It takes an adult to make a kid’s show

As the hook-nosed, hygiene-challenged, villainous Count Olaf in A Series of Unfortunate Events, Neil Patrick Harris could easily be the stuff of nightmares — yours and your children’s. Unfortunate Events, in which he wickedly places the Baudelaire orphans — Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith) — in harm’s way while chasing after their inheritance, isn’t typical family fare.

But the malice and nefariousness are surprisingly enjoyable. “We’re far from friendly, but I like that a 10-year-old and a 40-year-old can watch the same scene and enjoy it for different reasons,” he said. “We feel like we’re making something that, in all of its nastiness, in all of its cynicism, is good.”

Hewing closely to Daniel Handler’s marvelously macabre Lemony Snicket novels, the Netflix series, now in Season 2, will end after Season 3, with the last of the 13 books. Which will give Harris, 44 — a multiple Emmy nominee as the womanising Barney in How I Met Your Mother and a Tony winner as the transgender East German rocker in Hedwig and the Angry Inch — more time to spend with his husband, David Burtka, and their seven-year-olds, Gideon (his thing is chess) and Harper (hers is belting out songbook standards), who live in New York while he shoots in Vancouver.

And yes, the twins are allowed to watch their father at work. “Of course, it’s probably not the perfect content because it’s pretty dark — a lot of slapping children and smoking cigarettes and trying to murder 14-year-olds,” he said with a vaguely maniacal chuckle after pouring himself a glass of Scotch at a New York photo studio. “I don’t know that that’s a conversation to have at the dinner table, but for us it’s a little bit different.”

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:

So what is that, two fingers of Scotch?

No, not two fingers. (Measures against his index finger. It’s slightly over.) How dare you, ma’am?

Why don’t you take a sip and tell me where we are in the Baudelaire tribulations?

The kids are still trying to evade Count Olaf, and the only difference is they’ve both grown about three inches, so we quickly reference how remarkably tall they’ve gotten. And there’s more action. The Baudelaires, for the first few books, are shuffled from location to location from protector to protector, and at this point realise that they’re on their own and have to take some personal action in order to get away from Olaf and stick together as a family. And that is a good fuel for the engine.

And Olaf?

He’s losing it as the series goes on. He’s Wile E Coyote, frustrated that the Road Runner keeps getting out of his reach. So, he’s tired and swinging roundhouse knockout punches, even though that’s not the best way to box. And that’s fun to play.

You’re unrecognisable as Olaf. And Olaf himself plays different characters. How much time do you spend in the makeup chair?

About 2&1/2 hours. I start in the special-effects make-up trailer and do all the prosthetics. I have a big forehead piece that covers my eyebrows and a nose that goes on, and then they paint it to match my skin tone, airbrush the whole thing with wrinkles and spots and hand-paint bags under the eyes and capillaries. After that, I get a three-piece unibrow, two muttonchops, a goatee and a two-piece wig. Then I get dressed, and I’m ready to go.

Whew.

As much time as I spend in the process of looking like Olaf, it pales in comparison to the workload that Louis and Malina have. They’re on set doing their scene, blocking and learning lines, and then they’re rushed to school to think only about honors biology. Then, there’s a knock at the door, and they stop where they are and go recite dialogue and act stressed and emotional. Rinse and repeat all day long until they’re pumpkined, which is the term for when they’re wrapped.

Talking about smart kids, you also host ‘Genius Junior’. What’s the appeal?

It’s these remarkable kids that do the most amazing feats, who can spell “omnidirectional” backward as fast as you can say it and remember a shuffled deck of cards and know the Greyhound bus map. These are achievable goals. If it can be aspirational and inspirational and still watchable, then I’m happy to be the ringmaster of that circus.

Does it make you want to go home and quiz Harper and Gideon?

I’m having to shift into that parent. Not, certainly, spelling backward. But to get them to recognise that homework, that reading, that writing, isn’t something that they do for an hour until they can play — and so they’re excited to know that it doesn’t stop until you’re 80 and you have cataracts. So, I’m on them to make sure they’re using sentence structure well, that they’re spelling things right, that their E’s look uniform. It’s time.

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