David Harbour on ‘Stranger Things 2’, ‘Hellboy’, and Rebooting Indiana Jones
There are so many reasons to love Stranger Things, from the storytelling to the cast to the wonderful nostalgia of it all. It’s introduced us all to a fabulous young cast, made us wish we had a friend like Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), gave us the opportunity to fall in love with Winona Ryder again, and turned David Harbour (who plays Chief Jim Hopper) into a leading man.
With all of its critical acclaim and award recognition, it’s a fun show to talk about and write about, so when Collider recently got the opportunity to hop onto the phone with David Harbour, fresh off of shooting his stint as Hellboy, for director Neil Marshall, I was thrilled to chat all things Stranger Things with the actor. During this 1-on-1 interview, we talked about how different it felt to shoot Season 2, after the huge success of Season 1, why he trusts show creators Matt and Ross Duffer so much, his excitement for Season 3, the possible rumored start date for filming, what he most enjoys about Hopper’s relationship with Joyce (Ryder), the dynamic with Eleven, and what he hopes to see more of, in the future. He also talked about his experience on Hellboy, getting to a zen place while sitting in the make-up chair for hours, and his favorite thing about the character.
Collider: You shot Season 1 of Stranger Things in a bubble, since no one knew what to expect from the show. And then, by Season 2, there was the pressure of living up to the huge success of the first season. Did things feel any different, in shooting the second season? Did it feel like it was bigger or that there was more behind it?
DAVID HARBOUR: Yes. First of all, when it did hit so big, and then they announced that we were coming back, there was a lot of talk about it being an American Horror Story type of thing. I felt like we really completed an arc of these characters’ lives and did this beautiful thing, and if we ever went back, it had better be for a reason and not just to play the hits again. We can’t do Gilligan’s Island. We need to develop the characters and have them move on. So, when I first read the scripts, I was really excited because the Duffers really started to open up the world and take it in a whole new direction. Of course, I was nervous because I think the arc of Hopper is so complete and so wonderful in Season 1. It was such a joy to crack. In Season 2, I get to play the same character and that’s good ‘cause I understand him somewhat, but I also had to play an entirely different arc that’s hopefully going to be as satisfying. Otherwise, there’s no reason to watch him anymore. That was terrifying to do. When we showed up at the table read, it was a totally different atmosphere. The Netflix people were suddenly there and available to come to the table read. People were pretty jazzed, and there were lots of photos and lots of publicity going on. That all stayed with us for about a week or two weeks, but once we hunkered down in Atlanta, they all went away. We’re not as charming or entertaining when we’re working, as we are in interviews or read-throughs, so everybody left us alone. We really just got back into our groove, which is being constantly tired from working long days. We’re like a family, in love with and hating each other, every day. That kind of intimacy and not preciousness that we have with the show, with each other, with the characters and with the story is what makes it sing so much. We really just live it, and we’re all good, talented people who are good-hearted people. I think that just comes through. That started to come in, about two weeks into the shooting.
After you realized that the Duffers had pulled off a pretty great Season 2, and that fans of the series were still on board and still loving it, does that make you even more nervous about Season 3, or are you that much more confident in what the show can be?
HARBOUR: I’ve gotta say, I’ve talked to different people in the production and the cast, and they’re a lot more nervous. I was much more nervous for Season 2. Season 2, to me, is the big sophomore slump hurdle. I loved True Detective so much in Season 1, and then when the Season 2 monstrosity came around, I was like, “What is this show?! What have you done to this show?!” For me, the big hurdle is having this lightning in a bottle moment, where the stars aligned and you created a beautiful, amazing show that people loved, and can you do it again? Once you do it a second time, it’s smooth sailing from then on out. I’m not nervous. I’m in the minority of that, though. There are other people – and I won’t name names – who are like, “The fans can turn on you! Look at what they’re doing with Star Wars!” Apparently, they’re upset about Star Wars. I just trust these guys. The idea is to do four or five seasons, the Duffers have said, and I feel like, if we can do Season 2, we can do 3, 4 and 5 with no sweat. Right now, the world is so open. Hopper, at the end of two, kind of adopts Eleven, and the Upside Down still exists, even though we closed the gate. There’s just so much story there, with the tension with Joyce, his adopting of Eleven, and his relationship with all the kids, even the teens, and then you have all of these backstories. He went to Vietnam, and we haven’t gotten into that, at all. In the ‘60s, he was in Vietnam, and then he went to New York and was a cop there for awhile, around the time of Frank Serpico. The tapestry is just so huge and wide and beautiful. Even the shit with his daughter and the death of Sara, there’s so many secrets there. I felt like they had to prove that we could do it again and open up the world, but once you open up the world, it’s a buffet, going forward. I see it as an open buffet, as opposed to a burden. We can feed you guys so many wonderful things. We can now feed you so much stuff ‘cause we opened the world.
