HAIL TO THE CHIEF
‘Stranger Things’ Star David Harbour’s Long, Dark Road to Leading Man
The villainous character actor talks finally playing the hero in ‘Stranger Things’ and says that Eleven may still be alive ‘in some form.’ [Warning: Spoilers]
David Harbour never thought he was going to get the lead role of Chief Jim Hopper in this summer’s Netflix sensation Stranger Things.
The 42-year-old character actor, who has consistently been the most compelling presence in a string of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them network dramas, was positive that the show’s creators, twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, would want to cast a “big star.” But there was something about Harbour’s uniquely sinister and sympathetic energy they just couldn’t resist.
Speaking to The Daily Beast by phone from his home in New York City, where he’s currently spending a lot of time on the couch after tearing his Achilles tendon—while playing Achilles in the Shakespeare in the Park production of Troilus and Cressida—Harbour reflected on what has turned into an undeniably game-changing role for his career.
After nearly two decades playing mostly villainous boyfriends, husbands and fathers, Stranger Things has given Harbour the chance to show the world that he too can be a hero—if you just give him a chance. It’s a journey not dissimilar from the one his character, Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper, embarks on over the course of the show’s increasingly terrifying eight episodes.
With his excessive cigarette smoking and beer swilling, Hopper seems like the last person who would rise to the occasion and save his town from an otherworldly threat. But give him time, and he will prove you wrong.
How did this part first come to you?
I had done a show for NBC that just got cancelled. And I talked to my television agent and she asked, what would you be interested in doing? And I was like, I would love to play a broken, flawed, antihero character. And the script just came to me through the casting director. It was the best pilot script I’d ever read. It was very subtle in the way it worked its magic, but I thought there was true magic in it. I was blown away by the character. It was the guy I’ve always wanted to play and I thought, well, I’ll never get cast in this, so I may as well read it and enjoy it, but I’m sure they’re going to want a big star for this, because it’s a real flashy role. And then apparently the [Duffer brothers] were really interested in me. They had known some of my other work and were really interested in me, so I made a little tape and it was on. But I was very surprised that I was even being considered—and then thrilled to get the part.
You describe Jim Hopper as an antihero, which is definitely the impression you get of him at the beginning. But he evolves into much more of a true hero as the show goes on. How did you approach that?
One of the things I really like about the character is that he’s a difficult guy. When you meet him, a lot of the audience response to him, a lot of people I talk to, say they didn’t really like him in the beginning. I love taking people on that journey, which I feel like can open them up to seeing human beings a little more complexly. People that you originally don’t like, maybe they have reasons for the way they are, and maybe we can start to understand each other a little better as opposed to being quick to judge and dismiss people. And so, in a weird way, I kind of wanted you to try to dismiss him in the beginning and then earn your empathy and love as the series went on, because I knew he was going to do a lot of really cool stuff later on. So I felt like in the beginning I didn’t have to soften any of the edges that he has. He’s a jerk to people. He’s a jerk to [Winona Ryder’s character] Joyce, he’s shut down, he sleeps around, he drinks, he makes fun of people, he doesn’t really care about his job—all these wonderful colors. I’m used to playing a lot of villains, so I could play him as almost like a bad guy, and then later on know that the turn was going to come; that once he started realizing what was going on and started seeing that people were lying to him, it could really galvanize him to go on this journey.
Right. By casting you in this role, the audience that recognizes you as a villain says, “Maybe he’s not such a great guy.” Was it fun to play with those preconceptions about yourself?
Exactly. At the end of the day, what I try to bring to villainous characters is a sense of humanity. I did this movie A Walk Among the Tombstones—I truly play a horrible, horrible individual in that—and I would occasionally go to the theater and watch what people’s responses were and they would laugh. He makes jokes and people would respond to him in a human way. Then I’ve really done my job if I’ve humanized a really horrible person. And so in the same way, when you play a hero, it’s just that they make different choices. [Hopper] makes heroic actions, but he has the same feelings of loneliness and being misunderstood and being angry at the world, because he’s had tragedy in his life; it’s just that he chooses to make a nobler choice. In a sense, human beings are human beings. Their feelings of aloneness, of brokenness, their feelings of hurt and disappointment, are universal. It’s the ways they choose to act on their feelings that separates them.
The Duffer brothers recently told us they thought you had been “waiting too long for this opportunity.” Does that ring true to you?
That’s sweet of them to say. Yeah, I certainly dove in head first, so maybe that implies a certain, like, “It’s been too long, come on, let’s do this!” I really did embrace and relish in it, which you know, who knows? If I had been 30, maybe I wouldn’t have. So yeah, they’re right. I have been waiting for that moment where I could really step into a leading man-type role. It’s been a long time coming. But part of the benefit of that is I’ve really been able to develop my craft, develop what it is that I want to say, and have enough life experience to understand people much more so than I did in my twenties or thirties. So, in a way, it’s kind of a gift to be able to start to play this in my forties.
And you’re working with someone who had massive success when she was young, Winona Ryder. What was it like to play off of her?
