At a small cafe in New York City, Stranger Things star David Harbour moves about unscathed and unbothered. It’s the same thing when we sit outside along with the lunch crowd on a set of stairs along a buzzing street, talking about a broad spectrum of topics including Stranger Things 3. No one stops. No one stares. Maybe it’s the speed with which people move in the city or the impressive beard that blocks his familiar face, but Harbour profiles as a regular guy in public. And after meeting him, it’s clear that that is exactly his preference.
Plucked from the comparative obscurity of life as a steadily working character actor to play Jim Hopper, the adult anchor of Netflix’s surprise juggernaut, Harbour has handled the mid-career change with uncommon candor and a desire to come off as someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Though it wasn’t always so easy.
Across our forty-minute conversation, we discuss the early days of Stranger Things mania when Harbour admits that his ego was well-fed, but also the need to separate himself from the character as it became productized and memeable. We also explore season three (in as much as one can ahead of the full season drop on July 4), prepping Black Widow, and processing Hellboy. There are also nuanced dives into the nature of criticism, pop culture entitlement, and filming in Atlanta amidst a national debate about women’s reproductive rights. Throughout, Harbour doesn’t bullshit and he doesn’t do glib actor speak. This regular guy thing seems legit.
What keeps you energized?
I love the Duffer Brothers. I think they’re terrific writers. They do something where they develop story and character on each page. Sometimes I have problems with things that are like sort of an indie nature that are just all about character and there’s very little story. Then I have problems with the bigger budget stuff where it seems like it’s all about story and you lose character. I feel like they just really find a balance between both of those things. Which is extraordinary. Also, the other thing is Hopper gets to be human. He gets to go through stuff. He gets to change. This season, in particular, is a big departure. I mean, he’s bigger than he’s ever been, and he’s in a bad place with Eleven. He’s just in a weird place. Then he really does some wacky things that you wouldn’t have expected from this guy from season one. I like the development of that.
The fact that they let us spin out these characters into all sorts of different realms, it’s not something that shows normally let you do. You’re sort of a commodity in a show — people expect you to be that thing that they love. We are so beloved that, when you break that model, it can make people uncomfortable. They can get mad about that. But I think that, in a way, their writing is so good that they actually stretch your idea of character and they stretch your idea of people. So it’s like it’s always fresh. I’m playing Hopper for three years, but I’m playing Hopper in a different state a year later. He really does go through a lot of changes. So that keeps it fresh. I mean there’s a whole new model that I have to work with. A whole new arc.
When did you film this in reference to Hellboy? In terms of which came first?
After Hellboy. We shot Hellboy in the fall of 2017, I think. Then this came in March or April of the next year.
It’s a bit of physical difference.
How do you get into that rounded shape? Because I know how I did it, and it was super easy.
[Laughs] It’s basically the same thing! I just let go completely. I didn’t work out at all the whole year and I just ate. It was great. I mean, that’s one of the fun things about this season, he’s eating chips and salsa on the couch. Just a mess. A sweaty mess with his daughter in the next room. I like the fact that we let him do that.
Now going into Black Widow, there’s a whole different thing. But I find that the physical and the mental are partially linked. Certainly, in terms of where [Hopper’s] at with his inadequacies and his feelings of embarrassment about being a bad father. Sort of him overeating, just pouring himself into food in that way. He can’t really pop pills as much anymore, he can’t be that irresponsible, but he can still sit in front of the TV and just rage out and just eat. So I like that aspect of it.
So it makes it easier to embody his looser and more uncontrolled nature with that physical transformation?
Yeah. He’s kind of crazy this season. I mean, the interesting thing about the first episodes is that he really is kind of losing his mind as a result of this little girl growing up in front of him. I mean, there’s all the trauma of what he went through with his daughter being reflected in this girl. Then his inability to control time, or to control human beings which… he’s a real control freak [and it has] has spiraled him out. So yeah, I think the thing about mess, which I feel like Hopper, in various states, is a mess… In the first season, he was really a man of justice who sort of became more of a father. Now his mess goes into almost his own masculinity. He’ll go into his whole thing about intimacy with other characters.
