David Harbour On The ‘Stranger Things’ Phenomenon, A Year Of Big Changes, And Keeping Things Unique


Until recently, David Harbour was a successful working actor with titles like Brokeback Mountain, Revolutionary Road, End of Watch, and The Newsroom on his resumé and a robust stage career, but he was still waiting for that one big break that would change everything. That came with Stranger Things, an unexpected, nostalgia-tinged hit that altered Harbour’s life a little less than a year ago when it first appeared on Netflix. Now, the actor is poised to begin production in the fall as the lead of the Hellboy reboot. The comic book antihero is a bit different than the role of Jim Hopper, a local sheriff battling personal demons and investigating the increasingly unsettling things happening in the fictional Hawkins, Indiana. But there are enough similarities to see how his work in one role may have influenced the casting of the other. But there’s also a timelessness to the Hopper role and Harbour’s portrayal that makes him seem like a fit for a whole host of other characters.

According to Harbour, Hopper is a complex hero who felt like a throwback to a different era of filmmaking. “When I read the character, it reminded me a lot of Roy Scheider from Jaws. It reminded me a lot of Nick Nolte in those old 48 Hours movies. It reminded me a little bit of Indiana Jones. It just reminded me of all these leading men that I had grown up with as a child when I went to movies in the ’80s,” Harbour tells us. “I hadn’t seen a character, at least one has not really come across my radar, that is so messy in a certain way and so complex. I just sort of fell in love with him. I like the whole story, too. I thought it was great, but in general, I really just fell in love with him.”

Getting The Role

After reading the script, Harbour was determined to get the role, but he was worried that Netflix was looking for star power. “My first thought was even though the Duffers were unknown, I didn’t think they would give it to me. I thought I was such a longshot, because it felt like such a showy, great role that I thought they’d want somebody who’s more well known.” As luck would have it, show creators Matt and Ross Duffer were interested, and it wasn’t hard to get Netflix on board as well. According to Harbour, “The process was actually surprisingly easy.”

“I think all of our aesthetics lined up,” Harbour says while praising the Duffers, their writing, and the support they gave him in a creative marriage that was light on hardships. “It was just like, ‘I love you, you love me, let’s just do this.’ It went very quickly after that, and that was great. Most of the good things that I’ve had in my career have been that way and have not been a lot of second-guessing and a lot of people involved. There was a bit of a like, ‘Fuck it, let’s do this,’ and that really was great.”

To hear Harbour talk about playing Hopper is to hear a craftsman excited to use every tool in his toolbox. “He had the most complicated arc. A lot of times in TV, they’ll write episode to episode, and so you don’t really know where you’re going. The great thing about this was we had all eight episodes going in. I knew exactly where he was going. I could really craft this arc for him. I could make him kind of a douche in the beginning because I knew where we were going to end up, and I knew that journey was more satisfying when you don’t really know that your hero’s going to be capable and you actually worry about the drama of that.”

“A lot of times,” he continues, “acting can be many different things. People can think it’s how well people emote, or it’s like how well people say a line. But for me, my love of acting comes from watching a human being with a psychology sort of go through a change and become a different human being.”

The Calm Before The Storm

None of that, however, guaranteed Stranger Things would catch on with viewers. The series almost seemed like an afterthought for Netflix with its nearly nonexistent marketing — just a couple moody trailers that evoked a classic Spielberg vibe.

While he was proud of the work, the relative quiet didn’t go unnoticed by Harbour. In fact, it induced a slight panic. “It was so funny, because of Netflix’s marketing — and I don’t know if this was conscious or not, because I know they liked the show, but I don’t know if they even knew it was going to be a hit — a couple weeks before the show started to air, there were no posters. I live in New York City, and there were no posters on buses, there was no advertising going on.”

Harbour admits that that lack of a marketing presence pushed him to question whether Netflix liked the show and whether they were trying to bury it. Even absent those fears, he didn’t sense that he had been a part of an outright sensation. “I thought that we’d have kind of a niche audience of sci-fi people,” Harbour says.

Turns out that niche included seemingly everyone with a Netflix account. Despite the low-key launch in July, Stranger Things blew up seemingly overnight thanks to a compelling premise, excellent word of mouth, and strong praise from critics. With a tight eight episodes, Stranger Things‘s first season proved perfect for binge-watching and the stars, including Harbour and Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven), became geek icons.

Doing It All Over Again Completely Differently

The first season of Stranger Things would have been able to stand on its own as a fairly self-contained narrative, but the response, the show’s shadowy government agencies, questions about what really happened to Will Beyers, and the demand for a little justice for Barb, left plenty of ground to cover in a forthcoming second installment.

With it comes a new set of pressures for Harbour and the rest of the team. “I’m tremendously neurotic, and I feel a tremendous amount of pressure because I want to take it to the next level. I want to develop Hopper,” the actor says.

