Neil Patrick Harris (‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’) on how playing Count Olaf was ‘a challenge in insecure ways’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Neil Patrick Harris earned his 12th Emmy nomination this year as an executive producer on “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” nominated in the Best Children’s Program category. Harris is also one of the stars of the series, playing the villainous Count Olaf under heavy makeup.

Harris recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum and contributing editor Zach Laws about ending “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” his thoughts on hostless award shows and his experience as a child actor. Watch the exclusive video above.

Gold Derby (Chris Beachum): Neil, I wanted to ask you, to open up with, 12 Emmy nominations in just over a decade, you’ve won five, so you’re almost 50/50 ‘cause we don’t know what the 12th one’s gonna be yet. Take us back over that time, maybe to your first one especially and give us what that meant to you to get that.

Neil Patrick Harris: If I’m not mistaken, the first nomination was for the first Tony Awards that I hosted?

GD (Chris): I was looking, I think you had three in a row before Tonys for “How I Met Your Mother.”

NPH: Oh, for “How I Met Your Mother.” You’re absolutely right. Yeah, “How I Met Your Mother” was such a fantastic beast because we, for a long period of time, didn’t get much recognition, on the bubble, was a show that was not super well-received and it was only in year four, I think, once syndication was probable that people started to watch it in earnest and then I guess since it was on sometimes during the days, it took off and got its own momentum. So getting recognition in the awards sector was super fun, a bit surprising and the drawback is it was all the same years as “Entourage,” which was an award show darling. No, it’s fun. I’m very appreciative when shows and work that I’ve done and have been on are acknowledged, but having been on both sides of that award show gauntlet, meaning I’ve been in the producorial position and the host position, there’s a certain level of zeitgeist arbitrariness that is part of it. I think especially given the years that we are in now, there are so many good, amazing work being done by so many people on so many levels, that to single a few out is awesome. But it really is a different world now.

Gold Derby (Zach Laws): Speaking of Peak TV, “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” this was the last season of that show. Obviously, you’ve been through this before, saying goodbye to “How I Met Your Mother” for instance, but what was special about this one? Talk a little bit about wrapping the series up with this third season.

NPH: “A Series of Unfortunate Events” was pitched to me by Barry Sonnenfeld and by team Netflix as a larger piece of art. The idea was always just three seasons because the three seasons covered the 13 books that Daniel Handler wrote of the Lemony Snicket series as a book and we were trying to very loyal, with embellishment, but very loyal to the source material. So when it was pitched to me, “Do you wanna go to Vancouver and wear two and a half hours of prosthetics every day and do some heavy-lifting acting of a really grand scale,” it was always pitched to me as something that was finite. I loved that because it felt like we were doing a thing instead of trying to do something and just fingers-crossed we get to do it again and again and again. It gave us a sense of purpose. So wrapping it up was good. There was no bittersweetness to it. I was so pleased, almost like I have never felt before. I was so pleased with the level of work that everyone put into this Netflix show that kids are able to like and watch and appreciate on an artistic scale that had never been done before. So when I said goodbye to it, I was A, tired, but B, just so happy with how the work turned out.

GD (Zach): One of the things I love about your character of Count Olaf is that he’s kind of the sort of character that somebody like Peter Sellers or Alec Guinness would have played in one of their movies because he has all these different personas and costume changes that he does. Was that part of the appeal? Can you talk a bit about not just playing a character but being able to play a character playing multiple characters?

