Yet there’s one set of performers for whom coming out is still considered a career death sentence: male actors, particularly those who play romantic leads or star in action films. The few who are out—Alan Cumming, Nathan Lane, David Hyde Pierce, Ian McKellan—are seen as niche performers. Rupert Everett, once a contender for the first Gay Bond, has been relegated to the margins of the industry. When Grey’s Anatomy’s T. R. Knight came out, it underlined his lack of chemistry with his female co-stars. Meanwhile, a retinue of major stars hover in limbo, their relationships haunted by the suspicion that it’s all for show, their performances (onscreen or on talk shows) scrutinized for indicators of some hidden self. The assumption is that they have little choice, since the conventional wisdom hasn’t budged: An out male star can never be a leading man. Straight women won’t be able to fantasize about him; straight men won’t be able to relate.
Harris has violated all these expectations. He staged his own revelation beautifully, with a clear and upbeat statement for People magazine in 2006, an interview with Out, and a good-sport appearance on Howard Stern, in which he shot back “whatever you please, man” when asked whether he was a top or a bottom. The idea all along has been to acknowledge the fact of his sexuality, then change the subject to his talent. Still, there was a kind of alchemy involved. Maybe it was Harris’s easy style of masculinity, at once unthreatening and seductive. Maybe the timing was right, coming after he’d proved he was more than a Trivial Pursuit punch line. Or maybe he’d learned, from his own extended personal coming-out process, how to handle the expectations of a wider audience.
Harris is careful never to complain about stardom. He always adds a caveat explaining that he is very lucky, that he is grateful for every opportunity, that he has learned a lot. But if there’s a strain of early fame that feels like heavenly power—when you’re the most super-popular person in the room and everyone wants you to take them to bed—that’s clearly not what Neil Patrick Harris experienced at 16. Mention Doogie Howser, M.D., the diary-keeping prodigy he played on the show, and Harris’s whole body language changes. He grimaces, and an extra diagonal line on his forehead appears like an arrow pointing far away.
Back in those strange L.A. years, Harris says, he was preoccupied almost entirely by work. It was a distraction that allowed him not to think about dating. “There were gay adults in L.A., and that kind of made me panic a bit?” His voice rises uncertainly with the memory. “Made me a little sweaty in my palms—and uncomfortable. That was just kind of the elephant in the room. Or not the elephant in the room, but the ringing in my ears: that that was some sort of horrible inevitability. And I tried many different angles to head in a different direction. Dating different girls, being the funny, witty guy at the party, to avoid being the sexual being. I wasn’t thought of in a sexual way, which is easy when you have big ears and the neck and are called Doogie all the time. So I just never really contemplated physicalizing any kind of sexual ideas until much, much later.”
Harris had been launched into stardom as a child, when playwright Mark Medoff (who’d discovered him at drama camp) cast him as a child of a broken marriage in the movie Clara’s Heart. It was a different time, he points out: There were no LGBT school groups, few openly gay figures of any kind, no out peers he could talk to. “Back in the late eighties, there were lots of kids that for all intents and purposes, now you think they’re gay, but back then, they just seemed kind of hip. I mean, Depeche Mode was cool back then—so if a guy had blond streaks in his hair and wore a painter’s cap sideways and overalls with one of the straps dangling down, you didn’t raise an eyebrow.”
The result was an acute self-consciousness, exacerbated by the attention he received when he became a poster boy for TV Guide. (“He loves candy bars … He thinks his allowance is too low … But, ooh, those Hollywood girls!”) “I was a late bloomer, and when you’re a youngster, and you’re in the public, and people are recognizing you—it’s hard to behave normally. It was like a circus sideshow. You’d wear a hat and walk fast, because if someone recognized you, they’d shout your character’s name. And no one would come up—it was just like everyone was watching you, whatever you did.”