After wrapping nine seasons as womanizer Barney Stinson on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Neil Patrick Harris has swapped three-piece suits for makeup and miniskirts. The 40-year-old family man is now blowing the roof off the Belasco Theatre in the Broadway premiere of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's 1998 cult musical about a fictional rock band fronted by Hedwig, an endearingly tragic East German singer making the most of a botched gender-reassignment operation. On a very light lunch break from rehearsals, Harris is a perfect gentleman while detailing his transformation into an imperfect lady.
By Brandon Voss
Playbill: Hedwig and the Angry Inch officially opened April 22, exactly ten years to the date after the opening of Assassins, your last Broadway outing. Good omen, eh?
Neil Patrick Harris: Wow, I didn't even realize that. Well, Assassins closed early, but I hope you're right!
During the run of How I Met Your Mother, you starred in the New York Philharmonic's concert staging of Company, and you recently directed Nothing to Hide Off-Broadway. You also hosted the Tony Awards four times. No time for a big Broadway return until now?
Mike Nichols wasn't exactly banging down my door. [Laughs] There were opportunities to step into something that was already running, which is great, but there was never enough time to have this experience of creating something from the ground up. I was actually approached three years ago to do a limited run of Hedwig during a How I Met Your Mother hiatus, but I would've been exhausted. My partner [David Burtka] and I have kids, and I do have a personal life. When Michael Mayer, our director, came aboard, he said, "We have to wait for Neil." They waited, and here we are.
You didn't get a break between the two gigs.
I was looking to do more theatre, but yeah, I assumed that there would be a longer period of time between finishing the TV show and starting my next project. I thought, you know, we'd move to New York, see what happens, and maybe within the first year an audition would come up and I'd get the job. Plans change.
Were you familiar with Hedwig?
I had seen John Cameron Mitchell in the show twice, but I never, ever saw Hedwig as a role I needed to tackle. A gender-bending part just isn't in my comfort zone. Now, at 40, I'm more comfortable in my skin than I was while watching John 15 years ago — or even two, three years ago. I was always seeking strength and masculinity earlier in my adult life, and I don't care about that as much anymore. Hedwig's rough around the edges, and I have no problem looking awkward, ugly, and spastic.
As bittersweet as it must be to say goodbye to Barney Stinson, is it also a relief to put that character behind you and focus on Hedwig?
Sure. When early Hedwig rehearsals overlapped with us shooting our final episodes, it was strange to be in a bra and a wig that a drag queen friend gave me and then have to run to put on a three-piece suit, lower my voice, and make out with my costar, Cobie Smulders. But that's the fun of acting.
What do you see as your biggest challenge in being Hedwig?
I'm most concerned about not seeming comfortable in Hedwig's physicality, which is about more than walking well in heels; it's about fully embodying how damaged she is, having lived the life she's lived, and still being fabulous. I'm intrigued to see what life lessons I learn through playing this role. Hedwig goes on a grueling, cathartic journey, and I have to do that every night in a physical body I'm not at all used to.
You rocked out as Mark Cohen in Rent in Los Angeles and on tour, but the Hedwig numbers can get pretty hardcore. Did you worry about whether you could vocally handle it?
It is nastier and grittier than Rent, but I saw it as a fun challenge to do flat tones instead of vibrato and to learn about a genre that I really didn't know about. One of my favorite things about being an actor is getting history lessons about periods I never really learned about. I didn't go to college, so this is my higher learning. I didn't know a lot about Lee Harvey Oswald in Assassins, but playing him justified my buying all the books and learning all about him. Similarly, I wasn't hugely familiar with Bowie, Iggy Pop, and the Ramones, but now I'm reading a lot and learning all about that era.
You must have some punk rock in your karaoke repertoire.
No, my go-to karaoke songs have always been Billy Joel and Elton John. But there's something about singing this style that's kind of hypnotic. It is harder to sing beautifully and tell a story when the music's so loud, but it almost feels like performance art. Even though it's very angry, you can get lost in the poetry of it all.
Has it been a challenge to perfect your German accent?
It's been a challenge for those listening to me in rehearsal. [Laughs] It's fine. I don't want it to be so German that it takes you out of the comedy. She's lived in America for a long time at this point, and the songs won't have much of an accent at all because she's listened to American music all her life. I don't want audiences to hear me going from hardcore German to not-German-at-all, so I'm trying to find a good middle-ground, partial German accent.
How have you been transforming your body?
I had worked out before with more kickboxing and weightlifting, but strength training isn't helpful when going from a man to a woman. So I've been doing a lot of cardio and hot yoga, eating less and drinking more juices. When we did last year's Tonys number together, I felt so fat around those beautiful Kinky Boots boys that it made me manorexic. And yes, everything gets shaved.