NPH: Yeah, it was relatively meta. I had not read the books before any of this had happened so when it all was coming to me as an opportunity, it was cool but I quickly read the first book and there was no real disguise in the first book and then I read the script that was in line with the first book and I just loved the tone and I had never done that kind of performance before. I’m speaking much more technically. I had done multi-camera work and I had done theater. I had never done the full-on prosthetic face by way of Barry Sonnenfeld, which is really specific angles and wide locked-off shots and lots of peering in and looking at stuff. The combination of that seemed intriguing to me just as a challenge. Then I started reading the books and quickly realized, “Now I have a beard and no hair and glasses and I have to come up with a funny voice. Now I’m playing a one-legged sea captain with an eyepatch and a terrible accent and fake teeth.” Yes, it turned into Peter Sellers very quickly, and meta in a fun way. It was challenging for me personally because I probably overthought it. But again, with this kind of material, I wanted it to be as complex as possible, given that it was based on books that are complex in nature but are more “Grimms’ Fairy Tale” than anything, dark stories that don’t end well, but playing a broad Wile E. Coyote kind of guy who is a terrible actor, who is playing roles that were believable by adults but not by the kids, and funny enough that you laughed at them but not so ridiculous that anyone would see through them, was for me, a challenge in insecure ways, as you can imagine.

GD (Chris): One of our editors, Marcus, had a good suggestion for me to ask you this morning, which is we wanna challenge you to come to the Creative Arts Emmys as Count Olaf.

NPH: Oh my gosh.

GD (Chris): You would be the hit of the red carpet.

NPH: Could you imagine? That would be so fun to do.

GD (Chris): Or since you play different characters, really, different looks, just keep circling the red carpet and changing looks, do it three or four times.

NPH: The carpet is such an interesting vibe because you have to always be smiling and present presentational ‘cause you’re never sure who’s watching and what’s happening. It would be really fun to do a carpet where I was fully some other character ‘cause I could really go whole hog in the physical comedy.

GD (Chris): That would be fun.

NPH: That would be fun. I’d rather be photographed looking very rakish and charming, though.

GD (Chris): You’ve got the Clark Gable look going on today.

NPH: I’m making a movie in Montreal, a feature film called Spitting Gold and I’m playing a guy named Bill Aucoin, who was the manager for the rock band Kiss and I’ve been doing that for a few months so yes, I have a summer ‘stache.

GD (Chris): I wanted to ask you, you might be the best person in the world to ask this question, you’re the only person to ever host all four major award shows. You’ve got the EGOT of hosting. What do you think about this current trend this year of no hosts?

NPH: I think there’s something to be said for no hosts. You certainly allow more time to spend on other things, on honoring the material. I think award shows are a tricky dynamic and it’s a hard one to produce. The Emmys are especially hard because the level of television has expanded so much that there’s so much good content and it’s so varied. You have so much talent and you have streaming and you have network and you have cable. There’s just so many options that it’s kind of hard to rein everyone into a singular show. It’s almost like looking at the whole year through a very fast forward speed on your TV. It’s a difficult one for anyone. At least when I was doing it, you try to make choices that are honoring the season’s material. So if it was a season of hit comedies, then you can be funnier in the show and more irreverent. If it’s more drama and “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones”  and things, then you probably would wanna be more serious and honored in that way. Now there’s so much, I don’t even know where they’re gonna go with it. But it’s cool, I think, to see behind the curtain a little bit and to appreciate how these things are made. I’m most excited as audience member watching award shows when I get to see the inner workings of things more than just dresses and speeches.

GD (Chris): Another question I had on a different topic in the last year we lost Steven Bochco, who helped introduce you to the world, really. I wonder maybe a favorite recollection of his for you and also, what did he do between “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law” and “Doogie Howser” and “NYPD Blue” and all those great television shows, what was he doing that caught on and made him so iconic?