Do you know when you’ll start filming Season 3?
HARBOUR: I’ve heard rumors that it’s supposed to be March or April, but I don’t have a confirmation.
You’ve expressed your desire to have Hopper interact with Steve more. What do you think a team-up between them might look like?
HARBOUR: It would be a disaster! We’d never be able to get through a take. I cannot take that kid seriously. He makes me laugh so much. I stay away from him, as much as possible.
It’s the hair!
HARBOUR: It’s everything! He’s a ridiculous person! That pair would be incredible, but it would probably add a month to the production time, with me cracking up on set, so I don’t know if I’m in favor of that.
What do you most enjoy about the relationship between Joyce and Hopper, and what do you most enjoy about having Winona Ryder to explore that with?
HARBOUR: That, to me, is probably the most gratifying working relationship I’ve ever had, as an actor. I’ve never had a working relationship that’s so personal and that I feel so inspired by. Every day that I get to work with her is like playing tennis with Pete Sampras. I can’t keep up! She’s the best of the best. She’s so personal in her work. I don’t know how to describe it other than personal. The stuff that we have together is so real and vivid. What first got me into the project, initially, was those scenes with her. Hopper is a really shut down, really miserable guy who clearly can’t stand this woman, and he also deeply needs her to fix him, as silly and cheesy as that sounds. I feel like they complete each other and they can heal and fix each other, and they’re also completely wrong for each other.
We don’t get to see the relationship that Hopper could have had with his daughter because she’s gone now, but he gets another shot at being a father, by taking in Eleven. What did you most enjoy about exploring that dynamic?
HARBOUR: I like the fact that he succeeds as a parent, and I also like the fact that he fails. His daughter died at five, so his control issues are so strong. He does have this loving, sweet father heart in him, but then he also just doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing and he’s so terrified. That arc, to me, was as satisfying as a man waking up, in Season 1. That’s what was so gratifying about Season 2. I didn’t know how they were going to make Hopper a better character. The hero’s journey of being dead on the inside and waking up because this kid is a reflection of your dead kid is the perfect arc. I don’t know how you get better than that. I just trust them so much as writers because they were like, “Let’s do this. Let’s not stop there. You’ve done the heroic action, and now you get to live with the reflection of that dead child and see where that control ends. You have to let other human beings go, as a father.” I was like, “That arc is just as fucking good! You guys are awesome!”
I love that, since the beginning of the series, the blue bracelet that Hopper wears seems to tell a story of its own, through its connection to his daughter, and then with his connection to Eleven. What’s it like to get that detailed?
HARBOUR: I’m going to throw the Duffers under the bus. They’re responsible for most everything in the show, but there are two things that I am personally responsible for. One is the hat, and the other is the bracelet. When we started on the series, we had talked about this picture and I wanted him to have something on his wrist from [his daughter], that he always checks, first thing in the morning, to know that he still exists. Once I pitched that to them, early in the writing in Season 1, right after I came on board, they took it and turned it into a whole thing, and it’s so subtle. We never hang a lantern on it, which I love. You have to find it. It got layered into the whole thing, and you even see [Eleven] wearing it on her wrist when she’s at the dance. There’s more story there that we can possibly go back to, or not. That’s the thing about this tapestry, and in terms of going forward with Season 3 or Season 4. There are just so many things that we could go into that, to me, are so rich. Right now, after getting through Season 2, I’m full speed ahead. We’ve got so much great story to tell. I’m excited!
I’m so excited to also see you as Hellboy. How did that shoot go, and what did you do to get into a zen place while you were in the make-up chair, every day?
