Neil Patrick Harris doesn’t think that any other platform but Netflix could have made a series of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” happen the way it has — in terms of both the show’s structure as well as the budget.
“I don’t think we would have been afforded the creative liberties that we are,” he said in an interview with IndieWire. “People who have read the books value that each book takes place in a complete location; a fully formed, ridiculous locale that I don’t think you could afford to create — on top of a mountain, a house dangling off of a ledge, a herpetologist’s mansion with giant topiaries in the front.”
Harris spoke to IndieWire about the recently premiered second season of the richly detailed young adult fantasy series while he was midway through production on Season 3 — which will be the last season, as Netflix and the team, including executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld, have planned from the beginning.
Harris didn’t want to give the impression that he was ungrateful for the experience, though. “I would hate to make it seem as if I’m ready to be done with the show, which isn’t the case at all. I just love that [the decision] is from Netflix’s point of view, from Barry’s point of view, from Daniel [Handler, author of the original books], who has no interest in writing more to this story,” he said. “The last book of the series is called ‘The End.’ And it ends appropriately. So I’m glad when it will all be done because it will exist.”
In the meantime, though, Harris is having a great time playing the show’s main villain, Count Olaf, who stalks orphan children Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire (Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith, respectively) on a quest to obtain their fortune, utilizing a wide variety of disguises in the process.
Playing such a bad guy on screen doesn’t cause him too many problems on the street, though, because “in real life I’m not often looking like Count Olaf. [Kids] have to be told that I’m Count Olaf. And then instead of showing some sort of ID, I have to just do a very deep voice to frighten them,” he said.
Added Harris with a grin, “But as an actor it’s fun. Adults are not programmed to reprimand or yell at children on the daily. And I get paid to do so. So it’s a little bit strange, but they deserve it.”
Because they’re terrible people?
“They deserve a reprimand or three. Who do they think they are, making some hit TV show in Vancouver?” Harris continued to joke. “They need to be knocked down a peg.”
Below, Harris talks about the complexity of young adult entertainment currently being made by Netflix, how he approaches screen time with his own children, and why the hardest part of making “Unfortunate Events” has nothing to do with the dialogue or prosthetics.
So much of Netflix’s programming these days seems really youth-oriented, and in ways that are a little more challenging than what you might see on Disney or Nickelodeon.
I think Netflix was smart to value that binge watching doesn’t just have to be done by adults. In fact, the idea of watching something when you get home from X, or when you’ve finished Y, or when we’re all together for Z, is actually more effective with a family and with kids involved than it would be if you were just an adult. And so they wanted the series to be their first big four-quadrant project that honors the different demographics. And I think it’s fantastic. I look at “Stranger Things,” which I love, but I would not think it would be appropriate for my seven-year-olds. And so it’s nice that we’re creating something that I think adults can dig but kids won’t have too many nightmares from.
So as a parent of seven-year-olds, what’s your upper limit at this point for what you let them watch?
I’m a little harder-core now than I was a couple years back. I always remember watching movies when I was little. And I don’t think it rocked my boat too much. But now that they’re older, I’m just more conscientious. I just feel like there’s a lot of conflict going on in their daily world, so I’d rather show them content that resolves itself in some sort of positive way. I’d rather them watch old school Disney animated movies now at seven, than when they were three or four.
That said, they want nothing but to watch dark terror. They’re watching a “Harry Potter” movie [right now]. Movie number six.
That goes some places.
Yeah, it does indeed go to some places. Some Dementor-y places. And I front-load it. I tell them this is what happens. This is what they look like. It’s not real. And yet it’s jarring.
Do they get scared?
Yup. They do. Gideon more than Harper. Harper for some reason enjoys the scare more than Gideon. But it’s fun to watch his trajectory because he’s incrementally braver. I think she just likes to be spooked.
Do they watch “Unfortunate Events”?
Oh, yes. They watched all of Season 1, very early on. But they were on set with the actors, and they knew the crew and things like that. So I think watching it for them was a bit of a different experience. I wouldn’t probably have had six-year-olds watch the show if they hadn’t been aware of how it works. And we watched about half of Season 2. I have a bunch of the rough cuts of the episodes and they’re dying to watch more.
But they come at it from the position of knowing it’s make-believe.
Yeah. I don’t instill that too much on them because I don’t want them to not be able to appreciate it as fiction. As a piece of art if they just think, “Don’t worry, this is fake. Don’t worry, this is fake.” But anytime things get too strange, I can certainly explain in a way that would be unique to them.
When Netflix has all this amazing content for a lot of different ages, as a parent, how much can you control?
Well, I can only speak to our kids, but they don’t get free rein of the remote. We don’t just leave and they can watch whatever they want because they would go to some … There’s a lot of dark content that would probably not be appropriate for them. And we don’t want screen watching to be a constant — a daily thing — or a reward-based system. So they tend to watch stuff on weekends or on their iPads if we’re traveling. That’s when they get to watch things. I think of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” as a little different. Because I’m on it. And I’m their papa, so they get to watch that whenever they desire.
It is easily the hardest part of this job. It’s not the prosthetics. It’s not the memorization. It’s the distance away from my family. We live here in New York, and we film in Vancouver. And that’s far away. So it’s a lot of time zone differences and missed opportunities. So I’m happy that the show is only three seasons long, because I feel like I can be fully engaged knowing that there’s a finish line. As opposed to just, “Papa works from afar, and how was your gymnastics meet?”
You predicted my next question, which is how are you feeling about that concept? The idea that this series is a finite thing?
I’m excited by it being finite, but I don’t want it to seem as if I’m ready for it to be done. […] I probably wouldn’t of done this had it not been finite because what I was really interested in doing is doing this with 150 percent commitment by everyone creatively. But knowing that it ends. Knowing that it ends allows you to pace yourself and not in a slow way. Actually to pace yourself at a fast way because I can say to myself, this is exhausting today. But this is a finite piece of art that I want to exist for a while. And let’s power through it because it’ll be done. And when it’s done it won’t ever happen again.
It’s a lot easier to run a marathon if you know it’s 26.2 miles.
For sure. For sure! And you’ll run it hard for those last two miles. Run it hard. Don’t walk them. It’s why I liked doing “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” for seven months. I’m not just doing it until it stops selling tickets. I like working hard and furious on a project that’s its own moment; so that I can commit to it, but not have to decide that’s my day job.
After having this experience, do you feel like the next thing you do would be youth-oriented? Or would you want to aim even more adult?
It’s a very, very savvy question. And I’m busy enough right now that I’m not having to contemplate it at the moment. I have this show. I have a series of books that I’m writing that are coming out every year. I have a game show for NBC that I’m hosting and executive producing called “Genius Junior.” And so that’s taking up most of my year. I’m not sure after this what content I would want to do.
I would say I’d probably want to exist on the east coast. That’s kind of my one thing I would want is to not go film something in Los Angeles soon. But you never know. If Mr. Spielberg needs some fifth banana that takes place in Prague, I guess I’m gonna have to get my passport out.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.