One thing is clear about the new Hellboy reboot from director Neil Marshall: its star David Harbour really fucking loves playing Hellboy.
It’s been a long day for the actor, who typically suits up as “Big Red” in the make-up chair first thing in the morning, a process that takes under two hours, and that’s where he remains for most of the day, under heavy prosthetics. Late one Monday, back in November 2017, filming had wrapped for the day, the last few stragglers were closing down the Bulgarian fort for the night, and Harbour went back in the make-up chair for the de-rig routine.
“It was supposed to take not this long but you can’t rush genius,” Harbour says, still smiling.
By the time he finally re-emerges out of costume to speak with a group of press, there is one thing that remains: his red-painted left hand.
“The de-rig process is, like, half an hour, but I leave this lovely thing to wander around Bulgaria,” he laughs. “I look like either David Bowie or a burn victim, the nail polish and everything. This is the only piece of my flesh that’s actually on camera” — in reference to the prosthetic stone hand that covers his right hand and the body suit that covers everything else. “They de-rig me with all the stuff and then they’re like, ‘Do you want to take this off?’ I’m like, ‘No, fuck it! I’m in Bulgaria. I just sleep anyway and eat shopska salads. So fuck it!’”
Playing Hellboy has done quite the number on Harbour’s vocabulary. Each remark typically comes with a “fuck” or a “shit.” To be fair, it’s difficult not to cuss a bit when you’re pretending to slaughter giants in a big-budget R-rated comic book fantasy. It also helps distinguish Harbour’s Hellboy from Ron Perlman’s turn in the Guillermo del Toro films.
In revisiting Hellboy for a new reboot, 11 years since the release of Del Toro’s The Golden Army, Marshall and the producers agreed to do something more dark and
“gnarly” — but still with bursts of comedy, like watching Harbour scream at ghosts for four minutes.
In one of his first sit-downs with journalists on the film’s Bulgarian set, Harbour — still with his red-painted left hand — explained the approach to Hellboy, extracting elements from the comics, Hellboy’s sexual history, getting into hellspawn shape for practical stunts, and the seeming presence of Lobster Johnson, a crime-fighting pulp vigilante idolized by Hellboy in the comics.
Yes, a lot of “fuck”s and “shit”s ensued.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Can you take us back to the beginning? What was your first conversation and where did it evolve from there?
DAVID HARBOUR: We were shooting the second season of Stranger Things. I think it was very early in the shooting process and I got a call from my agents just saying, ‘They want to remake Hellboy and they want you to be the new Hellboy and here’s the script.’ The movie wasn’t completely greenlit, we didn’t have a studio, but [producers] Lloyd Levin and Larry Gordon had this script. They wanted to redo the whole thing and they had Neil Marshall at that point and they were all very keen on me doing it. They sent [the script] to me and I was very confused and terrified at that prospect and excited. I mean, who the fuck am I? I’ve been a character guy for years doing these little things. Stranger Things came out and I think that Neil, Lloyd, and [Hellboy creator] Mike Mignola, I guess, all watched it around that first month. I think they all called each other and were like, “Wouldn’t David Harbour be a great Hellboy?” That’s very flattering and very horrifying to think that I would be this angry demon, but it seems to fit. I read a very early draft of the script and it was not terrible, and I was really excited about that. The script has gone through a lot of iterations, we’ve done a lot of work on it. The superhero mythos is so big in our culture now and I, of course, want to be a part of that.
I almost consider it like, the Greeks had Achilles and Agamemnon, we have Captain America and Iron Man. It’s the same shit, right? But whereas maybe Aeschylus and Sophocles were writing the Avengers movies, here you have Euripedes coming in with this darker version of Elektra or something that is nastier and gnarlier. When I read the script, that’s what excited me. It wasn’t like those Marvel movies that we see. It was very different but it had a very compelling story and it was very in line with the graphic novels that I had been introduced to in my early 20s. Again, there are exceptions. Our inspirations are Logan, Deadpool, and the Christopher Nolan Batman universe.
I went back and forth for a long time on it because part of the trepidation was those films have a rabid fan base, the Guillermo del Toro ones, and certainly Ron Perlman did a terrific job and is a great actor. I was scared people would feel like it was a fuck you to those guys and what they’ve done. I was nervous about that. In terms of the reimagining, I sort of hate the term “reboot” ’cause I’ve seen a million dudes play Hamlet and I love everybody’s take on that particular character and they bring out something unique. So my whole thing is, we’re not gonna try to compete with what those guys did. We’re not gonna even play in that ballpark. We’re gonna do something just completely different and we’re gonna highlight a different aspect of this guy. I can’t do what Ron Perlman does. I think he’s a genius at what he does — this very dry, machismo thing. In terms of approaching the character, I have to do it my own way. It has to be totally different and it has to be something that I, first of all, am drawn to and [is] , secondly, something that I can excel at as an actor. The fact that they were really into that and they wanted to bring new life and a wildly different take on that, I was like, “Alright then, I’m in. This sounds really great.”
