In “Uncoupled” Neil Patrick Harris plays the game

Neil Patrick Harris loves puzzles. He loves games. He designed a single player board game, Box One; He plays Wordle daily and consistently scores 3 points. An accomplished magician, he delights in magic tricks. Every issue of his newsletter, Wondercade, comes with a puzzle of one kind or another. His personality sways and sways, with a touch of cunning. It tends to look like he’s about to do something. fun thing.

His home in the Hamptons, which I visited on a recent perfect stupid Sunday – was he playing with the weather in some way? – Full of jokes, fakes and pranks, that start with the doormat and never stop. (There is, as far as I know, an interior slide.) The furnished balcony where we chatted was decorated with a huge collection of Jenga. Other toys stayed on a wagon nearby.

But the game that Harris, 49, plays like no other is the game of his career. Child star, as prime-time prodigy Doogie Howser, MD, has been able to transition into adult work with relative grace. And when he came out as gay, in a sunny statement released to People, his career never narrowed or faltered. He’s now, if anything, more likeable. And with his husband, David Burtka, an actor and cookbook author who was in the kitchen attending the local islands eight different ways when she arrived, he became a symbol of gay intimacy.

While many outside actors face limited opportunities, Harris has continued to act in comedies, dramas, and musicals. He played heroes, villains, upright romantic leaders, unrepentant liberators, and, in the first Broadway appearance of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a girlish boy slip from communist East Berlin. As a host on the award show On Demand, he plays a glamorous, dressed-up version of himself. In the films Harold and Kumar, he plays a different role, his pleasure melts with strippers and rides unicorns.

“he is he is “Rhinoceros,” said Pamela Freeman, a longtime friend and director who worked with Harris on How I Met Your Mother. “In every possible way.”

In “Uncoupled,” the eight-episode comedy from Darren Star and Jeffrey Richman that debuts on Netflix on July 29, Harris tries a new trick that’s also an old one, one he hasn’t tried since his Doogie days: He plays the part that feels close to the person which it is already.

“It was like being in the ‘sliding doors’ version of my own life,” he said of the role, referring to the 1998 film in which the main character Gwyneth Paltrow travels through an alternate future. “There was no part that close to the adult version of me.”

Harris plays Michael, an elite realtor (sometimes literally, there are many mistakes) when Colin (Tok Watkins), his partner of 17 years, leaves without warning or explanation. Throughout the series, Michael moves through the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sometimes he cycles through them all through one text thread made up in the back of the cabin.

Then again, it’s not all sadness. “I lived this other version of, What if I was single in New York and had a Grindr account? So it was kind of saucy and delicious too,” Harris said.

Starr and Richman did not write the pilot with any particular actor in mind. But when it came time to cast the show, they knew they wanted Harris. “Neil was our very, very first choice,” Starr said in a video call from France. (He was in Provence shooting “Emilie in Paris”. A Hard Life.)

They wanted him for his talent and looks but also for his popularity, which they hoped would keep the comedy from feeling excessively status quo. (Is there still concern about the appeal of gay romantic comedies in the post-“Fire Island” and “Love, Simon” world? Apparently.)

“He’s very well liked by a lot of people,” Starr said of Harris. “It’s very prevalent.” The creators wanted everyone to relate to Michael. “Straight and gay, male and female, everyone,” Starr said. If Harris plays him, they will.

With Harris on board, they wrote the rest of the episodes, and those episodes improved on the pilot. This is something others who have worked with Harris have always told me: His talents and work ethic freed those around him to do their best work.

“He was more talented than I thought,” said Barry Sonnenfeld, presenter of A Series of Unfortunate Events. He helped create many of Harris’ only song and dance numbers. “How I Met Your Mother” gave him a production number, too.

“It opens up your world in such a way that you know you can write anything and it will get you done,” Freeman told me.

Harris does not sing to “Uncoupled” nor dance alone. But he did do some of his own stunts, including one in which he falls backwards down a mountain. It balances deep sadness, rude sex scenes, and shocking comedy with apparent ease.

“Having an actor who can basically do anything you throw at him has inspired us to step up our game, to give him the best material possible,” Starr said. “Because we know he can play it.”

Harris described himself to me as a technical actor, not an in-depth actor. A professional, not a psychologist. (As a child, he wanted to be a Universal Studios entrepreneur. He still wants that—hence that mountain thing.) You can see this craftsmanship in his earlier roles, as Count Olaf, the disguise-loving villain in “A Series of Unfortunate” events. , or Barney, the Lothario he played in How I Met Your Mother, who can put a pointed pause in the middle of the word “legendary” and somehow get away with it.

Harris also has funny personal charm and good boyish looks. He described those good looks as a crutch and then corrected himself: “Weird albatross,” he said. But for some roles, this is enough.

Michael asked for something more, something to counteract the falls and the scene of vomiting in the jacuzzi. So Harris did what he almost never did: He made the part personal. Imagine what it will be like when he comes home and finds that Burtka, his partner of 18 years, has left him.

He said that this imaginary act and the ways in which he applied it to the role was “too open,” “very, very weak.” (At about this time, Burtka peeked into the room and offered me a bag of garden produce, which brought me home on the bus as though I had robbed several farm stalls. He didn’t seem to be going anywhere.)

Harris doesn’t usually reach that kind of openness, probably because he spent much of his twenties maintaining subtle boundaries between his personal and professional life. He used to constantly second-guess himself, wondering whether he should put his legs down, how he should drink. He used to walk a red carpet separate from his appointment.

“I was suppressing my freedoms because I was worried that I was giving up something, that someone would see through a curtain,” he said. That changed as soon as he came out at the age of thirty-three. “I definitely managed to exhale more and stand taller,” he said.

Friends noticed this, too. “I think that made him wonder,” said Brooks Ashmanskas, a “Uncoupled” co-star who has known Harris for nearly 20 years.

Over the years, he has removed some of those limits. His 11-year-old twins helped him out. “Because I’m a father now,” he said, “I’m surrounded by vulnerability a lot with my kids.” All of this allowed him to infuse some very personal fear and anxiety into the role.

But some limits remain. I asked him a few questions about whether “Uncoupled” would be meaningful in terms of LGBTQ representation, if he ever felt pressured to maintain his poster boy character. He responded in general terms, but with such warmth and politeness that he had never seemed particularly evasive. If he had more subtle or intimate answers, he kept them to himself.

“I will be more successful in acting by maintaining a non-political stance,” he said. “I want people to see me as a representation of positivity. I want them to view my work without prejudice.”

So this is another one of his games. Watching “Uncoupled,” seeing those abstract feelings, suggests a magician peel off the curtain, and show you how the trick is done. Is this, finally, the real Harris? But when magicians do that, it’s just a matter of complicating the trick. This on-screen vulnerability hides Harris’ other devices: his skill-setting, slightly insane work ethic (some of which he still attributes to Impostor Syndrome) and a mind too busy calculating the endless permutations of tone, gestures, and expression. Then the cameras are turned on and he makes everything look easy.

“Part of his charm is the work he does; he’s behind that door over there,” Freeman told me. “He doesn’t want you to see that work. It needs you to sit in the audience and be immersed in the performance.”

In other words, Harris always has something up his sleeve. That afternoon in the Hamptons, he was wearing a warm blue polo shirt with short sleeves. Just before I left, he pulled the cloth over his left muscle and showed me a new tattoo – a wizard’s hat with a bunny peeking out of it. The hare had three hearts – for Burtka and their children. Then he put the sleeve back down.

He said, “I am also a magician, and I have faith in the spirit of a magician.” “Not everything has to be known to everyone all the time.”

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