Yeah, I'm going to be very prickly. Poor David. I'm going to have to wear long-sleeve nightshirts and pajamas to bed.
You refer to Hedwig as a woman.
I do. I don't think she always wanted to be female, but she changed her gender to marry an American soldier and escape communism, and that gender remained. To me, once the surgery happened, she lost her male identity. If revealed to be a man, she would be deported back to East Berlin, so she's stuck in a Kansas trailer park with her wigs and an identity she had to own.
There's a much brighter spotlight on transgender and gender-variant politics now compared to when Hedwig premiered. How does that affect this revival and your creation of the character?
It really doesn't. Those politics are valid and important, but the show was structured well before that, and the emotional decisions Hedwig made about her outside self were really done to escape communism. Like I said, she didn't always feel like a woman and have the surgery in order to complete herself. That sort of changes the focus and takes the show out of the transgender conversation. I once referred to her as a "tragic transgender rock star," and I actually got all these tweets from people telling me that was disrespectful and that she's not transgender at all.
Putting Hedwig into any sort of box seems to miss the point.
I completely agree. In my mind, Hedwig feels that she transcends all of that. I think of her as more omnisexual, like David Bowie or Iggy Pop. Rather than demanding to be taken seriously as a woman, she demands to be taken seriously as a superstar.
Still, the show comes at an interesting time when the media is struggling to discuss transgender issues with sensitivity and respect. Has that made you more cautious as you discuss the character in interviews?
Not especially. I mean, I always want to be respectful. Believe me, I value that if you were born a male and now live as a female, there's a lot you have to do every single day. With all of the makeup, the hair, the outfits, everything — it's a lot, so you have to be really committed to that. If someone is that passionate about who they are and who they want to be, you can't help but give them respect for that. I said "tranny" once and had to apologize for it, but once you learn you aren't supposed to say that, you don't say it. You never want to disrespect anyone's feelings, and you can't get mad at someone for being offended.
Do you see Hedwig as a tricky show to sell to mainstream audiences?
Well, I don't, but I don't really have to do much of the selling. I know that the marketing team wants to make sure everyone knows it's a very funny and legitimate show. It's not just a one-man rock show with angry lyrics, because that would turn people off. Even with the poster art we chose, we wanted to make sure people knew this wasn't just a gimmick with the guy from TV in a wig and a dress.
What can audiences learn from Hedwig?
No matter who you are or who you choose to be, you need to accept yourself. She's seeking wholeness, completion, and oneness, and I think that's universal. Everyone can blame who they aren't on specific circumstances: If only I'd been the prom king, if only I was skinnier, if only I had been her, everything would be better. Questions like that torment Hedwig. In the end, she comes to see that she's perfect in her imperfections.
What advice did John Cameron Mitchell give you on stepping into Hedwig's heels?
John told me that he was profoundly moved by the freedom of performing Hedwig, and I was relieved to hear how every show is different. Nothing is locked because it's essentially a band performing songs. Sometimes, if John was tired, he'd just sit down to sing. John once walked up the aisle to go pee in the middle of a song, and the audience thought it was part of the show. Even the choreography is a quiver of arrows, so I can do a jump kick if I'm feeling it, or I can just spin or throw something. I like the energy that comes from nobody, myself included, knowing what will happen next.
How did you and John meet?
I was a big fan of The Secret Garden and introduced myself to him at the stage door after seeing the matinee. He was lovely and invited me to have lunch with the cast at an Italian place up the street. So there I was sitting with John, Howard McGillin, Rebecca Luker, listening to them telling all these great stories, and then they invited me to come watch the evening performance from the wings. We remained friends after that.
You're a guest judge on the new season of RuPaul's Drag Race. Did RuPaul advise you on your physical transformation?
Ru said that I should shave my eyebrows like he does because it saves a lot of time. But to be honest, I was a little tongue-tied around Ru, because she's the godmother of drag. I may reach out to her later for some tucking pointers.
Maybe some wig pointers too.
Well, we're not sticking to the iconic Hedwig wig you're probably thinking of. It's Broadway, so girl spent some money on some nicer wigs!
Thanks to How I Met Your Mother, popular web shows like Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, and hit movies like The Smurfs, you've gained a lot of new fans in the decade since your last Broadway appearance. The stage door at the Belasco is going to be crazy. Are you prepared?
I'm very appreciative of the fans, but I don't know that I'll have a lot of energy after the show to talk a lot, so I may have to do it relatively quickly and quietly. I certainly won't skip it, but I may go out there with a scarf around my neck and a dry-erase board.
You were a replacement in Broadway's Cabaret and Proof. Who would be your perfect replacement in Hedwig?
You know who would be pretty? Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And he can sing. But maybe I just want to see him dressed in a slip.
Playbill, May 2014 issue; extended online version.