The shortest distance between Neil Patrick Harris and a glimpse of his life story isn’t a straight line. The actor/singer/director/award show host, currently appearing on screen in “Gone Girl” (and recently on Broadway starring in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), who has just signed on to host the 2015 Oscars, has led a less than conventional existence – and he has chosen a less than conventional format to tell the tale.
In his memoir, “Choose Your Own Autobiography” (Crown Archetype: 304 pp., $26), the 41-year-old actor takes a page from the popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” kids’ books, letting readers decide how his story unfolds.
He announces from the outset that his “self-serving celebrity autobiography is different from other self-serving autobiographies.” Readers who step into Harris’ shoes can revel in his stint as a boy-genius doctor on “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” take the stage as he’s hosting an awards show and/or experience his personal and public coming out process.
He spoke to us by phone from New York about remembering the past, snapping at Patti LuPone and how he avoided writing “a random tell-all.”
I don’t think anyone expected you to write a conventional book, but you really took that to a new level by deciding on a “Choose Your Own Adventure” theme. How did that come about?
Well, I found that in thinking back on my life, thus far, that it was markedly random. There were all kinds of weird stories that included things I learned, things that changed me -- but, also, weird, once-in-a-lifetime things to recount. Like, opening the Oscars is such a weird thing. Or, you know, hosting the Tonys live when something terrible goes wrong. That’s its own story, but not its own book. Because my life has been young child actor/drug abusing car thief/morning talk show host/Barney Stinson alpha male, I felt like I could appeal to any demographic with this Choose Your Own Adventure style.
If you only want to read hard-core, frat guy stories, you can take that path. If you’d rather learn about my interests growing up and how I came to be, you can follow that path. If you’d really just rather learn how to make pasta and Bolognese sauce and a nice cocktail and have a lovely evening by yourself, you can do that too.
Wait, was that last one really an option? I made an error somewhere in my path-choosing.
Oh, yeah. There’s a couple of drinks in there. They’re good ones.
You get into a few personal moments in your life in the book--but you don’t delve too deeply. Is that simply a function of the fun nature of the book, or were you reticent about making this a downer?
For sure, I look back on my life and there hasn’t been much hardship. And I don’t say that like I’m basking in it. I just didn’t want to create some fictionalized drama...
I was very inspired by Steve Martin’s autobiography and Tina Fey’s autobiography. I mean, you’re learning more about her through a style that is smart and funny at the same time. I think the more effective way to move someone is if you talk about things in a way that’s not super sincere and, thus, they can be affected by it without being force fed.
One of the exceptions is when you talk about your coming out process.
I tend to think that hearing or reading different people’s individual experiences about coming to terms with themselves is always helpful to anyone because it’s such a unique experience. I don’t think anyone can dictate how or when a person has a revelation. So to talk about my process of being able to stand tall and experience things in my own time, I thought was worth reading. It was a little strange to write. It felt a little soft core sometimes, but that’s the beauty of the “Choose Your Own Autobiography” format is throughout those stories I say, “if this is a lot for you, read about Harold and Kumar.” I give you outs.
There’s a moment where your husband, David [Burtka], gets in on the action by editing a section. Was this something that played out throughout the process?
He ended up having to remind me of all these things that have happened. I tend to forget events because I move on to the forthcoming event.... Then I would show him the first draft of chapters that involved him so that he could tell me if I got it right factually, or if it was something that he didn’t think we should be talking about in a book. Not that there’s a lot of that, but you want to be as personal about the birth of your children as you can, because I find it interesting, but you don’t want to be so personal that it seems like you’re doing some random tell-all. And he was good with it.
The book was written with David Javerbaum, whom you previously worked with on the Tony Awards. I assume you’re not like Jackie Collins, writing everything out by hand?
Oh gosh no. I had to formulate the structure and once I latched on to the Choose Your Own Adventure style, it made my work a little bit easier because it freed me from having to have a through-line, and I could just kind of write short versions of interesting things that have happened. Then I brought on one of the funniest men I’ve ever witnessed, David Javerbaum. He has a closet full of Emmys from “The Daily Show,” and I knew that if I could give him some bullet point ideas on a lot of these stories, he could flesh them out in a very sharp and clever way...
Was it cathartic? Did you find hindsight made you tell the stories differently in ways you didn’t think it would?
That’s such an interesting question. There aren’t real chunks of my life that I’ve suppressed and not wanted to confront until later. I found it interesting actually to read the audio book in a room out loud. It’s one thing to write these stories and then edit them, because you’re looking at them differently. You’re looking at the actual sentence itself. Or if a synonym is better than another word. But then when you’re saying it all, and speaking about... what it is about your children that you love, and I got a little more affected by it.
The book very much feels like a variety show. Did that make it easier or harder to write?
That’s the beauty of this book. I’m not saying which stories are real or which ones are fake. I wanted to play with the telling of each story, and make them a little bit different. Just to change it up, so it didn’t seem like 100 similar stories around a campfire. So I interview myself on a talk show at one point, I let you take over my Twitter feed, there are secret pages you can’t get to unless you look extra hard. And magic tricks. That made it hard to write, but also easier. Because when I got tired of writing in a specific style, I could change and do something different.
And you tell some interesting stories -- like the time you snapped at Patti LuPone! That was a real story, yes?
That was very real. We worked together multiple times. I couldn’t be a bigger fan of hers. But she is a big personality, so when the pressure cooker got intense for me, and I ended up lashing out -- I should have chosen a different target. I should have chosen an intern ... or even [Stephen] Colbert. Just not Patti!
Why publish this book now? So many things are still happening to you.
I certainly feel like my life is nowhere near over, but there was a nice logical closure that happened in many ways when I turned 40: “How I Met Your Mother’s” nine-year run ended, the settling down with one person, the birth of our kids. It all seemed like right around 40 for me was the end of a big, long book of chapters and a good place to put a flag on a mountain and say that all of this happened before I started on my next big journey. Damn it, I didn’t write about climbing a mountain--that would have been good! I should have thought of that one. Planting a flag on top of a mountain--that was a great metaphor. Why didn’t I use it?
But that also meant you were juggling a lot during the writing of it.
It was a bit crazy. I was doing “Hedwig” at the time when I was doing a lot of the real writing and paring down. Then we had to add a final “Hedwig” chapter because it ended on such a high note; it seemed like it would have been weird to end right before then.
I’m glad you provided insight as to how you got those legs… now I’ve lost my train of thought.
My sexy legs will do that to a girl. But yeah, it kind of goes right to the Tony Awards of this year that was written past the must-be-turned-in deadlines. This last half of the year has been ... I had to compartmentalize my time via different deadlines. Whether they be ‘this chapter has to be turned in’ or ‘you have to walk on stage now.’
I’ve been working in multiple, different head spaces for a while. I’m actually thankful that the book is now off my plate, that “Hedwig” is now off my plate, so that I can now just take a breath and hang out with my kids and David and just exist for a minute....
I can only hope David Fincher decides to adapt [your memoir] for the big screen.
Things would get dark quickly. I’m telling you now, no full frontal.
Neil Patrick Harris will be signing books Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. at Barnes and Noble at The Grove.