Sexual Harris-ment

The Doogie days are long gone for Neil Patrick Harris. Will Starship Troopers and Tempting Fate put them in the past for everyone?

Twenty-three-year-old Neil Patrick Harris knows it isnít easy, even four years after the fact, to obliterate memories of his years as Doogie Howser, the young genius TV doc who put him on the star map. But you have to admit heís making a heroic effort to change his image. As he talks about Starship Troopers, the $100-million-plus sci-fi epic in which he plays a space guy who communicates with bugs, Harris reveals a notable un-Doogie-like tendency to mince no words; calling the movie "comic-bookish, with a weird, Ď50s, Nazi undertone," he points out that the filmís director Paul Verhoeven, "doesnít really care about character motivations or whether somethingís funny to the American sense of humor." Take that, Paul.

But the subject of sex is what really fuels Harrisí frontal assault on old notions of who he is. "My TV character was young, brilliant and had no sex appeal, except in a very Opie Taylor way," he says. "What I want to show now is that Iím older and sexier." Sporting chopped yellow hair, wire rims and chipped black nail polish, Harris set teater groupies squealing and cheering with his surprisingly potent turn in the West Coast production of the Pulitzer-winning musical Rent. He was clearly a hunka hunka burniní, well, charm, at bare minimum.

Consider, too, that Harris beat out such contenders as, one hears, Scott Wolf and Matt Damon to play the young buck whom infertile husband William Hurt handpicks to impregnate wife Madeleine Stowe in the soon out Tempting Fate. Since Tempting Fate raises the issue of sperm donation strategies, how would Harris counter the objections of those who think a turkey-baste job might succeed better than a flesh-on-flesh tryst with a former TV star? "Hey, my sperm are, apparently, very fast, and, these days, very, very abundant, so theyíd get right up there in no time flat to the egg," he crows. "Anyway, Tempting Fate is set in the Ď30s, when they didnít do turkey baster things. And itís a female director and a female star, so it was very much a sort of Ďromance novelí approach to lovemaking - very tasteful, very poetic, with a lot of voiceover. My character is a virgin who has no idea heís got any sex appeal. And happily, itís James Stewart kind of sexy, not a sexy, groovy, Stephen Dorff kind of guy. That would just make me laugh."

Itís not like we havenít seen sexual behavior from Harris before. Remember The Man in the Attic, the Showtime movie two years back, in which he did a semi-nude scene? "There I was," he recalls, "stark naked, saying to myself, ĎWhat the hell am I doing here with my head between Anne Archerís legs, pretending to be servicing her?í I didnít show my weiner in Tempting Fate and I wasnít in the nude shower scenes in Starship Troopers. But Iíd be upset with myself if I opted not to be naked on-screen just because I was insecure about being naked."

How would Harris describe working with Tempting Fate costars William Hurt and Madeleine Stowe, both of whom past coworkers have found less than a breeze to deal with? Hopefully not with too much Doogie-like deference. "Thereís no getting around that William Hurt was a nut," Harris asserts. "You donít realize that it isnít appropriate to walk up to him and go, ĎHi, mr. Hurt, nice to meet you,í until he snaps at you. We actually got along fairly well, but he treated the director [Lesli Linka Glatter] like shit." And Stowe? "Lesli definitely had to answer to Madeleine, but Madeleine was great to me, and very intelligent, very much a businesswoman. Everyone was in awe of Kenneth Branagh, whoís also in the movie. As a lot, though, actors are psycho."

Having heard that Harris narrowly missed landing roles for such directors as Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick, I propose that he size up some of his competitors. Leonardo DiCaprio? ĎVery, very lucky. Iíd have made a really, really good Romeo, but Baz Luhrmann casts trendy people and Iím not that. Hey, I introduced myself to Tom Cruise at the Golden Globe party and he didnít give me the freakiní time of day." Stephen Dorff? "Frighteningly Hollywood." Skeet Ulrich? "Paid too much money to high-powered publicists who kicked him in the butt." Jonathan Schaech? "Very, very pretty in a Gothic painting sort of way." Matt Damon? "Excellent actor, very attractive, very charismatic. I donít mind losing parts to Matt." Vince Vaughn? "The man. Cool, smart, sexy, very good." But, he adds, "Iíll tell you who has the fucking great life: Robert Sean Leonard. He does movies, never becomes too famous, and gets to do plays at Lincoln Center."

And what does Harris think performing in a musical like Rent will do for his career? He didnít do it all for his benefit, he explains: "Itíd be awesome if I could get people my age - the heroin chic generation who only think itís cool to go to the Skybar, do little indie movies and brush shoulders with Ethan Hawke - to see how powerful musical theater can be if itís done right."

Stephen Rebello - Movieline - Dec/Jan 1998