Whether it’s parenthood or filming steamy scenes in Uncoupled, Out’s July/August cover star likes to keep the audience guessing.
Neil Patrick Harris woke up at 6 a.m. the day of his conversation with Out. No, it wasn’t for the interview. The actor and his husband, David Burtka, roused their 11-year-old twins, Gideon and Harper, for a shower and breakfast. Then he drove them to school. On the call, Harris ticks off an expected afternoon itinerary that includes an appointment with the dermatologist, picking up the kids, a homework session, and packing for a family trip.
“Our life — our singular life, David and my life — is dedicated almost uniformly to our family and being parents,” explains the 49-year-old actor, whose partner of 18 years has been sober for about five. “We don’t even really go to bars and stuff. We hang out with our family. We prioritize that because we love spending time with each other. The whole dating world, much less Grindr world, is very, very out of our orbit.”
Such was the orbit of Michael, the lead character Harris embodies on Netflix’s Uncoupled, which drops July 29. Although Michael is not a parent — nor an actor, he’s a real estate agent for the well-to-do on the show created by Darren Star and Jeffrey Richman — he shared a life and lovely New York apartment with his partner of 17 years, Colin (Tuc Watkins), commonalities with Harris’s life. However, Michael’s domestic bliss is shattered when Colin, during a surprise party for his 50th birthday, announces he is leaving the relationship.
This “what if?” alternative reality scenario was one of the project’s draws for Harris (in addition to working with the Sex and the City creator, who Harris admires). “I got to live out my weird like, ‘Oh, that’s what that would be like,’ fantasies. Although, not always with the happiest of endings,” he shares.
It’s certainly a bumpy road for Michael. In his mid-to-late 40s, he is thrust into the gay dating scene as a relative neophyte, fumbling with, say, the rules of etiquette on Grindr (choice of user name, dick pic photography, etc.) amid a landscape populated with younger men. He’s helped along by two single gay friends his age, Billy (Emerson Brooks) and Stanley (Brooks Ashmanskas), as well as his business partner Suzanne (Tisha Campbell). He does so while struggling to advance his career and grappling with the grief and denial of suddenly being “uncoupled.”
Harris says he’s never been a Grindr user; his courtship with Burtka began well before the now-ubiquitous dating app’s launch. The “tech dating life” he recalls centered around AOL chat rooms catering to gay men in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. For Harris, Uncoupled presented the opportunity to peek into the “fascinating” world of modern-day cruising. It’s been educational.
“I still think it’s funny how people don’t go to bars to meet people anymore,” says Harris, referencing an Uncoupled scene stipulating that only friends gather at a gay club while the hookup-sorting takes place in the digital realm. After acting out Michael’s various sexual adventures (and misadventures), Harris also now admires the “thick skin” of young people who may face routine blocking and ghosting in the quest for “one-and-done situations.” “I feel like at , I would probably take things more personally,” he confesses.
However, Uncoupled isn’t his first foray into the virtual meat market. Harris previously gained some insight through a friend, Max Emerson. On one occasion several years back, the handsome influencer offered a brief Grindr tutorial to Harris after he expressed that he was “curious about what it was.”
“Oh, I’ll show you,” Emerson replied, as Harris recounts. Immediately, the phone’s screen filled with “overt asks and requests” from interested parties nearby. “It was so funny. I was just cackling the whole time. I couldn’t believe it,” says Harris, who took up Emerson’s offer to exchange a few messages with others from the account.
“I just didn’t realize how easy it was…when you’re that attractive, to have people send you images of their bodies,” he marvels. “That was crazy, and I guess that’s what those apps are all about.”
Regardless of his views on Grindr, Harris is an admirer of the art of flirtation. He describes himself and Burtka as “relatively flirty people” who enjoy the “charged” encounters than can come on the busy streets and subways of Manhattan. “It’s fun to walk down the street and see someone cute, and they think you’re cute, and you’d give the look back, and you go, ‘Oh, oh, they thought I was cute!’” Harris exclaims. (Los Angeles is more of an “isolated bubble” with its car culture, he bemoans.)
“I love to see people check out my husband,” he says, noting, “It’s titillating. We’ve always kept a bit of spark in that regard. I think it’s fun. I think it’s fun to flirt.”
In addition to courtship, aging is a central theme of Uncoupled. From the onset, Michael frets over the viability of a middle-aged man on the dating market. And he debates with a newly separated potential client, Claire (Marcia Gay Harden), over whether single gay men or straight women have it worse off. But whereas Michael may have some insecurities, Harris — famously known for portraying a child doctor in Doogie Howser, M.D. as well as his boyish good looks — has embraced a very different point of view.
“I honestly feel better than I’ve felt in my whole life. As I’m aging, I’m feeling like I am more and more comfortable in my skin and my posture and my body,” he attests. “I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life, but in more practical terms — as opposed to ‘gym body’ for others.” (Rather than glamour muscles, Harris praises “practical strength,” exhibited by, say, the ability to do a press handstand.)
“I think for a large chunk of my life, in my body, I felt younger than I actually was,” he adds. “I often felt insecure at gyms or at parties or socializing a lot, because I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin. Now that I’m , I’m proud of my journey, and I don’t feel like it’s ending. Knock on wood, I’m still on an upward trajectory. No hip replacements, no knee replacements, no nothing. Not yet.”
Despite the pressures in Hollywood and certain gay circles, Harris also does not feel the urge to turn back the clock. “I’ve always felt like life is a lot. It is acquiring chapters in a book,” he says. “I don’t want my life to be a pamphlet. I want it to be a tome. I enjoy chapters. I enjoy lines on my face. I enjoy wrinkles around my eyes. It came about because I smile a lot, so I don’t feel the need to age down at the moment.”
