Ep. 6: Neil Patrick Harris
BY Future of StoryTelling — May 13, 2020

Speaking with Neil Patrick Harris, actor, voice actor, writer, theater artist, and tightrope walker. This episode is brought to you by PBS American Portrait.


Available wherever you listen to your podcasts:


Apple Podcasts  |  Spotify  |  Google Podcasts  |  Stitcher  |  iHeartRadio 

Charlie Melcher: Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher, founder and director of the Future of Storytelling. Welcome back to the FoST podcast. Today I'll be speaking with renowned actor, Neil Patrick Harris.

Before I do so, I'd like to say how excited and appreciative I am to announce that we have a partner for today's episode and not just any old partner. This is a perfect partner for us.

PBS American Portrait. PBS American portrait is a storytelling project which invites you to participate in a national conversation about what it means to be an American today. This PBS project highlights the values inherent to storytelling that we deeply appreciate and share at FoST, namely the ability for stories to connect us, to create empathy, and to engender a sense of community and belonging. We invite you to log on to pbs.org/americanportrait to add your story. It's a chance for you to share your life experience and to have your voice heard.

And now, onto this week's conversation here at FoST, we believe that great innovation comes from the cross pollinization of disciplines, which is why at our yearly summit you might find a novelist, virtual reality developer, and a studio executive participating together in a dance workshop. Few embody this enthusiasm for multi-hyphenate creativity better than longtime FoST collaborator, Neil Patrick Harris.

Originally coming to prominence as a star on television with comedies such as Doogie Howser, MD, and How I Met Your Mother, Neil has since proven his extraordinary skills as a dramatic actor, a voice actor, a leading man in theater, a singer, a dancer, a writer, a director, even a magician. In our conversation, he discusses his fascination with the subversion of traditional storytelling structures, which spurred his interest in nontraditional forms such as immersive theater. As the star of one of the most prominent early web series, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog and the author of a bestselling choose your own adventure autobiography, he is certainly well-versed in breaking the mold and serves as an inspiration to all of us to branch out of our comfort zone and explore our full creative potential. I'm very pleased to welcome Neil Patrick Harris to the FoST podcast.

Neil, it's such a pleasure to be sitting down and talking with you. How have you been?

Neil Patrick Harris: I've been okay. These are unchartered territories for everyone, right? That it's been kind of bonkers. I was supposed to have been in Berlin, Germany making the Matrix Four movie. We filmed in San Francisco and then as they were transferring to Berlin, literally, I was supposed to fly out on a Saturday I think, and then everything got stopped. So I could have been stuck in Berlin. I was supposed to have been filming this super kick ass movie there, which is on hold, but not forever.

I have this thing in my family that I get eye rolls from. I call it #plans. It's sort of my go-to saying, and I've been saying it so much and #plans to me just means, no matter how much you're trying to stick to a plan, it just always changes. It's the beauty of immersive theater. It's the beauty of constants not being constant and it's a pain in the ass. At the same time, especially right now, the plan that you think you're going to have is not the plan that ends up happening.

Weekly, daily, every hour is different. How are you doing?

Charlie Melcher: Well, I'm doing very well all things considered. We also are out of the city right now and we've been able to shelter-in-place here in Connecticut and so that's been a real blessing. I feel very blessed. So many people are dealing with so many incredibly difficult, scary and hard things and here I am with the great pleasure of getting to sit and have a conversation with you and to do good work and to be able to be busy and distracted. That's really been a tremendous gift.

Neil Patrick Harris: This is just so effing crazy, though, because when I start thinking about how many different communities, professional and personal are being affected in unique ways, it is a rabbit hole that's really a dark. Because I just think about myself, obviously; I'm an actor.

Within that, that whole industry has been on hold, yes, but everyone in the film world is just waiting now. Then you think about the live theater world, it's decimated right now. The Tony Awards, not happening. Broadway musicals that were five years in the making, not only postponed, never happening. Things that I just don't know how they'll recover and I don't know how we'll get back to a stasis.

I feel like we're now going to be looking back at these old times as the good old days when you didn't have to wear a mask to see a show. I don't know. I honestly don't know what it's going to mean.

Charlie Melcher: When you could go to an immersive theater show and find yourself two centimeters away, lip to lip with some actor.

