having some disturbing visions about their futures while I am eating a cup cake. My mouth would be full of cake and I’d be spitting out food while I was trying to deliver these lines – you have to do it seriously even though you know there’s food all over your face.
Have your kids been watching the show?
I think they’re a bit too young. They watched the first two episodes and got a kick out of it. But they had been on set, so they knew the actors and they had seen the locations. I was interested in knowing what they found funny, whether they laughed at seeing someone slapped around the face or whether they would be traumatised by it. It sort of landed in the middle, which is appropriate, I think.
This was pitched as Netflix’s first four quadrant show.
Which means it is sort of like Jurassic Park. They want kids to be able to enjoy Jurassic Park as well as adults. I like the Jim Henson way of thinking, of creating content that can play at different levels. There’s a lot of verbal wit that would go over the heads of kids, but adults would still be able to pick up on. My favourite demographic hopefully is the Comic Con world – Dr Horrible kind of fans – I feel like they’re going to take to this.
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned so far?
Never stop challenging yourself. Never stop learning. The people I have become least interested in are the ones that have declared themselves unavailable to change. It’s easy for me to say that as an actor, because my profession is taking on new roles and challenging myself. I try to choose roles which involve me doing something that I’ve never done before. I don’t like the uncomfortable feeling of potential failure, but I value that from it you learn, whether you succeed or fail.
Do you think it’s important to leave your comfort zone?
Yes – it’s good to expand your comfort zone and always learn. That’s why everyone should travel a lot, to see other ways of existence and value them as real and legitimate instead of thinking that the way you live is the right way to live. That’s a lesson that I try to impart on kids.
When did you discover your talent for entertaining people?
I was always the little kid that didn’t mind singing, even when I was in a small town in New Mexico, when all the boys were playing sports. Most teenage boys are embarrassed to sing soprano because it means that they’re not the tough kid. But I didn’t mind. I sang in the school plays and I sang in an adult church choir. I sang the Hallelujah chorus – a 10-year-old kid singing the high soprano part was a little weird, but I wasn’t rattled by it. I think because of that I was performing early on.
The role of Barney in How I Met Your Mother was a huge success. Has it been difficult to get rid of him and move on from him in your career?
No, I didn’t really think there was much to get rid of. The beauty of Barney was that he was a handsome dude that wore a suit and was kind of the life of the party. He was the friend on the show that I assume people wanted to take with them on their adventures. He would take a boring night and make up a story that it was exciting. He would take a spectacular fail and turn it into the greatest story ever. I didn’t feel like he was a caricature, even though he was doing ridiculous things. He was this awesome spirit, so I would never want to go away from that.
Has playing Barney changed your life?
Let’s put it this way: I get a lot of free drinks at bars!