How Neil Patrick Harris Met Himself

He came out of the closet seven years ago, but it took playing a transgender rock star for NPH to be man enough to act like a woman

Terry Richardson
By Brian Hiatt
Jun 16, 2014

EVEN NEIL PATRICK HARRIS CAN'T ALWAYS MAKE IT LOOK EASY. Late on a cool Friday afternoon in early April, he hustles past the Belasco Theatre on West 44th Street in Manhattan, where his own tripartite name blares from the marquee in two-foot-high type, along with a Godzilla-size close-up of his blue eyes, rimmed with sparkly, glam-rock mascara. Harris slips into the touristy bistro right next door (“I see you!” a passing dude shouts, sounding crazily accusatory), pulls off his John Varvatos leather jacket and Sunday Somewhere shades, and eases into a wooden chair at a corner table, looking weary, decidedly unsparkly, despite the chipped but glittery purple polish on his longish fingernails. “Long day,” he says, managing a smile.

The three un-Botoxed lines that run across NPH’s ample forehead are valuable acting tools, tributaries to a quizzical river: He seems able to furrow each of them independently. But they’re deeper-set today, joined by a bonus crinkle above his right eyebrow. He’s running on five hours of sleep. He’s had only a packet of oatmeal to eat all day, plus some cold-pressed green juice, “with kale and spinach and whatnot.” He spent a long morning wrangling his rambunctious three-year-old twins on his own – their other parent, Harris’s fiance and partner of 10 years, actor and chef David Burtka, is out of town, finalizing their move from Los Angeles.

And then there’s the small matter of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the show next door, which Harris is starring in four hours from now: the reason he’s been starving himself, the reason his blond hair is dyed brown and his nails are painted. The show, a downtown sensation 15 years ago, is in its second week of Broadway previews; opening night is 11 days away. Harris lost 21 pounds to play Hedwig, a transsexual, East German, failed glam rocker who moves just like Iggy Pop, sings just like Freddie Mercury and breaks just like a little girl. He has eight-pack abs at the moment – not bad for a 40-year-old dad – but his face is looking POW-gaunt.

“I need to eat more,” says Harris, who just pushed himself through a 45-minute cardio workout. “That’s becoming apparent. I’m so intent on looking feminine, on changing my silhouette. But I’m running out of energy, and it’s affecting my mood.”

Though Harris was the only choice for Hedwig’s creators, the role is not a natural fit: He has close to zero affinity for rock & roll (his current obsession: Forties songstresses the Andrews Sisters) and, as a determinedly butch gay guy, he spent years pruning trace effeminacies from his mannerisms. But even as he wrapped up his ninth and final season of playing hyper-hetero pickup artist Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, Harris reached somewhere inside himself and pulled out a heart-rending Hedwig. He studied videos of old Stooges concerts, removed the Sondheim-ready vibrato from his singing voice, and remade his posture and body language into everything Barney wasn’t: “All of the elements of his physical being had to shift in a seismic way to allow this performance to flower,” says the show’s director, Michael Mayer.

But pulling off the impossible, making it look like he’s gliding through life, is kind of Harris’s thing. Consider the cool-eyed grace and virtuosity he brought to the Rube Goldberg-meets-Busby Berkeley, cast-of-thousands opening number he anchored at last year’s Tony Awards, winning a two-minute standing ovation. “I like being on a high wire,” he says with a shrug. “Bring it on. Life is challenges. White--water raft, why not? Odds are you’re going to be OK! Jump out of a plane with a parachute? Done it! Not on a weekly basis or anything – when I was 21 and when I was 30, on my birthday. It was like, ‘Leaping into new chapters.’ ”

Harris is a skilled stage magician, and it’s become an unavoidable cliché to describe his improbable achievements as a series of magic tricks: First he escaped the typecasting trap that was Doogie Howser, M.D., and then, after coming out in 2006, became the biggest openly gay male star in Hollywood history. He plays down the latter feat, unconvincingly, as mere timing. “Ellen had done it before me,” he says. “I was just lucky. And Barney was so overtly ‘dude,’ coming out didn’t make that falter at all. And girls who knew I was gay didn’t have any less affection for me than before.” 

