As He Preps for a Big Move, Actor & Chef David Burtka Takes Time to Share with A&U’s Dann Dulin His Sage Advice about HIV Prevention and Giving Back to Our Communities
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Annie Tritt
After knocking on the front door of David Burtka’s Sherman Oaks residence in the hills above the San Fernando Valley, he gently cracks open the front door halfway and in a hushed tone, says, “The kids are sleeping.”
David and his fiancé, Neil Patrick Harris, bore fraternal twins by an anonymous egg donor and a surrogate mother in 2010. Both supplied their own DNA. They named their daughter, Harper, and their son, Gideon, and they call David “Dad.” Neil is known as “Papa.” David also has twins with former partner, actor Lane Janger, and he continues to play a supportive role in raising them. (“The relationship may not have worked out, but you don’t divorce kids.”)
Having just returned from a meeting at CBS, David is debonair in slick dark suit pants, white starched shirt with rolled-up sleeves, and a loosened dark maroon, dark blue striped tie. He asks if I mind conducting the interview in the backyard on this breezy overcast early afternoon. He escorts me down the slick-polished dark cherry wood floor hallway through the mammoth gastronome kitchen where the attention-grabber is a grand flower arrangement of white-purple orchids on the counter. Female help are wandering about, one cooking at the stove, and the other picking up toys that are scattered about the floor. We walk through a small open area adjacent to the kitchen and proceed through French doors that lead to the outside.
Purchased in 2006, their two-story Cape Cod-ish style home is now on the market as they prepare to move to Manhattan. Neil’s show, How I Met Your Mother, came to an end in February after nine seasons and he immediately flew to New York to start rehearsals for Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. David will follow in late April after the completion of renovations on their new digs in Harlem.
“The kids are giving up all this for city living. It will be an adjustment,” he acknowledges thoughtfully, as he sweeps his hands before a spacious backyard that sports a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, swing set, sliding board, barbeque area, and sundeck. Landscaped trees and greenery surround the space and I can visualize many family gatherings here. As we settle into thick plumpy lawn furniture, he places his cell on the hi-tech stone fireplace in front of us and adds, “But they’ll be able to go to the park everyday….”
Mr. B., whose favorite TV sitcom is I Love Lucy (“Well…my favorite after How I Met Your Mother, that is,” he grins, shooting no one in particular a side glance) and favorite film is West Side Story, relishes the move and is looking forward to the four seasons. Raised in Michigan and later residing in New York in the late nineties, he quips with urgency, “I’m a New Yorker, man.” In 2004, he and Neil met on the streets of Manhattan, by coincidence, through a mutual friend—“On 44th and 8th,” he gleefully remembers. Both were performing in Sam Mendes-directed musicals: David in Gypsy, playing Tulsa, and Neil in Cabaret, playing The Master of Ceremonies.
David’s cutie-pie looks, slender athletic body, treble-pitch honey voice, and sparkly, engaging demeanor belie the fact that he is intelligent, hardworking, and compassionate. Before David and Neil met, David appeared in a tender gay-themed movie called 24 Nights that won several awards on the indie film festival circuit. His next gig was on the Broadway stage in Gypsy, where he sang and danced alongside Bernadette Peters. Later cast in Edward Albee’s play, The Play About the Baby (“Working with this incredible man was such an inspiration to me”), he received the 2001 Clarence Derwent Award for most promising male performer. He racked up other stage credits and made his television debut on The West Wing, followed by appearances on Crossing Jordan and CSI:NY.
After he and Neil became partners, doors may have opened slightly, but it was David’s own talent that landed him work. He made a guest cameo in A Very Harold and Kumar 3-D Christmas, where he and Neil have a sidesplitting scene, satirizing their own relationship. He also had a reoccurring role on How I Met Your Mother, playing Scooter, Lily’s former high school boyfriend.
In 2009 David took a break from acting and earned a culinary arts degree from Pasadena’s Le Cordon Bleu. He established a catering business with classmate Molly Hanisee called Gourmet M.D., which may be phased out once he moves to New York. His roster of clients has included Christina Hendricks, Zachary Quinto, Cat Cora, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. David even appeared as a guest judge on Top Chef Masters.
