After forays into film (Gone Girl), theater (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and hosting (Best Time Ever), How I Met Your Mother star Neil Patrick Harris returns to serialized television. He plays Count Olaf, a man scheming after three orphans’ vast fortune, in a new Netflix adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s delightfully macabre children’s books, A Series of Unfortunate Events. A far cry from HIMYM‘s genial playboy Barney, the new character afforded Harris the opportunity to don myriad disguises—the villain adopts many personas as he stalks the Baudelaire orphans—and practice his maniacal laugh.
TIME: You hadn’t read the books before. What made you want to do the series?
Harris: I was looking forward to acting as a character again and not as myself. I’d spent a large chunk of the year before on a variety show, Best Time Ever, that was all-encompassing. I was proud of it, but it was exhausting. I was just anxious to get back to acting.
How is this version different from the film adaptation starring Jim Carrey?
Daniel Handler [who uses the pen name Lemony Snicket] and Barry [Sonnenfeld, the director] were both involved with the movie that came out, gosh, 13 years ago? And they both left for creative reasons before it was completed. So in many ways, I feel like this is a redemption tale for the two of them.
Since How I Met Your Mother, you’ve taken on some villainous roles: Gone Girl, American Horror Story and now this. How does Olaf compare evilness-wise?
He’s probably the most dastardly, but he’s villainous in a family-friendly way. So he can be over-the-top terrible. You don’t have to spend a lot of time with motivation or backstory. There’s an absurdist freedom to Olaf.
Any theories as to why kids love this kind of darkness?
I think kids are fascinated by the morbid. I know my kids are. Harper, our daughter, likes us to tell her scary stories. I’m thinking back now to Grimm’s fairy tales. Kids are told a lot how to behave well, so I think creatively it’s fun to indulge in the sinister.
You’re a big fan of Jim Henson, and it’s striking that both The Muppets and A Series of Unfortunate Events are children’s tales that also wink at adults.
Totally. Over the holiday, we were playing the “Who would you want to have a conversation with, living or dead?” game. I said Jim Henson. Something like Sesame Street or The Muppet Show was brilliant because it plays on two levels: it teaches you the alphabet and then makes a joke for the parents. The kids know it’s there but don’t quite get it. Now that I’m a parent, I really value that. This shows does that too.
Do you have a favorite vocabulary word, in the spirit of Unfortunate Events?
Um, awesometown. Is that a word? A place which you would strive to go. Oh, actually, splediferous. I think that’s a word. Something particularly splendid.