From kid actor to pop culture punchline to legen—wait for it!—dary star of stage and screen, ''How I Met Your Mother'' star Neil Patrick Harris, 38, has done it all. Now he shares the secrets to his success

By EW Staff
Updated September 23, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT
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When EW asked me to write up my version of a Hollywood survival guide, my first thought was, ”You’re asking me?!? I wouldn’t last five minutes on the streets of Hollywood with my tousled blond hair and dainty features!” Then I realized they meant ”Hollywood” in the sense of show business. Still, the quick answer to both is: Walk fast, say yes to anything, and always carry a switchblade.

Actually, the secret to surviving Hollywood is fairly obvious. Costar in a major motion picture with Whoopi Goldberg, accept the leading role on a television show at age 16, disappear for a while, surfacing only for the occasional TV movie or animated children’s series, send up your image in a cultish stoner movie, play a womanizing scoundrel on a hit TV show, come out of the closet to millions of people, become a father of twins, and then take over the world. Sounds pretty simple to me…

In all seriousness, it’s required perseverance, perspective, and a dedication to the craft to go all the way from ”the kid who played Doogie” to ”the guy who played Doogie and now wears suits all the time.” Here’s how to do it.

Learn the oboe, go to drama camp, and pray like hell for a lucky break
When you grow up in Ruidoso, N.M., the only outlet you have for acting and theater is the one you make for yourself. I would play my dad’s Smothers Brothers and Bill Cosby and Kingston Trio albums and memorize all the jokes and lyrics. There’s nothing sadder than a lone 8-year-old boy doing a comedy routine designed for a two-person team. That led to my deep love of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I learned every single part of that soundtrack, and I’d do shows for my parents with a cowboy hat on. It was the nicest little whorehouse you ever saw…

I was very musical at a young age. So much so that Churchill Cooke, our elementary school band and choir director, let me teach parts in the choir when I was in the fourth grade. First I played the xylophone, then marimba, cymbals, French horn, bassoon — I became a sort of jack-of-all-trades. It’s a mindset that I think never really left me. Mr. Cooke would say, ”We need an oboe part for this piece, Neil. Learn oboe.” And I would say, ”Sure, Mr. Cooke. Who needs friends?”

Actually, I had friends in spite of all the speed oboe learning. I was a weird little extrovert. And I was so small — my nuts didn’t drop until I was 16 years old — that I was asked by Danny Flores, who was the high school band director and another great creative influence, to be in the Ruidoso High School production of The Wizard of Oz. As Toto. Apparently you can be too small to play a Munchkin.

My obsession with theater really took hold when I was 14 and went off to drama camp for a week at New Mexico State University. Cue lucky break. I was randomly chosen to be in a class taught by Mark Medoff — the award-winning playwright responsible for Children of a Lesser God. He had just written Clara’s Heart, a feature film starring Whoopi Goldberg, who was transitioning from the short dreadlocks into more serious hair. They were looking for an unknown child to play her costar, and Mark thought that I’d be a good match. I had reasonable talent and superior anonymity. I went to audition and…they gave the job to another kid. The end. But in a magical twist of Hollywood fate, the director fell out. They released the kid, and the next thing I know I’m in Los Angeles sitting across from Whoopi Goldberg, rehearsing lines, and lighting cigarettes with hundred-dollar bills.

And it got trippier after that. The next year I found myself at the Golden Globe Awards, nominated against famous people like Martin Landau and Raul Julia and Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi!), but I was so young and no one had any idea who I was (Obi-Wan Kenobody!), so it didn’t feel like success. I’ve never, ever felt — even now — like I’ve hit it big. Maybe that’s because they inexplicably gave that Golden Globe to Landau. I may have been a nobody — but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t robbed.

Brace for the Wave(s)
Mr. Steven Bochco is a very wise man. After a many-monthed nationwide search to find a precocious teenage doctor, he hired me. But I suppose he’s wise for other reasons, too: Right when Doogie Howser, M.D. was beginning, he took my parents and me to a restaurant, sat us down, and said, ”A career is like surfing. You paddle out and paddle out and get wet and hit by these waves. When you finally get out where you’re supposed to go, you have to sit on a surfboard for a long time, just waiting. If you’re really lucky, you’ll catch a wave, and it’ll be the most amazing feeling. But the key is that that wave will inevitably crash to the sand. Then what you have to do is paddle back out and get hit by a bunch of waves again. But trust that in the long term there will always be waves to catch.” To a young family from New Mexico, you can imagine our reaction: ”What the hell is surfing?” But thinking back, it was a very impressive thing to hear as a kid and, as it turns out, absolutely accurate.