She’s amazing. When I first met her, I used to have a crush on her from all those movies like Heathers and Beetlejuice. I was in high school when she was a big movie star and she was probably the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. So I had to get over that. And once I did, she’s really a live wire. She does not hold back, she is wildly committed to her art and to her acting. And I am too, so we just dove in head first with each other. I work with a lot of different stars and I’ve never seen a star so willing to go to personal places with me and make the work really intimate. We got really angry with each other and we sort of fell for each other, we were really intimate with each other in a way that is rare for me with big stars like that. I was really grateful for that.
There are so many allusions to ‘80s movies throughout the show. Were those things discussed on set during filming?
We would joke about it, but it wasn’t something where we were trying to recreate. The interesting thing about the series is that while there are homages left and right, it still feels to me like a truly original story. Even that scene where I’m ripping apart my trailer, it’s a lot like Gene Hackman in The Conversation. But at least the stuff I was doing was always seen through the lens of this being Hopper’s story. Our conversations might start with the homage, but they would always come back to Hopper.
You had that great Indiana Jones moment when you rescue the kids on the bus near the end of the series.
Yeah, that was funny. One of the things I really like about Hopper is he’s sort of unapologetically angry through a lot of it. Even with those kids at the end, he’s like, “C’mon!” And with Joyce when they’re going off to look for the kids, there’s a little moment where I’m by the car and she’s saying goodbye to Jonathan and I’m like, “Joyce, c’mon!” I just love that about Hopper, that he has that old school, leading man quality. I feel like we’ve gotten a little more sensitive or something with our leading men. Indiana Jones, he and Marion were really at each other’s throats through a lot of the movie [Raiders of the Lost Ark]. I really liked bringing that quality to him. It was really fun and liberating to be able to embrace that side of a leading man.
We get a little bit of his sensitive side in the flashbacks to your character’s daughter. You did a Reddit AMA recently in which you teased that there might be more to the story of Hopper’s daughter’s death, which appears to be from cancer. Can you expand on that at all?
We’re going to see where we go with it, but the Duffers and I talked a lot about that backstory, and even where her cancer came from and Hopper’s guilt around the whole situation. He really kind of died on the inside and I think there’s a lot more to that story. There are little Easter eggs throughout. So I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say there is more onion to be peeled back in terms of Hopper’s backstory and what he’s been through. And his daughter’s cancer was a lot more complex than what it seemed.
There’s also the moment at the end where you leave the Eggo waffles in the woods. Is there more to that story as well?
I was obviously very interested in that moment. And we talked a little bit about what was going on there. Basically, Hopper’s story at the end of the piece—after the hospital, he gets into this car, which presumably has to do with the Hawkins lab people, and then we time-cut a month later to when he’s leaving the Eggo waffles. So the deal that he made with Dr. Brenner to go into the rift to go find Will and then getting in the car and telling Joyce, “Whatever happened here, erase it from your memory.” Whatever’s going on with the lab, Hopper’s involved a little more deeply than we realize. And part of that may be that he has some sort of understanding of this upside down world that other people don’t have. And in that way, he may understand that Eleven exists in some form. And so he’s got this box out in the woods where he gives her food. But again, these are all questions that we will start to explore when we see where season two takes us.
There’s a lot of talk about season two even though it hasn’t formally been announced yet. What do you think the chances are for that and is it something you would be excited to do?
I feel like it looks pretty likely. I feel like people are pretty psyched about the show, so I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t do it. But you know, stranger things—I don’t mean to use the title—but stranger things have happened. I really do hope that we get another season only because I want to play this guy more. And I feel like there are so many more colors to him and so much more story with him. And we can see him in a broader context. Also I just really enjoy punching people in the face, so if we get another season, I assume there will be a lot more of that.
Was it presented to you at the beginning as a one-off miniseries or was that door always open for more?
When I first originally came on, it was treated as if it was going to be a one-off thing, but perhaps they would continue and jump like 20 years and the kids would be grown up. But I think people convinced them that people would fall in love with these characters and want to see more from them. And I think that’s what’s happened. And I’m really happy about it because I think there is so much more we can do with these characters and they are so iconic in many ways, and yet so multi-dimensional. So I feel like people want more and I think we want to give them more, so it’s all a win-win.
The feedback you’ve been getting has been amazing, both critically and from obsessive viewers, who are sending you fan art, and things like that. That must be kind of a new experience for you—that outpouring of love.
It was initially a little overwhelming. I got a bit scared, because, honestly, I didn’t read a single bad word about the show. So I would just troll Twitter to find negative comments and it was all just people loving it—and loving it for all different reasons. After hours and hours and days and days, I did find one really negative tweet and I saved it on my phone. I was so happy, I took a picture of it. I felt like there might be a backlash, that certain critics or fans were taken in but then people would be like, “It’s not that great.” But I’ve yet to see the other shoe drop. It’s very gratifying to feel like people are so moved by what they’ve seen. All I’ve ever wanted to do as an actor since I was a kid is move people and I feel like we have.