'Stranger Things' Star David Harbour Will Take Messy Over Perfect Any Day

Jul 4, 2019
Originally published on July 4, 2019 12:25 pm

In Stranger Things 3, the citizens of the fictitious town of Hawkins, Ind., have a turbulent Fourth of July ahead of them. But the unconventional teenage protagonists of the show, led by grumpy police chief Jim Hopper, are ready for the challenge.

Hopper is played by David Harbour, a veteran actor who began his career more than 20 years ago. He found success on stage, TV and film, but Harbour didn't land a breakout role until the '80s nostalgia-fueled, sci-fi adventure came along.

Thanks to the show's cult following, Hopper has become a character so beloved that he's appeared in one fan's senior photos and officiated a real wedding.

The first two seasons of the Netflix hit saw Hopper as an unlikely hero: a curmudgeon coping with immense personal loss and perpetually disgruntled by the kids in town.

This season, Hopper is the adoptive father of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a teenage girl with other-worldly capabilities and her first boyfriend, Mike (played by Finn Wolfhard). But, before anyone can stress about the throes of young love, the teens and Hopper are tasked with saving Hawkins (and the world) from the dangerous paranormal forces of an alternate universe known as the Upside Down.

While Harbour understands the allure of the dashing, leading man roles, he also believes that imperfect characters, like Hopper, offer actors the chance to shine a light on the weirdos of the world.

Balancing the chief's rougher edges with his growing tendency toward tenderness is one of Harbour's favorite parts of this season. He hopes his fallible and complicated characters speak to real human experiences and ultimately help his audiences learn deeper empathy for others. It's a theme he touched on in an acceptance speech he gave at the SAG awards in 2017.

"We are united in that we are all human beings and we are all together on this horrible, painful, joyous, exciting, and mysterious ride that is being alive," he said. "Now, as we act in the continuing narrative of Stranger Things, we 1983 Midwesterners will repel bullies. We will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no homes. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters."


Interview Highlights

On the types of characters he's drawn to

I've always been drawn to characters that are less-than capable, that make me feel not alone in my weirdness, in the fact that I don't always fit in. - David Harbour

There's a temptation to be larger than life, to be more beautiful and more capable and I've always been drawn to characters that are less-than capable, that make me feel not alone in my weirdness, in the fact that I don't always fit in, in the fact that I don't always do the right thing. ...

That sort of mess I want to bring to the screen so that people can maybe feel deeper empathy for others. We're all a bit of a mess. I mean, we're all kind of chaotically struggling to get through this life in various forms and there's a lot of joy in that, and a lot of sadness, and a lot of all kinds of different emotions. So, I've always wanted to portray that much more than to be someone who people looked at as perfect.

On watching his young co-stars grow up

[In this season,] you watch the kids grow up in real time. And you feel the passage of time, more strongly than anything you could write or act....

I mean, it's very strange. And like, I sort of mirror Hopper in a sense where I started off with them trying to be very separate, you know, even with my work, I just wanted to be apart from them. And then as the show grows and they grow and they become more of who they are, we've gotten closer and closer.

On the advice he gives to the teen actors on Stranger Things

I think that as young artists, they're getting so much success and ... I want Millie [Bobby Brown] to be the next Meryl Streep and I want Finn [Wolfhard] to be the next Daniel Day-Lewis....

I mean, I have these desires for them to be the great actors of the next generation and I feel like that takes work. And it takes development. And it takes acting classes, even when you're paid a lot and well-respected for your acting. Even when it's good at a certain level, it still takes development of that tool.

On how his career aspirations have changed over time

Of course, in the back of my mind, there was a draw to fame. I looked at the celebrities I grew up with ⁠— you know, Harrison Ford or Gene Hackman and these guys ⁠— and I looked at them as a sort of American royalty. And I remember feeling like I wanted to be a part of that.