So in that way, to spiral him out and for me to really go there, the physical is really important. It’s important to not just kind of play it, it’s important to live it and embody it. Sometimes I feel like that’s one of the nice things… the Duffer Brothers like to shoot my love handles and shit. We don’t pull any punches. We don’t try to light it well. I’m not doing pushups. You know what I mean? You’re a human being. That’s one of the things that I really like about them and like about the show is that people on the show feel, even though all those kids are becoming rock stars, they still feel like real people on the show.
It’s funny because there’s that idea of what one should supposedly look like and then you look at the response to that Hawaiian shirt. Hopper’s a style icon now.
So ridiculous. [Laughs]
I love that shirt, man. I would love to find that shirt.
[Laughs] I’m sure Hot Topic will be releasing it in this summer.
Do you have any say on something like that?
Oh yeah. It was funny, we discussed that early on. Then when the scripts came out I talked with the costume designer (Amy Parris) a lot. We had basically three shirts that we narrowed it down to. I was sort of going to go with this electric blue one that had these flowers on it and my girlfriend swept in and was like, “That’s the one, the white one.” She was right, it’s so great. That ’80s pattern.
Do you remember those Patrick Nagel paintings? I think there’s one in the mayor’s house. I don’t know if we ever shoot it, but Patrick Nagel had these… he was very ’80s and he had these women and they looked like Duran Duran covers, sort of. I remember thinking, “I want a shirt that looks like one of those paintings.” Not literally, but the feeling of one of those cheesy paintings. She really hit it out of the park. Because also, it’s a weird thing where it’s like you’re riding that line of it should be ridiculous, but also it should be something where he would think it’s cool. He doesn’t really know. So yeah, I think we did that pretty well.
Is it weird for you to see yourself as an action figure when you’re in a store?
It was the first time, but now it’s like I almost have no identification with it. It’s almost like Hopper exists outside of me as a character that I love too. So I’ll see stuff and I’ll be like, “Hopper!” It’s not me, I don’t have that identification. I have more of, like, “it’s a painting that is out there and it’s called Hopper.” So it’s just a thing that I like too. I like seeing those different Funkos and shit. We’re literally writing the show around what’s the next Funko Pop [Laughs].
Do you get a piece of that?
No. Not a lick. [Laughs] Maybe that’s why I don’t identify with it. Yeah, maybe that’s exactly why.
There it is. You got to get some branding on that shirt, though.
My contract is awful. [Laughs]
Is that the same with becoming a meme with the dancing Hopper, stuff like that, same thing?
Yeah, exactly. It’s like, the first couple months of the show coming out, I experienced this flood of fame that had all those things. It had action figures, it had memes, it had people coming up to me, all those things. My ego was very fed with it. I was like, “Oh yes, I’m a big fucking deal now!” Then the more it goes along, the more I’m just like, “Yeah that’s something.” Like, you write an article, and it’s out there. Move on. I did this thing and it’s out there, but it’s not so much me as it is an extension of just work. I don’t look at it with too much pride. I just look at it as this thing.
I assume you prefer to be in that state of mind?
Yeah. I mean, because this business, it’s crazy. It’s crazy in all directions. The ups and the downs and the people who love you and then they hate you. I feel like that’s getting even more pronounced in our culture now. It’s crazy.
You get whiplash. You see the Keanu Reeves thing where he’s a popular meme from a Netflix movie for a second on Twitter and I’m already seeing articles about how he’s going to break your heart, he’s going to be some creep. It’s like, people just have to assume that things are going to be just naturally bad. It’s weird.
Yeah, I’m trying to figure out what it is. Or even the whole Game of Thrones thing, the petition… You’re just like, man. I mean there’s something where athletes experience it as well. Where it’s like you have a shitty season or something and people just hate you. There’s something about the entitlement that… I guess my reaction now is so much different where I’m just like… content creation, it’s such a brave thing to do. To commentate on content is a fun thing to do, but without the actual content, you don’t have anything to comment on. So the interesting thing about our culture now is that the comment commentators are becoming almost their own culture. What I want to see is, maybe if you’re that good at commenting, step out and create something. But it’s a hard position. It’s harder than you think to be out there.
The great thing about Stranger Things season one was that nobody saw it coming. There was no hype and nobody knew what the fuck it was. They just kind of discovered it. Now, I mean, I assume it’s the same thing with Game of Thrones, but now it’s there and there is this sort of expectation like you have ownership.