What Harbour doesn’t want to do, is lean into the formula established in season one. “You have a very successful show, and then people want you to kind of come out and do the same thing. It’s like having a hit song or something. People just want you to sing the hit song over and over again,” he says before switching to a food metaphor. “In a way, you create kind of vanilla ice cream for the first season. Everybody’s like, ‘Holy shit, vanilla ice cream’s so good.’ For the second season, I think there’s this feeling where you’re like you don’t want to do vanilla. You want to do strawberry ice cream. I think people will feel like maybe they like vanilla ice cream better than they like strawberry ice cream, but we’re going to create the best strawberry ice cream we can. We don’t want to recreate vanilla.”

Presenting the unexpected is a priority, according to Harbour. “It will definitely be a journey forward. All these characters are [living] a year later, and I think that the freedom that the Duffers give us is they all can develop not only physically, but psychologically. The kids are growing up, so they’re dealing with different things. Hopper himself is a year older, and has saved this kid, so his journey in season two is very different than it was in season one.”

That doesn’t mean open threads will be ignored, however. “There was the rift thing that is still open in the lab. We didn’t see that close at the end of season one. Also, Hopper gets in that car, in the end, and goes back to the lab. He has the Eggos with Eleven in the woods, and Will coughs up that slug. There’s basically sort of four strains that we do acknowledge.”

Harbour also sheds some light on Hopper’s burden in season two as one of the only adults who knows what happened and therefore wants to protect the children involved while also being the chief of police. And while he may have found something to live for during season one, that doesn’t mean that his demons were fully put to rest, either.

“There’s a bit of a cover-up kind of going on that Hopper is head of. We don’t need people to know about the interdimensional monster that was running around town. He’s also got the Barb thing. Barb was never found, so that’s addressed. And then he’s got this reemergence of Eleven, which he knows something about at the end of last season. There is some interaction on that front, in terms of his relationship with Eleven, and we see what that becomes in season two, which is very complex. Hopper is sort of pulled in a lot of different directions.”

Over the course of season one, had a fairly traditional hero’s journey in terms of structure: the broken, angry man finding redemption once again through saving others. From the sounds of things, season two is going to take a look into the complexities of what that kind of heroism actually means in the world of the series.

“The one that thing he has in his corner is that he did save Will at the end of season one,” explained Harbour. “That scene where he breathes him back to life, Hopper takes this breath in, and I thought that was the first time he’d breathed in a long time, since his daughter died. There is some patching up that’s happened with him. He sort of becomes heroic. I think that the journey of Hopper will be to see the interesting pitfalls of feeling like you’re on top of things. This fantasy of kind of being a hero.” According to Harbour, those include emotional and psychological pitfalls. But will all of this make him better? Will it lead him down a bad path? He cautions that we won’t get all of the answers in season two. The creative team is thinking about the long game and multiple seasons, which thrills the actor.

Secrets, Passion, And Those Fan Theories

Is that too much info about season two, or not enough? It depends on your perspective, but when pushed further, Harbour pretends to get cagey.

“You have no idea,” he says about the heat to keep big details a secret. “I’m always the guy, too. You called the right guy too. I gave up some stupid little thing about this season, and I just get calls from Netflix like, ‘What the fuck are you doing, man?’ I really have to be careful. I am going to get fired or something.” Harbour is joking, of course, but he is genuinely awed by the need for secrecy, especially when compared to the more quietly anticipated first season.

“There are such huge secrets,” he says, adding that, “if people knew… We have to be really careful, but I will tell you that I’d probably get beat up by Netflix executives if I tell you anything untoward.” This comes with the territory of appearing in a series that inspires the sort of following Stranger Things inspires, as does fans who comb through every word as they concoct and argue about theories — and who pay tribute to the show whenever possible.

“I love it,” Harbour says of the intense response. “I love that people are passionate about the show. I love the fan art. I love the fan fiction. People are passionate about these characters. I will say some of them are pretty close. There’s a couple theories out there that I’ve read that I’ve been like, ‘Wow, you guys figured out something from these titles that we gave you.’ Then, there are some of them that are really intriguing but are completely off.”

While he’s never been involved in a project with this kind fan interest, Harbour is embracing the ride, identifying himself as a nerd from way back. “When I go to these conventions, I love the people I meet there,” he says near the end of our call. “I feel like there’s a kind of sweetness to that nerd community, where there’s just a kind of pure joy that almost feels like pride in that you’re around a group of people where you don’t have to be ashamed of just this pure joy.”

With season two of Stranger Things coming on October 31 and his Hellboy adventure a few months shy of beginning in full, Harbour is bound to experience even more attention, questions, and joy. And from the sound of it, he’s more than ready to keep riding this thing wherever it goes.