And the viewer sees a lot of Harris in Uncoupled, which shows the actor nearly naked in multiple sex scenes. It’s a point of pride and progress for Harris. “I’m so glad that I’m doing a show like this now because I was less concerned and conscientious then I probably would’ve been 10, even five years ago,” he says. “…I was glad that I wasn’t just the punch line of the joke when I was in bed with some 28-year-old hot guy.”
The same mindset applies to his drop-trou photo shoot with Out. “I feel good about myself these days, and I assume that will wane,” he says. “If my kids happen to see pictures of me in my underwear in a magazine, they’ll just be crazy embarrassed, which is amazing. At worst, they think that I’m even more ridiculous than they already think I am.”
In fact, Harris is relieved that a show depicting the sex life of a gay middle-aged man is unremarkable in 2022’s television landscape — a testament to how far LGBTQ+ representation has come in the last few years alone. Uncoupled is “groundbreaking, I suppose, because it’s not, if that makes any sense,” he deduces. Filming these sex scenes “all felt oddly comfortable,” says Harris — well, as comfortable as one can be simulating sex with strangers with “a crew and intimacy coordinator just off camera.”
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It’s “a lovely time to be able to make this kind of content without feeling like it’s taboo or feeling like it’s scandalous,” he says, a topic he’d bring up with Star and Richman. “…If anything, my focus was more on tone than it was on the eroticism.”
Indeed, Uncoupled’s groundbreaking quality may lie in its defiance of genre. The show is broadly a comedy — both physical and situational, such as when Michael stumbles down a mountainside in front of a crush and drunkenly foils a flirtatious hot tub scene during one gay ski getaway. Yet grounding these ha-ha scenes are moments that express a “sad, quiet realization of self,” Harris says.
“I’m just not sure how those two disparate elements fit together in a show, but then I think, Well, that’s life, isn’t it?” Harris reflects. “We have big, hilarious hours within our day where nonsense things happen that you tell your friends about later. Then you also have quiet moments of sadness and reflection, and it doesn’t all have to line up in a very myopic style.”
In his private life, Harris is finding no shortage of drama with parenthood. His kids, as they approach their teens, are forming a very different kind of relationship with their dads. “They’re at the age right now where when we get off the subway and we’re a few blocks away from school, they don’t want us to speak,” Harris says. “Any verbalization is met with an eye roll and a, ‘Please stop talking, just please stop talking’.… We’re saying like, ‘So have a great day at school,’ they’re like, ‘Please, you’re embarrassing.’”
The suggestion that the family may soon part with its tradition of annual group Halloween costumes — viral shots that have included themes like The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland — throws Harris. “Oh, my gosh. You’re right!” he exclaims. “Soon enough, they’re not even going to want to hang out with us on Halloween. What will we do? They’ll just go off with their friends. We’ll suddenly be the people just on the stoop with a basket full of candy. Wow. Things are going to change, man.”
Harris is not yearning for an empty nest anytime soon. Though he is looking forward to seeing his kids come up through these formative years. “We’ve spent gosh, almost 12 years watching them grow, helping them make independent decisions, creating a future of agency for them. And so now this is the time where it’s interesting, for me at least, to see how they actualize these lessons,” he says.
Harris is also “very grateful” to live in a time and place where raising a rainbow family like theirs is possible, and that he and Burtka can be models for other same-sex couples looking to become parents. “I love that it seems that we’re steering towards a society that isn’t so stymied by singularity. The plurality of it all I think is really helpful to so many,” he reflects. “I think that it’s great to live in the now, and I’m…excited for what the next generation will be able to achieve and accomplish. I feel like we’ve tipped the point and now it’s time to get cracking.”
As for his career, Uncoupled is just the latest twist in a lifetime of incredibly diverse roles on stage and screen. His résumé includes the womanizer Barney in CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, the titular lead of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, the dastardly Count Olaf on Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the Analyst in The Matrix Resurrections. Add appearances in Harold & Kumar and Gone Girl to the mix, as well as Russell T Davies’s upcoming Doctor Who series as “the greatest enemy the Doctor has ever faced.” Harris, a famed lover of magic, compares his career trajectory to a “magician ideology,” as in: the audience does “not know what’s coming up next.” For his next trick? He’d love to play a CGI character like Gollum or Thanos in order to try a new skin on for a change. “I like playing people that are nothing like me,” he says.
“I’m fairly voracious,” Harris admits of his acting choices. “Whether it’s doing an opening number for an award show that only happens one time or being a camp counselor on [a]Walmart app when kids are in isolation during quarantine. I don’t know. I think it’s fun to act. Acting’s a cool gig. You get to not be yourself in very strange circumstances. So I say, bring it on. I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
TEDDY VONRANSON Coat RON DORFF White Briefs
Talent NEIL PATRICK HARRIS @nph
Creative Director BEN WARD @_benjaminward
On-Site Creative RAINE BASCOS @tworaine
Photographer DEAN ISIDRO deanisidro.com @deanisidro for @defactoinc
Stylist SAM SPECTOR samspector.com @samspector
Grooming AMY KOMOROWSKI @akgroomer for thewallgroup.com
DP JESÚS BAEZ baeznyc.com @baezphoto
Photo Assistant ALEX KALB
Digital Tech NATE MARGOLIS
Stylist Assistant KATIE VAUGHAN and ABBEY KOFELDT
Location CANDY STUDIO @candystudionyc
This article is part of Out‘s July/August 2022 issue, appearing on newsstands July 12. Support queer media and subscribe — or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News. And watch the teaser for Netflix’s Uncoupled, out July 29, below.