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What's It Like To Be Neil Patrick Harris? He Gives You Options

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What's It Like To Be Neil Patrick Harris? He Gives You Options

What's It Like To Be Neil Patrick Harris? He Gives You Options

What's It Like To Be Neil Patrick Harris? He Gives You Options

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/373989302/374405142" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The actor says he's been able to do a lot of different things in his life. So when he sat down to write a memoir, he made it a "Choose Your Own Adventure." Originally broadcast October 13.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy new year. We're continuing our holiday series featuring some of our favorite interviews from 2014. I spoke with Neil Patrick Harris after the publication of his memoir, which describes the surprising twists and turns of his life and career. He grew up in New Mexico where he fell in love with magic and acting. He became famous in his teens starting on the TV series "Doogie Howser, M.D." which premiered in 1989. After years of being unable to escape Doogie in the public mind, he satirized his image in the film "Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle," which opened the door to a new Neil Patrick Harris.

He's since stared in the hit TV series "How I Met Your Mother," which ended its long run in 2014. He's performed in several productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals. He's hosted the Tonys four times and in 2014 won a Tony for his performance as a transgender woman in the musical "Hedwig And The Angry Inch." Harris came out publicly in 2006 and married his longtime partner, David Burtka, last fall. They're the fathers of twins. Neil Patrick Harris's memoir is called "Choose Your Own Autobiography," and its structure is inspired by the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books that he loved when he was a kid. We began our interview with a clip of him hosting the Tony awards in 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONY AWARD PERFORMANCE)

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: Good evening. I'm teen heart-throb Neil Patrick Harris.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: It's an honor to be back hosting the 65th Annual Tony Awards. And I'd like to deliver a very important message on behalf of all of us who care so deeply about this community.

(Singing) If you've seen a show, then you already know how magical theater can be. It's a two-hour, live-action, barely affordable, un-lip-synced version of "Glee."

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: (Singing) So this song goes out to the rest of you - those who've never seen theater before because Broadway has never been broader. It's not just for gays anymore.

(APPLAUSE)

HARRIS: (Singing) If you feel like someone that this world excludes, it's no longer only for dudes who like dudes. Attention, every breeder, you're invited to the theater. It's not just for gays anymore. The glamour of Broadway is beckoning straights - the people who marry in all 50 states. We're asking every hetero to get to know us better. Oh, it's not just for gays anymore.

It's for fine upstanding Christians who know all the songs from "Grease." It's for sober-minded business men who yearn for some release. So put down your Playboy and go make a plan to pick up a playbill and feel like a man. There's so much to discover with your different-gendered lover.

It's not just for gays - the gays and the Jews and cousins in from out of town you have to amuse and the sad, embittered malcontents who write the reviews and also foreign tourists and the groups of senior citizens and well-to-do suburbanites and liberal intellectuals, though that group is really only Jews and homosexuals. I've lost my train of thought. Oh, yes. It's not just for gays anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Neil Patrick Harris, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is such a treat to have you on. So...

HARRIS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Let's start with the big opening production number that we just heard. You write in your book that you actually wanted to keep the lyrics secret while you were rehearsing. And you had DJ Javerbaum, who wrote the lyrics and also used to work on "The Daily Show" - you had him write a set of dummy lyrics - kind of fake lyrics to use while you were rehearsing. Who did you want to keep it secret from? Was it the people who you were afraid would tell you, please don't do that?

HARRIS: No, not really. It was the people that were potentially going to spoil to the media - the media spoiling it to people who were going to watch the show. We were worried that if The New York Post or The New York Times caught wind of this idea and talked about it, it would create its own conversation. And then we'd probably have been asked not to do it because it would've, you know, come with its own baggage.

So we opted to, yeah, do it - all the rehearsing - in secret. All of the dancers had signed confidentiality agreements. We created dummy lyrics for when we went and recorded it in the - in the - with the orchestra. And they were very sort of tepid, average rhymes. And probably the guys that were playing the thing thought, this was - this is what we're doing this year for the Tonys?

GROSS: (Laughter) It wouldn't be the first time there was a lame opening production number in an awards ceremony.