Since then, HIMYM went from critical favorite to one of the most popular sitcoms of the decade, even as NPH became a go-to awards-show host (he’s done the Tonys four times, and the Emmys twice) and got ever-larger movie roles (this year he has important parts in two big, very different films: Seth MacFarlane’s Ted follow-up, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl). “Once all cards were on the table, I got more opportunities than ever,” he says. “Some actors don’t get hired because you can’t look into their soul and see what they’re like, because they’re kept guarded.”

He expands on the idea a few days later. “I do think it’s important to take ownership of those type of things,” he says. “I’m intoxicated and turned on by people who are really honest about themselves. And so the coming-out process, given that, is a great move. Because people know that you’re sexual and that’s who you like, and you’re not guarded and sketchy and awkward. No one likes an awkward lay.” He laughs. “You want to lay someone who wants to lay you; you want to say who you like and get to lay that person. That’s good sex. You don’t want to lay some girl that you’re supposed to lay, who you don’t like, but you don’t want anyone to know that. Like, neither person is having good sex. You might as well beat off.” Pause. “Please don’t make that the pull quote!”

Back in the restaurant, as Harris talks about openness and honesty, a waiter with long blond hair is standing way too close, polishing glasses on an adjacent table with slow, maddening precision. “I’m finding this guy superintriguing,” says Harris, his mood improving with each bite of the chicken and frites he ordered. “Does he work for the Post?” 

Glancing up at the guy, Harris starts talking much louder. “And this one time I was fisting this guy at the gym when the rupture happened,” he says. The waiter doesn’t blink, though maybe his polishing picks up speed. “And . . . scene.” Harris leans into my recorder to offer a clarification. “That didn’t really happen, by the way. The rupture.”

FOR HARRIS, PERFORMING IS EASY, parenting is hard. Especially the morning after a show. The kids keep insisting on sleeping in their parents’ bed – “not my favorite dynamic,” Harris says – and when they woke him up this morning at 5:30, he realized he’s spent so little time at home lately that he had no idea where they keep the diapers. “Come on, Daddy,” his daughter, Harper, chirped. “I’ll show you!”

The kids soon managed to shatter a glass on the floor. While Harris cleaned it up, keeping them clear, his son, Gideon, attempted a science experiment, reconstituting dried fruit by soaking it with peppermint extract. A new mess ensued. “As I would clean up some disaster,” Harris says, “another disaster would happen. And that went on in repetition until I couldn’t take it anymore, and that was around 7:15 a.m.” He sat the twins in front of the TV while he answered some -e-mails about his upcoming autobiography (which will be presented in a whimsical, “Choose Your Own Adventure” format), then he took the kids to the park. Finally, the couple’s nanny showed up, so he could take a nap.

Harris seems slightly anxious for his kids to get a little older. “I talk to them like they’re adults, which drives David mental,” he says with a laugh. “I try to teach them large-picture, complex thought. He’s like, ‘Dude, they’re three!’ I would like to teach them that they could cry and kick and complain about the fact that the other one just took their toy. Or they could find another toy to play with. That’s a choice that they’re making. A lot of things happen to you, but a lot of your choices in life are how you’re choosing to process your circumstance.”

“I have very maternal instincts when it comes to kids,” says Burtka. “Neil is better at doing tasks, sometimes. But, you know, it’s a good balance. Neil is ready for them to start thinking on their own and making good decisions. And I’m like, ‘They can’t . . . it doesn’t work that way yet! You’ve gotta be patient, you’ve gotta hold off.’ ”

Harris first saw the boyishly handsome Burtka in a Broadway production of Gypsy, and was immediately drawn to him. “You couldn’t stop looking at him,” Harris says, “even though Bernadette Peters was singing her face off 10 feet over.” But Burtka was in a relationship, and it took a while before anything happened between them. “My friend Kate knew that my other relationship and I weren’t doing so hot,” says Burtka, and she told Harris, “ ‘Why don’t you show up here at this time, because he’s going to be there.’ And I’m like, ‘This is weird. He keeps showing up -places, I think he might be a stalker!’ ”

The two men have a lot in common – until Harris’s recent weight loss, they could even share clothes. But there are key personality differences. “David is a heart--driven person, and I am a head-driven person,” says Harris. “So we balance each other out, in that way, and challenge each other. Because he demands that I feel more than I want to, and I demand that he think more than he wants to.”

