Neil Patrick Harris Talks the Future of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ and Revisiting ‘Doogie Howser’

With all due respect to Barney Stinson, Doogie Howser, Hedwig and his id alter-ego in the “Harold & Kumar” films, Neil Patrick Harris believes that Count Olaf in “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is the role he was born to play.

“It’s certainly in my wheelhouse,” Harris tells Variety. “And the wheels have more spokes than I anticipated.”

Count ‘em: The versatile Harris acts, sings, dances, uses a bit of slight-of- hand magic — and does it all in various elaborate costumes — as the sinister uncle to three orphaned kids in the darkly whimsical Netflix series based on Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” young adult books. In the second season, which arrives Mar. 30, Olaf continues his relentless (and crafty) quest to trick the locals and get his grimy hands on the family fortune. He’s not above disguising himself as a mustached auctioneer and selling off one of the children.

Harris notes that author and co-executive producer Daniel Handler intended for the events to go from unfortunate to downright dastardly.

“In this world, the adults are all very busy and well-mannered and don’t have time for kids,” Harris says. “The kids are the only ones
that see the truth.”

Ahead of the 10-episode new season, Harris spoke to Variety about the challenges of the role, what’s in store for Olaf, and the recent remake craze.

What’s the reaction been like from kids since you started playing this villain extraordinaire?

I get more reaction from parents that say they watch their kids. That gives me the most enjoyment. As I engage with kids, I rarely have on the prosthetics, so they don’t recognize me much. If they hear that I’m Olaf, they’ll demand that I prove it in some way by doing a voice of a character. I’ve had to pitch my case to 10-year-olds to assure them.

Do you prefer playing edgy characters? This isn’t “Gone Girl” dark but you’re still tormenting kids with relish.

I do! As our own kids are getting older, I’m seeing that they’re drawn to dark material. I think kids innately like things that are a little spooky and scary, like Grimm’s over classic fairy tales.

Why does Olaf in particular appeal to you?

It’s a challenge. I pride myself of being an actor who’s more of a technician than someone who’s more method. I really like being on set filming and getting the prosthetics on and colors and the paints. I like tech rehearsal. I like all of us working together and to make something cool.

Describe the transformation process. Is it more of a well-oiled machine now?

Olaf takes about two hours in two different trailers. One is just for makeup effects and one is for hair, regular makeup, hair, teeth, wardrobe and stinky smells. It is a little faster now but I’m not trying to get it faster because I don’t want anyone to be hurrying. I want the artists to feel like craftsmen being honored for what it is that they’re doing, as opposed to a rushed 75 minutes.

But Olaf never fools the Baudelaire kids when he’s in disguise. What’s the key to playing a bad actor?

I guess an oblivious constitution and great trust in [co-executive producer and director] Barry Sonnenfeld! I have to have blind confidence in that everything I’m doing is a success. And trusting Barry will choose a take that doesn’t embarrass me. I’ll give different versions of every scene. I imagine Olaf as a Shakespearean actor and Wile Coyote. Once he gets his eye on a prize, he’s very myopic. I struggle with how to play a bad actor especially when Olaf is playing different characters. Then it’s Neil playing Olaf as a bad actor playing a character in a bad performance.

The second season of “Unfortunate Events” covers the sixth through 10th book, while the third season is supposed to cover the final three. Will there be a season four?

No. I’m done. We’re following the books very faithfully.

There was only one “Big Little Lies” novel and look what happened!

True. I won’t spoil it, but the books were written to have a conclusion. And I think I come at this as an actor with an adrenaline and a kind of masochism knowing that there’s an end. We film on the West Coast, and I live on the East Coast. What always appealed to me was that we’re not only doing a filmed version of these books, but a Netflix version. When it’s done, the episodes can live there and be new to people that haven’t seen it.

So many shows from “Will & Grace” to Roseanne” to “Murphy Brown” are being revived. Do you foresee that happening with “How I Met Your Mother “or even “Doogie Howser M.D.”?

Well, they tried a “How I Met Your Father” pilot on CBS and it didn’t get picked up. But with “How I Met Your Mother,” we had a bonus ninth season and I appreciated that so much thought was given to the ending. It would seem strange to revisit it so soon. And the conceit of Doogie Howser was that it was a teenager struggling with the juxtaposition of an adult work load and adolescent feelings. Even if you put a new kid in there, he’d just be a guy going to work every fourth day and pontificating. I think there are better ideas.

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Starz Logo

    Starz Orders Horror Comedy Pilot 'Shining Vale'

    Starz has put out a pilot order for “Shining Vale,” a horror comedy which hails from “Divorce” creator Sharon Horgan and “Trial & Error” co-creator Jeff Astrof. The prospective series is about a dysfunctional family that moves from the city to a small town into a house in which terrible atrocities have taken place. But no one [...]

  • Bethenny Frankel at the showtime Emmy

    Bethenny Frankel to Exit 'Real Housewives of New York' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Bethenny Frankel is stepping away from the “Real Housewives” franchise. Variety has learned exclusively that Frankel is poised to exit Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York” ahead of its upcoming twelfth season. Frankel first joined the acclaimed reality series back when it premiered back in 2008 before exiting the series in 2010 during the [...]

  • Dolly Parton

    BBC Commissions Dolly Parton Feature Documentary

    The BBC has commissioned a feature length documentary about country music legend Dolly Parton, it announced Wednesday. The documentary, tentatively titled “Dolly’s Country” will air on BBC Two this fall as part of a season of programs dedicated to country music. The broadcaster announced earlier in the day that it had acquired Ken Burns’ upcoming [...]

  • UCP to Develop Ann Shen’s 'Bad

    UCP to Develop Ann Shen’s 'Bad Girls Throughout History' as Anthology Series

    Universal Content Productions (UCP) is developing an anthology series based on Ann Shen’s book “Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World.” The project will be titled “Bad Girls,” with each episode featuring a different influential woman throughout history, including famous figures like Ada Lovelace, Rosa Parks, Mata Hari, and Ruth Bader [...]

  • Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro attends a

    Bolsonaro LGBTQI Outburst, Subsidy Freeze, Stirs Outrage

    Ramping up the drive into censorship in Brazil, its Minister of Citizenship, Omar Terra, has suspended a call for applications for governmental TV funding – until new criteria are established for its application. The country’s secretary for culture, Henrique Pires, who reports to Terra, has resigned in protest of the incentive freeze. The suspension, for [...]

  • Shanta Fripp Claudia Milne Jon Tower

    'CBS This Morning' Names New Director, Managing Editor and Senior Producer

    “CBS This Morning” has made three key staff appointments as the show’s new leadership team settles in. Shanta Fripp, an 18-year CBS News veteran, has been named director of the weekday broadcast. Claudia Milne has joined CBS News from ProPublica as managing editor while Jon Tower has been upped to senior broadcast producer. “I’m thrilled [...]

  • Sean Spicer DWTS

    Sean Spicer Will Make Six Figures for 'Dancing With the Stars'

    Sean Spicer could waltz away with a nice payday if he wins “Dancing With the Stars.” According to multiple sources, contestants on the ABC competition series make $125,000 for the show’s rehearsal period and their first two weeks on the air. If they make it to week three and beyond, they begin to earn additional [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content