When Neil Patrick Harris signed up for “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” he knew it was going to be a challenge. But what he’s done with his character, Count Olaf, goes beyond the typical trials associated with a tough role. It’s a feat best summed up by his director.
“Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf is extraordinary,” Barry Sonnenfeld said, while listing his favorite things about the series. “Whether he’s Shirley, Count Olaf, Captain Sham, or Stephano, he’s extraordinary. He should be nominated for four different Emmy awards for each one of his roles. He’s that good. And yet underneath it, no matter who he’s playing, you see Olaf. It’s an amazing performance.”
In the new Netflix series, Harris, as Count Olaf, is the overarching villain of the series who’s dead set on stealing the Baudelaire children’s fortune. When he’s not scheming against the newly orphaned kids, Olaf is an amateur actor who thinks he’s one of the greats. He’s not, but none of his henchmen, “friends,” and theater troupe members are willing to tell him. So, when he’s exposed as a generally bad man, he tries to disguise himself in various costumes, pairing each with a new voice and personality — Stephano, Shirley, and Captain Sham — to get back into the children’s lives and steal their inheritance.
“It was pitched to me as Netflix’s first four-quadrant show,” Harris said, speaking to IndieWire last August on the show’s Vancouver set. “Meaning, they were wanting to get as many demographics as they could; to be respectful of the people who read the books when they were younger, but also to encourage young people now to watch it. I was intrigued by that idea.”
Harris, who had never read the books, immediately did so and was struck by how dark they really were. “[Olaf] doesn’t put air quotes around ‘getting rid of the children’ to get their family fortune,” Harris said. “He will dig a pit and toss their live bodies in it, if need be.”
Harris also watched the 2004 film version of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” even though he was told not to.
“I was encouraged to not watch the movie,” Harris said. “But I watched it anyway. [laughs] I try not to act with blinders on: I’m very interested in getting as much information as I can get. […] A lot of times good actors make good choices, and so you think, ‘That’s a good choice. That’s the right choice. I’ll go in that direction.’ So I wanted to see what Jim had done just so that I didn’t inadvertently do exactly the same thing. But I was very conscious of watching it and not doing the opposite, which was, ‘I’m not going to do anything that he did, and I’m going to now do something completely different.’ I just wanted to stay focused on what the material is. It’s Jim Carrey. He’s a fantastic and hilarious actor, and he brings his own whole flavor to it, but ours is much darker.”
Before signing on, Harris spoke with Sonnenfeld about how the series would address his primary character.
“I sat down with Barry — who came to our brownstone in New York and sat on the couch with his big booklet of images of the sets — so that I could see the visual palette of what it was. It was mostly of Episode 2, which is Olaf’s mansion. It was so dark: almost broken-down staircases, very Disney’s Haunted Mansion, in a way; that cobwebby, dark vibe. So when I knew his take was darker — more in ‘Edward Scissorhands’ land than ‘Alvin and the Chipmunk’-ville — that made me more excited.”
Then came the real work: Cracking not only Olaf, but each of the characters Olaf played. “[The books are] super descriptive about how they looked,” Harris said. “I tended [to think] more as a director than an actor, to be honest, because I tried to plot them over the course of the season. I didn’t want it to seem like I was replicating voices.”
Here’s how Harris approached each part:
To get into his primary character, Harris said he did two things:
“First, I asked the writers — because I wanted to honor what they were writing — to write ‘Olaf’ and then put in parenthesis (Sham) or ‘Olaf’ (Stephano), so that I knew their intention for me in the scene was to speak as Stephano,” Harris said. “Some scenes I couldn’t tell if they wanted me to talk as Olaf or Stephano, so that helped dictate when it flipped back and forth.”
Next, he needed to find the line between Olaf playing a character and Harris disappearing into that character himself.
“Having the base be evil and menacing is easier because that can bubble through,” he said. “Stephano — who’s pretending to be nice — can give a growl look and you [understand] that, ‘Oh, you’re back to Olaf,’ and then you can jump right back to Stephano. But I was very cognizant of making sure I was playing them effectively and still not playing the characters too convincingly.”
The particulars for Olaf were another story, as Harris wanted to respect the words without losing his grasp on the heart of the character.
“In the book, Olaf has a wheezing voice — they could hear his wheezing voice — and I couldn’t wrap my head around how to do ‘wheezy’ without feeling like I was pretending to be 70. [imitates an old man wheezing] I didn’t know how to keep that virility within Olaf’s character, so I opted for a low voice for Olaf to provide a menacing growl. Then I just tried to juxtapose the other three from that.”
Stephano is the first of Olaf’s characters we meet in the series. Olaf creates an assistant to replace Gustav, who mysteriously disappears, and thus inserts himself into the children’s new home with Dr. Montgomery Montgomery, or “Uncle Monty.” Bald and sporting a lengthy gray beard with round glasses, Stephano speaks with a (poor) Italian accent to try to fool the children and their guardian. (He fails, of course.)
“Stephano is obnoxiously Italian in Olaf’s idea of who he is, so he [Harris changes his voice] talks a’ really like ‘a weasel, in very Stephano style,” Harris said.
Captain Sham is introduced in “The Wide Window,” as the secret new love interest for Aunt Josephine. With gray hair and fuzzy sideburns, Captain Sham is pink from head to peg leg and wears an eye patch over his left eye. He speaks as an old sailor would if he was in some sort of horrid accident at sea, but Harris’ description is more accurate (and fun):
“Sham, he’s more of a romantic figure in that his way into the children is to woo Josephine romantically — and to her demise. So I kind of went Sean Connery, but I wanted him to have fake teeth. Olaf already has awful teeth, so I thought Olaf might think, ‘If I put fake teeth in, no one will recognize me.’ And so he has these really, really hardcore teeth. So [he’s] sort of Sean Connery with dentures; like you’ve got something stuck in your molar, and that’s really Captain Sham.”
Shirley is another surprise reveal, this one with truly devastating effects. (Check out our spoiler-review for more.) When “she” arrives, two curls perch atop her orange-hair, which clashes nicely with her largely pink ensemble. Glasses and a nametag further hide Olaf’s true identity, not that it fools the children for a second.
“With Shirley, I didn’t want to go falsetto because that seemed like an awkward, ‘hasty pudding’ kind of character in drag. So I went more starlet from the 1930s or ’40s. She talks really fast with a kind of a prissy voice in a higher register. So then I had a low and high range [across the characters].”
Harris also learned a lot about the characters by spending two-and-a-half-hours every day getting his makeup put on, no matter which role he was playing that day.
“They all just took on a life of their own from there because once you’re in the makeup — which takes a long time to do — you’re staring at yourself a lot,” Harris said. “I’ve stared at my face a lot over these past few months.”
Not that that made things easy. Harris admits the work was hard and will continue to be if “A Series of Unfortunate Events” gets picked up for more episodes.
“I took it on as a challenge to make sure it was Olaf playing the characters and not Neil showing how many different characters he, as an actor, can perform,” Harris said. “It’s Olaf as an overtly adequate actor putting on the guise of a character. And that’s a hat on a hat in a lot of ways, since this is a project that needs to resonate for teenagers as well as 40-somethings.”
Yet no matter how many hats Harris is asked to wear, he finds an extraordinary way to make it work.