In 2012 David reentered show business, appearing in the film Annie and the Gypsy, opposite fellow AIDS advocate Cybill Shepherd [A&U, January/February 1995]. Later this year he returns to his roots and showcases his dancing skills in Platinum the Dance Movie, playing JT, a dorky mama’s boy whose mother runs a dance competition. “Some of these rehearsals were the hardest of my life,” he notes. Don’t miss last year’s Internet episode of Funny or Die (the Web series co-founded by Will Ferrell) titled, “Gay Christian Mingle,” a riotous short spoof starring David and Cheyenne Jackson [A&U, January 2014].
David doesn’t do many interviews, but felt the need to address the increasing number of new HIV infections. “Even though AIDS is manageable, it’s still a Big Deal,” asserts David. Watson, one of their two dogs, a poodle mix, is curled up on a chair nearby. “I’m worried about the generation under me. Some think that they can just take a pill each day and all will be fine. But that’s not the case! There are different HIV strains, and the drugs can affect each individual very differently.” He shoos a fly away from his face. “Barebacking seems to be running rampant. I’ve had some friends date a couple of nineteen-year-olds and when they get ready to have sex these kids say, ‘I only bareback.’ My friend’s reply is, ‘Are…you…fucking…nuts?!’
“They never had the experiences that we lived through. I mean, is it worth it?” David is visibly agitated. “They say, ‘Oh, you can just take a pill. It’s not a big deal.’ They give up part of their life for just one night. This is not something to just be willy-nilly about. It just doesn’t make sense to me,” he remarks, shaking his head furiously back and forth. “I mention it every opportunity I get.” He takes a beat. “I’d like to make a PSA….” (Several years ago he and Neil made a PSA for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.)
The spectre of HIV/AIDS first entered Burtka’s life while attending high school in suburban Detroit. During that time, artist Keith Haring, a role model for David, died of AIDS-related causes. It had a profound effect on him. “I grew up with AIDS,” he states matter of factly, placing one leg under the other and propping his foot up to expose black socks, spattered in bright flamingo pink. “My generation was always so scared of the epidemic, but it was the generation before us who were most impacted. Many of my friends didn’t even have sex because they were so scared of contracting HIV.”
Just then, the gardeners enter through a door from the other side of the yard. Both dogs begin to bark and sprint toward them. David excuses himself and races after Watson and Fred, a terrier mix. I suddenly feel a sense of déjà vu. Wait a minute. I realize that I’m sitting where Oprah sat when he and Neil were interviewed a couple of years ago on her show, The Next Chapter.
David returns to the sofa. “Where was I?” he inquires. “I was always very, very safe even though I was very promiscuous while living in New York City.” He chuckles with a hint of embarrassment. “I mean I was crazy! I was running around with everybody….But….I always wrapped it up.”
Burtka was taught HIV prevention in high school. Afterwards, when he was a student at the University of Michigan (he graduated with a BFA), he took his first HIV test. “Being in musical theater also heightened my awareness to be safe,” he says about the gay-friendly environment. “I also began professional theater when I was young and was always around older gay gentlemen. I learned from them to be careful, too.”
David’s personal introduction to the epidemic occurred when he and former partner Lane were living together in New York. Lane’s best friend, Michael Strummel, who co-produced the film Boy’s Don’t Cry, tested positive for HIV. “To see him in the beginning as a vibrant, awesome, amazing, upbeat person”—David pauses as his kid-in-the-candy-store green eyes moisten—“and then to see this person become a mere shell….He’d be sick, then he’d be fine, then he’d get sick again. At twenty-four, it really opened my eyes,” he blurts in a gripping pitch.
“I was one of the last people to see him in the hospital. His mom had to continually wipe the sweat from his head. He was down to eighty pounds; he was convulsing, and couldn’t breathe. She said he knew that I was there, but I don’t know if that’s true.” He clears his constricted throat.
“It was really, really hard,” recalls David. “I think every twenty-four year old should witness someone like this. It certainly made me smarter to make healthy decisions.”
Several years later, in 2009, another blow shrouded David in sorrow when his mother was diagnosed with leukemia and died in just twenty days. His mother had discovered a spot on her arm and thought it was sun poisoning, but the doctor ordered her to immediately start chemotherapy.
David rushed to her side, having lost his beloved grandmother only months earlier. It was a challenge being back home. “I tend to be the optimist while my dad and my sister are the pessimists and the realists,” he offers. “They were not so optimistic about the outcome. I would say, ‘Let’s be positive and give her light and love to make her better.’ They were like, ‘No, it’s done’….I think it’s so important to be positive!” underscores David heartily. “Having the right mindset can overcome difficulties just with good thoughts.”
