Getting his start as teenage hearthrob doctor Doogie Howser in 1989, Neil Patrick Harris has worked his way through many television shows and movies, as well as on the stage and the big screen. His permanent stint on How I Met Your Mother has kept him in the limelight since 2005, and now he's moving on to bigger screens with The Smurfs. Neil Patrick Harris sat down with Buzzine to talk about family life with baby twins, working with characters that aren't actually there, and what his ideal job would be...
Izumi Hasegawa: Smurfs are named after their personality traits. What would be your Smurf name?
Neil Patrick Harris: I don't know. Maybe Variety Smurf. I like to juggle and do magic, see? Threatening Smurf...?
IH: Raja [Gosnell] was talking about the little pre-shoot pantomime that you'd go through with the puppets of the Smurfs to show you where they were going to be in the scene. Did that help? Did you know what you were looking at? And how surprised were you when you actually saw the characters come to life opposite the empty space?
NPH: I was super impressed with the end result in that sense, technically -- you just have no idea. It's blind trust, on our part, that the animators are effective and also really talented. Our job, more than anything, was to be very specific with eye-line points, points of focus, because anything else that we did they could animate around, but if we just did blank gaze to the left, it didn't look right. You had to key in on one spot. So that was challenging and a little bit embarrassing, because you had an earwig in your ear, voiceover actors in another room, so the poor crew, the camera guys, had no idea what was happening in that sense, because we're nodding a lot, and then, "How could you say that?" Stare at some blank spot for a while. A bit more embarrassing for Raja than us, because every single shot, he was on his hands and knees like a seven-year-old saying, "And then Smurfette goes, [high-pitched voice] 'Oh no, I can't believe it!' and then she moves over here."
IH: What would Barney Stinson say if these little things appeared to him?
NPH: He'd probably ask for Smurfette's number and call it a day.
IH: Do you have a favorite scene?
NPH: I'm a big Buster Keaton/Chaplin guy, so I liked the physical comedy stuff best. I think that first scene, when they come bursting out of the box and I'm whacking at stuff with an umbrella and crack myself on the head and fall over, and dogs jump on me and I get hogtied by the Smurfs -- that was really weird and fun to film, and I think equally amusing to watch.
IH: Were you a fan of The Smurfs growing up? Did you watch the series? What did you know about them when you got the script?
NPH: I thought the whole thing was created by Hanna-Barbera in the '80s. I thought they were just part of that Captain Caveman, Wonder Twin Powers movement, so that's all I knew.
IH: Can you talk about your character's fear of fatherhood? Considering you're a dad now, did you find any sympathies?
NPH: I did. When we were filming the movie, we were about five, maybe six months pregnant and weren't telling anybody, so it was my little secret, and it was certainly easy to play things like looking at an ultrasound photo and feeling what emotion that brings, in a nice little secret moment. That day, actually, in Times Square, that scene when I sat and took out that card and read it, I finally went up to Raja who, bless his heart...both Raja and Jordan had been constantly telling me what it feels like to be a potential dad, and how your heart will skip beats when you find out you're expecting, and I was nodding, "Is that right?" So I leaned over to Raja and I said, "I've got a secret. We're expecting twins in October." And he melted and was a little bit embarrassed that he had been so forthcoming in trying to explain to me what that felt like, not realizing that I already knew. But it was nice; when the script came my way, we had just started that process, so it seemed like good timing when I looked ahead into the future.
IH: Do you think your children would be a fan of The Smurfs?
NPH: I hope so. They're a little young. We haven't shown them many screens at all yet, but maybe when the third movie comes around. [Laughs]
IH: Is there a risk when you do a movie for children with a lot of physical comedy that you may never be hired again if people see you in something like that?
NPH: Oh, not at all. I think almost exactly the opposite. I've been real proud of my career, that I've been able to hurdle different demographics all over the place. I've got How I Met Your Mother, which is pretty mainstream comedy, multi-camera style; I've got the Harold and Kumar franchise stuff, which makes me look really dark and uncomfortably so' I've got Smurfs, which is a family film, but I don't agree that it's a kids' movie. We spent a lot of time in the script section of rewrites and whatnot before the movie started filming to make sure that it didn't seem pandery and didn't seem like it was just for kids, because a lot of this movie is going to be driven by people that were fans and were kids when they were watching it back in the '80s, so to just make a kids' movie, I think, wouldn't have been effective. I think our dialogue -- the lessons learned as parents, as potential dads -- speaks more to an older demographic anyway. But I love that. I do Beverly Cleary books on tape; I do as many voiceover things for animated kids' stuff as I can, so I think there are lots of opportunities to act in two different demographics, and it's important to stay as broad as you can be.