When Harris, Burtka and the kids step out onto the streets of Manhattan, looking like a glittering showroom model of a modern gay family, they inevitably get hassled. The problem is as simple as it is unavoidable: Try as they might, straight dudes can’t seem to stop trying to high-five Harris. “Yo, it’s Barney, man!” they say, unless they’re dropping Harold and Kumar references. “You’re my idol!” Sometimes, for good measure, they give Burtka a hug, too. 
“His fans are incredible,” says Burtka. “So many frat-boy guys. It doesn’t seem right, in a way. But it’s very exciting at the same time.”

There are certain pressures, though, that come with being one of America’s most famous gay families. “There is a lot of ‘Oh, you guys are role models,’ ” says Burtka. “I’m superhappy that people look to us. If anything happened, god forbid, I wouldn’t want to let anyone down. But nothing will! After you get to, like, seven, eight years, it’s like, ‘No one’s going anywhere.’ ”

HARRIS GREW UP IN RURAL RUIDOSO, New Mexico, where he learned mastery of his environment at a very young age. His parents, both lawyers, were often at work, and Harris and his older brother, Brian, ran free in the woods. “It was very small-town,” says Harris, turning dreamy at the memory. “Almost Native American, to be honest. Fishing in duck ponds, running through pine forests. We would create our own little world. I remember running through major woods, where there was no trail, but knowing exactly how to get home. You knew, in a sort of tribal way, which pine tree meant ‘make a left turn here.’ ”

Neil’s first straight-dude fans were his older brother and his friends, who let the charming younger kid tag along on their adventures. “He was really, really easy-going and easy to get along with,” says Brian Harris, 43, who until recently worked as a manager for a restaurant owned by their parents, and is now illustrating Neil’s autobiography. “There’s this side of a lot of entertainers, where they want to please. They want to humor and entertain and all of that, and it makes that personality type generally very . . . accommodating. ‘Accommodating’ makes him sound kind of like a pussy, and it’s not like that. It was more like he was supercool, and would roll with any situation.”

As early as elementary school, Neil came to the confusing realization that he found other boys attractive. “I had crushes on boys that were a little bit older than me,” says Harris. “It was sort of an infatuation, but physical. Not physical as in I did anything physical, but I was infatuated by the physicalization of them. But I didn’t know how that would be manifested at all. I think it would be easier to make that leap at that age now, because there are so many examples. But not back then, in a tiny town in the middle of the mountains of New Mexico. I wasn’t troubled by it. Playing footsie with a friend under the table at school was very charged, to me, but I didn’t know then what to do about it.”

Growing up, he can’t remember actually knowing anyone who was gay, or even seeing any role models on TV. “No, it was always, like, the weird aunt or uncle that someone had that they didn’t talk about,” he says with a laugh. “ ‘Oh, Cousin Jeffrey,’ you know? ‘He’s strange. He really should settle down with a girl.’ But it was always a ‘dot, dot, dot’ kind of thing.” He stayed closeted until his early twenties, never really dating a guy until after then.

He was in school plays from a young age, taking little-kid roles in productions at the local high school. “He was a little Mickey Rooney,” says Brian. Young Neil was determined to be an actor, but the idea of making the leap from a tiny New Mexico town to Hollywood seemed implausible. When he was 12 or 13, his parents sent him to drama camp at New Mexico State University, intending to give him perspective on his talents. “Mostly the idea was to let him see that he’s not the only actor out there,” recalls Brian. “He went to that acting camp and blew away the resident playwright, and he landed a role in Whoopi Goldberg’s Clara’s Heart, essentially a co-lead in a feature film. So my parents sent him to acting camp to give him some humility, and he walked away with a feature-film role!”