Do you think of criticism as an art form?
That’s a good question.
I’m curious. I honestly don’t know, myself.
Sure, back in the day with Harold Clurman and stuff, writing about theater. But I think that criticism has become wildly irresponsible. I think that’s the influence of Rotten Tomatoes and stuff. Like, you can write a nuanced review and then you have to submit it to Rotten Tomatoes as either “thumbs up or thumbs down so we can calculate it.” What’s important about criticism is what’s someone’s attempting to do and whether or not they achieve their intention. Your personal opinion about whether it’s good or bad is, like, I think that everyone’s entitled to that but the critic, in their essence, I think has a responsibility to the art form itself. I feel like that’s where we’re lacking. That’s with the Yelp reviews and everything, it’s just everybody can say it’s good or it’s bad. The problem is the mob mentality of these social media things is, in my mind, making the flavors very binary. It’s the same thing we’ve done with Democrats and Republicans.
Yeah, I agree.
Politics can be so nuanced and interesting, but it’s like you’re either liberal or your conservative. Or it’s either good or it’s shitty. It’s like, I miss the nuance and color. And also, I like going and seeing films or watching TV shows that aren’t that great. But that are cool. You know what I mean? I saw a film the other day. We walked out and people were like, “It was terrible.” I’m like, yeah, but it was attempting to be an art film. It had things to say about climate change. It was fucking weird in a way that I never see shit. So yeah, it wasn’t good, but also, I’m glad I fucking sat there and watched it. So in that way, I feel like the binary nature of criticism and the sort of rabid… I think that’s consumerism and capitalism at its essence. It’s like, “I’ve only got $15 this weekend, what am I going to spend it on?” Once you start making art a commodity, it’s the natural extension of capitalism and also I feel like you lose the art. It all becomes like McDonald’s. I feel like that’ll get worse and worse. I just hate that.
I think a part of it is also just the sheer volume of stuff that’s out there.
People look at it, like from the other side of it, like you’re saying, “I only have $15 and I’ve got 5,000 things to pick. So what am I going to put my time into?”
I think a lot of people like it [Rotten Tomatoes] because it’s a shortcut. But yeah, we are depriving ourselves. Let me ask, how has what you look for in a role changed since the show?
I mean, my compass has sort of remained the same. The exposure thing and the fame thing changes, but I’ve been doing the same thing I’ve been doing since I was off-Broadway at 24-years-old. I’m looking for stuff that, I don’t know how to say this, but it’s stuff that feels personal. The word personal feels like, to me, more interesting than intimate, even. Stuff that feels true. I feel like that can exist in a superhero movie, and it can exist in an indie drama. But, I’m just always looking for stuff that just feels true.
Obviously, you get that from Stranger Things. You’re doing a lot of film work. Is film the exclusive area where you’re looking right now?
There were a couple plays that I really wanted to do but I can’t sort of fit them in at this point. Also, the film projects are really good. Black Widow was an opportunity that… Marvel, they’re like a Cadillac. They know what they’re doing. The other interesting thing is they hired this director, Cate Shortland, who’s a real indie director. She is such a good director. And so brilliant, that whatever movie she’s directing, I’d want to be a part of. So something like that comes along and you’re just like, “I have to do this.” And it takes up like five months.”
They got a lot of shit for the whole Edgar Wright/Ant-Man thing, but it really seems like they try to pair the material to the right filmmaker and it makes for better films.
I agree. It’s something where… You know, it was funny, Nic Cage was interviewed by GQ and he said something about Con-Air where he said Jerry Bruckheimer hired all these indie guys. Him and Malkovich and Buscemi and they made a big blockbuster movie. But part of the reason why the movie succeeds is that you have the corporate structure of this big blockbuster thing. But at the heart of it, you have a bunch of people who just want to make a great film and want their relationships to be real and want the dialogue and the stuff to be true. We have the same thing with this. We’ve got Rachel Weisz and Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh. Yeah, it’s fucking great.
Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein looks like a bold move, what intrigued you about it and how did it come to be?