Neil Patrick Harris: Yeah, that is a shockingly terrifying thing right now, and I don't know even when this wave passes, how people are going to be able to be okay with that again.

It's so twisted in so many ways and I'm not saying this as a Debbie Downer situation, but I'm trying to come up with solid footing about how to move forward. Not only creatively but just personally on a daily. Everything is going to change.

Charlie Melcher: Let's start there for a second because here you were, about to go to Berlin to be filming Matrix and now you are in lockdown with your family, social distancing. How has it been just being with your kids all day, every day?

Neil Patrick Harris: Our kids are nine, twins. A boy and a girl. We're told to not teach as a teacher, but to parent as a parent and let the teachers at school do the teaching and then they come home and we don't need to be teaching them. We need to be parenting them. Not anymore, dude, #plans. We are now teaching them, which is complicated because I like to think of myself in many ways as a teacher. I love to be Kermit the frog or PT Barnum, but now I'm teaching kids about division and Guyana and things. I don't quite know how to do that.

So I've had to become very selfless and apologetic in a lot of instances and let them know that I'm not so good at this, that I'm going to be failing a lot more, probably, than I am going to be succeeding. Within that comes new experiences and within new experiences come new stories to tell. Inevitably, it's going to change in so many ways that we didn't ever anticipate.

Charlie Melcher: I mean, one thing that I've been seeing is just how creative people are and how the desire to express themselves, to connect with each other, to get out of their social distancing virtually, has led to a whole flowering of new types of performances, new types of sharing and community and creativity. Have you been seeing some of that online?

Neil Patrick Harris: I have and honestly, it's an interesting thing to ask me and I have to probably word myself pretty specifically because I'm not sure how I feel about most of it. It feels opportunistic in a way that annoys me. I guess I'm all for the creativity. I just don't know why we need to be putting it on social media. That becomes a different weird level for me, like you're just wanting likes or you're doing it to somehow grab ahold of a new generation of commerce. I hope that's not the case. I hope it's just to show good.

Charlie Melcher: I don't think I'm as cynical as that. Yeah, I mean, I think people are doing it to try to make it a contribution, to try to help lighten the anxiety or the fear, or even if nothing else than just to provide some different entertainment and distraction. That moment when on John's show where they had Lin Manuel Miranda show up and sing Hamilton. I mean, it brought a tear to my eye. That girl was out of her mind excited when, when Lynn Zoom-bombed the conversation and then brought in the entire cast. Then of course, even just to hear that song in that context and to see those amazing talented actors and actresses. I thought that was a moving statement.

Neil Patrick Harris: Fair, and I guess it just made me jealous that I was never in Hamilton.

Charlie Melcher: Everybody knows you as this amazing actor from television, from film, from theater, but I don't think everybody actually appreciates your passion and enthusiasm for interactive and immersive storytelling. I know your interest in VR and XR and Escape the Rooms and where's that interest come from and what's so alluring to you about interactivity in immersion?

Neil Patrick Harris: I think that I'm a big fan of structure in my life. Because I spend a lot of time contemplating structure, I guess I'm most intrigued when someone can beat structure and find a different way to do it. The Broadway stage is a big presidium stage with big giant seats that are all in rows and you see a show. You can see all kinds of different shows, but you're sitting passively in a seat watching things in front of you. So then when in a show, people come down the aisle, you're breaking structure. "Oh, that's exciting. Oh, my gosh, there're people in the aisle." Or, "Oh, my gosh, it's a boxing musical and the whole boxing ring in the Rocky musical comes forward."

There's something's unique and exciting about the record scratch of change of structure. I keep being interested in how that manifests itself. I want content that I want to be invested in. I want content that that makes me applaud the people that created it, because I know that they value my experience.

Charlie Melcher: I certainly agree with that. I mean my experiences with one-on-ones in immersive theater shows are some of the most memorable theatrical experiences of my life. Basically, that's because for me, they were engaging all my senses. I was not just watching or listening, but I was having this full bodied, immersive, multisensory, participatory, personalized experience and because of all those things, they're so much more emotionally evocative and memorable.

