It may seem like a lifetime ago, but in the mid-nineties Neil Patrick Harris was still Doogie Howser to a lot of people. If you would have bet against the actor making the successful transition to adult roles, you wouldn’t have been alone. There was no reason to suspect that Harris would have the career he has today. In this profile from the January 1998 issue of Movieline magazine, Harris discussed his plans to distance himself from his squeaky clean TV image.
Twenty-three-year-old Neil Patrick Harris knows it isn’t easy, even four years after the fact, to obliterate memories of his years as Doogie Howser, the young genius TV doc who put him on the star map. But you have to admit he’s making a heroic effort to change his image. As he talks about Starship Troopers, the $100-million-plus sci-fi epic in which he plays a space guy who communicates with bugs, Harris reveals a notable un-Doogie-like tendency to mince no words; calling the movie “comic-bookish, with a weird, ’50s, Nazi undertone,” he points out that the film’s director Paul Verhoeven, “doesn’t really care about character motivations or whether something’s funny to the American sense of humor.” Take that, Paul.
But the subject of sex is what really fuels Harris’s frontal assault on old notions of who he is. “My TV character was young, brilliant and had no sex appeal, except in a very Opie Taylor way,” he says. “What I want to show now is that I’m older and sexier.” Sporting chopped yellow hair, wire rims and chipped black nail polish, Harris set theater groupies squealing and cheering with his surprisingly potent turn in the West Coast production of the Pulitzer-winning musical Rent. He was clearly a hunka hunka burnin’, well, charm, at bare minimum.
Consider, too, that Harris beat out such contenders as, one hears, Scott Wolf and Matt Damon to play the young buck whom infertile husband William Hurt handpicks to impregnate wife Madeleine Stowe in the soon-out Tempting Fate. Since Tempting Fate raises the issue of sperm donation strategies, how would Harris counter the objections of those who think a turkey-baste job might succeed better than a flesh-on-flesh tryst with a former TV star?
“Hey, my sperm are, apparently, very fast, and, these days, very, very abundant, so they’d get right up there in no time flat to the egg,” he crows. “Anyway, Tempting Fate is set in the 30s, when they didn’t do turkey baster things. And it’s a female director and a female star, so it was very much a sort of ‘romance novel’ approach to lovemaking–very tasteful, very poetic, with a lot of voice-over. My character is a virgin who has no idea he’s got any sex appeal. And happily, it’s James Stewart kind of sexy, not a sexy, groovy, Stephen Dorff kind of guy. That would just make me laugh.”
It’s not like we haven’t seen sexual behavior from Harris before. Remember The Man in the Attic, the Showtime movie two years back, in which he did a semi-nude scene? “There I was,” he recalls, “stark naked, saying to myself ‘What the hell am I doing here with my head between Anne Archer’s legs, pretending to be servicing her?’ I didn’t show my wiener in Tempting Fate and I wasn’t in the nude shower scenes in Starship Troopers. But I’d be upset with myself if I opted not to be naked on-screen just because I was insecure about being naked.”
How would Harris describe working with Tempting Fate costars William Hurt and Madeleine Stowe, both of whom past coworkers have found less than a breeze to deal with? Hopefully not with too much Doogie-like deference. “There’s no getting around that William Hurt was a nut,” Harris asserts. “You don’t realize that it isn’t appropriate to walk up to him and go, ‘Hi, Mr. Hurt, nice to meet you,’ until he snaps at you. We actually got along fairly well, but he treated the director [Lesli Linka Glatter] like shit.”And Stowe? “Lesli definitely had to answer to Madeleine, but Madeleine was great to me, and very intelligent, very much a businesswoman. Everyone was in awe of Kenneth Branagh, who’s also in the movie. As a lot, though, actors are psycho.”
Having heard that Harris narrowly missed landing roles for such directors as Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick, I propose that he size up some of his competitors.
Leonardo DiCaprio? “Very, very lucky. I’d have made a really, really good Romeo, but Baz Luhrmann casts trendy people and I’m not that. Hey, I introduced myself to Tom Cruise at the Golden Globe party and he didn’t give me the freakin’ time of day.”
Stephen Dorff? “Frighteningly Hollywood.”
Skeet Ulrich? “Paid too much money to high-powered publicists who kicked him in the butt.”
Johnathon Schaech? “Very, very pretty in a Gothic painting sort of way.”
Matt Damon? “Excellent actor, very attractive, very charismatic. I don’t mind losing parts to Matt.”
Vince Vaughn? “The man. Cool, smart, sexy, very good.”
“But,” he adds, “I’ll tell you who has the fucking great life: Robert Sean Leonard. He does movies, never becomes too famous, and gets to do plays at Lincoln Center.”
And what does Harris think performing in a musical like Rent will do for his career? He didn’t do it all for his benefit, he explains: “It’d be awesome if I could get people my age–the heroin chic generation who only think it’s cool to go to the Skybar, do little indie movies and brush shoulders with Ethan Hawke–to see how powerful musical theater can be if it’s done right.”
Stephen Rebello interviewed David Caruso for the October ’97 issue of Movieline.