The work kept coming. “It happened for me from such an early age that it all seemed like a lark,” says Harris. “Like, a crazy, fun trip that you win on The Price Is Right. You know? One led to the next, and then I’d go back to school. And then I’d get a call, and it would be like, ‘Do you want to be in this thing with Loni Anderson and Patrick Duffy?’ ‘Sure, that’s a fantastic idea.’ ”

When Harris was 15 years old, he won the title role on an ABC pilot about a teenage doctor. Its creator, Steven Bochco, warned him that his life was about to change. “Mr. Bochco sat me and my parents down,” Harris recalls. “I vividly remember he said, ‘This is a lot of work, and a big deal. And with the good will come a lot of the bad, and you need to brace yourselves for what it means.’ It was a surfing metaphor. ‘This is going to be a great wave. It will inevitably crash, and the question will be whether you have the desire to paddle back out, get knocked over by a bunch of waves on your way, and wait for the next set.’ Which was very sage advice.”

"WE HAVE NEIL IN THE AIR, SO WE NEED TO GO," says a production manager’s voice, crackling over the PA system of a near-empty Belasco Theatre. The actor-musicians playing the Angry Inch, the onstage band that backs Hedwig, blast into their punked-up instrumental version of “America the Beautiful,” and Harris descends semi-majestically from the rafters, wearing Hedwig’s wig and clothes (in this case, an outrageously flared, almost balloonlike jumpsuit based on an Aladdin Sane-era Bowie look), though not her makeup.

It’s the Monday after our first lunch, and Harris seems to have more energy today. He holds back on his singing to save his voice, but goes full-bore on the choreography, trying various hip-thrusting and pouty poses, and attempting a new pull-up-and-kick move while hanging from the concrete-wall ruins that act as the proscenium – the whole thing shakes a little each time. He slips in and out of character, cracking raunchy jokes between scenes. “Want me to straighten my vagina hair?” he asks, fiddling with a light-bulb-strewn skirt he’s wearing over fishnets and high-heeled boots. “Twiddle, twiddle and cum!”

He’s intrigued to learn that a member of the show’s creative team just went on a date with a contortionist: “Did you watch him blow himself? Did you get Cirque du Soleil-ed?” Unlike some funny actors, Harris doesn’t necessarily need a script. He helped Hedwig creator John Cameron Mitchell finish one of the new jokes he wrote for this version of the show: “It’s only been a month since Luther ran off with that bag boy he met on,” Mitchell wrote, to which Harris added, “Or whatever we called it back then – church?”

Harris didn’t hesitate to take on the part of Hedwig, even though Burtka advised him not to do it. “I told him he was too old,” Burtka says. “And I didn’t think that he could pull off the femininity of it. This is such a stretch for him. In his day-to-day, he’s not a very feminine guy.”

Harris had his own hang-ups on that issue. “I have always been highly aware of how I was presenting myself,” he says. Being a closeted teenager playing a straight guy on a show watched by millions helped him “desire to not seem overly effeminate. Which, now that I’m playing overtly feminine and loving it, is kind of a stupid concern. I didn’t know who I was in my body until I had lived for a while, and in those decades of uncertainty, I didn’t want to appear, um, too girly. I’m trying to choose my words carefully because I don’t want to disrespect people who are effeminate or girly.” He strictly policed himself, even in private: He’d sit at home, watching TV, and notice that one of his wrists was hanging limp. He mimes slapping it: “ ‘What are you doing? Why is your wrist bent like that? Stop it.’ ”

Mitchell, whom some may know best as Hannah’s ill-fated e-book editor on Girls, had to overcome similar concerns to invent the role. “If you grew up as a gay guy,” he says, “the worst thing you can be is a feminine guy. It was just worse than being a murderer! And gays have that internalized femme-phobia, so to speak.” He recalls Harris telling him, “ ‘John, I don’t know if I have a girl in me.’ And I’m like, ‘Reach down deep. Honey, everybody’s got one.’ Straight or gay, I would say. You know, everybody tried to suck their own dick when they were 14. If only as a timesaver.”

IN THE LAST MINUTES OF THE FINAL EPISODE of Doogie Howser, M.D., which aired July 28th, 1993, a denim-shirted, smooth-browed Harris sat on a plane and pretended to type the last of the character’s 
infamous episode-ending diary entries, as a synthesized vibraphone chimed on the soundtrack: “I’ve spent the last 19 years learning how to be Doogie How-ser, M.D. Now it’s time to learn how to be just Doogie.”