And then, as I've progressed along that line, it's become more and more apparent that my goal is to get messier. You know, I want to be the messy artist that I always dreamed of being when I was a kid.

On the audience's love and continued pursuit of justice for Barb, a character slain during Season 1

It's funny, I was just thinking about that the other day. She was such a great character. And it's so rare. 'Cuz I watch the season and ... I think each season gets better, especially this season, I think is so beautiful and epic and profound. And I was like, "Oh, we can't get any better than this!" And the only thing I thought was, "I kind wish Barb was around..." She makes everything a little better!

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NOEL KING, HOST:

It's an explosive Fourth of July in the little town of Hawkins, Ind., but I'm not talking about fireworks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STRANGER THINGS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking over walkie-talkie, unintelligible.)

(SOUNDBITE OF ROARING)

KING: You know what that music means. Mike, Eleven and their little gang of brave nerds are back. "Stranger Things" Season 3 is out today. So a monster from the Upside Down dimension is terrorizing the town again, and Police Chief Jim Hopper has his hands full. He has adopted Eleven. She's now a teenager who not only has superpowers, she also has her first boyfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STRANGER THINGS")

DAVID HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) Hey. Hey, 3-inch minimum. Leave the door open 3 inches. El, open this door.

FINN WOLFHARD: (As Mike Wheeler) What's wrong?

KING: Actor David Harbour plays Chief Hopper in the show, and Harbour says saving the world from monsters seems easier than being a dad.

HARBOUR: As bad as the superpowers were in Season 2, the boyfriend is 10 times worse in Season 3.

KING: (Laughter) Yeah, you mix hormones in and everything...

HARBOUR: (Laughter).

KING: ...Talk about the Upside Down, right?

HARBOUR: Yeah, exactly.

KING: So I wonder, you've been working with these child actors. This is Season 3 now. Is it weird watching them grow up, I mean, watching them get tall and skinny and turn into awkward teenagers, not just little kids?

HARBOUR: Yeah, I mean, weird is not even the word. It's sort of profound, you know? I mean, there are - and that, I think, is one of the most amazing things of the show this season. You watch the kids grow up in real time, and you feel the passage of time more strongly than anything you could write or act.

When they started, like, I used to look at them as - especially, I don't know. I pick on him all the time. But I remember little Finn Wolfhard...

KING: (Laughter).

HARBOUR: ...With his little, pudgy face and tiny stature. And now he's like a rock 'n' roll god or something. He's got this band.

KING: This is Mike.

HARBOUR: Yes, this is Mike.

KING: He's tall and skinny...

HARBOUR: Yes, but...

KING: ...And good haircut.

HARBOUR: ...He's got chiseled features, and he's just, like, dreamy.

KING: (Laughter).

HARBOUR: So, yeah, I mean, it's very strange. And, like, I sort of mirror Hopper in a sense, where I started off with them trying to be very separate, you know, even with my work. I just wanted to be apart from them. And then as the show grows and they grow and they become more of who they are, we've gotten closer and closer.

KING: Do you give them advice, like teenagers...

HARBOUR: Sure, but they don't listen.

KING: Yeah.

HARBOUR: I mean, I don't know that they're not listening to us. That would be unfair, but I think that, as young artists, they're getting so much success. And I really want them to be the next - you know, I want Millie to be the next Meryl Streep. And I want Finn to be the next Daniel Day Lewis. And I want - I mean, I have these desires for them to be the great actors of the next generation.

And I feel like that takes work, and it takes development. And it takes acting classes. Even when you're paid a lot and well respected for your acting and even when it's good, at a certain level, it still takes development of that tool, of that - that, you know, toolbox.

KING: Well, we should know that you are, like, a capital A, Actor. You've done a lot of stage work. You've played a lot of serious roles. When you were coming up, did you want to be famous, or did you just want to be an actor?

HARBOUR: Well, I - of course, in the back of my mind, there was a draw to fame.

KING: Yeah.