HARRIS: Yeah, instead of it's not just for gays anymore, it was tonight at the Tony Awards, so was it very sort of milquetoast and vanilla and worked out well. And we even went so far as - I talk about it in the book. There was a moment where they approved everything except for a lyric that involved the word sodomy, where I said...

GROSS: Come in and be inspired. There's no sodomy required.

HARRIS: I'm so glad you watched it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HARRIS: Yeah. I say, at the very end, (singing) come in and be - come in and be inspired. There's no sodomy required. And then we kept going with the song. Well, they said to me and us, you can't say sodomy. That is - that is against the rules, which was perplexing because it's an actual word and a term and not a bad word and is actually quite non-vulgar. But they said we could say, same-sex love, instead of sodomy, which, Terry, hearing me sing, (singing) come in and be inspired. There's no same-sex love required - not quite the same effect.

So I was bummed, but then I went to the producer right before the show was airing 'cause it's live. And I said, what would happen if I inadvertently - nay, accidently - happened to slip up from the Teleprompter. Would we get fined? Would you have to cut to a really wide shot? Would we get bleeped? What would happen? And he said, probably nothing. Why? And I said, no reason. And we went and did the show, and - sure enough - they got a phone call from the people that said, they couldn't say it. But it was - the damage had been done. The number was a success, and no one got in trouble, so that's one to grow on.

GROSS: And everybody won awards (laughter) for it. (Laughter).

HARRIS: And yeah, they won Emmys for that one. We all did. That was a good year.

GROSS: Well, after hosting the Tonys four times, then you won a Tony...

HARRIS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In 2014.

HARRIS: For "Hedwig." That's right.

GROSS: For "Hedwig And The Angry Inch." And you're - you were amazing in that. You did it for a few months.

HARRIS: Thank you.

GROSS: This was a revival. And this is - this is the story of a German performer who has a botched sex-change operation. And your performance is incredibly athletic in it. But before we talk about the athleticism of your physical performance, let's talk about your voice, and let's hear it first. So you're not used to singing rock, but this is a very rock-oriented score, so let's hear an example of that. And so here's Neil Patrick Harris in a song from "Hedwig."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH")

HARRIS: (Singing) My sex-change operation got botched. My guardian angel fell asleep on the watch. Now all I've got is a Barbie doll crotch. I got an angry inch. Six inches forward and five inches back - I got a - I got an angry inch. Six inches forward and five inches back - I got a - I got an angry inch. I'm from the land where you still hear the cries. I had to get out, had to sever all ties. I changed my name and assumed a disguise. I got an angry inch. Six inches forward and five inches back. I got a - I got an angry inch. Six inches forward and five inches back. I got a - I got an angry inch. Six inches forward and five inches back.

GROSS: That's my guest, Neil Patrick Harris, in the cast recording of the revival of "Hedwig." And now he has a new autobiography called "Choose Your Own Autobiography." So that kind of singing is really different from the singing we're used to with you, which is, you know, Broadway and parody of Broadway. And although "Hedwig" is on Broadway, it's a very rock-based score.

What did you have to learn about your voice in order to sing like that and in order to protect your voice, knowing that you'd be singing like that every day of the week, with two performances Saturday and Sunday?

HARRIS: Well, the latter concern really informed the former. I was - didn't have an understudy in that show 'cause it just seemed weird and not fair. I wanted to challenge myself with doing 20 weeks of seven shows a week and just do it.

GROSS: That's crazy.

HARRIS: Maybe...

GROSS: I mean, you mentioned that in the book. I just think it's nuts. (Laughter).

HARRIS: Maybe in a masochistic way. Yeah. Well, I don't know. I didn't really - I guess ego-wise, I didn't want some other actor sitting there in the second row during every rehearsal, just kind of watching me, taking notes. That would've freaked me out. But more so, I - you know, when you put your name above the title of a show that's essentially a one-person show, people are coming to see you do that part. And so if you sit down, and you have a little piece of paper in your playbill that says, tonight, the role of Hedwig will be played by somebody else. It just - it didn't seem right.