Harris was 20, rich enough not to work for a while, and he faced a different task: how to be anyone but Doogie. But full de-Doogiefication would take a decade. He was interested in doing more film work, but roles were hard to find. He doesn’t know now whether directors weren’t casting him because they knew him as Doogie, “that TV guy with the funny name,” or if he was self-sabotaging his auditions. He started supporting himself with TV movies and doing theater.

As unlikely as it seems now, there was a moment when he was in danger of becoming an aimless Hollywood party kid, a typical washed-up child actor. “I was bitter, and I was too young to be just bitter and a stoner,” he says. “I didn’t want to be angry that other people were getting jobs. But I’d get up late, have lunch with friends. We’d go to the gym, maybe an audition, hang out at the house, and then friends would come over and we would hang out and have drinks or get stoned. And then it would be three in the morning and you’d rinse and repeat. It’s not a terrible life.”

But it wasn’t the life he wanted. So Harris decided to spend some of his wilderness years closer to the actual wilderness, moving with his cat to an adobe house in a little New Mexico town called Placitas, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where he could see the stars at night, and hike the mountains in the morning. “I felt like I was getting to know my . . .  that’s a stupid sentence. I don’t think I can end it without sounding metaphysical.” Soul? “Energy, something dumb like that.”

He went on a self-help kick, attending the Landmark Forum and ordering some Tony Robbins tapes from a late-night infomercial, then spending a weekend in Hawaii at a Robbins retreat. “Those things were very helpful to organize your personal agenda,” he says. “Just to realize that there are things that are holding you back unnecessarily.”

Around that time, he felt ready to tell his friends and family he was gay. Up until then, he had dated girls, even slept with them, but sex of any sort wasn’t a big part of his life. “I wasn’t a supersexual person,” he says. “I didn’t really need to, like, physicalize anything. I fantasized about a lot of things, but for me, getting approval from my friends was a necessary first step for me to then be willing to put myself out there on any sort of level.”

For Harris, coming out in private was a much bigger deal than doing so in public, eight years later. He had gone through five or six drafts before arriving at the statement he issued in 2006 – “I am quite proud to say that I am a very content gay man, living my life to the fullest” – working to make sure it felt “ironclad and honest, and not defensive or exploitative. But when you’re telling your parents or your friends,” he adds, “you don't have the luxury of second drafts.”

In some cases, he took a gradual approach. “It was three conversations,” says Brian. “First he goes, ‘I just don’t think I’m going to date, really, for a while.’ And he had some bad luck with the girls he dated early on. Probably because he was gay! And then we had a different conversation about how he likes girls, but he kind of likes guys too. And we had another conversation after that: He likes guys.”

It took Harris’s parents a little time to adjust to the news, especially his dad. “It was hard for them to wrap their brains around,” Brian says. “They’re one generation behind us.” Their dad was preoccupied with the idea that Neil would never give him grandkids, a concern that turned out to be distinctly invalid.

Harris’s friends in the theater world helped him find a comfortable gay identity – hanging out with the touring cast of Rent was a particular revelation. “I got to have Thanksgiving with them, and really see for the first time how all of these people can celebrate their differences and their diversity. Forty-year-old, grizzled-looking ex-heroin addicts and, you know, very effeminate drag queens, and amazing African-American lesbians. All of these people, all together, loving and laughing and sharing and hugging and embracing. That was a real eye-opening experience. Like, ‘Oh, I can be whoever I want to be, whoever I am, and own it. And then find people around me that can embrace those qualities.’ ”

In 2003, he got an offer to play a sociopathic, drugged-out version of himself in the comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, and he had enough sense to take it. The movie became a cult favorite, and Harris suddenly seemed incredibly 
badass. Soon afterward, he took the part of Barney Stinson, exorcising Doogie forever. “Who knew,” says Harris, “that three days on a funny stoner comedy would alter my track the way it did?”