Neil Patrick Harris: I went in New York years ago and was at a coffee shop and there was a stack of cards by the door advertising something. I picked it up and it was called Accomplice. There were nondescript pictures of a woman wearing a feather boa, but you couldn't see her face and a hand holding a key. Weird things I didn't quite get, but I was excited by this. I love the scavenger hunt again, I love games and solving riddles and murder mysteries and things. So we did it and sure enough, the day before the phone rings, "Hey, is Neil there?"

Neil Patrick Harris: "Yeah, this is Neil."

"Yeah. Here's the thing, see. You're going to go to the South Street Seaport and downtown ... By the way, you don't know who this is. You never heard this call. You're going to go to the South Street Seaport. There's going to be a ship. You're going to go to the left of the ship. Are you writing this down? I want you to write that ... " and all this stuff in character.

Neil Patrick Harris: I was like, "Oh, this is so exciting. Oh, hold on, let me get the pencil."

And I wrote the whole thing down. Sure enough, our friends that we met, and this is a regular outside public place, we see a guy and he sees us. He's not overtly in costume, but he might be, but we can't tell because it's New York. Then he gestures with his head to follow him. "Whoa, oh, crap. This is happening!"

So we go and we meet around the corner and then for the next two and a half hours or so, we're on this walking tour of Chinatown, the lower West Side of New York.

Also, hidden amongst this real environment were actors who we had to interact with. They looked like real people. Now this was very exciting in two ways. One, trying to find actual people to solve the thing. But secondarily, as I'm walking through Chinatown with my friends, trying to find a shop that will sell me a live frog that I have to then take to another place, everyone is in the cast, right?

So it was a brilliant business conceit because you didn't need a cast of 50, you needed the cast of seven or whatever, but it felt like when I was participating that there was a cast of 20,000. A guy would be walking by with a parrot on his shoulder and we'd all say, "Oh, well he's definitely got to be in the show." Because he's a guy with a parrot on his shoulder and he wasn't. He was just a weird guy with a parrot on his shoulder. But it created, again, this vibe that I had never experienced before where everywhere and everyone I looked at, every building, every doorway, every sign was now potentially part of my plot. I just loved that. I always have loved that idea.

It created this vibe that I had never experienced before where everywhere and everyone I looked at, every building, every doorway, every sign was now potentially part of my plot. I just loved that. I always have loved that idea.

Charlie Melcher: What I think is so brilliant about that is that you are now made more hyper aware of everything around you.

Neil Patrick Harris: Totally!

Charlie Melcher: And somehow in life, we end up blocking out so much of experience, so much of the world just to get from point A to B, or we're lost in our thoughts, or we're intentionally avoiding people. Certainly on the streets of New York, right? You've-

Neil Patrick Harris: Sometimes, but I think that's innate. That's human nature. I mean we're filled with thoughts and we have to become myopic and head to the single place that we're going while we're thinking about three other things, right? It's nearly impossible to exist on a much wider spectrum, where we're looking around and taking in things and pondering and wondering. So when we get to be placed in a scenario where we are asked to do that, holy cow! All of these different ways of experiencing things through story in a more immersive way has probably fueled me to want to act in different ways. I feel like a career is made up of as many chapters of a big book as possible and I want my bucket list to be overflowing with it with adventures and different experiences.

Charlie Melcher: Is there one on your bucket list that you can think of? What would be the dream role you haven't had or character you've always wanted to play?

Neil Patrick Harris: I'd still like to really do one of those movies with a lot of CG and wire work, like a physical kind of role, because I do a lot of that stuff anyway. I can walk on a tight rope and trampoline stuff and juggle and do all kinds of things.

Charlie Melcher: I actually know how good you are. We did that experience when we were in Edinburgh with our future storytelling friends and that group from Australia, Backbone. Do you remember they led us through those workshops of trust exercises and lifts? Anyway, I was so impressed with what great balance you had and training for that kind of physical work.

Neil Patrick Harris: That's the body you want is the circus performer, because they are lithe and yet super strong and their focus. I did a lot of trapezing when I was younger in Los Angeles. I found that guy named Richie Gowana of the Flying Gowana's and he lives in Woodland Hills. He would teach trapeze. He had a full trapeze rig in his backyard. I went and started taking lessons and it's a very interesting triage of skills, because you have to have the strength to be able to physically swing and kick your legs up and hold positions and tighten your core. You also have to have an innate sense of calm. It's graceful and the grace comes from a yoga, letting go and just letting it be. But if you're doing that too much, you're not strong. And if you're just as strong and letting it be, you're not focused.

