For Young Actor, Diversity of Roles - Stage, Film, TV - Provides Key to Career Longevity

There was more than one moment during the filming of "Joan of Arc," the CBS miniseries, Neil Patrick Harris knew, as Tom Petty says, that it's good to be king. That was because Harris played France's dauphin, the heir to the throne, who later became King Charles VII with the help of the Maid of Orleans. "It was so great playing the king because you were treated so well," says Harris. "And it was strange being just an actor on the movie, but as you're playing a scene, to have everyone in such awe of you."

Perhaps more than awe. During the coronation scene filmed at a large cathedral in Prague in the Czech Republic, Harris was outfitted in a huge cape and crown. When the ceremony ended, he turned and faced the massive crowd, including Joan and the knights.

"Then all these trumpet players lifted their trumpets and there were hundreds of extras cheering," says Harris. And I got to sort of grandly march down the aisle and nod to Joan. It was so surreal to be in that foreign country, in that cathedral with all these authentic- looking extras all cheering me being king.

"Beyond the ego rush, it sort of felt authentic at that moment because we weren't on a sound stage pretending it was happening."

That's a long way from "Doogie Howser, M.D.," the hit series in which he played a 16-year-old doctor who went through the usual teen dilemmas along with life-and-death situations. But that's a long way from his native New Mexico.

Harris says he's proud of the fact that his parents didn't push him into a career. He got his break when he was discovered at an actor's workshop in his home state and won a role in the 1988 film "Clara's Heart," starring Whoopi Goldberg. He then moved on to "Doogie Howser," which ran on ABC from 1989 to 1993.

In 1997, Harris starred on stage in the West Coast production of "Rent," as well as having a key role in Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi spectacular "Starship Troopers."

Nowadays the restless 25-year-old still is jumping from one medium to another.

"I have a short attention span," he quips. But more seriously, he says he's trying to be as diverse as he can. "I think that the big key, at least for me, for longevity is doing quality work but doing totally different kinds so you can't get pigeon-holed."

Currently, he's filming "The Next Best Thing" in Los Angeles with Madonna and Rupert Everett. Harris describes the film, directed by John Schlesinger ("Midnight Cowboy," "Marathon Man," "Cold Comfort Farm"), as a tragicomedy about gay rights.

In March, he shone on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre in "Sweeney Todd," the Stephen Sondheim musical, alongside a powerful cast that included Kelsey Grammer, Christine Baranski and Davis Gaines.

And by Monday he'll know if the comedy pilot he did for NBC, "Stark Raving Mad," in which he plays a book editor who is assigned to baby-sit a Stephen King-type horror writer played by Tony Shalhoub, is picked up for next season. It's being produced by Steven Levitan, who is behind "Just Shoot Me."

"Theater is good for your soul, but you're paid little money and you work your ass off and few people see it," says Harris. "In movies, you don't work much at all and you get paid a little more money, and you get prestige because you work with famous people. And in TV, you do a medium amount of work and get paid an exorbitant amount of money, but you have to deal with the repercussions of everyone watching you every day."

But he did enjoy filming "Joan of Arc" despite the fact that the old castles were "like refrigerators," and everybody spent their time between scenes huddled around heaters.

The handsomely mounted miniseries boasts an impressive cast, including Leelee Sobieski, Peter O'Toole, Maximilian Schell, Peter Strauss, Jacqueline Bisset, Powers Boothe, Olympia Dukakis and Robert Loggia.

Harris says working with O'Toole, who plays the dauphin's spiritual adviser, was fun. "He's so knowledgeable. You can't have mindless small talk with him or he'll see right through it."

As the dauphin, who lived from 1403-1461, Harris plays a rather enigmatic, foppish figure.

"He was disowned, essentially, so he has this rather severe form of narcissism knowing he should be the man who rules the country but that he has no means of accomplishing it. So, he's constantly game- playing and conniving and trying to pass the time until something will happen that will allow him to rule. Then Joan (Sobieski) comes along, and he thinks it's the perfect ruse."

When Charles does meet Joan, it's behind closed doors. No one knows what Joan said to the dauphin. She was supposed to reveal something from God. Whatever it was, he came out of the meeting and announced she was indeed the legendary Maid who would bring the different kingdoms of France together as one nation. Whether Charles really believed her, no one knows. Harris says they left the scene ambiguous so viewers can make up their own minds.

Now that he's played a king and a doctor, what else does Harris want to do?

"I think I'll end up directing in the long term. There's a lot more to do and a lot less scrutiny. It's not so much about how you look but how you perform," says Harris.

Anything else? "Join the Cirque du Soleil," he says. "I want to be an acrobat. I'm a little past my prime, but I'm working on my backbends."

Hmmm. Do you think he's kidding?

Rob Lowman - Los Angeles Daily News - May 13, 1999