Neil Patrick Harris plays the game in “Uncoupled.”
The actor said that the Netflix comedy was like a different version of his life: “I got to live this other version of what my life would be like if I was single in New York and used Grindr.”
Puzzles are fun for Neil Patrick Harris. He likes to play. He made a board game for one player called Box One. He plays Wordle every day and always gets a 3. He is a good magician who loves doing magic tricks. Every issue of his newsletter, Wondercade, has a puzzle of some kind. His personality is bubbly and energetic, with just a little bit of sneakiness. He often looks like he’s planning something. A fun thing.
I went to his house in the Hamptons on a stupidly perfect Sunday—did he mess with the weather?—and it was full of jokes, tricks, and pranks. They start at the doormat and don’t really end. (I’ve been told that there is an indoor slide.) On the screened-in porch where we talked, there was a huge Jenga set. Other games were still on a nearby trolley.
But Harris, who is 49, is the best at playing the game of his own career. As the prime-time prodigy Doogie Howser, M.D., he was a child star, and he made the change to adult work with a lot of grace. And when he told People he was gay in a happy statement, his career never slowed down or stopped. He is loved even more now than he was before. And with his actor and cookbook author husband David Burtka, who was in the kitchen making eight different dishes with carrots from their own garden. By the time I got there, he had become a symbol of gay family life.
Harris has gone on to star in comedies, dramas, and musicals, while many out actors have trouble getting roles. He has played heroes, villains, straight romantic leads, unrepentant rebels, and even a girly boy from Communist East Berlin in the Broadway premiere of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” As a popular host of award shows, he plays a flashy version of himself in a tuxedo. In the Harold and Kumar movies, he plays a different character, a hedonist who hangs out with strippers and rides a unicorn.
Pamela Fryman, who has known Harris for a long time and worked with him on “How I Met Your Mother,” said, “He is a unicorn.” “In every possible way.”
In “Uncoupled,” an eight-episode comedy from Darren Star and Jeffrey Richman that comes out on Netflix on July 29, Harris tries out a new trick that is also an old trick that he hasn’t tried since the days of “Doogie”: he plays a part that feels close to who he really is.
“It was like being in a ‘Sliding Doors’ version of my own life,” he said of the part, referring to the 1998 movie in which Gwyneth Paltrow’s character moves through different futures. “I’ve never played a role that was so close to who I am as an adult.”
Harris plays Michael, an elite real estate broker who is shocked when his partner of 17 years, Colin (Tuc Watkins), leaves him without warning or explanation. There are a few pratfalls in the movie. Michael goes through the five stages of grief as the series goes on: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. He sometimes goes through all of them in one long text message thread that he writes in the back of a taxi.
On the other hand, it’s not all bad. “I got to experience this other version of, what if I was single in New York and had a Grindr account? “I don’t know,” Harris said. “So it was also a little saucy and salacious.”
When Star and Richman wrote the pilot, they didn’t have a specific actor in mind. But when it came time to cast the show, they knew that Harris was the person they wanted. In a video call from France, Star said, “Neil was our first, first, first choice.” Hard life. (He was in Provence filming “Emily in Paris.)
They wanted him because of his talent, looks, and popularity, which they thought would keep the comedy from being too niche. (After “Fire Island” and “Love, Simon,” do people still worry about how popular a gay romantic comedy will be? It looks like there is.)
“So many people love him,” Star said of Harris. “He is so average.” The people who made the show wanted everyone to understand Michael. “Everyone,” Star said, “straight and gay, male and female.” They would if Harris played him.
With Harris on board, the rest of the episodes were written, and they were better than the pilot. People who have worked with Harris always tell me this: His skills and work ethic make it possible for those around him to do their best work.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” showrunner Barry Sonnenfeld said, “He was even more talented than I thought he was.” He helped make up a few songs and dances for Harris. He also got a production number from “How I Met Your Mother.”