IH: You talk about jumping demographics. Was that something by design for you, or was it just something that happened?
NPH: I suspect it probably came out of the fear of being typecast when I was young, but it's not a real concerted effort. It's just, if I've been playing Barney for so long, the last thing I really want to do is an independent film where I'm the best friend of the lead and I'm smoking cigars and wanting to go to strip clubs. I just did that for a long time, so I look for things that are different because I get bored watching myself do the same thing over and over. I'm not freaky about it. I've been blessed in that way, that I can do something really random and then a Touched by an Angel. A 12-year-old stoner skater kid comes up to me and says, "Furburger, nice!" and then the parent will come up and say they have the Beverly Cleary books in their car. So I enjoy the dynamic of that.
IH: What was it about Jordan and Raja that made you want to work with them?
NPH: I was very concerned and conscientious of it not being a lowest common denominator film, and when I met Raja, he had such a cool, calm demeanor and has done this style of movie, so his experience with forced perspective stuff and invisible creatures that we would be acting to made me confident that, technically, we were in good hands. But Jordan – I don't know if you got a sense from him. He cares so deeply about the franchise and about the origins of the story and Peyo's family, that's really sincere. I hope it doesn't come across as seeming like he's just saying the company cry. He really cares about The Smurfs, and he loves them and knows everything about them, so when he gave his pitch to me, I thought, we're in safe hands here. I don't think this is going to be a straight-to-DVD-ish kind of make-a-quick-buck movie. He wants this to be a rejuvenation of a franchise, and he's been fighting that fight for almost a decade.
IH: Are you signed on for any sequels?
NPH: I am, yes, if we should be so lucky.
IH: Was there any scene that was particularly difficult for you, be it physically or emotionally?
NPH: I had the most trouble keeping track of eye-lines. There was a scene in Patrick [Neil's character]'s office where he drops them all off, and they're all standing here but switch places in the middle of the scene, so I'm looking at all these different colored dots with one earwig in my ear, and that white dot is now Papa, but then it ends up Papa is over there, and you have six of them. So that was a little tricky -- just remembering, because you really want it to be good. You want to know that you whip over and you look right at this person, even though they're not there. Those technical elements were tricky.
IH: Did it make it easier or more difficult, working against what Hank Azaria was throwing at you?
NPH: We barely worked with Hank at all. A couple of scenes. I bumped into him once and he chased after me, and that was at the very, very end at the climactic scene. I'm there just observing. We were filming on a big soundstage, and he was standing there at the end, and explosions are happening, and we waved to each other and said, "Hey, we should do a movie together sometime!" I don't know if you can tell, but the cast got along swimmingly, and Hank -- any time we got to work with him, he's amazing. He's just always on point, and Jayma [Mays] is spectacular too.
IH: How about working opposite a Muppet? You have something to look at, but you also have the puppeteer down there...
NPH: I did a little cameo on The Muppets. That was just a bucket-list dream come true kind of thing for me. I got to do a Sesame Street before, and I'm a huge Muppet guy. And Bill Barretta, he's down there. He's one of the original guys, and I'm sitting next to John Krasinski and...Morning Time? I can't remember the name of the puppet -- an old school puppet -- and Bill Barretta is down there, and just between takes, they just keep playing, so it was the most amazing thing ever, to watch them with the headbands and crouch down. That's what I would do if I could leave this profession.
IH: You're about to become a hyphenate: you got to direct your first film...
NPH: Not at the moment. We ran out of time. You only have so many months in hiatus, and Smurfs press takes up a wide net, so not for a while. I'm directing a play called Expert at the Card Table in Santa Monica -- a one-man Ricky Jay-ish kind of magic theater piece that will happen, I think, July 17th through August something, so yeah, I've been directing more and more.
IH: Is magic a passion of yours?
NPH: I'm the president of the Magic Castle. Board meeting tonight. 6:30. Don't be late.
IH: The variety arts and the role of magic -- where does that fit into your career? Also, do you think it's gotten more or less respect now that we've got magicians going on TV revealing the secrets?