Riding the wave of teen fame was a bit of a mind-eff. Your face was plastered on the covers of Teen Beat and Tiger Blood magazines. Which, by the way, is a great way to visually record your battle with acne, big ears, bolo ties, and having to pose like a New Kid on the Block. I was famous! But in reality I’d go home and do homework and then go to sleep and wake up and go back to work. I wasn’t a big partyer. Never did a lot of hard drugs, never did cocaine, didn’t overdo it in the booze department, which helped keep me out of trouble. Most of the time. To my credit, I did get a fake ID and go to the Viper Room with Stephen Dorff for a spell. The ID said I was 27. Drew Barrymore’s mom hit on me. Good times.

But Mr. Bochco was right: When my Doogie wave crashed ashore, paddling back out was rough indeed. It seems that child actors come to believe that if they’ve hit it big, the fun will never end. I mean, on set there’s a whole room full of food and candy and chips and sandwiches! If you ask them to make you a candy-chip sandwich, they absolutely will. No one says no to you. So when that goes away… [Sound of bomb dropping and exploding] After Doogie ended in 1993, I found myself being recognized for a part I wasn’t playing anymore and, worse, not getting cast because of it. I imagine Lassie went through the same funk. But I got it — I wouldn’t have cast myself with my TV baggage. I did work occasionally: Maybe once a year I would get offered a television movie in which my wife and I were stuck in a blizzard with our baby (may I recommend 1994’s Snowbound: The Jim and Jennifer Stolpa Story?). Mostly, though, I spent my time sitting at home, growing more and more jaded, smoking pot, and feeling sorry for myself. Bitter at 22 — not a good look. Around this time I was back in Albuquerque visiting my parents when I met up with some friends who lived in a cool, remote town called Placitas. Their life was super-chill. A lightbulb appeared over my head. ”Why don’t I leave L.A.? If I have to fly in for an audition, I will.” I moved to Placitas for two years. Climbed rocks. Took deep breaths. It was nice to stop bracing for the waves, even for a minute, and feel like a person again instead of a commodity.

Spoof yourself — before someone else does
After realizing that if you don’t live in Hollywood the industry thinks you are no longer ”in Hollywood,” I eventually made my way back to L.A., and then to New York, where I found safe haven in the theater. In 2003 a friend called to ask if I was doing this movie called Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, since it featured a character named Neil Patrick Harris. That elicited the same reaction as someone in seventh grade asking if you’ve read the scrawl about you on the toilet-stall door. I got the script, read it, and thought it was weird but funny. I met with the writers and wanted to make sure I ”got” it — I wondered if they wanted to hire me just so that they could make fun of me. And I was really conscientious that it didn’t disrespect Mr. Bochco. I didn’t want to be like, ”Doogie Howser sucks!” But screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg treated it with a certain amount of reverence. And I had a blast during the two days I worked on that film. I embraced the idea that I was this hyper-heterosexual, drug-addicted playa. And although the role wasn’t a concerted effort on my part to alter my image at all, suddenly people thought I was clever — that I was in on the joke. I managed to develop a nice underground appreciation, which planted seeds for some future roots to grow in a bigger way.

Hits come how and when you least expect them
I was in a healthy place following Harold & Kumar, just hanging out on my metaphorical surfboard waiting for the next wave. I wasn’t necessarily itching for a big TV comeback. I tried that in 1999 — Stark Raving Mad. It was NBC Thursday night! Must See TV! Geniuses like Tony Shalhoub and (Modern Family co-creator) Steve Levitan! What could possibly go wrong? Oh, right — a little game show called Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which slaughtered us. We were canceled before the first season was finished airing.

But I decided to get back out there for pilot season. It was 2005 — procedural dramas were in vogue, and I thought it might be swell to land a gig in an ensemble show where I only worked three days a week and could do legitimately good dramatic work. Then along came this multicamera weird hybrid sitcom called How I Met Your Mother. As luck would have it, the show’s creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, were fans of what I did in Harold & Kumar and thought that I might be balls-to-the-wall enough to pull off Barney. The part was written as a Jack Black-y overweight cigar-smoking steak-eating ladies’ man. Basically me in a nutshell, right? The audition involved laser-tag playing and shouting on the phone. I did dive rolls and knocked into furniture — I honestly didn’t think I’d get it. I’ve never been happier to be wrong: I got the offer, accepted immediately, and we became family almost instantly. I’d known Alyson Hannigan for a long time, and I had just worked with Josh Radnor in a play where we were naked and making out with each other, the ideal bonding experience for a future comedy partner. To be honest, I thought the pilot would never succeed, because of its title. Titles needed to be one or two catchy words. And we had all had so much fun that, of course, it wouldn’t happen. Seven seasons later, here I am, still digging it, still amazed that the one thing I didn’t think would happen happened.

Reveal your personal life, not your private life
I feel like it’s important to have three lives. Your professional life, your personal life, and your private life. As someone in the entertainment industry, you need to be as forthcoming about your personal life as you can be, because if people are intrigued by you, then they’ll want to know more about you. If you suddenly clam up and say ”No comment” on who you’re dating, you’re just a bad guest on Letterman. I’m in the Howard Stern camp of full disclosure. He doesn’t talk about how he had sex with his wife that night, but he talks about having sex with his wife. I think that’s where the distinction lies. You want to be able to have some transparency with people who are watching you tell stories.