So I challenged myself with doing it. And I was - that was the first thing we did - was - Steven Trask, who wrote the brilliant songs, in my opinion, sat down with me, and we talked about the difference between singing in a musical theater style and singing in a rock 'n' roll style. And a lot of it has to do with inflection of actual syllables and consonants, with vibrato. A lot of people sing (singing) a note, whereas, you know, Billy Idol or Iggy Pop would sing (singing) a note - just a straight tone. And so I had to sort of shake out the vibrato-y parts of my singing and try and be flat-toned.

Also I had two speakers in my ears. They're called inner ears, and you see a lot of people in rock bands in concerts use them now. They do them on the reality shows, as well. Those - then you can make your own mix, so you don't have to have speakers pointed at you on stage. You can actually hear whatever you want. So I could say, during rehearsals, can I be a little bit louder? Can the guitar be louder? The drums are too loud. And I'm singing into a microphone. So these are all unique things from musical theater. In musical theater, usually you have a little microphone that's hidden in your hairline, held on by clips, and you sing as loud as you can because you're on (singing) Broadway. And they try and, you know, mix your voice to the orchestra that's playing below you.

Well, our orchestra was a band of four people that were on stage right behind me, and I was singing into a microphone. So that was beneficial in many ways. I could sing, instead of loudly toward the mezzanine balcony, I could sing a small amount right into the microphone and then they could turn up the microphone and I could protect my voice that way. So I felt really confident when I was singing on, you know, on top of a car, out of breath, singing in a high woman's voice, I felt comfortable, like I wasn't having to really push my vocal constraints.

GROSS: My guest is Neil Patrick Harris. He's written the new memoir. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Neil Patrick Harris. And he has a new memoir called "Choose Your Own Autobiography." You mention in your autobiography that you had great vocal coach for "Hedwig," and there were a lot of really good exercises that you learned to strengthen your voice and to protect your voice.

HARRIS: Indeed.

GROSS: Can you show us what some of those are?

HARRIS: (Laughter) Sure. Well, as it turns out, the way I carry my personal body is a little neck strained - next strained - neck stressed, meaning that I don't stand perfectly tall, I jut my neck forward a little bit. And instead of using my diaphragm and my full breath, I tend to sort of clench my breath right around my throat and allow the sounds to come through, like I'm - sort of like I'm talking now.

When you're singing, that compression is not so good on your cords because you're taking this breath that should be very fluid and soft. Your vocal cords, if you want to get very technical are - not very technical - but they're like silk sheets, you know, that want to touch up against each other very softly. And if they get stressed and you're pushing sound out, then they get tight. And then the tightness is what causes some kind of vocal problems later, like nodes or losing your voice.

So Liz Caplan, my voice coach, who is phenomenal and super friendly and positive, had me do a lot of tongue stretching because as it turns out, the base of the tongue is right at the throat. And so if you're nervous, as I tend to be when I sing, then you tend to get tensed up there. So I would literally have to take a paper towel, wrap it around my tongue, hold it with my thumb and my forefinger and we pull it completely out of my mouth. And from that, we'd do vocal warm-ups, which is like hey ah, hey ah, hey ah. And then she'd play a different chord, hey ah, hey ah, hey ah. The idea behind this is to get your tongue to overstretch so that when you stop pulling on said tongue, it's kind of relaxed and you've essentially done, like, a muscle stretch.

So we did a lot of those things and I would do a full 20-, 40-minute vocal warm-up before each show just to, you know - again, it was all precautionary. It was all preventative and preemptive because I wanted to not be having to see Liz because my voice was out. I wanted to see Liz so that my voice didn't go out. And I wanted to go to the physical therapist to work on my feet so that they didn't hurt, not because I was getting stress fractures on my toes. So I was...

GROSS: Yes, you mentioned that when you did "Cabaret," you got stress fractures in your feet because you were jumping around a lot in combat boots in that role.