ON THE DOOR TO HARRIS'S 'HEDWIG' DRESSING ROOM (one of them, anyway – he has three), there’s a -professional-looking painting of Disney’s Tinker Bell, touching her wand to his name. Inside, practically everything is pink – the walls, the Christmas lights near the ceiling, the box that Harris’s makeup chair sits on, the frame of a picture of Harris and Burtka, taken on their first date. The mirror is decorated with cutout pinups of some of Hedwig’s inspirations: David Bowie (there’s at least three photos of him, including one shot of him kneeling at Mick Ronson’s feet), Tina Turner, Transformer-era Lou Reed.

Harris lies back in the makeup chair, wearing only a pair of red basketball shorts, while Mike Potter, a skinny -middle-aged guy with bleached-blond hair, leans over his face with a makeup brush. Potter has done makeup and wigs for every incarnation of Hedwig, going back to her club origins in 1994. It’s a complicated process: The lipstick alone is a combination of several shades, plus some glitter. “I tried making Hedwig-brand lipstick years ago for M.A.C,” says Potter, “but it broke, like, every law, with lead and glitter.”

A Spotify station – Bitchy Pop, it’s called, with a lot of vintage Britney and Christina – streams from Harris’s iPhone to small speakers, and he zones out. As he transforms into one of the edgiest characters to ever hit Broadway, Harris makes 45 minutes’ worth of the least edgy small talk imaginable: He praises the talents of Britney (“I slept with her!” he says, then has to explain that Barney had a post-coital scene with her short-lived HIMYM character), Katy Perry (“I love her songs!”) and even Nicole Scherzinger; he big-ups Uber, whom he paid to skywrite neil loves david for Valentine’s Day this year. He nudges Potter to fix an imperfection in his fake eyebrows. “I’m such a whore for symmetry,” he says.

Harris’s show-business heroes tend to be kinda-square survivor types. “I always look to Sally Field,” he says. “I always look to, like, Billy Crystal. People who were able to reinvent themselves and continue on. I love Reese Witherspoon, that she can have a whole thing and be it, and then be willing to wait for a hot minute before she reinvents herself. I like longevity.” There’s little room for Belushi-style comic madness or Brando-like Method abandon in Harris’s worldview: He’s too cerebral and precise for all that.

But onstage as Hedwig each night, he’s surprising himself. “It’s weirdly freeing, in many ways,” says Harris. He’s never fronted a rock band before, never been so lithe, never had a role where he spits water on an audience member each night. He’s had shockingly reckless moments: Caught up in the currents of the punky song “Exquisite Corpse,” he flung himself to the ground, three times in a row, hard enough that he worried afterward that he might have actually hurt himself, hard enough that he was still stiff a week later. It’s hard to imagine Billy Crystal or Sally Field pulling that move – or the one where he threw a microphone stand so hard that he nearly injured the show’s guitar player. 

One night, a fan yelled, “I love you, Neil,” during a lull, and Harris’s completely in-character response was so ferocious that it sparked a distorted NPH-curses-out-fan Page Six item: “Who the f*** is Neil?” a furious Hedwig demanded. “He’s moving to this thing that is spontaneous and right on the edge of danger,” says the show’s composer, Stephen Trask. “He’s pushed himself to the edge.”

Even offstage, Harris is changing, and a sudden penchant for near-nude photo shoots is just part of it. “He’s so skinny, and I think that really gives him power, to have that,” says Burtka. “His body is crazy right now. He’s never been one to dance at parties to sort of let himself go. He always feels a little hesitant about who’s watching, except maybe at a wedding, where it’s just friends. But there’s definitely been a click in his brain where it’s like, ‘F*** it.’ We were at an Oscar party, and he was dancing like crazy. I was like, ‘What is this whole new Neil? I love it.’ ”

Potter finishes the makeup, applying thick layers of glitter lipstick, and fits Harris with the shorter of the two blond wigs he wears. It’s close to showtime, and Harris stands up to bid me farewell, now holding himself in Hedwig’s delicate, damaged manner. He extends a glitter-nailed hand, and I reach out for a handshake, realizing too late that I was supposed to kiss it. Ever ready to improvise, Harris leans down and presses his lips to my hand instead, leaving a vivid, glittery imprint.

“Good night,” he says, in a German accent, fluttering his fingers. He stands in the doorway for a moment, transformed in his shorts and his wig and his sinewy torso. It’s magic: He’s made Neil disappear. And even if you know better, he’s making it 
look easy.

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