chat room

Neil Patrick Harris on Playing The Matrix Resurrections’ Tech Bro Analyst

Photo: Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

This post contains spoilers for The Matrix Resurrections.

Neil Patrick Harris’s character in The Matrix Resurrections isn’t what he appears to be. But then again, what part of the Matrix is? You see him in the trailer playing Neo’s analyst, talking him through his suppressed memories of Matrices past as if they’re delusions and patiently prescribing a regular dose of blue pills. But is there a flicker of an agenda behind his glasses, which happen to match the pills and do look an awful lot like the kind you use to filter out computer light? And what’s the deal with his cat, named Déjà Vu presumably because Olivia Rodrigo exists in this simulation? Vulture chatted with NPH about working with Lana Wachowski, filming in reverse bullet time, and being a meme.

Before you got involved with The Matrix Resurrections, what was your relationship to the franchise and the movies? 
I had no relationship to Lana and never met her before. I was only a fan of what she had done and was continuing to do. I thought Sense8 was a super-next-level, intimate, horny art film via Netflix. I loved it. And I was a massive fan of the franchise from the very beginning. When you can combine giant action with intimate sincerity and sort of a mind-altering hypothesis, that’s great, right? I’m a big fan of the stunt show at the theme park, but I also like to watch people actually care about each other.

One thing you share in common with these movies, and with Lana’s sensibility, is that you are very into escape rooms and puzzle-box-type things. I know you’ve designed one of these games before. What fascinates you about that particular structure? 
I’ve always really been interested in knowing how things work, especially complicated things. Not how do you fix a toaster, but more how does the casino move people through it in a way that is psychological and most effective financially, and keeping them alert, and keeping them satiated and spending money? I like how things work. Escape rooms are that, distilled. You’re in an environment; you’re given a quick conceit. And now you have to put together disparate things to move on.

And that’s kind of how movies are made. I love the process of wondering how a David Fincher works versus a Lana Wachowski, and they’re very different processes. I like seeing how feature films work differently from rehearsing a Broadway musical, which is so fun, and in the process of that, where the sets go and how it all comes to be. It’s sort of where I would love to exist. Lana has an unbelievably deep set of skills because, I think, through her own personal journey, she has evolved creatively as well. She has all this knowledge about making humongous stunt scenes with cars that flip and with characters that smash, and yet now she’s also super-skilled at making something where the camera is a part of the story and where things can change, and the actors don’t rehearse and everything is free-form. To have that breadth of knowledge, I think, is very unique, especially with something that involves stunts and wires and red pills. So I just wanted to ask her mind-sucky questions when I could get my chance to.

The way you describe all these moving pieces, whether in casino crowd control or filmmaking, sets you up perfectly for this character you play, the Analyst. He likes to puzzle out how human minds work, and his role is to keep everyone entertained, satiated, and a little beaten down all at once. What are the challenges of playing a computer program?
I really wanted there to be an authenticity to the earlier scenes of the Analyst to establish that I sincerely wanted Thomas Anderson to feel safe, to not overthink, and to appreciate the here and now. And I think if I had an agenda to it, it probably would have colored the reveals that happen later in the movie because the Analyst, in point of fact, really does want that. He wants him to stay put. He has a much larger agenda at hand. And I think revealing more about the why of it all — the fact that the Analyst feels that, at the end of the day, people want to be told, and they want to behave in this way, and they need this — is a dark idea. But I think you have to authentically believe it.

You walk a really fine tightrope with this script, using the language of mental health in a way that’s manipulative, and Neo’s conspiratorial thinking ends up being proven right. It’s a sensitive topic. How did you approach playing this aspect of the character?
I found that, at the end of the day, the Analyst is manipulation incarnate. His intentions are not just. And because of that, I was less conscientious of adjusting right from wrong from an outside perspective. He had a very singular goal in mind, and it was a large one, and it was succeeding. A lot of his beliefs are probably immoral and improper, and that’s kind of why he’s intentionally an antagonist.

These movies take place in the Matrix version of San Francisco. But that city has changed a lot since the first Matrix. It’s the nexus of a lot of capital and Silicon Valley wealth. Your character, once he takes the blue glasses off and is revealed as a villain in reverse bullet time, seems like a 4chan-ish tech bro with the way he uses words like sheeple and chad. Were you trying to send up that type of guy? 
I think there’s a condescension among the sort of elite within a tech environment because when you get to this higher level, they’re making large systems that affect large swaths of people, often unknowingly. If that is succeeding, in the paranoid reality of what those people might be like, if you can manipulate people and puppet-master their strings and make them believe what you want, I think there’s an assumed egotism there. It is very, I’m untouchable. Even though I think badly about this person, or these people, or this idea, look at how I’m succeeding at it. And at the end of the day, who cares about morals, because I win. That seems to be what the Analyst believes.

