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In “Uncoupled” Neil Patrick Harris plays the game

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Neil Patrick Harris loves puzzles. He loves games. He developed the single-player board game Box One; he plays Wordle every day and consistently gets 3 points. An experienced magician, he loves magic tricks. Each issue of his Wondercade newsletter contains a mystery of one kind or another. His personality is sizzling and resilient, with a hint of cunning. He tends to look like he’s up to something. Something fun.

His house in the Hamptons, which I visited on a recent, idiotically perfect Sunday, was he playing with the weather in some way? — replete with jokes, practical jokes, and practical jokes that start with a doormat and never end. (As far as I know for sure, there is a slide in the room.) The glazed porch where we chatted was decorated with a huge set of jengas. Other games lingered on a cart nearby.

But the game that Harris, 49, plays like no other is the game of his own career. The child star, like prodigy Doogie Houser, MD, has handled the transition to adult work with relative grace. And when he came out as gay in a joyful statement released to People, his career never narrowed or faltered. Now he, if anything, is even more beloved. And with his husband, David Burtka, an actor and cookbook author who cooked homemade carrots in the kitchen in eight different ways, when I arrived, he became a symbol of a fun family life.

While many actors face disabilities, Harris continues to star in comedies, dramas and musicals. He played heroes, villains, straight-laced romantics, unrepentant libertines and, in his Broadway debut Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a kid from communist East Berlin. As a popular award show host, he plays a flamboyant version of himself in a tuxedo. In the Harold and Kumar films, he plays a different version, a hedonist who frolics with strippers and rides a unicorn.

“He is unicorn,” said Pamela Fryman, a longtime friend and director who worked with Harris on How I Met Your Mother. “In every possible way.”

In “Uncoupled,” an eight-episode comedy by Darren Star and Jeffrey Richman that debuts on Netflix on July 29, Harris tries a new trick that’s also an old trick he hasn’t tried since his Doogie days: he plays the part that feels close to the human. which he really is.

“It was like being in a version of my own life in Sliding Doors,” he said of the role, referring to the 1998 film in which Gwyneth Paltrow’s lead character moves through an alternate future. “There has never been a part of me so close to an adult version of me.”

Harris plays Michael, an elite real estate broker who is baffled (sometimes literally, a few mistakes) when Colin (Tuck Watkins), his partner of 17 years, leaves without warning or explanation. Throughout the series, Michael goes through the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Sometimes he looks through them all in one string of text messages composed in the back seat of a taxi.

Again, it’s not all grief. “I had to go through this different version: what if I was alone in New York and had a Grindr account? What I don’t know,” Harris said. “So it was pretty brash and obscene.”

Star and Richman didn’t write the pilot with any particular actor in mind. But when it came time to do the show, they knew they needed Harris. “Neil was our very, very, very first choice,” Star said during a video call from France. (He was in Provence filming Emily in Paris. Life is hard.)

They wanted him for his talent and looks, as well as his popularity, which they hoped would keep the comedy from seeming overly niche. (Are there still worries about the appeal of gay rom-coms in the world after Fire Island and Love, Simon? Obviously there is.)

“He’s so loved by so many people,” Star said of Harris. “He’s so mainstream.” The creators wanted everyone to relate to Michael. “Straight and gay, men and women, everyone,” Star said. If Harris had played him, they would have.

With Harris on board, they wrote the rest of the episodes, and those episodes improved on the pilot. This is what others who have worked with Harris have consistently told me: his gifts and his work ethic free those around him to do their best work.

“He was even more talented than I thought,” said Barry Sonnenfeld, showrunner for A Series of Unfortunate Events. He helped create several song and dance routines specifically for Harris. “How I Met Your Mother” also gave it a production number.

“He opens up your world in such a way that you know you can write anything and he will do it,” Fryman told me.

Harris does not sing on “Uncoupled” or dance solo. But he did some of his own stunts, including one in which he fell backwards from a mountain. And it balances deep heartbreak, daring sex scenes, and raw comedy with apparent ease.

“Having an actor that can do just about anything you throw at him inspired us to step up our game to give him the best material possible,” Star said. “Because we know he can play.”

Harris described himself to me as a technical rather than introspective actor; an artisan, not a psychologist. (As a child, he wanted to be a stuntman at Universal Studios. He still wants to be—hence the mountain thing.) You can see this skill in his past roles, such as Count Olaf, the cross-dressing villain in A Series of Unfortunates. . Events, or Barney, the Lothario he played in How I Met Your Mother, who could put a meaningful pause in the middle of the word “legendary” and somehow get away with it.

Harris also possesses a ridiculous personal charm and a boyish appearance. He called this good looks a crutch and then corrected himself: “weird albatross,” he said. But for some roles, this is enough.

Michael needed something more, something to withstand the falls and the hot tub vomit scene. So Harris did what he almost never does: he made the role personal. He imagined what it would be like to return home and find that Burtka, his partner of 18 years, had left him.

This act of imagination, and the way he applied it to the role, was “very open,” he said, “very, very vulnerable.” (About this time, Burtka came into the room and handed me a bag of garden products, after which I went home on the bus looking like I had robbed some farm stalls. He doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.)

Harris doesn’t usually achieve this kind of openness, probably because he’s spent most of his 20s maintaining clear boundaries between his personal and professional life. He constantly doubted himself, wondering if he should cross his legs, how he should hold his drink. He walked the red carpet separately from his girlfriend.

“I suppressed my own freedoms because I was afraid that I would give something away and that someone would see through this guise,” he said. Everything changed when he came out at 33. “I was definitely able to exhale more and just got taller,” he said.

Friends noticed it too. “I think it did wonders for him,” said Brooks Ashmanskas, an Unrelated co-star who has known Harris for almost 20 years.

Over the years, he removed some of these boundaries. He was helped by his 11-year-old twins. “Because I’m a dad now, I’m often in a vulnerable position with my kids,” he said. All this allowed him to bring a very personal fear and irritability to the role.

But some boundaries remain. I asked him a few questions about whether Uncoupled would be meaningful in terms of LGBTQ representation if he ever felt pressured to keep his poster boy image. He answered in the most general terms, but with such warmth and politeness that he never seemed particularly evasive. If he had harsher or more intimate responses, he kept them to himself.

“I will be most successful in representation if I take an apolitical stance,” he said. “I want people to see me as the epitome of positivity. I want them to look at my work impartially.”

So this is another one of his games. When you watch Uncoupled, seeing this naked emotion, you assume that the magician is pulling back the curtain to show you how the trick is performed. Is this finally the real Harris? But when magicians do this, it’s really just to make the trick harder. This on-screen vulnerability masks other Harris tricks: his showmanship, a slightly insane work ethic (some of which he attributes—still!—to impostor syndrome), and a very busy brain calculating endless permutations of intonations, gestures, and expressions. Then the cameras come on and he makes it look easy.

“Part of his magic is the work he does; it’s behind that door,” Fryman told me. He doesn’t need you to watch this work. He wants you to sit in the audience and be amazed by the performance.”

In other words, Harris always has something up his sleeve. On that day in the Hamptons, he was wearing a tight, short-sleeved blue polo shirt. Before I left, he tugged at the cloth over his left bicep and showed me a freshly tattooed magician’s hat with a rabbit peeking out. The rabbit held a trio of worms for Burtka and their children. Then he lowered the sleeve back.

“I am also a magician, and I believe in the ideals of the magician,” he said. “Not everything always has to be known to everyone.”


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