David Harbour doesn’t look like your typical leading man. Standing at 6’3”, gruff, square-jawed, and built like a redwood, he looks closer to a white-collar henchman than a hero. But that quality is exactly what made him the secret weapon as Police Chief Jim Hopper in Netflix’s sleeper hit Stranger Things. Somehow, despite over a decade’s worth of Broadway and Hollywood credits, Harbour managed to stay just enough under the radar to surprise the binge-watching audience of the supernatural mystery series.
“I didn’t think I was going to get it, to be honest,“ Harbour says, sitting outside at a café in New York’s East Village. “Most of the time I audition for a role like this and then it goes to Kevin Spacey. I have to give credit to the Duffers, who created the show, in taking a chance on Winona [Ryder], the kids, and I.”
Career-wise, the offers have started to come in from producers who want to be in the Harbour business. Such was the case when he was approached to suit up as comic book character Hellboy in creator Mike Mignola’s reboot, which he will film this fall between Stranger Things seasons. Scrolling through his iPhone, Harbour shows a few test shots of him trying on the Hellboy costume. The masterpiece from designer Joel Harlow is just the right amount of horrifying — and the embodiment of an unexpected hero.
Let’s start with Stranger Things. What did you respond to in the character of Chief Hopper?
I was blown away the first couple of the scripts, because you so rarely see a guy like that on the page. You know, a man who is truly a mess. The rugged difficult guy who was all over those ‘70s and ‘80s films, like Nick Nolte in 48 Hours to Gene Hackman to Harrison Ford. But because the show is set in the ‘80s he fits right in, because of that era. Those were the guys that I grew up watching. I never thought that they would give it to me.
How much of that ended up in how you played him?
I came on pretty early into the process and got to be a part of the writing. There was a lot of inspiration drawn from those guys. There’s a parallel there with the movie Jaws where Chief Brody is terrified of the water at the beginning of the film, and eventually he has to face that. Hopper is terrified of children and really of caring about anything, but he gets pulled right into that. Then when he manages to swim, he surprises you. Or take the beginning of the original Taking of Pelham 123 with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. They set up the villain as Robert Shaw, who’s this scary villain, and then you find out your hero is Walter Matthau, who’s this schlubby everyman who you don’t imagine could ever win. In the same way, people write off Chief Hopper fast. Until you see those other sides of him. It’s satisfying to fall in love with him, because you never expected it. That’s exactly what we wanted.
How much have you thought about Hopper’s backstory?
That’s something that we’ve spent a lot of time on. This guy is 40 in 1983, and we know that he served in Vietnam. Then he was in New York as a police officer. Given that timeline, he may have come across Frank Serpico, and the police corruption. The Vietnam past that he has may start to be revealed to the audience. There are going to be layers that are revealed down the road. One of the great elements of him is that at the end of the day he will be exactly who he was at the beginning of the series, but it will have gotten even more complicated.
So you know where he goes in the next season and beyond?
I think a great element of this show is that we don’t feel the need to recreate anything about the last season. Here we are letting the crew move on into the next step of their evolution. For Hopper, we’ve seen him save this kid, and through that he’s reawakened a piece of himself. He didn’t think he could do anything right, and then he does this heroic thing. Now the struggle is this self-inflating feeling of control. Perhaps overextending because of that. What can a savior complex do to you? Yes, we have a season three figured out, but more than that we know how it’s going to end. The story is not open ended. I don’t know how many seasons it will take to get there, but we know where it’s ending up.
Let’s talk about what’s next for you. How’s the Hellboy prep going?
I just went to Los Angeles for the final makeup test, and then I leave for Bulgaria where we’re filming for five months.
How did the role come to you?
They came to me at the beginning of this past year. They had this script, and they didn’t have the studio yet. They had all watched Stranger Things. This film had been kicking around, and they all called each other after watching the series. They apparently all agreed I should play it. I had never been offered anything like this.
What can fans expect from this edition?
You know, I had some trepidation because I have a lot of love for those Guillermo del Toro movies and Ron Perlman. I didn’t love the idea of a reboot, but when they showed me the script and explained how it would be rated R, as well as closer to the source material, I started to come around. The idea of making it darker with more of a horror element was exciting; especially with what Neil Marshall has done with The Descent, Centurion, and Game of Thrones. I thought we could reimagine it in a fresh way, as another version of that material, like the way Hamlet has been done brilliantly so many times.