Between this character, Count Olaf, and a subverted version in Dr. Horrible, what draws you to villainy? 
I’m not sure. I don’t really consider the Olaf of it all in the same world because that was so overt. It’s very fun to be a Barry Sonnenfeld villain on an operatic level. I got to berate children, no metaphors, no consequence. That was fun, but I don’t know — I think I’m unique in a way that people feel comfortable with me because a lot of people remember me from chapters past. And I think that’s both good and bad for me as an actor who wants to hide in roles but also as an actor who can get hired for roles. I think David Fincher said he wanted me in Gone Girl because people feel comfortable with me. And then because of that, I can play the edge of that, where you’re not sure if you’re supposed to be feeling that way or not. That may be a partial answer.

I also love murder mysteries and the culpability of potentially everyone and being a magician who has secrets and knows how things are done but isn’t the person that says, [in a snarky voice] “I know how you did that. The cards were actually in your hand the whole time.” I’ll sit and smile and not reveal anything. And so I think having a magic brain helps in these kinds of roles because I’ve always liked the person who, when you’re talking to them, they have, like, a quarter-smile, and you’re not sure what that smile means — if it means they’re just liking your question or whether they know something and they’re not telling you what they know. It’s kind of a shitty thing, but I was always kind of enamored with that quarter-smile idea of control.

That really is the feeling of sitting opposite from a therapist and being like, What are you writing? 
For sure! That’s interesting. With a real analyst, you want the analyst to really feel like whatever you’re saying, they haven’t heard it before. But you also want that same person to have heard it many times before so they have valid things to say. The duality of that is true.

You deliver a lot of the major themes of The Matrix Resurrections in your speeches, especially your bullet-time monologue: binary, choice, hope, and despair. Wachowski also cast more queer actors in this film. Do you think the queer and trans allegorical subtext that people have read into the original trilogy is more intentional and explicit in this installment?
I think Jonathan Groff and I are both being asked a lot about that. And I can just tell you that when I was filming my stuff, I was trying to be more of a conduit for what Lana envisioned and wanted. She probably wanted me to be more wholly myself and take from me what she wanted. But my process is to honor the director and the writer and the editor, so I didn’t want to have a personal slant or opinion on larger ideas that clearly Lana championed or was disdainful of. I didn’t challenge her on stuff, and she doesn’t like to rehearse much. That big, long scene of my reveal monologue was the first thing I ever filmed on set with her. That was a lot of work. It was five pages of material with no scene partner, even though there were two people there. So I didn’t have the opportunity to ask about intentions of stuff. I just wanted to represent what I hoped she was seeking.

And I don’t mean that to sound like a cop-out answer. It’s not, because we just didn’t really didn’t have those conversations. And watching the movie later, I appreciate that part of the Matrix ideal is that you create allegory and that you personalize, and you make it mean something to you because that’s the whole point. It could be your world that is being read as blue-pilled. So I value it, but I tried not to put any English on it so that everyone could take away from it what they wanted.

The movie explicitly addresses that tendency to try to find the metaphor in The Matrix when the video-game designers are arguing, “No, it’s about crypto-fascism! No, it’s about …” 
Lana has a lot of opinions about that kind of stuff.

You share so many scenes with Keanu Reeves. I don’t know if you’ve worked together or knew each other before this, but you both have this thing that very few people living or dead have experienced, which is that you’ve both been memes. Does being a public persona whose image gets used in this iterative way feel like being in the Matrix?
[Laughing] Halfway through your question, I thought you were going to say, you know, “You both acted when you were young.” But to spin it into memes is hilarious. I find all of that an amazing badge of honor. I’ve been able to play very diverse types of characters, like not a singular thing a lot of times. And the fact that a Barney Stinson can hit in a way that appeals to lots of different people in different ways and allows for weird memes of me shaking my fist at the sky, I love it. There are Count Olaf memes where I’m precariously holding a child over a ledge. That’s hilarious. And I use them a ton. On my way over here, when I was texting with my husband, he said, “At long last, our holiday boxes are finished. They’re ready to be sent out.” I sent a meme of one of the characters from some TV show doing a slow collapse onto the ground. That represented so much more than, you know, “Yay, I’m so tired.” It was the perfect thing. So if I can represent “meme” in any way, bring it on.

As a dad, what’s the right age for kids to watch The Matrix
I was granted a screening of it before I started doing press for it so I could have something to talk about, and they said I could invite my family. So I brought my husband and Harper, our daughter who just turned 11. Gideon, her twin brother, older by a minute, didn’t really want to come because he thought it was going to be too intense. Those kinds of movies are not for him. So she watched it. But she also really is into watching movies that are older than her. We had an argument today. She’s sneaking around watching Ted Lasso. 

Is she picking up any vocabulary?
She asked me what a wanker was! I guess I’m okay with her watching Ted Lasso, but at the same time I’m annoyed. We’ve already had these conversations, and I said you’re too young to be watching Ted Lasso. The morals of that show: great. But the nuts and bolts of it are quite sexual in nature, and you’re 11 and I’m not into it. She watched it anyway. Conflict. But the fact that she wants to watch older stuff is kind of cool. So I would say probably the appropriate age for Matrix Resurrections, it depends on the kid. Maybe 12, 13, 14. Don’t hold me to it. But a savvy 11-year-old really dug it.

More on The Matrix Resurrections

See All
Neil Patrick Harris on Playing a Matrix Tech-Bro Analyst