HARRIS: Yeah, but that's, -you know, and I don't know that I would've done it any differently if I had to do it again. I probably would have put some Dr. Scholl's or something in the shoe before I stomped around. But to me that's what I love about theater, is that when you're watching it and when you're there, it's unique to that night. Even though they're all doing the same thing, there's variables that are only happening then - sometimes the mic goes out; sometimes your voice goes out; sometimes an audience member is, you know, causing a stir; sometimes phones go off. And that's why you go see the theater.

GROSS: So I really love hearing vocal exercises. Can you show us one more that you learned?

HARRIS: Ya ga. There was lots of (singing) ya ga ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, yas. So you would go up the scale again - (singing) ya ga ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya. And then the new chord - (singing) ya ga, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya. The point of the ya ga, the ga is your tongue hitting the roof of your mouth, and that causes the sound to not just go through your cords, but also get sort of involvement in all of the upper recesses of your skull. So it was - what I love about Liz is that she's very technical, and it's not a bunch of tricks. She's not telling you instead of sing ee, sing eh because ee will hurt your cords, where eh would not. So I liked instead of coming up with tricks, she actually taught me how my cords and my body was moving air and being, you know, using it like it's a tool and I'm a tradesman.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that when you were doing "Hedwig," you had to learn all of these kind of, like, caricatured feminine gestures and way of walking, walking in heels, you know, high-heeled boots. And you write in your memoir that you had learned how to emphasize the male parts of your personality in "How I Met Your Mother," and now you had to kind of had to do the opposite for "Hedwig." What are some of the most challenging things you had to learn to play that character who was trans?

HARRIS: Growing up, especially having done a TV show when I was younger, I was recognized more - I didn't have a, you know, 100 percent anonymity when I walked around in my - in those years where I felt most awkward, so I was very maybe overly aware and conscientious of how I was carrying myself. I wanted to be an actor who could play different types of roles, so I didn't choose one way to carry myself. I chose a way that was right kind of Switzerland, in the middle. Stand tall but not too - you know, don't strut, walk straight, keep your hands at your sides. And I was hyperaware of how I came across because I didn't want to be overly effeminate. I didn't want to be walking like I thought I was a tough guy. I was just maybe oddly concerned about it.

So cut to a lot of different chapters and fun and interesting things that have happened in my life, and now I'm suddenly presented with having to, not as a funny character, but as a really a legitimate, fully formed authentic person, be a woman. And a punk-rock woman, which involved big, you know, five-inch boots with massive heels. It involved tucking my genitals, you know, like a drag queen would so that you can't see that I'm a man for real, wearing a bra, wearing a slip, you know, wigs, make up, and then having to sing and carry myself as if I'd been that way by choice and had been that way for decades.

And so that was just - that was intense because it's weird. I think any guy who hasn't ever walked in heels can say how weird it is to walk in heels once. It feels so odd. Your body is in a different position. You're oddly vulnerable and yet oddly powerful, and it just feels flop-sweaty. And so I spent many times, many days with Spencer Liff, who was our choreographer essentially. I'd worked together with him on the musical episodes of "How I Met Your Mother." And we just would walk around in a circle for hours. Another day we'd just stand in position - just literally stand for hours. I'm a 6-foot-tall guy. At that point, I weighed 165 pounds and I'm standing there in heels with this horrible blonde wig, trying to cock my hip to the left, you know (laughter) put my hands on my hip, but with my fingers facing the opposite direction so I'm showing off my clavicle more. It just felt very posy and I felt a fraud, and that's the last thing you want to be projecting as a transgendered woman who is confident in herself.

GROSS: Neil Patrick Harris will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "Choose Your Own Autobiography." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with more of the interview I recorded with Neil Patrick Harris last October after the publication of his memoir called "Choose Your Own Autobiography." He became a teen star playing a brilliant teenage doctor in the TV series "Doogie Howser, M.D." More recently he played the womanizer Barney Stinson on the hit TV series "How I Met Your Mother," which ended its long run in 2014, a year in which he also won a Tony for his performance as a transgender rock singer in "Hedwig And The Angry Inch."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You came out in 2006. And you write in your memoir that you came out in part because Perez Hilton was trying to out you. He'd even offered money to anyone who could present evidence that you'd slept with a man. What was your reaction when there was this kind of, you know, campaign to out you?