Fryman told me, “He opens up your world so much that you know you can write anything and he’ll do it.”
Harris does not sing or dance by himself on “Uncoupled.” But he did some of his own stunts, like falling backwards down a mountain. And he seems to be able to handle sad scenes, sassy sex scenes, and gross-out comedy all at the same time.
Star said, “Having an actor who can pretty much do anything inspired us to step up our game and give him the best material we can.” “Because we know he knows how to play.”
Harris told me that he was a technical actor and not an introspective actor. He was a craftsman and not a psychologist. (When he was young, he wanted to work at Universal Studios as a stuntman. (The mountain thing is because he still wants this.) You can see his skill in roles like Count Olaf, the villain in “A Series of Unfortunate Events” who liked to change his appearance, or Barney, the womanizer he played in “How I Met Your Mother,” who could put a pause in the middle of the word “legendary” and still get away with it.
Harris also has a ridiculous amount of charm and looks like a boy. He said that those good looks were a crutch, but then he changed his mind and said, “a weird albatross.” But that’s enough for some roles.
Michael needed something more to make up for the pratfalls and the scene where he threw up in a jacuzzi. So Harris did something he almost never does: he put himself into the part. He thought about how it would feel to come home and find that Burtka, the person he had been with for 18 years, had left him.
He said that the way he used his imagination to play the role was “very opening” and “very, very vulnerable.” (Around this time, Burtka peeked into the room and gave me a bag of garden produce, which made me look like I had stolen from several farm stands on the bus ride home. He seems to be standing still.)
Harris doesn’t usually have that kind of openness. This is likely because he spent a lot of his 20s keeping his personal and professional lives separate. He always second-guessed himself, like when he didn’t know if he should cross his legs or how to hold a drink. He used to walk down red carpets on his own, without his date.
He said, “I limited my own freedoms because I was afraid I would give something up and that someone would see through my act.” When he came out at age 33, things changed. “I could definitely breathe out more and stand up straighter,” he said.
Even my friends saw it. Brooks Ashmanskas, who has worked with Harris on “Uncoupled” and has known him for nearly 20 years, said, “I think it did him a world of good.”
He has taken down some of these walls over the years. His twins, who are 11 years old, have helped. “Now that I’m a dad, I’m vulnerable with my kids a lot,” he said. All of this gave him the chance to put some of his own fear and worry into the role.
But there are still some lines. I had asked him if he thought “Uncoupled” would be a good representation of L.G.B.T.Q. people and if he ever felt pressured to keep up his “poster boy” image. He answered in the most general way possible, but he did so in such a friendly and polite way that he never seemed to be avoiding the question. If he had answers that were more direct or personal, he kept them to himself.
“I’ll be most successful in my job as a representative if I stay out of politics,” he said. “I want people to think of me as a symbol of good things. I want them to look at my work objectively.”
This is another game he plays. When you watch “Uncoupled” and see how raw the emotions are, it’s like a magician pulling back the curtain to show you how he does his trick. Is this the real Harris at last? But when magicians do that, they are just trying to make the trick harder. This on-screen vulnerability hides Harris’s other tricks: his showmanship, his slightly crazy work ethic (which he still blames in part on impostor syndrome), and his very busy brain, which is always figuring out new ways to say, move, and look. The cameras start rolling, and he makes it look easy.
Fryman told me, “Part of his magic is the work he does; it’s behind that door over there.” “You don’t have to watch that work for him. He wants you to watch the show and be completely blown away by it.”
To put it another way, Harris is always ready with something. On that Hamptons afternoon, he was wearing a blue polo shirt that fit well and had short sleeves. Just before I left, he pulled the cloth away from his left bicep and showed me a new tattoo of a rabbit peeking out of a magician’s hat. The rabbit had a three of hearts, which was good news for Burtka and their kids. He put the sleeve back down after that.
He said, “I’m also a magician, and I believe in the magician’s code of ethics.” “Everyone doesn’t always need to know everything.”