David dealt with his grief by cooking for his family (“I make a mean pasta!”) and after his mother died, he spent more time in Detroit with his father. “I’m disappointed that mom never got to see her grandchildren. In fact, it was a wakeup call for Neil and me to have kids,” he points out. David stretches his legs, touching the fire pit. He crosses his arms casually. “We kept saying to mom in the hospital that we’re going to have kids and for her to get well so she can enjoy her grandkids.”
David and Neil’s relationship with their kids is not traditional. “We’ve always been the kind of couple that talks to their kids like they’re adults. We never did any of the baby talk. They’re now learning to talk and I see them speaking in adult patterns,” he says. “I think we have a very European feel to raising them. We like being open and honest with them, but of course there is appropriate content and there’s inappropriate content. If they have any questions I will answer them. I want to be friends with my kids.” He mentions that a woman who works for Elton John inspired him. “She treats her kids like peers,” reports David with an easy smile.
He and Neil are good friends with Elton John, his husband David Furnish, and their two sons. They wholeheartedly support The Elton John AIDS Foundation, as well as AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Broadway Cares, and Project Angel Food. “David is a true friend and a good man. We share a love of fatherhood and philanthropy,” Elton John tells A&U. “David and Neil have been fervent supporters of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. His willingness to get his hands dirty is one of the many reasons why I love him so. When the chips are down, David can be relied on to help straight away.”
David and Neil are also involved with Children International, Feeding America, Food on Foot, and Global Green. In 2011, The L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center bestowed upon them The Rand Schrader Distinguished Achievement Award for their work with the LGBT community.
The couple has participated in many fundraisers. They’ve hosted a picnic for cancer, served up a hot meal at the L.A. Mission, and sang the Cole Porter duet, “You’re The Top” at a Trevor Project event. “I just like the way it makes me feel,” says David spiritedly, when asked about his philanthropy, relating that he finds it more difficult to volunteer in Los Angeles than New York. “In New York, there’s an organization called New York Cares and they publish a monthly calendar that lists things one can volunteer for. For instance, caroling for the holidays in a kid’s hospital or picking up trash in a park or going roller skating with underprivileged children or singing at retirement homes. I was really involved with that when I lived in New York and would do it about twice a month. It’s important to give back, not only for your karma but for everybody else’s too,” he insists, licking his dry lips. “Once we’re settled in New York, I want to get my children involved as well.”
David’s life may appear to be like a Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie, but to be an openly gay couple in these times can be a challenge. (Occasionally, David pinches himself back to reality. “Sometimes when I’m having breakfast with Elton in his Nice [France] house, I’m going, ‘What? Where am I? This is a legend!’….It’s strange.”) Despite David’s gratitude “for an amazing life,” it’s not an easy task to sustain the role model status in the public eye. Google his name and there are photographs of him “caught” jogging shirtless, sunning himself, pumping gasoline, grocery shopping, and walking the dog. There are even Photoshopped pictures of his head attached to porn actors! “I can’t take the kids to school without the paparazzi showing up!” David frets. “I’m in sweats and a hat looking disgusting, but I slap on a smile. They even follow the nanny to the kid’s dance class!” His quizzical eyes expand as he beams an I-can’t-believe-it glare across his face. “That makes me mad, but if you get upset and don’t keep your cool, that’s what they want.”
“I feel like I’m a very insecure person, still carrying around the hurt of a sixth grader being mocked because I was different.” He ponders a moment and continues. “I’m hard on myself. I really should be nicer to myself and enjoy life more than I do.” When asked to describe himself with one word, he interestingly replies, “Dark.”
This year, the Burtka-Harrises will celebrate a ten-year anniversary. When David and Neil first made a commitment to each other they both got tested together. “We don’t get tested now; there’s no need to,” he informs, adding that they have several friends living with HIV. “For some of them I think it’s a wake-up call.” He pulls his knee up, rests his foot on the sofa, and clasps his hands around it. “Once a person is diagnosed, I think it can go two ways: either give up or start taking care of yourself. Eat healthy, exercise, stop with the alcohol, and stop doing the things that got you into trouble in the first place.” He takes his hand and gingerly brushes through his high, thick, bouncy coifed-upward bangs that have a few distinguished gray streaks. “Most of my friends are doing well but when they get sick they get a little sicker. When they get the flu it’s a little harder for them to deal with,” attests David. “It’s not like it used to be…and that’s so great. For them, fortunately, they’re doing fine on the cocktails.”