HARRIS: Perez Hilton didn't just decide one day to make me talk about, you know, who I was sleeping with and my sexuality part of the story. There was another blog site that had claimed that my publicist had - when asked if I was gay, had said - and they quote him as saying that I was, quote, "not of that persuasion." So that phrase, not of that persuasion, was printed as if that's what my new stance was on my sexuality. I never said that. I don't think he ever said that, but that's what they printed. And unfortunately in the blogger social media world that we live in now, when something's printed, it becomes a story as if it's fact. And you can fight the facts as all you want, but that's already out there.

So then I start getting random phone calls and emails from people that I know wondering why I would say something like that, people that I care about, like my agent who was a gay male, and thinking like - he was just trying to get a grasp on why in the world, after living my life openly being, you know - dating David, living with him, why in the world I would say something like that. So I had to then do a first wave of apologies privately to people saying I didn't say that. I'm working on something to say. But I didn't want to respond in defense. I didn't want to say that website is blasphemous and make it seem like I'm ashamed of who I am in some way.

So my team all kind of huddled together and hammered out a statement that we thought was appropriate and that happened right after - yeah - Perez Hilton who, at that time, was a bit of a headhunter for celebrities who he wanted to be representative of same-sex sex was trying to out them. So I just didn't want to - when you said earlier that he asked for people to come forward with stories, that was the time I thought I want to beat a story. I don't have many sordid stories, but I didn't even want someone to come out with a lie story and then my statement is suddenly defending myself against a bigger story.

So it just seemed like the straight-up thing to do, pardon the pun...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HARRIS: ...To say something that was honest and true and, if anything, theoretically empowering to people who may be in a similar situation. So we came up with that statement, and it turned out well.

GROSS: So most people are lucky enough that they don't have to issue press releases about who they're sleeping with, what their sexual orientation is. But you were one of the unlucky ones who had to do that. So you had to, like, craft a press release and then decide where to release it - People magazine's website.

HARRIS: Yeah, on a Friday night so that it didn't make the morning talk show circuit the following day. (Laughter) We wanted to give a weekend to let people talk about sports.

GROSS: So do you think you would've eventually come out if you weren't pressured into doing it?

HARRIS: Yeah, absolutely. I had no stigma in my own world about - or shame - about who I was or how I was existing. I did believe that a good actor's like a good magician. Magic's my hobby, and I've always been enamored by magicians' ability to reveal very little about themselves so that they can create their own identity. And so I thought as an actor, there was something innately good and necessary about revealing a little bit about yourself so that people know who you are, but keeping a large portion of yourself in the private sector so that I could play all kinds of different roles.

Unfortunately we live in a society now that's very socially savvy. And it's impossible almost to be able to separate the two cleanly. And so I knew that that would be an inevitability some time. I was thankfully in a relationship with David, who is now my husband, and I was very much in love with him. And it started to seem uncomfortable to not recognize him. It seemed more insulting to him to go to a movie premiere in Westwood, and then I get out of the car on one door; he gets out of the car on the other door. I go down the press line by myself; he goes with my publicist the other way. And then we meet up at the end, and we go into the movie together. That just seemed disrespectful in a way, and David's a strong enough guy that he didn't take a lot of disrespect from it. But it just didn't make sense to me.

GROSS: So, you know, I love you on Broadway. You grew up far from Broadway in New Mexico. So I imagine, like, Broadway for you was school plays, camp plays and cast recordings. So based on the cast recordings and the access that you had to like, you know, movies or TV adaptations of Broadway shows, what were the songs - the Broadway songs - that you sang in the mirror when you were a kid?

HARRIS: I saw "Annie" when I was in Albuquerque. That had a really lasting impression on me. For some reason, I was at an age - I think, maybe probably 6 or 7 - where a child protagonist in an adult musical was something I could aspire to do, boy or girl. I just loved that this kid was in the show.

GROSS: Right.

