From Dougie Howser M.D., to How I Met Your Mother, Neil Patrick Harris has had huge success in his television for over 30 years. The first openly gay man to host the Oscars, talks to us about his latest role (as Henry Coltrane) in Russell T Davis’ (Queen As Folk) new drama, It’s A Sin, that follows a group of friends having the time of their live in 80’s London gay scene, as the AIDS pandemic looms.
Tell us a little about your character, Henry.
Henry works at a Savile Row tailors. He seems to be an antagonist for Colin, but quickly realises Colin’s a bit green, a bit young and innocent and naïve, so takes him under his wing and provides an example for a way of existing that Colin didn’t know about. He’s been with his boyfriend for a long time, living his lovely independent existence with calm and happiness, which makes a nice juxtaposition to the desperate need for chaos and individuality some of the younger generation at that time were seeking.
Henry’s role in the drama is one of a mentor – did you mentor Callum too?
I think the absolute world of Callum. He is an open vessel of positivity and talent. He asked questions, we ate out and drank together, his accent is divine, he’s so formal and humble and confidently enthusiastic about his future, as he should be. It was exciting to watch so many people with such talent at the beginning of their film experience.
That’s part of what makes it feel so fresh and genuine.
Agreed. I wanted to be able to hang out with all of them together, so I came up to Manchester a few days before my scenes started filming so I wasn’t just in my own singular story with Callum but I could know what their group energy dictated. That alchemy of ensemble energy helps define the thing, and it’s something Russell has proven himself remarkably good at putting together, whether for Years and Years or Queer As Folk or Doctor Who. I was very taken with the whole group – they really enjoyed each other, so watching the scenes of them meeting, dancing, having fun, it’s rooted in sincerity.
A native of New Mexico isn’t obvious casting for an English gent like Henry. How did you find the accent?
I asked questions about accent – I needed more specifics because I didn’t want to do a generic British accent with no context. I worked with a coach to make sure most of what I said was on point and tried to channel David Niven a bit! It was a fun challenge. I’m very appreciative of and impressed by the British thespian. I’m directing a murder mystery on film soon, so I’ve been neck – deep in Agatha Christie, I’m a huge fan of Punchdrunk’s immersive theatre, the Goes Wrong Show gang… I’ve been anxious to play in those sandboxes for a while, so I didn’t want to misrepresent.
Why do you think this is an important story to tell, and why now?
The HIV/AIDS conversation is still alive and necessary and in many ways more important now than ever. I talk at length and relatively often with Elton John and David Furnish about their AIDS Foundation which has done such extraordinary things. They recognise there’s a tipping point, that HIV/AIDS could be eviscerated to zero in our lifetimes. That’s a big deal considering how it started, in such uncertainty and with so much fear. At the beginning of all this, if you went into hospital with AIDS or HIV there was a strong probability you were not going to come back out. So to continue the conversation with perspective, to be able to look at that generation with a bit of hindsight, makes the morals and lessons and warnings more vivid.
What role do you think a drama like It’s a Sin can add to the conversation around HIV and AIDS?
There’s a younger generation that perhaps often only knows HIV/AIDS through the idea that, if you’re on PrEP, you’re good to go. I hope it allows them to have a new perspective and awareness of the lives that were led before. I applaud Russell for creating this wonderful, brave origin story of a group of people coming into their own under this shadow of such uncertainty and darkness. Rooting for these people, being so excited to see them living, fucking, being proud, and simultaneously recognising that this series is about something much bigger… The first episode ends on such a happy note, and you wish them all success, joy, happiness, love, enthusiasm, excitement in their worlds. Yet you’re terrified for their safety and concerned about how these stories will end. It’s an amazing dynamic.
There is a lot of joy in the series, maybe unexpectedly so.
Russell manages to make it feel so comfortable and the dialogue is so real, it doesn’t feel laden with pretension or heaviness, even though you’re watching these beautiful children turn into adults with this spectre approaching. No one wants to frame this as a tale that will make you afraid or sad, but it’s about HIV/AIDS in the 80s in the UK so you have to deal with the realities of it. Few people can handle stark realities better than Russell – he deals with them in a very conversational, realistic way. He makes it all accessible.
What memories of the 1980s did filming bring back?
I was too young to be personally aware of HIV/AIDS – I’m from small-town New Mexico, then I went to Los Angeles and was still doing a TV show with my parents, so I wasn’t out in any way, I wasn’t able to date, experiment or explore. That said, my agent at the time was a children’s agent, her assistant was gay and I became friends with him and his partner, a casting director. They were a lovely example to me of how to be out and hilarious and the life of a party at a time when I didn’t have a lot of examples of that. He, the assistant, got sick and died of complications from HIV/AIDS, but even back then it felt shrouded in a shame. Not from me, but it was never discussed openly: someone isn’t at work, things aren’t so good, they pass away. It was all very quiet, it felt suppressed as if discussing it made it more real or something to pass judgement on. There was great sadness around the conversation. I’m so happy we’ve turned a corner in that regard. Being positive isn’t something shameful now – look at Magic Johnson or Greg Louganis, people living with it, it’s nice to witness. The easiest emotion to tap into during filming was the isolation and seclusion. What a weird thing, to have so much emotion and sadness, and yet you’re supposed not to discuss it and just pretend it didn’t happen. That pain has to go somewhere.
What has Russell’s writing meant to you over the years? And what do you hope It’s A Sin might mean to audiences?
I’m such a fan of his. I found Queer as Folk so sexy at such a pivotal age. I was looking for examples of ways to feel charged and alive and I was so taken with that production, I watched it over and over. When I was asked to meet with him about this, I was happy to participate in any way. Russell has this innate ability to connect with so many people through his style, which allows him to write science fiction, apocalyptic fiction, contemporary magnum opuses about larger issues, whatever it might be, in such a palatable way. But also, it’s intoxicating and sexy, and when you’re talking horny and sexy, you want a younger generation of LGBTQ people to see this story and have it resonate, not just as a sad history lesson, but in a charged, energising way. You want to dance with these people. Through that intoxication, I think lessons can be learned in a much more profound way.
It’s A Sin is available to binge watch for free on TVNZ OnDemand.