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.