HARBOUR: It was the hardest shoot I’ve ever done, primarily because there are just so many stunts in it. It’s a very action-packed movie. There’s a lot of story, too, and a lot of big scenes, but there’s a lot of action. There’s a lot of me running around, jumping and turning, and punching stuff. It’s crazy! I’m 42, and the fact that no one asked me to do this in my 20s is so insulting. Why did I have to become a super-monster in my 40s?! My bones are not the same as they used to be. It was very hard, in that way, but it’s also really thrilling ‘cause I get to carve out an entirely new mythos to this guy and I get to play on this big palette of witches and giants and demons. To me, it’s very Shakespearean. I grew up doing regional Shakespeare and when Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, there’s something about that that you don’t really do in film anymore. We rarely see an indie film where you have an emotional pathos where somebody sees a ghost. This is a palette where you can have demons and ghosts and big creatures and things that are epic, in that way. That was super fun! In terms of the make-up, that was not that fun. I will say that I got to a weird place with it. I think we had 70-plus applications of make-up, which is a full mask. By day 30 or 35, I’d wake up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror and everything was blurry. And then, I’d sit in the chair and for an hour and a half or two hours, they’d apply that face. Then, I’d look back up in the mirror and be like, “Oh, there I am!” I started to associate my own image with that other face. That was pretty cool! I didn’t really like my own face, as much as I liked this guy’s face, so I’d get excited in the morning when I’d put on the different face, but it was hard. There was a lot of listening to music on headphones and a lot of sleeping, if you could with four people applying glue to your face. As hard as acting can get, and it really does get hard with 15-hour days of jumping around and hurting yourself and going without lunch and having to be in make-up for three hours, the one thing that I do remember is that there are people that have to do jobs that are far worse. For three hours, I’m in a weird uncomfortable position where people put glue on my face, but it’s what I love to do and the fact that I get to do it leaves me with a bunch of gratitude.
What’s your favorite thing about Hellboy, as a character?
HARBOUR: I love that, as a character, he’s such a complicated guy. In a certain way, he has a bit of the same dynamic as Hopper, where he’s very conflicted about who he is and he’s caught between two worlds. He develops a shtick to live, that could be charming to some and annoying to others. To me, it’s the kernel or essence of him that I find so fascinating and that I relate to so much. He’s a half-demon/half-man who’s lost in this world where he fights for human beings against monsters, so to speak, and yet he is part monster. There’s a very interesting thematic kernel about a guy who’s lost and who doesn’t understand who he is, and he’s really struggling with that. That’s something that we play out in the movie, and that’s really exciting to me to play. You can have all the humor and all the action, and then you get to play this very deep, personal truth of feeling like you’re an outcast, or like you’re making the wrong decisions with your life and you’d like to turn that around. All those concepts and themes are things that I find very interesting. In our culture today, I wish we saw more of these kinds of themes. It’s very exciting to be able to play a character that fully embraces that, where you can go to the theater and have that catharsis.
How was it to have Milla Jovovich, as the villain to your Hellboy? Is she as much of a bad-ass as she seems?
HARBOUR: She’s super bad-ass! I watched some of her coverage, and I was like, “Damn, you know how to work a camera!” There are people that understand the camera, and I’m not one of them. Man, she would do certain things and I would just be riveted and like, “Wow, you are so sexy and exciting and powerful and crazy! I don’t know how to do that. That’s amazing!”
Now that Stranger Things has put you into the leading man category and turned you into something of a sex symbol, beyond Hellboy, what sort of things are you looking for and hoping to do? Are there particular types of roles or genres that you’d love to dive into?
HARBOUR: Yeah! I love all kinds of stuff. I really am so eclectic in my taste. I love film noir, I love thrillers, and I love big blockbuster popcorn cinema stuff, but I like it when it’s twinged with a bit more social consciousness. There was some joking online, six months or a year ago, about rebooting Indiana Jones, and I would love to reboot Indiana Jones, if he was bipolar and a little bit fat and spent too much time grading papers. I would like to add some darkness to the really fun cinema that we have. In that way, that’s what drew me to Hellboy. I really like big swashbuckling superhero films, but I feel like that Marvel universe is not adult enough. Deadpool and Logan tried to take the mythos in that direction, and I wanted to do that with Hellboy. That’s what I like. I like big, fun cinema, and then I like it to have more of an adult twinge to it, which makes simple concepts, of even something like love, much more complicated than perhaps we portray it for children or teenagers. I want to do something adult and complex where there are sacrifices or things don’t always work out.
Stranger Things is available to stream at Netflix.