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Neil Patrick Harris on his job scraping meat “goo” and his undying love for Mariska Hargitay

Neil Patrick Harris on his job scraping meat “goo” and his undying love for Mariska Hargitay
Graphic: Allison Corr, Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
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In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people the same 11 interesting questions.

Leave it to tireless performer Neil Patrick Harris to keep working steadily even through the pandemic. The Broadway alum and erstwhile star of Doogie Howser, How I Met Your Mother, and Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events will soon be seen in It’s A Sin, the upcoming British series about the 1980s AIDS crisis from the creator of Queer As Folk, which debuts on HBO Max on February 18. “The accent was concerning for me, but I’m glad they hired me,” Harris said.

He also recently filmed Matrix 4, scheduled to come out in December, and the The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent with Nicolas Cage. Speaking from his brownstone in Harlem, New York, where he lives with husband, David Michael Burtka, and their 10-year-old twins, Harper and Gideon, Harris said, “I’ve got some things I’m directing, and some I’m producing… When you’re sitting around with not much going on, it gives you time to shake the branches a little bit.”

Harris—who is a guest on this week’s episode of The A.V. Club’s podcast Push The Envelope (available above)—also made a video for PayPal and Venmo showing how to shop safely in stores, paying touch-free with QR codes, which was shot overnight at a CVS. “I was more than happy to help spread the idea that we need to maintain safety protocols, especially given all the numbers,” he said. “And they said, we will film a video, but we can only film it at CVS when it’s closed, so you’ll be in the CVS all night long. And I said great, can I film it by myself? So that was kind of the structure of the video, which turned out well.

The A.V. Club: It’s funny how you go to the CVS and you can never walk out without spending, like, $87.

Neil Patrick Harris: I never realized how many disparate things are in a CVS and until you’re there at 3:30 in the morning. You’re going up and down the aisles. You really see all that they have to offer. But it’s a smart idea. Some of the new systems that we have to put in place, being in lockdown, being a pandemic, will probably go away once the vaccine has taken into full effect, right? But I think certain things, like paying for things using your device more liberally, is a new normal that will stay. So it’s good to get used to it now.

AVC: Right. Like why not keep wearing a mask through the cold and flu season? I haven’t had a cold in a year. 

NPH: And I like wearing a mask because no one knows who I am when I go to a store. It’s great.

1. What is the best trip or outing you remember as a kid and what made it great?

NPH: My parents would take my brother and myself out of school for a week, feigning sickness, and we would go to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm and all the theme parks in Southern California. I remember looking forward to that every year. And it gave me a love for all things theme park and Disney and family. So I remember liking that a lot.

AVC: That’s so great. And it wasn’t a regular vacation—they would just lie to your school? 

NPH: Well, I think we wouldn’t do it the exact same week every year, or [the school] probably would have figured it out. [Laughs.] But, when you’re in the fourth or fifth grade, that’s not the worst deal to get out of school for a week. So I’m not quite sure what their excuses were every year, but it was nice because we didn’t have to go during the summer months when it was crazy crowded. We were able to go on the off times. And I just loved it there.

2. What’s something that’s considered a basic part of your current career that you struggled to learn? 

NPH: Wow, probably, that rejection is consistent, and has almost nothing to do with your own self-worth. The entertainment industry is, by design, asking lots of people to apply for a singular job. So you’re rejected uniformly. And to be honest, when you fail in life—this is what I’m learning as a parent who’s trying to teach my kids—you learn. We should work toward failure so that we can improve from it. Because if we don’t do things wrong, we have no gauge of the how of how to make them improved.

AVC: That must have been a hard lesson to learn as a kid.

NPH: Oh, for sure. As a kid, you’re wanting to be approved for everything, for your prowess, for your looks, for your status, for all of it. So yes, acting and waiting in hallways with like-minded kids holding 15 pages of dialogue, hoping that you won the golden ticket, it came with its own issues for sure.

3. Did you pick up any new skills, hobbies, or got into something you hadn’t before during quarantine?

NPH: Oh, I’m very into woodworking. Okay, I didn’t take shop class when I was in school. I was more of a home ec guy. And now I’m watching all these woodworking tutorials and following woodworking people on Instagram. And I want to start building my own things, like there’s something beautiful about taking something that was born from the ground and using your actual hands to to turn it into something that is reusable and in a new form. So I bought a table saw. I put that together. I’m turning our garage here into a proper woodworking workshop. I’m getting very into it. Nick Offerman is my hero at the moment.

AVC: What was your first woodworking project? 

NPH: My first project has been putting together the table saw. [Laughs.] Which took three days, and I think every single thing I could do wrong, I did. I would throw it all together, except one part, and then I would forget to read the part about don’t screw them together tight. Then I’d screw the second part in, it wouldn’t fit. And then I’d be frustrated, and go back and read, “Oh, of course, well you’re not supposed to screw them all the way in tight.”

So it was just a disaster. And, it’s a table saw. So I was even more terrified that I may incorrectly turn that thing on, and a plate would go flying [Laughs.]. But I took my time. I’m learning patience. And there’s a great guy named Steve Ramsey who does an online tutorial called Woodworking For Mere Mortals. And I signed up for his woodworking weekend warrior class. But it got really cold now. So I might have to wait for the beginning of spring. I’m looking out the window at falling snow, so I’m not quite sure how much I want to make a shop table.