And it was a very interesting ability to put those three things together. I like the precision, so it would be fun to be doing something. I got to work with David Fincher on a movie called Gone Girl and he's very precise and I loved it. It was 30, 40 takes of every shot and I felt like I was watching and working with a director who was crafting, who was a sculptor chiseling. It didn't feel hurried. It didn't feel like the editor would deal with it later and we're just going to bang out shots and we'll deal with it after the fact and we got to make our day. It felt like we were working with someone who, when he was happy, it was right. I don't know. That was a great experience.

So I would love to do more of the technical working.

Charlie Melcher: I once got to go on set to watch JJ Abrams direct Star Wars.

Neil Patrick Harris: Cool.

Charlie Melcher: And I used exactly the same metaphor of a sculptor, like removing clay or adding clay. I felt like he was working it, each take to get exactly all the elements just right. He knew what he needed and he was working to get that clay just right. It's a beautiful thing to watch somebody with such mastery of their craft.

Neil Patrick Harris: JJ is the man. I'm hoping to be working with him on a big Broadway musical project soon.

Charlie Melcher: Oh, that's amazing. So, that reminds me you are so multi-talented, Neil.

Neil Patrick Harris: Thank you.

Charlie Melcher: You have the ability to work in so many different ways, in front of the camera, behind the camera, singing, magic, writing. First of all, there aren't that many people who have that range. Why are you somebody like that? And then secondly, what do you enjoy most of all of those kinds of roles?

Neil Patrick Harris: I think I'm just old. I think with age comes ... I've been doing this a while, man. I'm 46 years old and I've been doing this since I was 11, 12?

Charlie Melcher: You did start young.

Neil Patrick Harris: So I think it's just because I've had the ability to have multiple chapters and play around in stuff.

Charlie Melcher: I'm going to push back, though, because there are a lot of old actors who never did any of that, and you had a curiosity maybe? Or an impatience. I don't know, because seriously, you've pushed into so many different areas, right? Most people don't.

Neil Patrick Harris: I don't know. I'm fascinated and I'm turned on by the process. And so I guess that would answer your question of why do I do so many things? Because I'll do a multi-camera sitcom and suck it dry and then think, "Oh, but, wouldn't it be cool to do a small independent film?" And then I'll do an independent film. "Great. That was super fun too. What about writing something? What would that be like?" And then I experience that. So I'm enjoying that I'm getting to play in all these different sandboxes.

Charlie Melcher: I remember walking around Edinburgh when we went to see what four or five shows a day and it seemed like you were absorbing it all like source material. It's like you were taking these mental notes as we went. Do remember we went to see Manual Cinema's Frankenstein and afterwards ... which was amazingly beautiful and so deconstructed and referencing every kind of story telling medium through history and afterwards, the creators came out and they brought the Frankenstein puppet. You ate this puppet up. You needed to know everything about it and how they made it and how to operate it and next thing I know, you're animating it and it just was an example to me of the curiosity and hunger to learn and what I could see was that you were making mental notes for something else you were going to do with it.

Neil Patrick Harris: Well, I appreciate you mentioning puppetry, because I had not put that into this equation, which is I am so in awe and enamored by all of that. Jim Henson was the only person I ever wrote a fan letter to when I was a small kid in New Mexico.

Because I think the notion of creating character in an inanimate form and then animating it is unbelievable. Using felt and ping pong balls or you know, pieces of straw and a hot glue gun and making something that then can become a character that's fully actualized is mind boggling to me. It takes more than one person to do that, but I love it, isn't that great? I mean, isn't that what we're doing this for, is that you can sit and watch something and love it and be moved to tears by the story that they're showing and then on a whole other level, and simultaneously, be in awe of how they did it? Like seeing the magic trick while watching how the magic trick is being done.

Charlie Melcher: I love that idea, too, that you're referencing, which is this, to be able to be engaged with your head and your heart at the same time, right? To feel moved by the emotion and still be able to think or appreciate.

