IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Neil Patrick Harris talks 'The Smurfs'

Thursday, 28 July 2011 19:47 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Neil Patrick Harris talks 'The Smurfs'

Successfully navigating through the rough roads of Hollywood can be a difficult endeavor for anyone but traditionally it is especially hard for child actors. For every Natalie Portman, or Leonardo DiCaprio there is a Lindsay Lohan or a Macaulay Culkin. But of all the child actors to pursue a career in their adulthood no one has been more successful in crossing over than actor Neil Patrick Harris. He began his career in the late ‘80s as the star of the beloved TV series Doogie Howser, M.D. before eventually reinventing himself as a popular Broadway actor in such musicals as Rent and Cabaret. But it was his role as the wicked yet loveable Barney Stinson on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, as well as playing an exaggerated version of himself in the Harold & Kumar films, that has put the actor back on the map in Hollywood. Since then Neil Patrick Harris has lent his voice to several popular animated projects including Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, and Batman: Under the Red Hood, as well as appearing in fan-favorite director Joss Whedon’s musical web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and becoming Hollywood’s go-to-guy for hosting awards shows like the Emmys and the Tonys.

Now, the actor can be seen on the silver screen once again, this time acting opposite fellow ‘80s icons the Smurfs in their new 3D live-action/CGI family film aptly titled … The Smurfs, which opens in theaters on July 29th. Based on the comic books created by Belgian artist Peyo, as well as the extremely popular Saturday morning cartoon, the film tells the story of the tiny but magical blue creatures that live in an enchanted forest and battle with an evil wizard named Gargamel (Hank Azaria), as well as his twisted cat Azrael. When Gargamel discovers a way into the their hidden village the Smurfs barely escape with their lives and six of their clan, including their leader Papa Smurf (voiced by Jonathan Winters), Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry), Clumsy (voiced by Anton Yelchin), Gutsy (voiced by Alan Cumming), Grouchy (voiced by Goerge Lopez), and Brainy (voiced by Fred Armisen), accidentally fall through a magical portal that relocates them to present day New York City. While hiding from Gargamel, who also fell through the portal, they meet Patrick (Harris) and Grace (Glee’s Jayma Mays), a young married couple that are expecting their first child. Grace and Patrick agree to try to help the Smurfs find their way home and in the process, the little blue ones teach the married couple what it means to be a family.

I recently had a chance to sit down with the star of The Smurfs, Neil Patrick Harris to discuss the new film. The extremely busy but always delightful actor talked about his childhood history with the Smurfs, his on-screen chemistry with Jayma Mays, Hank Azaria’s commitment to his craft, acting opposite imaginary characters, and his regret in not meeting the great Jonathan Winters while making the film. Here is what he had to say:

To begin with, were you a fan of the Smurfs as a kid? Did you grow up watching them on Saturday morning cartoons?

Harris: I was a fan I guess just by default. I was a kid that was sitting in front of the TV watching whatever was on Saturday mornings. My success on TV didn't really happen until I think a healthy tick after that. I remember watching the Smurfs when I was like six or seven.

In the movie you have terrific chemistry with Jayma Mays, who plays your wife. Was that chemistry instantaneous when you first met, or had you worked together before?

Harris: Sort of, she had played a coat-check girl in How I Met Your Mother season one. Frankly, I didn't even remember that. Then I did Glee and was a fan of hers from that. When I heard about the three or four actresses that casting were down to, and that she was in the mix, I thought that she'd be great. She is the perfect mix of dark, funny and off, but still super kind, gentle, and comforting. With Grace you don't just want to have one and not the others. Jayma's ideal. I have a lot of love (for her). She's an amazing actress.

The film has a great storyline where your character is dealing with being an expecting father, and at the same time is a father figure to the six Smurfs that he is helping. He also strikes up a fatherly bond with Papa Smurf who is clearly a father figure in his own right, can you talk about the importance of having that type of a relatable storyline to ground the movie in a reality that balances all of it’s magical themes?

Harris: Well I think it speaks to the fact that our movie is not just a kid's film. We made sure that a lot of the lessons that are learned are lessons that are for adults, that are for new couples, and that are for potential new parents. So it's not just something where you plunk your kids into the movie theater and walk away, you can get something out of it as well. The bigger stories of family and unity that the Smurfs had every week on their cartoon and in all of the books, I think that plays into this modern family that we have.

For lack of a better term, the movie breaks the “fourth wall” a lot in the sense that the Smurfs travel to a modern day New York that is aware of them as fictional characters in pop-culture. Can you talk about the filmmaker’s choice to tell the story in that way, rather than having them enter a world that is completely unaware of their existence?

Harris: We wanted to make sure that we were referencing the history of the Smurfs and then sort of showing the juxtaposition between their super primitive world and our super technological world. So there were things like computers or Google that the Smurfs were enamored with and thought were magical objects, and that's always just a funny conceit to throw into a film.

Actor/comedian Hank Azaria gives a great performance in the movie as the Smurfs archenemy Gargamel and he really transforms himself into the iconic character. When you first saw him on the set, what was your initial reaction to the way he was portraying the role?

Harris: He’s Peter Sellers to me. He just killed it and I arrived late. I think I arrived two weeks into the making of the movie. So the first day I arrived they walked me onto Gargamel's castle set and he was all decorated up and working already. It was just remarkable. You wouldn't even recognize that it was Hank. He's just a super cool guy and he had to be very patient with a lot of his shots because he had to deal with the Smurfs. He had a lot of green screen stuff and there were a lot of effects that had to come out of his wand. So he was dealing with a lot more technical stuff than any of us plus two hours in prosthetic makeup. He probably did the most work on the movie, but I think he steals it as well.

As an actor you’re an expert at doing physical comedy but is it difficult for you to do that type of work when you’re performing with characters that you can’t actually see?

Harris: No, it was fun. I absolutely love doing the pratfalls, the double takes and the spit takes. I was trying to channel my inner Bill Erwin because he and David Shiner are famous for doing their miming comedy. I had to do a lot of miming comedy in this movie and get knocked over a lot by little creatures that aren't there. I hope that's why they hired me.

Finally, I understand that on a film like this where there are lot of different actors lending their voices to the animated characters, you don’t always get an opportunity to work with everyone in the cast, but I was wondering if you had a chance to at least meet legendary stand-up comedian Jonathan Winters who performs the voice of Papa Smurf?

Harris: No, I still haven't met Jonathan Winters and I really want to meet him. But I knew some of the people. I’ve worked with Fred Armisen, I've worked with Katy (Perry), and I've worked with Alan (Cumming), or I at least know Alan socially but I don't know if we've ever actually worked together before this. But no Jonathan Winters is the man! What a great voice. The deepest of bass voices ever and he's so calm. It's so funny that they hired him because Jonathan Winters is known for being so crazy in his stand-up act and yet Papa's the calming voice of the Smurfs. He’s the one who says things like, “All right children, all right Smurfs, everyone let's calm down.” I'm sure there must've been funny outtakes. I'd love to hear the tape of what he said when he was just going off. He's just hilarious.

The Smurfs opens in theaters everywhere on July 29th. 

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