What is that take?
HARBOUR: The terrible version of it is angsty and the great version of it is tortured. In the original Hellboy movies, I feel like he’s very much a guy who has a sense of humor who goes about his job and does his thing and deals with the demons and the evil in the world. In our movie, he’s very much dealing with his own being ostracized from society. There’s kind of a Frankenstein element to it. There’s a lot more self-hatred. Although those [Del Toro] movies did explore a certain aspect of that, ours is just a lot darker in terms of a character piece, who he is. He’s a much more tortured guy who, in the end, has to do the right thing. He is destined to be the beast of the apocalypse and one of our goals is to justify the temptations of that destiny in terms of the creation of a world where, as a demon, he might be accepted. As a monster he might be accepted, [but] he doesn’t feel [that] in this world.
One of the interesting things to me about the Guillermo del Toro films was that he had a love interest, right? And she was a fire-starter, but I just think that Hellboy probably can’t have sex with a human being because it would probably end disastrously because of his demonic parts. So I just feel like what I wanted to explore was that loneliness and the temptations of, if you do create a darker world as the beast of the apocalypse, you can have sex, you can have a girlfriend, you can have a life, but to live in the human world and protect humanity, you have to sacrifice some of your nature — and your actual nature as opposed to this concept of destiny. Your actual nature gets somewhat sacrificed.
There was a movie that I loved years ago that Phil Hoffman made called Owning Mahowny, a little indie movie about a guy who’s a mid-level Canadian banker and he starts gambling and he goes to Vegas and eventually he’s playing $70,000 hands and Bacharach and he’s taking all these loans out. Eventually the feds catch him and they say to him, “What was the greatest joy, on a scale of 1-10, you felt gambling?” And he said, “10.” And they were like, “What is the greatest joy you ever felt doing anything other than gambling — sex, food, whatever?” And he was like, “2.” And he was like, “So you’ll have to live with it at 2 for the rest of your life.” And he was like, “I’m okay with that.” There’s something about that thematic that I find is somewhat different in terms of Hellboy’s struggle.
There’s a lot more drama dynamic that Ian McShane brings as well. [Hellboy’s adopted human father] Broom is a very differently structured character in our piece, and Hellboy’s relationship with Broom is very different. On the other side, Guillermo del Toro created this fantastic, very colorful world. And our world is created by Neil Marshall. It’s a darker, more gothic horror world. And it’s brutal in terms of the fights. I’ve never had to do such intense stunt work in my whole life. The fights are crazy. [Stunt coordinator] Markos [Rounthwaite] sculpted all of these incredible fights, and they’re bloody and there’s really the sense you’re actually killing things — even if they are giants or monsters or whatever — that you’re chopping their heads off, you’re bathing in their blood, and you’re feeling the complex feelings of actually cutting the heart out of another thing. We’re taking the time to deal with that, the fact that Hellboy is a killer. He’s, truly, a weapon. And I think we spent a little more time on that, as well.
In terms of the colors and the look of it, you guys have seen one image at least, because I leaked something on Twitter that I apparently shouldn’t have done. But you’ve seen a couple images of Hellboy on social media aspects. He’s darker. He’s more muscular. He’s more intense. He’s more angular. The color palette is, in my mind, a little more to the comics. We bathe it in a lot of blue light, a lot of yellow light, and the color itself of the suit. He’s the only red object in the frame a lot of times. So it has an aesthetic that is really interesting to me, and feels a little more of the Mignola comic than the Guillermo del Toro fantastic universe. In that way, it’s different… Yeah, I’ve forgotten the question.
Are Hellboy and [Sasha Lane’s] Alice [Managhan] not an item in the movie?
HARBOUR: It’s an avuncular relationship. It’s funny because, in an earlier draft, there was the temptation to do that, and I was very adamant to the fact that Hellboy cannot have sex with human women. I don’t want that to ever be an issue, and I want it to be known for him, whereas there is this Blood Queen Witch in the movie, right? So there is a world that he can exist sexually in, but it is not in our human universe. Alice is, even though she has sort of a witchcraft thing to her, she is a human being. He would never.
Do they still have the same backstory that they have in the comic book? When you see her as a little baby…