In 2006 I experienced a serious blending of all three lives. Some website claimed that my publicist said, when asked if I was gay, that I wasn’t ”of that persuasion.” It’s a weird phrase, and offended a lot of people. Bloggers who knew that I was gay were suddenly out for blood. I figured that was an inevitability because I was two years into a relationship with someone. Everyone on How I Met Your Mother knew my better half, David Burtka. It was not this big secret that I was trying to keep. We crafted a statement that seemed appropriate and empowering, and then we let the cards fall where they may. I wanted to be honest about things. Look, I don’t play Barney any differently, and I don’t act wildly different in my personal life. I was admittedly concerned about the public’s reaction, and I must say, the indifference that most people expressed was the greatest reaction of all — and a reflection of a nicely evolving culture. I enjoy that I can tweet pictures of my babies, 11-month-old twins Gideon and Harper, in the morning, then don the Barney suit and make out with a couple of chicks in the afternoon, and no one bats an eye. No one, David.

Don’t be a douche
Hollywood affords many opportunities to be a douche of epic proportions. Avoid the temptation. Being a pleasant person has got to count for something, and I’m not just talking about points at the Pearly Gates (I think that was the name of the club). If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s never be a D-bag to the crew. Actors sometimes take themselves far too seriously and put themselves on a different level. But everyone’s working really hard and should be afforded the same level of respect. A few specifics: Always be nice to the makeup and hair department. For obvious reasons — when I wake up in the morning I resemble a slightly blonder Ernest Borgnine. Always be nice to the editor because they stare at you for months on end and choose your best takes. And always be nice to the transportation department. Definitely kiss their asses. I think they’re part of the Mafia.

Be a slut (professionally speaking)
It’s good to have a lot of once-in-a-lifetimes in your lifetime. If you get the chance to skydive, go skydiving. If you’re offered a part in a weird Shakespeare play in San Diego, slap on some tights and rock out some iambic pentameter. If you’re offered the opportunity to have a swastika painted on your ass, glitter on your nipples, and to simulate sex with a man and a woman behind a curtain, go for it…provided it’s Cabaret on Broadway and not in some dude’s basement.

Perhaps the best career advice I can give is to try it all. I dig diversity in a career. I love getting to be the voice for the Beverly Cleary books on tape for kids and to spar with Simon Cowell as a guest judge on American Idol. For every Touched by an Angel appearance, there’s a Dr. Horrible experience. Every Undercover Brother begets an equal and opposite reaction: a Smurfs movie. (We’re coming up on the $500 million mark, yo.) If they want you to be in a Harold & Kumar 3-D movie, then do it. Especially if you get to sing a Christmas medley, smoke crack, and force yourself on one of the dancers. My point is, don’t be too conscious of what the next move in your career will be. I’ve seen many actor friends who turn down a lot of gigs because they think, ”Now I’m a big actor. I can only do these kinds of movies.” Well, they often just stop working. It’s all about entertaining people, and entertaining people can be pretty awesome, whether you’re playing Toto or hosting the Tonys. When I picture myself in the years to come, I’d love to be a kind of Ed Sullivan type, where I get to expose people (easy now) to a variety of entertainment: glass eaters, sword swallowers, magicians. If I could do that and also chat with famous people I think are cool — that would be the best job ever. It could happen. We’ll see what the next wave brings.

The NPH Fame Pie Chart
EW asked Harris what he hears from fans on the street
37% ”Legen—wait for it—dary” (How I Met Your Mother)
24% ”Doog, where’s Vinnie?” (Doogie Howser, M.D.)
16% ”Did you see that unicorn?!?!” (Harold & Kumar)
15% ”The hammer is my penis” (Dr. Horrible)
5% ”It’s afraid… It’s afraid!” (Starship Troopers)
3% ”Loved you on Malcolm in the Middle*
*He’s often mistaken for Christopher Masterson

How I Met Your Mother: What’s Next for Barney?
In How I Met Your Mother‘s sixth-season finale, we saw professional bachelor Barney about to get hitched. But who was that mystery bride? Robin? Nora? ”I can say that that answer won’t be revealed super-soon,” offers Harris, ”but I will also say that the writers are very keen and savvy, and probably wouldn’t have it be the simple triangle that it seems.” While last season Barney faced down some psychological demons, ”this year it seems they’re just having him get to show off awesome abilities,” says Harris. ”He has a big dance with Robin in the season premiere, which was a lot of rehearsing, and I get to be a bit of a show-off. We’ll also see more of Barney’s long-term ploys for landing ladies through various characters he employs. You’ll meet Dr. Stinson, a breast-reduction consultant, and a fierce hairdresser named Jack Fantastic. That one is such a trip.” Sounds legen…oh, you get it. —Dan Snierson


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