NPH: That’s such a twofold question and so interesting. I would wanna word myself so particularly because I have nothing but wonderful things to say about him and memories of him. He championed me. He actively changed my life. I think he revolutionized television, brought the single-camera ensemble show of “Hill Street Blues” to a level of quality and accessibility and character development in a way that hadn’t been done before. Obviously, it received a lot of accolades for just that. “L.A. Law” was a massive success. It changed television as well. My parents were both attorneys so we were avid fans. They were avid fans of that show, so when I had started working from a small town in Ruidoso, New Mexico, here and there on certain weird things, I got to do a movie with Whoopi Goldberg which was really random called “Clara’s Heart” and I was doing a couple random things. It wasn’t my life’s calling. The question was, “Would you ever wanna do TV,” and we said no as a family because it would uproot us to California and my parents jokingly said, “Unless it was written by the guy that did ‘L.A. Law’ or something.” Cut to I don’t know how many years after they said that but sure enough, a script comes along that was just perfectly designed for an opportunity to again change the game. It was a half-hour single-camera show, very much a dramedy that wasn’t done at those times. It was coupled with “The Wonder Years,” which itself was kind of a revolutionary show. It allowed me to spend four years of my life learning skills from people whose craft mattered a lot and the visual aesthetic was important. The dialogue was not to be played with. The responsibility at 16 years old, looking younger, was a lot, but I’ve always been turned on by a voracious challenge. To get to an actor as a child is a very jarring experience. Oftentimes you’re on a sitcom where there’s crowds of people who are being caffeinated and are supposed to laugh at everything you say and there’s producers and other people who just “Yes” everything that you ask for. I didn’t have that experience. My experience with that was a lot of work. I had to learn medical jargon, I had to learn medical procedures, I had three hours of school a day and I had a heavy day of work. I learned how shots worked, how Steadicams worked, I learned how to be efficient, effective, how not to wander, how to be focused, and I can attribute all of that to Steven Bochco and his belief in me, someone who had not done much before that.

GD (Zach): You certainly see his influence on television today, certainly from a quality standpoint. One of the things that I love watching about “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is the attention to detail in the sets and in the costumes. I wonder as an actor how does that help put you into the world and help put you into the character, these incredible sets and costumes for this show?

NPH: It was so fantastical in every way. I just assumed that if you were gonna do something like this, with this kind of scope and scale, that most of it would be done as an after effect digitally. Then, along comes Barry Sonnenfeld, who directs while sitting on a saddle with a cowboy hat and he pontificates and he has such a great eye and he wanted everything to be very real so we filmed it in Vancouver where every single thing with maybe three or four single-shot exceptions, were in soundstages and the soundstages were giant soundstages and everything, Bo Welch’s production design, was outrageous on any feature film level. Every book was two episodes and they built the entirety of these sets, an entire sea town, an entire hotel wing, an entire labyrinth hedge maze. All of these things weren’t done digitally so it made it a very fun sandbox to play in. It was just a fantastic gift because I had prosthetic makeup on, everyone was in costumes by Cynthia Summers, did these outrageous things day after day and we were in the real sets. It was like you had been transformed into an entire world. One of my favorite things to do was welcome people who were visiting onto the sets because you’d pull up into this regular old area and you’d walk through these doors and it was old-time movie magic. You were in a forest. You were in these crazy places and you could walk through them. The entire two submarines were on soundstages. It wasn’t a single wall. They build it four-wall. I still don’t know how they got permission to do it and I don’t know where all of those things went. They should open up some sort of museum. It’s one of the reasons that I’m actually very grateful that you guys are allowing me to talk about the show because I think sometimes the children’s programming category could get overlooked and as a parent of eight-year-old kids and as an author of middle grade books and as an actor in shows, I’ve done “The Smurfs,” I’ve done a lot of things that are for kids as well as adults and I think that “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is as complete and respectful of kids and yet so cinematic in a way that Netflix has rarely done before ever. I hope the recognition is there for all of the creative hard work that everyone put into it.

GD (Zach): It certainly doesn’t talk down to kids, which is what I really like. It’s like a great Grimms fairy tale in the sense of it’s so dark and it understands the intelligence of children.

NPH: In fact, more so, it assumes that children are more intelligent than adults in many ways. One of the main conceits of the show from Daniel’s books all the way through Barry’s ideas with the Netflix version was that kids are actually paying attention and adults are so mired in their own complicated isms, of busyness and of work and of stresses, that they can’t even see something as overt as Count Olaf in a ridiculous costume, that they just can’t be bothered, and that kids are actually smart enough to be paying attention and can recognize things as they are.

GD (Zach): Absolutely. Neil, thank you so much for your time and congratulations on the show and on its Emmy nominations. It was a real pleasure talking with you.

NPH: Cheers. Thanks, pleasure’s all mine.

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