HARRIS: It seemed like something that adults did. And then my parents also had a big LP collection. So they also liked "The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas," and I hope I don't - I never read too much into that. But that was right when the movie had come out with Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, and so I learned every word to that one. (Imitating Southern accent) It was the nicest little whorehouse you ever saw. It lay about a mile outside the city limits. Sheriff Jack Roy Wallace picked it out from Miss Wulla Jean in 1910, and she moved there with her girls from over the hardware store on Main Street.

And so I would play that album and lip-sync and sing along to those two - "Annie" and "Best Little Whorehouse." Good times.

GROSS: (Laughter) Your mother sang in the Episcopal church choir. You say your father played folk songs on guitar and showed you how to sing. What did he teach you? What did he show you?

HARRIS: They were very musical. They still are, my parents. I was very lucky in that way. Dad always played the guitar, was self-taught, taught himself the banjo. Mom played the flute. They were both in the choir, still are. And so when I was younger, dad would play songs on guitar and I would sing along. And I had a good ear, so he did as well. And we would sing harmonies together. And mainly what he taught me was pitch and a little bit about breath control. But he's a very self-taught man, even though he went to law school and the military - but those kind of things like singing and playing the guitar.

And I remember him telling me, when I'm singing a note to think about it as if it was clouds. And when you're singing a note, you don't want to fly sort of under the cloud line. You want to sort of aim for just a little bit over the cloud. You know, I think it's in our nervous nature to sing a little flat. When you're nervous, you're not breathing enough, and you're tense, and you're almost hitting the note. And he just encouraged me to think above the cloud line a little bit. So I would use that as a visual when I was singing to make sure I was on pitch. And as I'm saying this to you, I'm realizing how lucky I am that I had parents that would sit and teach how to sing on pitch...

GROSS: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Instead of yelling at me for not cleaning up my room.

GROSS: Or yelling at you for not hitting the right note.

HARRIS: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, that he'd give you an image to have and not just say, that's the wrong note.

HARRIS: They very much wanted us to embrace those things which we responded to. So they didn't push us into football. You know, we were in Little League baseball, but they quickly saw that I wasn't so good at it and wasn't so interested in it. And so then, you know, being able to be in the Ruidoso Little Theater was something I was rabid about and would talk about all the time. And thankfully they didn't tell me that was bad and that the other was good. They let me do my thing. And it empowered me to want to be better at it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Neil Patrick Harris, and he has a new memoir called "Choose Your Own Autobiography." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining, us my guest is Neil Patrick Harris. And he has a new memoir called "Choose Your Own Autobiography." So, you know, when you're doing "Doogie Howser," in which you're playing, like, a boy genius who's a doctor, did you have any idea then that you were gay?

HARRIS: Wow, not really. I mean, I always - I had friends that I was, you know, extra interested in hanging out with, but I went through puberty later than most. You know, on that show I really grew a lot between I think the second and the third season. So I was 17, almost turning 18, years old when I really started growing, you know, and turning from a boy into a man. So that was on the late end of the spectrum. So if anything, I yearned to be more sexual. I don't think I was able to really define it as like I wish that I could make out with that guy and not that girl. I was friends with girls and kind of idolized guys, but I wasn't in a position at that time to know how to actualize that. And being in a small, tiny town in the middle of the mountains of New Mexico, there weren't a lot of examples around me in my real life and even on television at that time of - you know, there weren't a lot of Kurts in "Glee" and Ellens and people like that as options.

GROSS: So what was it like for you before you felt sexual and you were maybe, you know, not quite sure of which - of what your sexuality was to be seen as, like, this teen and maybe preteen heartthrob and have to, like, pose for teen magazines?

HARRIS: (Laughter) It was the worst. It wasn't the worst; it was just very strange because back then, it was a different time. And there was Teen Beat and Teenybopper magazine and - I don't know they all had strange names like that - Banana Pudding, that wasn't one, but it was something like that. Tutti-Frutti, I think one was called Tutti-Frutti. And each of these had a montage of handsome, you know, teenage kids. And - but they were all River Phoenix broody. It was during "90210," so it was all the cool kids, and they all looked so studly. And it was New Kids On The Block and they had sideburns, you know?

