When he wants to escape the Hollywood grind, onetime child actor and current How I Met Your Mother star, Neil Patrick Harris, finds that his hometown of Albuquerque suits up perfectly. Photographs by Cliff Lipson.
Yes, Neil Patrick Harris was Doogie Howser - medical prodigy, kid doctor, best bud to that slacker Vinnie. He headed to Hollywood at age 15, where he played Doogie for four seasons on the Steven Bochco series Doogie Howser, MD. Since then, Harris has starred in feature films such as Starship Troopers and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, appeared in television movies, and performed in the theater, with a role alongside Anne Heche in Proof.
Now he is 34. And now he is Barney, Barney Stinson - the well-suited, well-versed Lothario; the good-time-guy best bud to that romantic slacker Ted on the CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother. Harris is in the midst of his third season with the show. Year two brought him an Emmy nomination for best supporting actor in a comedy series. So popular is Barney that the name Doogie rarely surfaces these days. Now airport shout-outs are requests to "suit up," a popular Barney-ism that fits nicely with Barney's Fortress of Barnitude bachelor pad and his king-size bed, which has just one solitary pillow (hint).
"There's nothing like people coming up to talk about Barney," Harris says. "I've lived with other names for far longer than that."
Plucked from a place that Hollywood sees as merely flyover country, Harris is one of the few former child stars who have steady work instead of a steady stream of scandals, a feat that seems to be increasingly unusual. He attributes his stability - professional and otherwise - to having parents who never saw a moment that wasn't teachable and to his hometown of Albuquerque.
Harris's parents grew up in New Mexico, raised him there, and still reside there, as do his grandma, his cousins, and the elder brother he followed to an audition in the fourth grade (at which he nabbed the plum role of, well, Toto in a production of The Wizard of Oz). When Harris jets home for the holidays, it's for a family-heavy shindig.
But the day we meet, Harris is on Stage 22 of the Fox Studios Lot in Los Angeles, the set of How I Met Your Mother. He's taking a break during an episode in which Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) have had a fight and Ted (Josh Radnor), Robin (Cobie Smulders), and Barney are trying to, CSI-like, find out exactly how it unfolded and why. There are flashbacks, fast-forwards, real-time interactions, and the usual array of zingers.
Since they're paying homage to CSI, the CBS hit that's set in the arid Southwest, it seems only appropriate that Harris and I chat about his love of hot, spicy green chiles and about what makes another Southwestern city - his beloved Albuquerque - so beloved.
We're probably obligated to begin with Doogie Howser, MD. You did that at what, 14?
At 16, but I was there before that. My dad was an attorney, and he stopped his practice for a bit. We thought it was very important to live together. Once I turned 18, they moved back. Dad kept up his law practice for a while but decided that the innate morality of the legal profession was always tainted, because someone has to always be on the other side. So he left the profession. My dad is very moral and a truly just man. He was finding himself losing his cases over semantic wording by other attorneys. That sort of wore him down. So they thought they'd open a restaurant for the Rotaryclub set. And it's been successful. They're doing well.
Is that a plug?
It's a plug. Consider it a plug.
Okay, then, let's talk about New Mexico. You're not just fond of your home state, you're also practically obsessed with it.
It's one of the most untouched areas I've seen. Very grounded. I think most people think of New Mexico as one big pile of sand. Yet you can go to ridiculously amazing rockclimbing sites and white-water raft down the Rio Grande. There's a real humbleness and gravity there, and I think the Native American influence has something to do with that. There's sort of a cultural calmness that's the antithesis of Los Angeles, which is all about what's new right now.
What is the name of your parents' restaurant?
Perennials - like the flower. It's sort of a fusion of American breakfast and lunch mixed with Southwestern, so there are sandwiches and salads, but there are also turkey green-chile sandwiches. My mom's pounded-pork-tenderloin sandwiches, which she's made for forever, are on the menu, and there are omelets and pancakes and waffles and breakfast burritos. There's foliage everywhere.
They really made it with love, from the ground up.
Thanks. I'm just very proud of them. My dad has worked so hard at this. He's there every day at 4:30 or five in the morning, unloading food and hiring and firing and handling just about everything.
Where else would you send a visitor to chow down in Albuquerque?
A place called Frontier; I'd recommend the burrito. It's one of the greatest meals I've ever had. It's directly across from the University of New Mexico, on Central Avenue. It's open 24 hours. They have renowned cinnamon rolls. It's one of those places with a big, long counter, and there's always a line, no matter what time you go. You order whatever, like green-chile cheeseburgers or pancakes. I always get the Frontier burrito. It's made with ground beef and green-chile stew mixed with cheese or greenchile sauce on the inside, with cheese on top of it. It is so good. It's the first meal I pick up [on my way] from the airport to the house and the last meal I eat [before] going back to the airport.
What's with the green chiles? You've mentioned them no fewer than five times already during this interview.