HARBOUR: I looked at the celebrities that I grew up with, you know, Harrison Ford or Gene Hackman and these guys. And I looked at them as a sort of American royalty. And then, as I've progressed, along that line, it's become more and more apparent that, you know, I want to be the messy artist that I always dreamed of being when I was a kid.

KING: Do you mean messy with your life, messy with your work, like, what...

HARBOUR: I mean messy with my work.

KING: Yeah, yeah.

HARBOUR: Especially as we move forward with these superhero movies and all this sort of zeitgeist of things happening, there's a temptation to be more beautiful and more capable. And I've always been drawn to characters that are less than capable, that make me feel not alone in my weirdness, in the fact that I don't always fit in and the fact that I don't always do the right thing and in all these sort of ways.

That sort of mess, I want to bring to the screen so that people can maybe feel deeper empathy for others. We're all a bit of a mess. I mean, we're all kind of chaotically struggling to get through this life in various forms. And there's a lot of joy in that and a lot of sadness and a lot of all kinds of different emotions.

So I've always wanted to portray that much more than to be someone who people looked at as perfect.

KING: Well, I'll tell you something. You're doing it really well.

HARBOUR: Thanks.

KING: There's this moment in Season 3. Chief Hopper, you know, he's the chief. He's got a daughter now, but he still lives in a cabin in the woods.

HARBOUR: (Laughter).

KING: Then he gets stood up on a dinner date in a fancy restaurant. So I'm watching this last night. I'm going to tell you the truth. I started crying.

HARBOUR: Oh, no. Really?

KING: I felt terrible for him.

HARBOUR: Oh, that's amazing (laughter).

KING: I said, this poor guy in his fancy - he put on, like, a Hawaiian-print shirt, and he's sitting at the restaurant alone. I felt terrible about that, but it sounds like you're saying that's the art, right there (laughter).

HARBOUR: Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely. Oh, I love that you had that response.

KING: Oh, gosh.

HARBOUR: That's so generous of you as a human being.

(LAUGHTER)

HARBOUR: I mean, I think one of the most fun things about this season is that, you know, in the first season, we sort of unpacked how he had been a man of justice, and he wasn't anymore. And he had to reawaken that. In the second season, we sort of unpack this fact that he was - he had been a father at one point, and he had to unpack that.

And so in this season, he kind of chaotically goes about how to become a man again. And one of those things is, yeah, he subconsciously is responding to television like "Magnum P.I." I mean, he shaves his beard into a mustache. He buys an '80s-type outfit, and he tries to be like a modern, cool guy. And it doesn't succeed very well. But I like that he's trying. I love that.

KING: Yeah.

HARBOUR: I think that's very beautiful about him.

KING: I have a question for you - Season 1, deep cut, real fans are going to get it. Do you still want justice for Barb?

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Because I...

HARBOUR: Oh, we're going to go there.

KING: (Laughter).

HARBOUR: We're going to go there.

KING: Barb, we should say for people who have not obsessively watched the show as I have, is the best friend of the character Nancy, a teenage girl whose younger brother is one of the main characters. And Barb goes missing in Season 1 and just meets a terrible fate, and it's all very unfair.

HARBOUR: (Laughter) It's so funny. I was just thinking about that the other day. She was such a great character, and I think each season gets better, and especially this season I think is so beautiful and epic and profound. And I was like, oh, we can't get any better than this. And the only thing I thought was, I kind of wish Barb was around.

KING: Yeah.

HARBOUR: (Laughter) Like that was the only...

KING: It would be...

HARBOUR: It would be...

KING: ...Better if she was here (laughter).

HARBOUR: Right? She makes everything a little better.

KING: David Harbour plays Police Chief Jim Hopper in "Stranger Things." Season 3 starts on Netflix today. David, thanks so much for coming in. We appreciate it.

HARBOUR: Thank you. That was great. Appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE DIXON AND MICHAEL STEIN'S "STRANGER THINGS THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.