Bold move? I dunno. It’s sheer silliness. John Levenstein is a writer I’ve admired, and we decided to make this confection of 28 minutes together. We were drawn to the idea because it felt unlike anything we’d seen before. It’s based on a fictional tale of this guy called David Harbour who’s dad created plays for television ala I, Claudius and in the production vein of the original Dark Shadows. I love and hate the theater, and love and hate my own self-importance and utter sincerity about acting. And John loves and hates these things about me too and writes things that are truly unique. My career sometimes has moves, but this isn’t one of them. It’s pure joyful idiocy.
With Hellboy, the criticism, the box office, the rumors — how does that impact your takeaway from the project? Does it leave a sour taste?
Yeah… it definitely… I’m a human being. So, I don’t get away scot-free. It hurts. I, of course, am invested wholeheartedly in terms of what I do to the best of my ability. I’m not in control of a lot of elements. The other thing, though, about things that don’t exactly go the spectacular stupendous blockbuster way, is that you learn a lot and when things do go a blockbuster way, you tend to not learn very much. So, I think that I learned a tremendous amount. Not to take anything away… there are tons of people that come up to me that love the movie and love the dark Hellboy that we brought and wanted more of that. Really, fans of the comic and stuff like that. I don’t want to take anything away from that.
When something comes out and people say it’s a bomb, then yeah, it gets painted with this brush. I was in the middle, honestly. I wanted more. I wanted more of the BPRD stuff. I wanted a sequel and was hoping it would make the bank to justify that.
Me too. Me too. There’s a life there that I think could’ve been very interesting and there were certain problems that the film couldn’t really overcome. But you’re right, in this world, to me that was the thing where it’s a different color or a different flavor. And while yes, maybe we didn’t achieve certain things, there was something there. There was an essence and a kernel there that could’ve blossomed into something cool. Now, I feel like just with the reaction, it won’t be. And that’s fine. Again, I’m a human being, it’s going to hurt.
The other thing that’s really interesting is, I don’t think you really feel like you’re in this business until you’ve had hits like that. I actually, myself, went through, because I was in a little pain in the beginning and I actually called friends who have had huge bombs and then I went through the internet and looked at all these other things and you’re just like, no ones immune. We’re all human beings and we’re doing the best we can. We’re putting our all into these things and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.
Gotta take a shot.
You’ve got to take a shot, right? That’s the thing, you’ve got to. And that’s the other thing about risks, they wouldn’t be risks if they always paid off.
Stranger Things obviously films in Atlanta, I know you’re a conscientious guy. How do you feel about filming in Atlanta? Is that something with season four where you’re comfortable or you’re kind of waiting to see how things land with the heartbeat bill?
If the law comes to pass, I feel like it’s a health issue for women. I would not want any woman on our crew to be exposed to a situation where their body was in jeopardy and they weren’t able to have a medical procedure that could help that because it was outlawed by a state government. So in that way, first and foremost, as a health issue, I just think it’s not feasible. But the weird thing about, again the binary nature of this situation is that Stacey Abrams almost got elected. I’m sure that this law would not have come to pass. The majority of Atlanta is blue democratic and would never have gone for this. All of our crew, all of the people that run the restaurants… My complexity with it is that the people that we would be hurting by pulling out, in a sense, are the people that I want to be voices within the state. Also, I think we’re getting to a point in this country where it seems like, where do we draw lines and where do we come together?
Yeah. There’s a lot of nuance to this. I agree 100%.
It almost feels like, because initially when it came around I was like, “Yeah, this is misogyny.” Which I do believe it is. “We have to get out!” Then I was like, you can’t leave everything. Eventually, we have to fight. So there was part of me that was like, why not go down to Atlanta? Why not shoot there? Why not say to them, “Look, we disagree with this law and we’re not going to put women in jeopardy health wise for it.” I’m not going to do that. But we disagree with this law but I want to let you know that in terms of, we provide a lot of jobs for Georgia — certainly a lot more than Mike Pence or whatever. He’s never been down there before. I’ve worked there for three years and gone to restaurants and gone to coffee shops and hired people in Atlanta. So I love that state. I know that state and that city. So in that way, it’s sort of one where I don’t want to give it up. I don’t want to give up the brilliant people that work there.
You can see David Harbour in ‘Stranger Things 3’ on Netflix beginning July 4 and in ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein’ on July 16.