New Mexico has the best green chile in the world. It's everywhere, in every meal. It goes on eggs. It goes in burritos. It goes on pizza, on burgers, in stews. Green-chile salsa. It's very unique to the south-central mountains of New Mexico. Everyone who goes to New Mexico comes back and says, "Green chile! I couldn't believe it. I couldn't get enough of it!" It's opium in some weird way. It's hot. It burns. And yet you have to keep eating it, like your mind is somehow tricked into thinking that it's so hot, you need to cool off by eating more of it.
Where should we go if we just want to hang out in Albuquerque?
The Nob Hill district, right down Central Avenue. It's the main street that goes from downtown to past the university. If you keep going, [you'll find that] it becomes this hip kind of boutique, clothing-store, coffeeshop, Bohemian kind of vibe. I just find it very artistic. It's great. They've got a movie theater there that plays art films. This is usually where I go to do my Christmas shopping and just to hang out.
Give us a snapshot of the holidays there.
I think a lot of people don't realize that it snows a great deal in New Mexico during winter. Do you know of luminaries?
That's when you take a small, lunch-sized paper bag and put dirt or sand inside with a candle, which makes the whole thing glow. And so people put them all over the outside of their houses. Whole blocks will have them, all lined up, on the front and the roof, and people will get very elaborate with them. So what we always do on the way home from dinner is drive through these certain areas and turn off the car lights. The only lights are these luminaries. It's so much classier than cheesy Christmas lights all over the place. And it comes from Spanish origins; again, it speaks to a historical appreciation of the state. And it looks really cool. Downtown gets all dolled up with the big tree. Everything opens up at night on the weekends, and people serve cider, and you walk around and window-shop and hang out with your loved ones. I love the holidays there.
How do you feel growing up in New Mexico shaped you?
It's a big part of what kept me relatively grounded - partly because I didn't have to consider Los Angeles my home, so I wasn't getting lost there. I had a home to go to. But the people in New Mexico are very genuine, very authentic, just nice people. It rubs off on you.
Even now that you're an insensitive womanizer? Also, tell me: When, exactly, did you become Fonzie?
Every sitcom has that random Fonzie kind of guy who's an extreme version of what everyone is thinking. Barney is a mixture of Carter Bay and Craig Thomas [the show's executive producers and creators]. He's their brainchild, a kind of acerbic wit mixed with my odd timing. The content of what they say is definitely there, but I think they trust me to swing from the rafters. Barney is not the emotional center of the show. He doesn't have many redeeming values. That allows me to try stupid things.
Child actors have been known to eventually show up on the police blotter. What has been your blueprint for making sure you stayed employed and sane?
I've always seen Sally Field as an inspiration. She's a talented actor who's just kept working. She was in Gidget and The Flying Nun, and, you know, years later, she ended up being in Mrs. Doubtfire. Now, decades later, she's on Brothers and Sisters and just won an Emmy for that. You just have to persevere and hope that people will come along for the ride with a new you. The hope is to get a few chapters that are as recognizable as the last. You can never think of yourself as a one-trick pony.
How does fame factor into the downfall of child actors?
Fame is this strange version of British royalty. People love to put people on a pedestal, and they love to rip them down. Fame is intoxicating, yet it's dangerous. You have to always have some kind of perspective on things. The nature of working as an actor is that you don't work a lot of the time. That's tricky for the ego. You can work and work and become famous, and then something goes wrong and the show fails, and you don't work for three years. Fame is fun - it gets you good tables in restaurants - but you have to take it with a grain of salt.
And an iPhone. Between each scene you've shot today, you were working your iPhone.
I'm multitasking. I'm responding to e-mails, sending e-mails I should have sent out yesterday - things like that. You find when you work here for a number of hours that the rest of the world kind of disappears.
Let's get back to Albuquerque. Where do you stay there?
Home. My parents still live in the same house. It would be odd to stay in a hotel. Although my room is more like a very sanitary guest room now. It's missing all the dirty clothes everywhere. I don't know what Mom was thinking, cleaning it up.
What lodging would you recommend to visitors, other than your sterile room?
My first thought is the Marriott Pyramid hotel. It's designed after an Aztec pyramid, and it's got the most spectacular views of the mass ascension of hot-air balloons at the balloon festival that you'll ever see.
Does Albuquerque hail you as the local boy who's made good?
People know I'm from there and are protective of me. They are happy I've done well. So I blend in pretty well. A lot of people are second removed from me or my parents. It's not a gigantic town. But people know I'm a big fan of the state. I didn't run out of New Mexico and embrace Los Angeles. I actually moved back after I'd been in L.A. for a while to a town called Placitas, which is between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Some friends of mine lived nearby. I needed a break from work, so we rock climbed a lot and hiked around. It was great. I love to go there, lie low, watch the amazing sunsets. When the sun is setting, it casts this amazing watermelon-pink glow over the mountains. That's a can't-miss if you make it there - like that fantastic restaurant called Perennials.
Is that another plug?
It's another plug.
KEN PARISH PERKINS is a freelancer based in Arlington, Texas. He writes frequently about television, arts, and culture.