And so here was me, named Doogie, with kind of frizzy, curly hair, big ears and Adam's apple, acne and a bolo tie, holding a basketball with a, you know, ivory - like a lime-green backdrop. And I'm wearing a T-shirt that's four sizes too big trying to - trying to brood and look sultry for the camera. It was - I felt like I was definitely not in the right movie while that was going on. But thankfully it wasn't - Doogie was busy working.

I say that as the character, and I say that as the chapter because I had to do three hours a day. I was on set all the time. I was doing promotion for the show. There was a lot to memorize for the next day - of medical jargon, of history chapters, I had to study about ambulances. And there was a lot of work to do. So rather than spend my time focused on photo shoots and going to malls and shaking hands, I was really working on the show. And then when I was done for the last few months of the year, I would go back to my hometown. Then we moved to Albuquerque, and I would get to spend time as a normal regular person for a few months there.

GROSS: I hope you don't mind that I bring this up; you mention it in the book that you lost your virginity - your heterosexual virginity - to a girl whose girlfriend dared her to sleep with Doogie. How did you find out that she was sleeping with you on a dare?

HARRIS: All my friends in high school seemed so cool, and they all were so manly. And all of their exploits were like in the back of a car on a mesa with a keg of beer. And, you know, she was the girl everyone wanted but he got her and it was great. And I was just not that kid. I just didn't have any game. I didn't know - I didn't even know how to do it and I didn't - I wasn't really into it, but it seemed like what everyone was doing.

So we were at a party at someone's house, and some girl was there from college - New Mexico State University - with her friend and told my group of friends that she wanted to have sex with me because I was on a TV show. And so my friends were like this is the time, it's perfect. And it seemed perfect at that time. So I said you got it. And then it happened and, you know, it was my first time, so it was very warm and exciting. And then she was done. She didn't want to date me or anything. We were at a party. So I was sort of shell-shocked by it all, and she sort of - I think she thanked me, you know, and I was like OK, where's my pants? And then she was gone. It was very unceremonious. I was the man, it was awesome.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So was it an affirmation to you, were you like I am a straight man?

HARRIS: No, I'd heard so many stories of people's first times not being, you know, what they're supposed to be. There's so much built up to it. I was glad I could just accomplish the act, that I didn't, you know, have to - have to stop and, you know, reboot. It just wasn't, you know, there was an emotional element missing for sure. And so I've slept with, you know, more than her in my life, and it was just never felt like - it always felt like I was maybe covering up for something or something missing.

And then I finally had, you know, a fun encounter with a guy. And weirdly, I was terrified that that would happen and it would be fireworks and all would be right in the world, and I would know for certain that this is who I was supposed to be with and now what was going to happen? And it kind of wasn't that way either because I think - I think who you're intimate with is much more about the connection between two people, so it's not just like when I kissed a guy I suddenly was, you know, gay and knew it all. That was the end of it all. It was fun, but it was a baby step towards a much, much longer journey of kind of self-awareness and self-acceptance.

GROSS: So when you started to figure out who you were as an adult as opposed to, like, a teen star, how did that affect who you wanted to be professionally and what you wanted, you know, out of your life as a performer?

HARRIS: I didn't want to be a one-trick pony. I was very, very lucky to have an interesting success when I was young and had then heard an asinine amount about how most people who act when they're younger never ever act again. So I wanted to make sure that that didn't happen. So I watched a lot of theater when I came to New York as kind of an education from afar. I took on as many other weird jobs as I could. Back then it was kind of the TV movie chapter, where there are lots of made-for-television, ripped-from-the-headlines movies about teenage guy is a serial arsonist. And so I got to do that for a few weeks in Vancouver - sorry buildings.

So I just kept kind of trying to take on different work. And at the same time, I have a great love for all things variety and random. I love Cirque du Soleils. I love variety acts, contortionists. I juggle. I do magic. I'm very into people who have special skills. And I love circuses. I always have - PT Barnum, that's my jam - so I was also kind of drawn to kind of that end of things. And I suddenly find myself, you know, forty-seven-hundred-teen chapters later, getting to live a life where I'm sort of able to diversify my portfolio and dabble in lots of different areas.

