LA JOLLA — It's nearly midnight when Neil Patrick Harris sits down to dinner in an upscale Italian restaurant not far from the La Jolla Playhouse, where he has just finished a performance of "Rent."
In the hit musical, the 24-year-old actor--better known as the title character in the 1989-93 ABC television series "Doogie Howser, M.D."--plays the lead role of Mark, an introverted aspiring filmmaker who narrates the goings-on among his fellow East Village bohemians.
Doogie still dogs Harris, as the whispers of recognition that ripple through the theater audience attest. But with his black nail polish and cultivated angst, Harris' Mark is a long way from the kid doctor he used to play.
According to the seasoned yet congenial Harris, Mark's detached attitude is actually a lot closer to his own.
"I'm very much like him," says the actor, as a waiter sets a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine in front of him. "I'm very analytical, so it's hard for me to just be present to whatever emotion is going on in a moment without thinking, 'What does that mean?' "
"Neil has that wonderful combination of heart and head that is always a tricky balance with Mark," says Michael Greif, the director of "Rent" and artistic director at La Jolla. "He has that tension between being a guy who's very on top of it and someone who's always looking and analyzing. Neil is smart at seeing that he's not getting away with anything facile. His intelligence comes through keenly."
Harris also understands a dilemma his character faces:
"I respect his struggle with 'Do I sell out and do a cheesy TV show, or do I wait and maybe be poor and do what I want to do?' "
Not surprisingly, Harris faced a similar decision after the end of "Doogie."
"I did a TV show that was very good and my TV-Q was very high," he says, referring to the index of a performer's recognizability and popularity. "I had the opportunity then to do more TV and make a lot more money. I didn't want to do that, and I'm glad I didn't."
Harris chose instead to make his own way with a career path that has included films, TV movies and, more recently, theater projects. And now the strategy appears to be paying off.
In addition to "Rent"--which will move to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles late next month--he also has two films coming out in the near future: Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi epic "Starship Troopers" and the 1930s period drama "Shakespeare's Sister," with Kenneth Branagh and William Hurt.
The latter film, in which the actor plays a young man hired by a wealthy couple to sire their child, may well be a breakthrough for Harris.
"He's quite an amazing actor," says director Lesli Linka Glatter. "He is funny and moving at the same time. The character is written much as an innocent, yet he's top in his class at Harvard Law. He just understood who the character was and ought to be. He made it very real and understandable."
One reason Harris may have had such good instincts about his "Shakespeare's Sister" character is that he comes from a long line of lawyers, including his parents. He has an older brother, Chris, who is currently in law school.
Harris is of Scottish, Irish and English descent--"I couldn't be whiter," he quips--and grew up in Ruidoso, N.M. His got his first taste of live theater as a child, when he caught a road company of "Annie" that passed through Albuquerque.
He first tried the stage himself when he attended a performing arts camp at the University of New Mexico.
"It was awesome," Harris recalls. "I'd never done anything like that before."
After that, he began to work in community theater. Meanwhile, the idea of a career in entertainment grew on him.
Harris broke into movies at the age of 14, starring opposite Whoopi Goldberg in the 1988 film "Clara's Heart." Not long after that, he was tapped to play the title character, a prodigy who graduated from medical school at 16, in Steven Bochco's "Doogie Howser, M.D."
Almost immediately, it proved to be a different sort of challenge.
"On the TV show, we had a lot of work to do in one day's time, so it was much more technical," he says. "It's not about figuring out the character. It's 'We have an hour, so you need to stand here.' "
Even more difficult, perhaps, was that Harris spent his teen years in the public eye.
"I sort of went through puberty on the show," he says. "Then, by the time I was making my own decisions, I was being watched.
"I don't know if it was fate or what, but all these things happened to me that you would have to say yes to. When I was in high school, they came along [and said], 'Do you want to star in a movie opposite Whoopi Goldberg?' What are you going to say? Then it was 'Do you want to spend four weeks in Big Bear [making a TV movie] and make $100,000?' So I never even thought about law as an option."
He doesn't have serious misgivings--"the benefits outweigh the drawbacks"--although Harris is aware of having skipped a phase in his social development by not having gone to college: