More than eight years after ending his run as legendary straight cad Barney Stinson on CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother,” Emmy-winning actor Neil Patrick Harris has returned to the sitcom format in Netflix’s “Uncoupled,” playing a gay man who doesn’t want to be reintroduced to the New York City dating scene after being unceremoniously dumped by his partner of 17 years.
Created by Darren Star (“Sex and the City”) and Jeffrey Richman (“Frasier,” “Modern Family”), “Uncoupled” — premiering Friday — follows Michael Lawson (Harris), a successful New York City real estate agent whose perfect life. is thrown into disarray when his longtime partner, Colin (Tuc Watkins), moves in unexpectedly on the eve of his 50th birthday. During the night, Michael has to face two nightmares: he loses the man he thought was his partner and he is forced to navigate the digital and generational gap of coming out as a newly single gay man in his mid-40s.
Harris — who rose to fame as a wunderkind doctor on “Doogie Howser, M.D.” but received critical acclaim for his dramatic roles in “Gone Girl,” “It’s a Sin” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events” — he’s always been open to tackling projects that vary in genre and scope. Last summer, he received a text from his agent asking him to read a pilot script for a romantic comedy that Star and Richman had initially written without a particular actor in mind.
“Once we finished the pilot, we knew Neil Patrick Harris was the only actor we wanted,” Richman wrote in an email. “He challenged us in a very positive way by asking really intelligent questions about [the] character and the story that we had to come up with answers to. It just made the writing better.”
After admiring Star’s expansive body of work and working with Richman on the short-lived NBC sitcom “Stark Raving Mad” at the turn of the century, Harris jumped at the chance to join the writers television veterans in a contemporary show that will be filming in New York, where he lives with his husband, David Burtka, and their two young children.
The script he read “was contemporary and casual and fun, and yet it made me cringe,” Harris told NBC News in a recent video interview. For the 49-year-old actor, who is in a “super long-term relationship” with Burtka, the immediate appeal of the show, apart from the creators, lied in the opportunity to explore an alternative version of his own life: ” It’s almost a ‘what if my life took a radical turn?’ story,” he said.
As he struggles with the grief and denial of being “uncoupled,” Harris’ character, Michael, struggles with the politics of gay dating in today’s society — the transactional nature of hookups, ir -unwritten rules of etiquette on various apps.
The harrowing experience of being thrown into “a whole other world” and forced to learn on his own was something the creative team really wanted to convey, according to Harris, who likened Michael’s struggles to adapt to the dating world that it always changes with his. own struggles with the evolution of messaging.
“When you’re dating people who are decidedly younger than you, who’ve been doing it this way for a long time, it’s a learning curve, and I think learning curve comedy is always pretty universal,” he said. .
Having begun his courtship with Burtka in 2004, long before the prevalence of dating apps, Harris says he is equal parts “impressed” and “horrified” by contemporary courtship concerns, adding that he feels lucky to “get ahead. all the distractions” that caused a shorter attention span.
“I find it very sexy and titillating that very specific kinks and desires can be openly negotiated and discussed and compared,” Harris said. “Many times, back when you were just going on a date with someone, it was very awkward to reveal what you like, and that wasn’t the first or second conversation about a date. That was like, ‘We really got to know each other, and now we’re going to talk about, ‘Oh, I wish I hadn’t done that,’ or ‘I really like when this. it happens.’ But that’s all now, isn’t it? … That’s exciting.”
But, he added, “I also feel that we are karmic people; you will meet the right person when the time is right. If you’re too hard core trying to find it, you won’t find it. But people agree when they should, the way they should. Life works well that way.”
While Michael worries about the viability of a middle-aged gay man in a dating market made up mainly of younger men, Harris said he has grown to embrace aging over time, despite living in a culture and working in an industry that continues to value the youthful appearance. .
“I think aging is a very personal thing that probably has to do with how you grew up, what your parents thought, what your friends thought,” said Harris, who “always felt younger” than he was as an actor. a prominent boy. known for his boyish good looks.
“My struggle for decades was to feel comfortable in my own body, because I would be in my mid-20s, late 20s, and I would still go to the gym and feel like a sophomore in high school and everyone was better than me, and I felt awkward and gawky and didn’t know my place,” he said. “But now that I’m almost 50 years old, I feel healthier and in better shape and frankly more comfortable in my own skin than before. I feel like that’s kind of a life goal — an attainable life goal is that you want to take your shirt off more when you get older, because it doesn’t mean as much to you.”
Part of when he became more comfortable in his own skin came when Harris decided to come out publicly in 2006, in a statement to People. More than 15 years later, the actor thinks that “we are entering this new world” where the steps in LGBTQ representation on screen means “there is less fear of negative repercussions for being proud and open and honest about who you want to be with” — to the point where he’s now able to host his own Netflix show as, and about, an openly gay man.
“Certainly now, more than ever, people are encouraged to be honest with everyone about who they are, and that removes the different swiss for different people,” he said. “But I can certainly talk about the fact that once I was open and I was still working… I was less concerned about maybe ‘telling’ or people thinking about me because I was just what I was, and I think there is an innate freedom and breath. and standing only with only existing.”
But Harris warned that, in the end, actors are supposed to act, and explained that he chooses to look beyond the labels of gay or straight when breaking down his own characters.
“Straight people are all very different, and gay people are all very different. There are many effeminate affectations that can come into play, there are many masculine affectations that can come into play, regardless of sexuality,” he said.
“I was playing a straight man in ‘Gone Girl,’ but I didn’t do it, because the character I was playing was kind of weird and a little bit creepy, an androgynous psycho [like] Norman Bates… so I didn’t have to be a straight man to play with him. I’m still in a singular way,” he continued. “And if I were playing an over-the-top flight attendant on a broad comedy, then I’d probably turn into a very different interpretation – not of gay versus straight, but of what the writers and directors they were hoping for it.”
Harris said he believes an actor’s sexuality is very different from how they choose to play their characters.
“You must have so many acting arrows in your quiver,” he said with a smile. “I want to be able to be a baller in a Guy Ritchie heist movie with an accent and everything and be a no-knuckle fighter … but I also want to be a camp and live my best life on a dance floor. So I want to be able to have the opportunity to do both, but they’re very different skill sets — and that’s my job.”
“Uncoupled” is now streaming on Netflix.
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