The former How I Met Your Mother star returns to television as 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.
You hadn’t read the books before. What made you want to do the series?
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.
Since How I Met Your Mother, you’ve taken on some villainous roles: in 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 is 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 show does that too.
This appears in the January 30, 2017 issue of TIME.