For several years, Harris was out privately but in the press maintained the “glass closet” situation common these days among young gay actors. There were no fake girlfriends, but he didn’t mind answering a People-magazine question about his “dream date,” leaving out a pronoun. When he heard about the script for Harold & Kumar, in which he plays a coke-snorting former child actor named Neil Patrick Harris who rants about craving “fur burgers,” he was unsettled—was his gayness part of the joke? (The writers actually had no idea he was gay, although they did during the sequel. “The character we wrote isn’t gay,” says Harold co-writer Hayden Schlossberg. “He might even be slightly homophobic.”)
Harris turned the role into an outrageous exorcism of his own teen-idol past; the poster for the sequel even showed him on a unicorn, with the tagline “What Would NPH Do?” He asked to be credited as “Neil Patrick Harris,” not “Himself”: “I didn’t want it to seem like I was saying, ‘Hey, America, I’m really like this!’ ”
He also wasn’t precisely out when he was cast as Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother in 2005, although he brought Burtka to the first cast barbecue. But as Harris’s star rose, it became inevitable that his life—however open to those who knew him—might become a tabloid story. The blogger Perez Hilton was on the attack. And Harris and his team met to strategize, striving to make their statement succinct and positive. “No one was ever old-school Hollywood, with a cigar in their mouth, saying ‘You can’t do this, see! It’ll ruin your career, kid.’ ” With his mild New Age streak, Harris expresses faith that intentions are what matter: “So long as you’re representing yourself well, you’re making good choices for good reasons, all of the circumstantial things will vanish.”
Now Harris and Burtka walk the red carpets together. They wear rings, although they are not legally married. Despite rumors of a surrogate, they are not having a child yet, he tells me, but he believes “we’d make very good parents.” (When they spend time with Burtka’s twins, Harris says he gets to “be the fun guy who takes them to Disneyland.”)
The psychological effects of being closeted are well documented. But living in a “glass closet” has its own risks, since any sexual references a celebrity makes—toward either sex—risk coming off as coy, even hypocritical. Some actors (Jodie Foster comes to mind) respond by developing an oddly asexual vibe. But perversely, Harris’s wholesome statement to People about being “a very content gay man,” paired with his marital stability, seems to have freed him up to be a polymorphously flirtatious celebrity, catalyzing crushes from all corners.
When we talk about the danger that his new romantic plotline might alter the character of Barney, taking away his ability to make “tit jokes,” Harris veers into a description of his co-stars, both new moms: “They have great tits this year, by the way. They’re both milking, so they have these fantastic, real”—he makes a very Barney-esque gesture—“they’re amazing, I can’t stop staring at their breasts, all of them.” When a reporter asked him about seeing Jason Segel’s penis full-frontal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Harris deadpanned, “He’s very interested in what I think of his genitals … He’s got such a huge crush on me, I didn’t want to let him down.” On our second meeting, he rather randomly brought up a bachelor party he’d attended at the Lower East Side nightclub, The Box: “It’s so dark and awesome!” he raved happily about one of the club’s notorious stage shows. “This woman, she started nude, and then she dressed herself by pulling things out of her Afro. And then her vagina. And then her butthole.”
In his late twenties, shortly after he starred in Rent, Harris was inspired by Danny Roberts, a gay cast member on The Real World: New Orleans. “He was a unique entity at that time, as someone who was seemingly so confident in their own skin that they didn’t need to wear their sexuality, uh—” He begins to stumble slightly, realizing he’s about to cross into a minefield of rhetorical missteps. “Or to flaunt their sexuality? To be more of one thing or another.”
He pauses to rethink. “And I—it’s a personal thing, I suppose, but I personally responded to his lack of overt grandstanding. Again, tricky waters, because if I say something like ‘He didn’t wave flags,’ it sounds like I’m disrespecting people that do, who I think are tremendously important, but there’s more than one way to get into people’s psyches.”
Danny was also distinctly masculine, I point out: the first gay cast member who could easily pass as straight.