The sun is now setting and David has a meeting across town. In characteristic Burtka style, he sums up with a positive spin. “It’s such an amazing time to be living, especially with all the research and new medicines that are surfacing. Elton keeps us informed,” he says, relaying that Elton is a hero for him, as is Greg Louganis [A&U, February 2008]. “It’s thrilling. We’re fighting this epidemic—and beating it. We really are…beating this epidemic.” He knocks on the wood table beside him, gazes at the ripe kumquat tree behind me, then boldly casts out a hopeful declaration, “Make…smart…choices. Wrap it!”
He names his favorites!
Food: Rib Eye Steak.
Music: Top 40.
Film: West Side Story.
Clothing: A bowtie .
Sitcom: How I Met Your Mother.
Classic Sitcom: I Love Lucy.
Historical Figure: Eleanor Roosevelt.
Physical asset above the waist: Tongue.
Physical asset below the waist: [David smiles, smirks, and just shakes his head…]
Actor: Besides Neil [he asks]? Early Marlon Brando.
Actress: Katharine Hepburn.
Neil asset: His eyes.
Moment: The day my kids were born.
What do you do to pamper yourself?
I never do anything for myself! When I can, I like to get a massage or watch the sunset on a beach.
What’s your foodstyle?
We eat everything. We tend to eat healthy, then we blow it out [by eating unhealthy food].
Name something frivolous you and Neil bicker over.
[He thinks.] Hmmm….The other day Neil did say that I never put the cap on the toothpaste. I said, “I don’t?” Okay. So I started doing it. [Then as an aside he says in a high voice] What’s the big deal?
What do you believe happens after we die?
Oh God, let’s hope heaven exists. I believe that there’s this eternity that we’re all in bliss with halos and flying.
Do you sleep in PJ’s, nightshirt, underwear, or nude?
Underwear; sometimes nude.
What pisses you off?
I don’t like liars and I don’t like people being late. Don’t waste my time!
Complete this sentence: The one thing about fame I don’t like is…
People with camera phones! [He comments when he and Neil were in Las Vegas several months ago for a weekend] Neil is so gracious. He is so patient. He takes every picture, signs every autograph. I don’t think I could do it. I don’t have that patience. He’s really good at it.
When was the last time you cried?
Sunday night. I think I had a little bit too much to drink and it made me depressed. I cry at the drop of a hat. I cried Friday too. I’m very in touch with my emotions.
How do you deal with depression?
I try to keep myself busy. But that’s probably not the best solution because it really doesn’t deal with it.
What movie would you like to star in?
Rear Window! Or maybe a horror film like The Wolfman or Dracula.
What celebrity would you like to have wild animal sex with?
Oh…my…god. Besides Neil, probably Nick Jonas. He’s so cute.
What do you consider to be the downside of our new social media?
Overload. There’s so much information out there that it’s hard to process.
When it comes to actors, where’s the mystery? It’s not like it used to be back in the day when the studio kept your private life at arm’s length. There are no secrets anymore. I recently read this article by Madonna. She said that Britney, Paris, Lindsay, and all these girls who are getting in trouble—nothing has changed! She went on to say that if she were just coming up in this day, she’d be in the news 24/7 too.
Out of the many people you have met, is there one in particular who stands out who impressed you, influenced you, or inspired you the most?
Working with Edward Albee. He’s an incredible man. He was the first person that came to mind but then I think of others like Elton.
Who would you like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
I’d like to meet Bansky… just because nobody knows who he is. I’d want to meet him!
A LIFETIME ROLLS
David provides a one-word response to these people who’ve touched his life.
Jerry O’Connell: Great.
Gary Sinise: Smart.
Cheyenne Jackson: Hot.
Elton John: Amazing.
Kal Penn: Fun!
Cybill Shepherd: Old School. [He then adds] She’s crazy, oh-my-god. Classic.
John Cho: Awesome.
Jason Segel: Teddy Bear.
Ellen DeGeneres: Funny.
Judith Light: Light.
Edward Albee: Legend.
Portia DeRossi: Similar. We have so much in common.
Neil Patrick Harris: Awww…The Best!
George Takei: Hilarious.
Bernadette Peters: Generous.
Makeup by Robert Constant.
For more information about Annie Tritt’s photography, visit: www.annietritt.com.
Dann Dulin interviewed Cheyenne Jackson for the January cover story.