Neil Patrick Harris Put His ‘Heart’ Into His First Film in 1987

Neil Patrick Harris on First Movie
Michael Hoeweler; photo reference: Rich Fury/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

For more than 30 years, Neil Patrick Harris has done a little bit of everything, tackling comedy, drama and musicals across TV, film, theater and the internet. He started acting in the fourth grade and was 16 when “Doogie Howser, M.D.” debuted in 1989. His best-known part came in 2005 as womanizer Barney Stinson in “How I Met Your Mother.” Over the years, he’s continued to take on new challenges, including a gruesome role in “Gone Girl” and starring in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on Broadway, among numerous stage credits. He reprises his role as the evil Count Olaf in Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which returns for Season 2 on March 30. Harris received his first mention in Variety on Oct. 19, 1987, when he was cast in Warner Bros.’ 1988 film “Clara’s Heart.”

What memories do you have from “Clara’s Heart”?

That was the first film I had ever done, and our family was not in the entertainment industry otherwise. It was my first foray into this industry at all, so I can recall just about everything: names
of the towns, the hotels where we stayed, looking at a camera for the first time. It was a really pivotal chapter in my upbringing, and I was very fortunate it was with such great people. To have [co-star] Whoopi Goldberg and director Bob Mulligan — he was remarkable. It was a terrific film school for a 13-year-old boy.

What was it like being on set for the first time?

It was in Saint Michaels, Md., filming in a mansion that was the family’s home. I remember seeing a dolly track with the camera on it, and I’d never even seen a film camera before. A few of the crew members showed me how the dolly worked on wheels and how it went down the track and allowed the shot to not be bumpy. They showed me what a mark was — that it was a piece of tape that you had to hit. I was very wide-eyed and a bit of a knowledge sponge, trying to figure out the process of making a film.

What was your idea of being an actor then, and how has that compared with reality?

I was most impressed by how many people it takes to make a film, and I wanted to be one of those people. I recognized it wasn’t just actors of importance being filmed by people who were not. It was a fantastic circus of people who were skilled at what they did individually, so getting to know what everyone did was exciting for me. My favorite moments were being on set watching things get lit and watching the process, and I still love that; that’s still kind of my favorite thing. I didn’t know back then what it would all amount to, so I was trying to take it all in, like it was a singular, once-in-a-random-lifetime experience. I’ve luckily gotten to do a couple of things since then.

Who were your early idols or role models?

As contemporaries were concerned, I thought River Phoenix was a really great actor. I always looked up to Tom Hanks too; he was kind of an everyman who didn’t need to be the hyper-romantic lothario lead to be successful. I certainly didn’t feel like the lothario at a chubby prepubescent 13, so I looked up to him a lot and his career choices.