4. What restaurant do you not live near, but make a point to hit every time you’re in the right town?

NPH: Oh, well, that’s easy for me. I’m from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Mexican food there is spectacular. Hatch, New Mexico, is famous for their green chiles. If you can track down Hatch green chiles, buy them every season and freeze them and eat them often. There’s a restaurant right near the university called Frontier Restaurant. It’s open 24 hours, it’s a bit of a diner, and they have a Frontier burrito that’s ground beef, green chiles, cheese smothering a fresh homemade flour tortilla. And it is heaven. It’s what would be my final meal if I had to choose one. And I can’t not eat there every time I go to Albuquerque, which has not been frequently this year.

5. What futuristic technology that doesn’t exist now would you like to have?

NPH: I really want Elon Musk to make those tubes underground to send us from New York to L.A. in 30 minutes or something. I can go from New York City to London in 20 minutes, like I’m a deposit at a bank in one of those pneumatic tubes shot from location to location. I am really anxious for that to happen. That sounds like great fun.

6. What famous person that you’ve met has lived up to or exceeded your impression of them?

NPH: We’ve become friends with Mariska Hargitay. I was a fan of her work and had heard she was the nicest person and now we’re close family friends. And she is the funniest, nicest, most generous individual. I can’t say enough about her and her husband, Peter [Hermann], and we’ve just become fast friends. So any time anyone can engage with Mariska and Peter, I highly recommend it.

AVC: How did you meet her? Were you on SVU?

NPH: No, I wasn’t. We have two kids that are similar in age, and we met, I think, in Puerto Rico at an event that Jose Andres was doing. Their family was there and our family was there and our kids were all playing together. And their kids are so lovely and well-behaved. And our daughter, Harper, has become very tight with Amaya, their daughter. And when you get 9-, 10-year-old kids that enjoy each other’s company in the middle of a pandemic, you become fast friends very quickly. So we are all part of the same bubble now. I just think they’re the loveliest. She works so hard, and Peter works so hard, and they still manage to maintain such great family relations with each other. And to do it with such wisdom and humor and grace. I think the world of them.

7. What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

NPH: I worked in Ruidoso, New Mexico, at this sandwich shop where I had to clean the viscous outer layer of goo off of canned meat before it was sliced for making sandwiches. That was gnarly.

AVC: That is a terrible job.

NPH: Sure makes you appreciate fresh turkey.

8. What fictional family would you like to belong to?

NPH: Ooh, good question. Good question. Okay, first I would think Swiss Family Robinson, because I could live in a tree, but I realize that might be kind of limiting. So I’m going to go Addams Family. Because they loved puns and they lived in a kind of haunted house and embraced mad diversity.

9. What’s the first piece of art, or, earliest piece of media, that inspired you to go into your field?

NPH: Honestly, I’d probably go way back and say flip-books steered me toward, like, George Méliès. And the idea that you could take still images and put them together. You know, George Méliès was an illusionist. So I was drawn to him by magic, but also then turned into a filmmaker. And I really remember being young and making my own flip-book images, and then seeing that that can be turned into film images—or photo images, I guess, just one step away from film. And that really made me feel that making film was achievable, as opposed to just something that you watched from a screen from afar.

AVC: How old were you? Do you remember?

NPH: Making flip-books? Probably 7 or 8.

10. Who is the funniest person you know personally?

NPH: Would that I knew Ben Schwartz personally. I would like to say him, but alas, I don’t. So I will say my husband, David Michael Burtka. He is so hilarious. He does funny voices. And, you know, he just has a dark sense of humor and consistently makes me laugh and laugh. He doesn’t get to show off his funny very much. But he’s going to start acting again in earnest, so hopefully he’ll be able to show his comedy chops soon.

11. If a deli named a sandwich after you, what would be on it? 

AVC: This is a question that has probably already happened. Somewhere on Broadway there has to be a Neil Patrick Harris club sandwich or something.

NPH: Is there? If there is, I must have one, just to feed my ego. See, now, you’re asking me this and I haven’t eaten lunch, so that was a great question. I would say it would be roasted chicken, like a rotisserie chicken that’s been peeled apart, with fresh grated cheddar cheese, fresh Hatch green chiles on a toasted English muffin with mayo and nacho cheese Doritos in the middle to give it an extra crunch. I call it the Meal Patrick Harris, thank you.

AVC: Speaking of Broadway, I have to ask you about the “Going Bigger” Tonys opening from 2013. I’ve watched it about five million times. Was that the hardest thing you’ve ever done? It’s just astounding. 

NPH: Well, thank you. It wasn’t the hardest thing, but it was certainly the most exhilarating. And I will say that I’m not sure how it all happened, because there were so many things that could have easily gone wrong: magic tricks that didn’t work in the dress rehearsal, hoops that were going to probably be a terrible mess if I didn’t lift my leg high enough, quick changes that could have gone wrong. There was a lot at stake. But it’s the Tonys and it’s Broadway and people do that kind of nonsense, or at least used to, eight times a week. So, I was thrilled to represent.

AVC: You must really miss being on stage.

NPH: Oh man. One thing I hope to be able to champion someday soon is getting back to theater. The performers need to be able to perform in front of an audience. But more importantly, I think an audience needs to be able to have a communal experience again. I miss Hedwig and being able to live that world and perform and sing and emote and have people be affected by rock ’n’ roll. Things like that need to happen again.