NPH: I think the reveal chapter is kind of over. I'm such a fan and a proponent of people just going and seeing things live. I've always just loved it. I think from when I first came here and saw the very first Cirque du Soleil show at the Santa Monica Pier, and then the next year was La Nouvelle Experience, which was their new tent show that had this big woman with red hair and David Shiner was there, and I've never laughed so hard, and just to be in this environment and be immersed in it, I think, is more powerful than sitting in your living room watching it on a screen. That's why I love the Tonys; that's why I love the magic and the juggling. I think it's the variety arts -- people work decades, generations to do that tightrope act, and it's worth it to get off your ass and go see them do it. It's different than seeing them do it on America's Got Talent, which is a fun show, and it's nice that it allows you to see them, but being there live is just a whole other thing. Go to see Ringling Bros. circuses, go see the Moscow Cat Circus. I just love all that. Go to the Magic Castle. I just think that stuff is super important. And even 3D movies, I think, are a nice, new way to encourage you not to just wait for Apple TV or Netflix. You have to be specific about which movies to do it with, but when it's the right fit, then it's this cool, special event.
IH: With everything you're doing, when do you find time to sleep?
NPH: I sleep a fair amount. I've reduced to like six hours. Get this: the babies sleep 12 hours a night, from like 7:00 to 7:00-ish. I don't know how it happened... Well, I do know: we had a sleep specialist for like four months, and she's unbelievable -- Libby Jordan. She's in Australia. Check her out. But I thought I'd lose sleep and we'd be awake every couple of hours, but we have to be home to put them down, and then we're home, so I get a decent amount of sleep.
IH: I read a Tweet of yours that said you don't have time to exercise anymore...
NPH: Yes, I don't. I just do the lap band now. Every month. Then I just eat and eat and eat. It pops off, I do it again. [Laughs] P90X, yeah, I've tried.
IH: If you could take a step back and look at your career right now, how would you find things?
NPH: Right now, I think things are great. I'm thankfully in a wonderful position where I'm being offered to do things that I am choosing to do because they seem fun to me, as opposed to a hyper-calculation of how things are supposed to go in the future. I found that to be the biggest trap in this industry: when you're working on something, you're not enjoying it, but you're too aware of "then what's the next move?" and if the movie succeeds, I can do this movie, and if I do that movie, then I can work on this, and then when that doesn't happen, you're back scrambling again. And I'm lucky. I get to host the Tonys sometimes, and guest judge on So You Think You Can Dance? randomly, and do weird things, so how that ends up being my future, I don't know. If I could be Ed Sullivan at night and during the day direct people in other things, I'd be the happiest guy alive.
IH: Have you received any scripts for the upcoming season of your show, or shot any episodes? How's the journey?
NPH: They don't fill the actors in too much. They like to keep us in the dark a little bit with stuff. On most shows, it's that way. That journey is fun.
IH: Season by season, you discover new sides to your character. What have you discovered last season?
NPH: I think Barney's real journey is just to figure out how to bang the same girl over and over and get something out of it, instead of just strangers.
IH: It seems like there's a real push for theater -- jazzing that up for younger people -- with you.
NPH: I think, too, that all of the arts are blending together more than they ever have. Talent is coming first. You have amazing people, who normally did only movies, doing TV shows; you have lots of these hybrid type shows that are happening, so you're getting a really great talent pool that are able to do cool things on TV more than a nighttime soap they used to have in the '80s, early '90s. Now Glee -- everyone is really talented. You have to be sort of a multi-hyphenate to be on these shows, and it's being appreciated, so that's always a good thing.
IH: Have you ever worked with Jayma Mays before? You're very different -- one's pessimistic, one's optimistic. How did you balance that out? Did you discuss it beforehand?
NPH: She's a monster. We finish each other's sentences and goof off, laugh a lot. I was super concerned about who was going to be Grace in the movie. I just wanted it to be someone that made sense as a couple, and I wanted the dialogue and our relationship to feel like we still were in love with each other, and that we amused each other, even though we were in conflict in the film. So when there were a couple of drafts that were real -- she's upset with me, that I'm working too much, and I'm mad at her, that she doesn't understand me -- I just didn't feel like that conflict. It seemed easy, and I thought it would be more fun to have us find each other amusing within those conflicts, and Jayma fits that bill perfectly. She's able to have very earnest, lovely conversations with Clumsy Smurf, and yet you're enamored by her face and you like her wit, and she can be quirky and fun at the same time. She's a big star, that Jayma Mays.
Columbia Pictures' 'The Smurfs' is in theaters now.