Neil Patrick Harris has played an impressive number of what he calls “extreme characters,” which made his role in the comedy Uncoupled especially appealing.
“I was attracted to the notion of a bit of normalcy” and nuance, he said of his refreshing dip into the Netflix series. He plays a suddenly single New Yorker, dumped by his partner of 17 years, stumbling into an unfamiliar dating world.
The eight-episode Uncoupled, which debuted Friday, represents a still relatively rare Hollywood commodity: a rom-com with a gay character as the lovable hero of the story.
That increased its value for Harris, as did the show’s veteran, TV homerun-hitting writer-producers: Darren Star (Sex and the City, Emily in Paris) and Jeffrey Richman (Modern Family, Frasier).
“As a gay man myself, I thought that having content that was representational was great on a streaming platform like Netflix,” Harris said. Star and Richman's knack for making fare with broad appeal is proven, and Harris marvels at the show's skillful juggling of the sad and the “ridiculously funny."
“I thought that that was all something that hasn’t necessarily been done before. And I was honored to be asked to be a part of it, to be honest,” said the Emmy-winning actor whose eclectic string of screen credits since he started as a teen actor include Doogie Howser, M.D.; How I Met Your Mother; Gone Girl and The Matrix Resurrections. On Broadway, he earned a Tony Award for Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
In Uncoupled, Harris' Michael is a Manhattan real estate agent who works with a candid and loyal colleague (Tisha Campbell), has a supportive circle of friends and is coming to grips with life as an unmoored, 40-something man.
The role's emotional demands made it a “very risky, scary move” for Harris to sign on, Star said. “I would say, gay or straight, I've never seen such vulnerability from a male character. It's a guy going through the pain of a breakup, and you don't really get to see it that often.”
A birthday party scene in the first episode calls for Michael to publicly toast his partner Colin (Tuc Watkins) to a crowd unaware the pair have just split. It's a tour de force moment for Harris.
“His authenticity and emotion, it was so remarkable. When an actor elevates your writing like that, it's why you are a writer,” Richman said.
Harris and the show's creators are on the same page regarding what the show is not intended to be: a political statement.
“It's almost the opposite,” said Star. “It was like, this is where we are. It's where the world, the audience has moved, they want to see a show like this. You don't have to be gay to see yourself reflected in these characters because it's so much about the humanity of this experience."
Harris sees value in a work that is “just a slice of representation without agenda....If one tries too hard to accomplish a specific agenda with art, it’ll be met with both extremes. The people that love it will embrace it, and the people who don’t love it will be affronted by it."
Uncoupled is truthful but also “very binge-y and it doesn’t take itself too seriously,” he said.
For the actor, who's married and a family man — he and actor-chef David Burtka have two children — Uncoupled was a chance to venture into an aspect of life that Harris has been lucky enough to avoid.
“I didn’t start dating till much later than most, and when I did start dating, they all went fairly well. I don’t have a lot of relationship wounds," he said. “I’ve been with David for 18 years, and once we started dating, we really just never stopped.”
Wading into fictional heartache turned out to be oddly rewarding.
“In a very weird, altered version of my reality, this was an exciting role to play because it touched on, it brought up emotions that I hadn’t felt — that I hope to not feel — but that I was required to feel,” Harris said.