Something is not adding up on the set of CBS' sophomore sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Neil Patrick Harris who plays Barney, the show's suited-up, thrill-seeking fifth wheel is filming a typically flashback-riddled episode about a bachelor party, and throughout the morning, his colleagues have been praising him as a ''consummate professional'' and a ''technician'' who brings ''a real professionalism'' to the job. At the moment, however, Harris is encasing a costar's cell phone in Saran wrap.
It's not the first time the 33-year-old has managed to have it both ways. Over the course of 20 years in showbiz, Harris has defined himself as the squeaky-clean Doogie Howser, M.D., as well as a rabid, coke-snorting horndog, thanks to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. He grew up in Hollywood's petri dish known for chewing up and spitting out kid actors but somehow kept his dignity and career intact. Now, on How I Met Your Mother, he showcases his talent in what he calls the ''variety arts'' spit-takes and pratfalls a silly craft he takes as seriously as murder. And three months ago, he made a very public announcement of his homosexuality, yet remains as private a celebrity as today's culture allows. In fact, this is his first sit-down interview since that revelation. ''I was going to use the 'luckiest actor in the world' comment, but it sounds so trite,'' Harris says of his good fortune. Instead, he goes with ''my workload is superfly fantastic,'' and somehow makes the statement sound totally intellectual.
In order to understand Harris' duality, we've got to back up a couple years. Let's do this How I Met Your Mother-style:
Flashback, early '90s: The New Mexico native finishes up a four-year stint as a teen prodigy with a stethoscope on Doogie. After a part in the campy Starship Troopers and a one-season run on NBC's 1999 sitcom Stark Raving Mad, the plum TV and film roles dry up, and he heads to Broadway, where he earns cred in hits such as Cabaret and Assassins.
Jump cut, 2004: Harris appears in the stonerrific Harold & Kumar, playing a lecherous, stripper-obsessed boob named...Neil Patrick Harris. Mother co-creator Carter Bays finds the self-parody hysterical, and auditions the actor for Barney. ''We pictured [Barney] as a Chris Farley type,'' says Bays. ''And then the first thing Neil did in his audition was a laser-tag scene with a full-on shoulder roll. It was like, we have to have this guy around.'' So while Harris had initial doubts about goosing his image, the decision opened a new career chapter. ''I had the fortune of playing the all-American kid,'' he says. ''Now I'm this womanizing leech.''
On Nov. 3, 2006, that professional womanizing leech made news by telling PEOPLE magazine he is ''a very content gay man.'' The statement came as the result of printed comments (credited falsely, Harris claims, to his now-former publicist) saying that the actor was ''not of that persuasion.'' Harris being of that persuasion decided to clear up the confusion. ''Someone once said that their life was an open book, but they just didn't want to read it out loud,'' he says. ''Everyone at work knew who I was dating, and I didn't try to pretend like I wasn't the person that I am.''
And thus Harris navigated the choppy coming-out waters with nary a ripple. He will reprise his aggressively heterosexual role as himself in the upcoming Harold & Kumar sequel, and no way is anyone going to tone down the brilliant bachelorhood of Barney: ''It's a big step for someone to take, and I thought it was just so incredibly classy the way he did it. It wasn't a big deal,'' says Bays.
But as happy as Harris is to be out, he'd be even happier if we could just stop talking about it. ''As much as I respect advocacy, I don't feel that my job description is 'advocate,''' he says, with a sense of finality. ''My job description is 'jester.'''
It's a job well done. Critics have given Harris raves, and while the show's audience isn't massive (it averages 9.1 million viewers a week), Mother has given CBS a modest hit with cachet and buzz. Harris is prepared to play Barney ''as long as they'll have me,'' but says he'd like to transition into directing. He's also dying to do a Christopher Guest film ideally about magicians, but stamp or coin collecting would suffice. ''That would be the career pinnacle,'' he rhapsodizes. ''Feature film. Improv-ish. Funny, but not.'' Funny, but not... Yet another contradiction. And as he ambles back to the set to debate whether ''sex-ray'' or ''triple-X-ray'' is funnier, Neil Patrick Harris makes life as an oxymoron look like the most natural thing in the world.