Neil Patrick Harris talks candidly to New York magazine about life as gay actor and his love for David Burtka
There are all kinds of articles coming out right now about Neil Patrick Harris with his hosting the Emmys on Sunday. One of the best is this cover story in New York magazine. Written by Emily Nussbaum, it’s a very good read and a very long one. I’ve pulled a few chunks of it out and posted them here (all the stuff about being gay in Hollywood!) and here is a LINK to the full piece if you have the time:
Coming out is its own kind of theatrical performance: It’s a reveal. For most of show-business history, it’s been more like an exposure—often in the aftermath of a scandal, as with George Michael. But then there was Ellen DeGeneres, whose famous “Yep, I’m Gay” on the cover of Time seemed to presage a new era of openness, an end to the double life. Instead, it hobbled her career until she returned, years later, as a talk-show host. That was twelve years ago, and each year there’s more give in the social fabric, with openly gay newscasters (Rachel Maddow), talk-show hosts (Rosie O’Donnell), singers (Michael Stipe), American Idols (Adam Lambert), comics (Mario Cantone), and actresses (Wanda Sykes, Sara Gilbert, Portia de Rossi, Cynthia Nixon). Even some long-closeted female stars have quietly shifted their status, including Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, and, most recently, Kelly McGillis.
Yet there’s one set of performers for whom coming out is still considered a career death sentence: male actors, particularly thosewho play romantic leads or star in action films. The few who are out— Alan Cumming, Nathan Lane, David Hyde Pierce, Ian McKellan—are seen as niche performers. Rupert Everett, once a contender for the first Gay Bond, has been relegated to the margins of the industry. When Grey’s Anatomy’s T. R. Knight came out, it underlined his lack of chemistry with his female co-stars. Meanwhile, a retinue of major stars hover in limbo, their relationships haunted by the suspicion that it’s all for show, their performances (onscreen or on talk shows) scrutinized for indicators of some hidden self. The assumption is that they have little choice, since the conventional wisdom hasn’t budged: An out male star can never be a leading man. Straight women won’t be able to fantasize about him; straight men won’t be able to relate.
Neil Patrick Harris has violated all these expectations. He staged his own revelation beautifully, with a clear and upbeat statement for People magazine in 2006, an interview with Out, and a good-sport appearance on Howard Stern, in which he shot back “whatever you please, man” when asked whether he was a top or a bottom. The idea all along has been to acknowledge the fact of his sexuality, then change the subject to his talent. Still, there was a kind of alchemy involved. Maybe it was Harris’s easy style of masculinity, at once unthreatening and seductive. Maybe the timing was right, coming after he’d proved he was more than a Trivial Pursuit punch line. Or maybe he’d learned, from his own extended personal coming-out process, how to handle the expectations of a wider audience.
It was also while starring in Cabaret that he met actor David Burtka, who was playing Tulsa in Gypsy. Like Harris, Burtka was “a relationship guy,” and at first Harris assumed he was straight and dating a mutual female friend, Kate Reinders, who played Baby June. “I said, ‘Oh, Kate, nicely done.’ ” But Burtka was already involved, raising twins with his long-term male partner. “So I sort of gazed from afar until that had run its course. And thankfully I got to hear from Kate on the phone, every now and again, when she’d say, ‘They’re fighting! They’re fighting! You might have your chance!’ ”
After Burtka and his partner broke up, he and Harris went on a date, “and it was all very quick and fast and I’m still head over heels and we’re five-plus years in.”
Like many stage actors, Burtka had never been in the closet: In live theater, it’s accepted that a wide proportion of performers are gay. “We yin and yang very well,” says Harris. “We’re both Geminis, but I, you can probably tell, I process what the options are, and figure out what to say, and he tends to just say what he is feeling. I’m just bowled over by him. He’s made my life exponentially more livable. He’s just—great. I’m his forever protector, and I’m happiest when he’s happy.”
He also wasn’t precisely out when he was cast as Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother in 2005, although he brought Burtka to the first cast barbecue. But as Harris’s star rose, it became inevitable that his life—however open to those who knew him—might become a tabloid story. The blogger Perez Hilton was on the attack. And Harris and his team met to strategize, striving to make their statement succinct and positive. “No one was ever old-school Hollywood, with a cigar in their mouth, saying ‘You can’t do this, see! It’ll ruin your career, kid.’ ” With his mild New Age streak, Harris expresses faith that intentions are what matter: “So long as you’re representing yourself well, you’re making good choices for good reasons, all of the circumstantial things will vanish.”
Now Harris and Burtka walk the red carpets together. They wear rings, although they are not legally married. Despite rumors of a surrogate, they are not having a child yet, he tells me, but he believes “we’d make very good parents.” (When they spend time with Burtka’s twins, Harris says he gets to “be the fun guy who takes them to Disneyland.”)
The psychological effects of being closeted are well documented. But living in a “glass closet” has its own risks, since any sexual references a celebrity makes—toward either sex—risk coming off as coy, even hypocritical. Some actors (Jodie Foster comes to mind) respond by developing an oddly asexual vibe. But perversely, Harris’s wholesome statement to People about being “a very content gay man,” paired with his marital stability, seems to have freed him up to be a polymorphously flirtatious celebrity, catalyzing crushes from all corners.