USA TODAY - When a waitress delivers Neil Patrick Harris' lunch - a chicken breast on a bed of Boston lettuce - he cuts everything into toddler-size pieces. And he doesn't even notice what he's doing.
Harris, 40, is the highly praised song-and-dance emcee of this year's Tony Awards and plays the womanizing Barney Stinson on CBS' How I Met Your Mother. However, fatherhood is his most important role. His twin toddlers, daughter Harper and son Gideon, who will be 3 in October, are never far from his thoughts.
Especially today, which kicked off at 6:15 a.m. "I got to wake them up and get them dressed and be that guy, which is unusual," Harris says, sounding proud of himself. "David does that more often."
David is actor/chef David Burtka, 38, his fiance. The kids, who were born via surrogate, call Harris "Poppa" and Burtka "Daddy."
Having grown up in the public eye, Harris has learned how to present himself without giving a lot away. But the challenges of parenting have discombobulated him.
"My life is like a carnival plate spinner," he says. "No plate is bigger or more expensive than another. I love our children implicitly and would stop anything if they needed me.
"And yet work is rolling at such a pace that I don't want to stop yet. David and I are almost 10 years into a relationship, and that takes time. I don't want to take anything for granted. I have problems in all these areas, but that's what's fun about life."
Today is typical chaos. Tonight he and Burtka are going to a party at the home of his actor friend Scott Wolf. But first Burtka took the kids to the beach while Harris drove over to The Grove, a Los Angeles shopping mall.
It's Global Smurfs Day, a perfect occasion to promote his new movie, The Smurfs 2, opening this weekend. After enchanting Smurfs fans by kidding around with some life-size fuzzy blue characters, he then headed for a West Hollywood French bistro to send e-mails about it and decompress.
"Smurfs 2 deals a lot with the definition of family," Harris says. "My (human) character Patrick's father left when he was young, and his mother started dating another guy, whom he didn't like.
"Gradually Patrick comes to realize that the genetic, biological dad might not necessarily be the father - as opposed to the person who raises him and loves him. It's a nicely grown-up story to tell in a family movie."
Harris is in the midst of figuring out fatherhood. "For the better part of 20 years, I was a solo practitioner," he says. "Then I got David, and that changed my dynamic. I had to be very conscious of another person, but we were still able to jump into a car and go to Vegas or spend three weeks in Italy. Although we were a unit, we were still very free.
"When you have kids, everything anchors to their wants and needs, so you get less sleep and have to be more aware all the time. You have to be adaptable because they constantly keep changing. They'll do something that blows your mind and then they'll spit all their food out on the carpet.
"The first year with them was complicated," he admits. "They were twins, and they were crying a lot. Thank God for David. He is so good at differentiating cries."
Harris pulls out his cellphone and shows off pictures Burtka just took of the twins playing in the sand.
"David is so drawn to parenthood, just in his core, that I suddenly felt I was a perimeter guy," Harris says. "I was the man who put the cribs together and took the trash out. I tried to balance the equation."
As time passed, Harris grew into his new role. "The older they get, the more I love being a dad. Now that they're talking, I'm really loving the camp counselor end of parenting. I think that's where my strengths lie.
"I'm all about reasoning. If they fall and are OK but crying, David will be the hugger, and I'll be the 'Show me where it hurts; let's talk about it' one. I come from a family of lawyers, so explanation is crucial."
Harris seems in a particularly introspective phase. Is it because he recently turned 40? "No," he says. "If I were still single and still struggling career-wise, I think 40 would have had a bigger impact. I've been too busy to process it."
Harris' plate is full. In Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, opening in September, he voices a monkey. In the upcoming Seth MacFarlane comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West, set in the 1880s, he runs the town's moustachery, opposite MacFarlane's sheepherder.
Then there's the ninth and final season of How I Met Your Mother, which begins shooting shortly.
"I'm sorry to see it finish," Harris says. "I've gotten to play a character who dresses well and ends up with the most glorious girl you can imagine. It's great for a positive alpha-male image, but I'm glad I'm not doing it for 14 years."
In fact, to counteract that image, Harris and family will move to New York next spring so he can begin rehearsals for his return to Broadway in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
"Hedwig is an Iggy Pop/David Bowie-ish rock monologue about a transgendered East German who is telling her story of how she came to be, through incredible songs," Harris says. "Hedwig is a woman, so I've got to learn to walk in heels. The 'angry inch' refers to a botched surgery that left her of an indeterminate sex."
One of the things Harris is most proud of about his 25-year career is how versatile it has been. "Frat boys think I'm one person," he says. "Theater geeks think I'm another. Internet bloggers think I'm a third. I'm very happy with how many different demographics I've been able to hold onto."
He is now working on an autobiography, to be published next year. "I have no interest in telling my story from A to Z," he says. "But I've worked out a cool structure. I've been going through my journals and putting timelines on things."
Where Doogie Howser, M.D., the series that launched his career in 1989, fits in remains to be seen. But having a healthy bank account allowed him to choose his post-Doogie roles carefully.
"Most of all, the money gave me the ability to not panic." Harris says. "I had a strong desire to not be seen only as one type of person, especially one with an eccentric name. I needed to break out of that box because I didn't want to vanish into singular obscurity."
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