“Oh, he was very sexy, but everyone thought so,” says Harris drily. “One wants to be sexy to everyone.” It’s one advantage of coming out, he tells me: “As Barney, I get to make out with all sorts of girls. And I’m allowed to say that women are sexy and not have them say, ‘That’s not true!’ But I’m now in a really fun position, where I can tell a guy that he’s sexy, and most”—he raises an eyebrow—“aren’t put off by that.”
“Love looks like love on a human face,” Joss Whedon says about casting Harris as the straight anti-hero of Dr. Horrible, a role that depends on the audience’s belief in the character’s romantic obsession. Whedon knew Harris from his Broadway roles; he’d auditioned him for a part in his short-lived Fox series Firefly. But for Dr. Horrible, an experimental musical about a nerd who dreams of being a super-villain, Harris was Whedon’s first choice. He could sing, he could dance, he could project the yearning and fury that ground the stylized plot.
Next year, Harris plays a married father in The Best and the Brightest, an upcoming independent comedy about New York private-school admissions, also starring Amy Sedaris. First-time director Josh Shelov tells me he was looking for a comic actor who, in contrast to the slacker style of many contemporary actors, could exude masculine maturity. “There was a four-second conversation about sexuality,” he recalls of the day the question was raised. “But our team were big How I Met Your Mother fans. And we basically felt like the audience has spoken already, they’ve said they find him acceptable in a straight role. There’s no stigma here, it’s a pure talent issue at this point.”
This is Harris’s own version of breaking the Bro Code: By shuttling so easily along the continuum of masculinity, from frat-boy stud to dapper showman, he’s raised questions about what might be possible for other actors, gay and straight. It’s an attitude that meshes nicely with current comedy culture, in which soft-spoken actors like Michael Cera are romantic-comedy leads, and “bromances” abound. If more actors were out, if the larger culture felt more like the accepting Utopia Harris glimpsed during Rent, perhaps masculinity might feel like just another performance—something playful, not scary or loaded.
I ask Harris if he’d ever found himself watching, as many young gay men do, other men for hints of how to “pass.” He finds a different way into the question.
“I always felt uncomfortable in my skin. To this day, I feel like my posture’s weird, and certain parts of my body, I don’t feel like I use them like I should.” He pauses. “But I don’t know. I’ve seen certain people who feel they should act more overtly masculine, to either prove something to others or hide something from others. But I’ve always thought people should act to accomplish whatever they need to get. I don’t feel like if you’re talking professionally with your boss—if you talk strip clubs with him if he’s the kind of person who goes to strip clubs—that means you’re being a kiss-ass. It just means that you’re being effective.”
A few days later, Harris appears on Letterman. I meet him the next morning at a Starbucks near his Harlem apartment, which he and Burtka have had for three years. As we stand in line for oatmeal, I ask how Letterman went and he looks quizzical, even behind his movie-star sunglasses. It was “weird,” he says, letting those three forehead lines do the wave. “When the ‘Top Ten’ list isn’t that funny, he can be grouchy. I think he knows I can take it, so he sort of—came at me. It was a little strange.”
I TiVo the show. It is strange. Harris makes pleasant banter about a CBS-paid trip on the Orient Express. In response, Letterman snarls like a prosecutor. At one point, he chuckles sourly, “I appreciate it, you’re doing your own segues. Don’t count on me for anything tonight.” Harris sidesteps the hostility, even when Letterman addresses him, out of nowhere, as “Mr. Limo Driver Suit.”
In daylight, Harris seems slighter, less showmanlike than he was on the set. He’s been grinding through Emmy details, he tells me, trying to fit the pieces of that stubborn puzzle. With the Muppet number not an option, they’d planned to film a new comic “cold open.” Unfortunately, “due to budgetary restraints and Alec Baldwin pulling an about-face, we’ve had to scrap the whole thing.”
Why did Baldwin drop out? I ask him.
“That seems to be the question of the hour,” he says, doing that eyebrow thing.