Neil Patrick Harris wants to really scare children in A Series Of Unfortunate Events

Neil Patrick Harris, who plays a villain who menaces orphans in a new Netflix series, asks the author who wrote the books it is based on, how bad he can be

Neil Patrick Harris, who plays the devious Count Olaf, with Malina Weissman, one of the orphans in A Series Of Unfortunate Events.
Neil Patrick Harris, who plays the devious Count Olaf, with Malina Weissman, one of the orphans in A Series Of Unfortunate Events.PHOTO: NETFLIX

Just how bad should the bad guy in a children's story be?

That was actor Neil Patrick Harris' biggest concern when he tackled the role of Count Olaf, the villain who menaces a family of orphans in the new Netflix series, A Series Of Unfortunate Events, an eight-episode dark comedy which debuts on Friday.

The story begins when Olaf gets custody of the three young Baudelaire children - Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and baby Sunny (Presley Smith) - after their parents die. He then connives to steal their inheritance.

Speaking to The Straits Times in New York, Harris reveals that this prompted him to ask Daniel Handler, who wrote the books the series is based on, "just how awful he intended for Olaf to be".

Handler is the show producer and co-writer who, under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, penned the popular book series of the same name, which sees Olaf resorting to murder and even attempting to marry Violet to get his hands on the Baudelaire fortune.

Harris says: "Realistically, Olaf has to be truly awful for the kids to be that threatened by him. And yet, this is a show that's playing to teenagers as well as adults. So I didn't know if there was supposed to be a glimmer in my eye (suggesting) that I was potentially joking, or a niceness to him.

"And Daniel said, 'No, he's just awful.' So it freed me up to just be that."

With that go-ahead, Harris, who is probably best known now for appearing on the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother (2005- 2014), felt he had licence to take the character to some very dark places despite the fact that this is a tale for a younger audience.

"If he has remorse or if he pulls it back, then you think, as a viewer, that there's going to be a redemption tale of some sort. But it's clearly no redemption tale - there's no Olaf realising that he's done anything bad.

"And so I was just awful. Awful, awful, awful," the actor says gleefully. Still, there will be much to laugh at in the series, he promises, not least because the show is helmed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed the Men In Black hit comedy movie franchise (1997-2012).

And "the books have a lot of humour in them, so that's intrinsic to it", Harris adds.

"Olaf thinks he's a brilliant actor and he's awful, and he talks about how handsome he is all the time, and he looks horrible."

Extensive make-up and prosthetics also helped him transform into Olaf, his features unrecognisable beneath the character's permanent scowl, unibrow and receding hairline.

"It's fun because as a bad guy in this, I also look nothing like myself. And it's a bad guy from the point of view of the children. So I could be as awful as I could possibly be and it probably wasn't bad enough."

"If I looked like myself, I would feel the need to ground my decision-making in some kind of reality. But since Olaf is just horrible, it freed me up to be just awful times 10. It was super fun."

Harris did not want to frighten his own children, though - he has six-year-old twin boys with husband David Burtka, a 41-year-old actor and chef.

So their sons, Gideon and Harper, were invited to watch his transformation in the make-up trailer, which took 21/2 hours every morning, plus touch-ups in the afternoon.

This was so they would understand what was happening.

Harris says: "They weren't terrified. I'm a big fan of our kids having knowledge of process. So when I was FaceTiming with them and it was Olaf instead of me talking to them, they weren't freaked out."

His boys have already watched the first two episodes of the series and have given their stamp of approval.

"They liked it, they laughed, they thought it was funny. They were concerned at times that it was so dark and awful, but in the way a kid would be concerned. But as soon as that happens, something ridiculous over-the-top laugh gets them back to centre."

The star believes this adaptation of the 13-book series will have a few advantages over the 2004 movie of the same name starring Jim Carrey. The movie did well at the box office, earning more than US$200 million worldwide, but it failed to spawn a film franchise as some had hoped.

On this series, "we were allowed the freedom of more time", Harris says. "Each book is given two episodes and each episode is about an hour long, so we have a two-hour movie a book, and in eight episodes, you're dealing with four books.

"The movie tried to put three or four books within two hours, so everything was a bit truncated. And there were some great juicy scenes and moments that informed motivation in a way that you weren't able to appreciate in the movie."

And Harris says he took pains to make sure his version of Olaf was "completely different from Jim Carrey's take on it".

"I think Jim Carrey's made an amazing career out of adding Jim Carrey to the characters that he plays and that's fun to watch because he's hilarious.

"But I just wanted to be more Elizabethan and more Shakespearean, and try and be more of the literary version of Olaf. Because he's described in such detail in the books and I was really wanting to honour Daniel's take on it."

•A Series Of Unfortunate Events is available on Netflix from Friday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2017, with the headline 'Licence to be really mean'. Subscribe