Neil Patrick Harris: Exactly right, and to allow the audience to feel smart. I think that's a big key in telling stories. If you talk to kids like they're babies, they're going to lose interest. And I don't think in turn, you should make people feel like they're super smart and are supposed to know all the source material. My gosh, when I go see Tom Stoppard plays at Lincoln Center and it's all about Russian Tsars for seven hours, it's great. And I leave really dumb because I don't know Russian history and there's 47 characters. Ethan Hawke's really good and I'm thinking, "I guess I had homework to do before I saw this." So I like it, I value it, but at the same time, I think, "Ah, I wish it was a little more accessible."

Neil Patrick Harris: And then the other side of that coin is when you're watching something that's so dumbed down that I think, "Right, I know. I get it. You don't have to show extreme closeups of eyes welling with tears. I'll cry when I want to cry."

Charlie Melcher: I'm always looking for those kinds of shows that let the audience really in. Future of Storytelling, curating around this idea that one of the big shifts of the 21st century was that we had technologies that were enabling people to be in the stories, right? To not be passive consumers of their stories as we had been for so long since the invention of mass media, but basically to be active participants in them, which takes us back to a storytelling that goes to our roots, like an oral tradition or early musical traditions where everybody danced or everybody's sang, or everyone played an instrument. No one's sat quietly, passively in rows and just listened to music.

Charlie Melcher: We all were part of the music and the same with stories and so the excitement of things like immersive theater or XR, VR, AR, was that they were enabling us now to have this embodied role. But I do share with you that fear that that's going to be set back now, at least the ones that are within physical proximity.

Neil Patrick Harris: Well, that's interesting because we started this discussion with me lamenting about how I'm worried about how storytelling will maintain itself, but I thought we finished this and I think to myself, we are at an interesting thing. I'm curious to see what stories will come from the Zoom world that we live in.

As filmmakers, as creators, because there's something weirdly Blair Witch about having a narrative where you have these little screens on a bigger screen. It's almost as if we are the editors of our own movie. I'm curious to see what filmmakers, what the JJ Abrams are going to come up with in the short term, because we need content. I mean, you can't go to circuses right now and so it'll be curious to see in this Quibi world that we live in, how to belie the structure in a way that's very effective. If anything, it's lighting a fire under our virtual asses to change the game.

The authenticity of the creative, I think, you lead with that and I think, if you believe in it, and if you've thought it through and you're not just blindly saying, "No, I'm creative, I think we should do all these dumb things." But if you're thoughtful and mindful and creative, I think you'll succeed.

Charlie Melcher: It's incredibly challenging as a time, but maybe this is going to be the moment for people to stop a little bit, pause and recalibrate and come up with some new, really beautiful work.

Neil Patrick Harris: I mean, we can lament all the things that we're not, but we have to look at not only the things that we are, but you can look at the things that we can be. In a time when there's a lot of people that deserve to have an escape or two, it's good to be one of the creators of that and to try and steer it to the positive.

Charlie Melcher: Great, so I look forward to seeing you singing some song with about a dozen other celebrities on YouTube tomorrow.

Neil Patrick Harris: We'll see.

I'll call every Hedwig that's ever sang this far. Let's see what we can come up with.

Charlie Melcher: Neil, thank you so much. This has been really a pleasure. It's great to see you and it's great to get to hang out a bit together.

Neil Patrick Harris: Likewise, I can't wait to give you a big hug one of these days.

Charlie Melcher: Me too. Me too. Well, big virtual to you, buddy.

Neil Patrick Harris: Cheers.

Charlie Melcher: Be well.

Thank you for joining us and a special thanks to PBS American portrait for their generous support, and to Neil Patrick Harris for his inspiring conversation. As an extra treat for Neil Patrick Harris fans, we've included a few special photos on our website. If you enjoyed listening and would like to hear more, we'd really appreciate if you'd subscribe to and rate our podcast.

In addition, if you know someone who would dig our show, please be sure to pass it along. The best thing you can do to help support us is to spread the word. Thanks again for your time and a big thank you to our production partner, Charts and Leisure. We'll see you next week with another conversation. Until then, please be safe, be strong, and story on.

For more information about Future of Storytelling or to subscribe to our newsletter, FoST in Thought, visit us at fost.org.