To use a variety arts term, I like to be the plate spinner, which was an old act where you had lots of sticks standing straight up and you'd get one plate spinning. And then as soon as that one was spinning pretty fast, you'd go run and grab another plate and you'd go onto the second one, but you had to keep the first one spinning. And you'd try to get nine plates spinning at the same time. That was the act. It's been a very random, roller coaster of a career that I'm just super blessed with. And I don't take I could've done all of these random things with such drive if I hadn't had that sort of singular "Doogie Howser" chapter to kind of inform me of what it is that I didn't want to become.

GROSS: If you're just joining, us my guest is Neil Patrick Harris. And he has a new autobiography called "Choose Your Own Autobiography." Let's take a short break, and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Neil Patrick Harris. He has a new autobiography which is called "Choose Your Own Autobiography." I want to get back to Broadway, though, this isn't exactly Broadway 'cause it's the New York Philharmonic. But I want to get back to you in Broadway shows.

You've done several Sondheim shows. You've done "Sweeney Todd." You've done "Assassins." You did a recording-only version of Sondheim's "Evening Primrose" that was a musical he did for television a long time ago. And then you also did a staged version of - it was a kind of a concert production of "Company" with the New York Philharmonic. So, you know, there weren't like, you know, sets and elaborate costumes and, you know, a lot of elaborate staging. But it was a, you know - Stephen Colbert got to wear an orange turtleneck. That's a costume.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: That's a plus.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So anyways, you were the star of it. I mean, it's an ensemble play, but you are the center of it.

HARRIS: I was Bobby, baby.

GROSS: Yeah, Bobby Bubbe (ph) (laughter). Well, I thought we could hear "Being Alive," one of Sondheim's songs from "Company." And did he...

HARRIS: I love this song.

GROSS: Yeah, me too. Did he give you any insights into the character while singing this song or the melody and lyrics that he wrote?

HARRIS: He initially said 'cause this - the whole idea of the structure of this show is that Bobby keeps - it starts at a surprise birthday party. He's turning 40 and all of his friends surprise him. And then there are little vignette scenes that happen about the different couples. And I couldn't quite figure out why he wasn't learning something from the first couple and taking that knowledge with him when he went to the second couple. It just seemed like they were random things happening and nothing - there was no growth. There was no arc.

And so what Steve said is imagine that you're in a hallway at a house, and you're standing in the hallway and you're looking at pictures of your friends. And when you look at that picture, you remember that time - and it wasn't - and you recount that experience. And then you come back, and now you look over to your other side and you see another picture on a wall, you remember that time. You're not going to remember that time with the knowledge from what you learned from that first time 'cause it was a totally different experience. So this idea of photos on a wall made it seem - made the vignettes and the nonlinear element of the show have some sort of visual representation for me.

GROSS: Well, before we hear "Being Alive" - oh, I just want to thank you for doing this interview and thank you for your performances, which I love so much. And just, like, promise that you'll keep doing musicals and musical satires

HARRIS: Absolutely.

GROSS: You promise me?

HARRIS: It's my bread and butter, Terry.

GROSS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: That's a promise. Thank you so much. I'm a big fan of your show as well. So this has been great.

GROSS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "COMPANY")

HARRIS: (Singing) Somebody hold me too close. Somebody hurt me too deep. Somebody sit in my chair and ruin my sleep and make me aware of being alive, being alive. Somebody need me too much. Somebody know me too well. Somebody pull me up short and put me through hell and give me support for being alive. Make me alive. Make me alive. Make me confused. Mock me with praise. Let me be used. Vary my days. But alone is alone, not alive. Somebody crowd me with love. Somebody force me to care. Somebody make me come through. I'll always be there as frightened as you to help us survive being alive, being alive, being alive.

GROSS: That was Neil Patrick Harris and the New York Philharmonic concert production of "Company." Our interview was recorded in 2014 after the publication of his memoir, "Choose Your Own Autobiography."

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