The first method I use to confirm that the man sitting on the East Village bench is David Harbour is a quick glance at his legs. The walking boot on his left one gives me the answer I need. Scarcely a week after Stranger Things premiered on Netflix in July, he tore his Achilles tendon in a performance of Troilus and Cressida at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park. Ironically, he was playing Achilles.
“It was a very physical play, and I don’t think I was warming up, or stretching, or doing anything like that,” he tells me sheepishly, while sipping coffee. “I thought I could handle it, but I guess I can’t. When you get into your 40s, it’s like your body starts to say ‘fuck you’ occasionally.” Fortunately, it’s looking like his recovery will be complete by the time Stranger Things Season 2 starts filming next month.
Harbour is 41. He’s been acting all his life, but until he landed the role of Hopper, he had never really been given the spotlight. His resume is peppered with supporting parts in various films and television shows—Jack Twist’s brief tryst in Brokeback Mountain, a recurring role on The Newsroom as anchor Elliot Hirsch, a whole lot of bad guys. He was nominated for a Tony Award for a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 2005, but that was about it for outward recognition… until now. “David is one of those actors’ actors,” Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer told Paste via email, “and he’s been waiting for an opportunity like this for a long time.”
The decades of grinding have lent a sort of weight to Harbour, a knowledge of the hardships that come with the single-minded pursuit of passion. You can see it in other late-blooming stars like Morgan Freeman, the physical manifestations of years of struggle. For Freeman, it’s reflected in eyes that shine brightly from sockets slightly sunken by frustrated ambitions of the past; for Harbour, it’s reflected in powerful shoulders that sag a little, but are on their way back up to forming a right angle with the neck. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why he was the Duffers’ first choice to play Hopper, a tortured man who, during our interview, gains the moniker “the Atlas of Hawkins.” The locus of the character is his shoulders, Harbour says: “He carries a lot of weight on himself, a lot of self-imposed guilt.” After all, this is a lawman who not only sold out Eleven to save Will Byers, but also will never fully recover from his daughter’s death. In myriad other interviews he’s done throughout the hubbub surrounding Stranger Things, Harbour has hinted that Hopper’s relationship with his daughter will be explored more thoroughly in Season 2.
Of course, Harbour and his now-iconic police chief are distinct entities, men who have gone through very different kinds of struggles (Harbour declines to discuss his own in detail), but it’s hard not to see the similarities. Hopper was a real “throwback leading man,” in the words of the Duffers. Antiheroes have been commonplace in television since the heyday of Tony Soprano, and every good superhero movie since Tim Burton’s Batman has granted its protagonist some modicum of darkness. But Hopper feels rougher around the edges, less polished by the gleam of modern filmmaking, more in the vein of the Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman roles of which Harbour lovingly speaks. He doesn’t go to the movies much nowadays—“I tend to find that movies have become so slick that I have trouble identifying with the characters,” he remarks—preferring instead to return to classics like Five Easy Pieces and The French Connection.
Harbour rolls his own cigarettes—two of them, to be exact, over the course of our conversation. He has no air of pretension. He’s just a man doing his job, well at ease now, but still bearing his past struggles, a balance that keeps him human even as he becomes iconic, a balance that Hopper must strike in Season 2 of Stranger Things, now that he’s done the impossible and brought Will Byers back from the Upside Down. The aura Harbour exudes is as vintage as the show that’s made him famous.
It’s funny; sometimes, it seems like he’s thinking through Hopper’s mind as we talk, so closely united are the two. Nothing pumps him up more than talking about the Hopper punch, the police chief’s go-to finishing move. “There are certain things I love about him that are iconic things that have come out… like, I made sure to ask the Duffers that we have a couple good punches,” he says of Season 2 of Stranger Things. “I do know that we have one really epic punch for him, we don’t know how we’re gonna top this one.”
Indiana Jones had his bullwhip, wielded masterfully by Harrison Ford. Chief Hopper has only his bare right fist. The spirit’s the same, though. Indeed, Indy is one of Harbour’s favorite film characters of all time.
“I saw that one 13 times in the theater—I paid for the goddamn movie 13 times,” he tells me. “I was just blown away.” When he was cast by the Duffers in Stranger Things, Harbour was the one who came up with the idea of Chief Hopper wearing a hat.
According to his co-stars and other witnesses to the filming of Stranger Things, his performance captured that old-time leading man feel, the gravitas and complexity of the characters Harbour idolizes. “We remember the first scene our boys filmed with him—the ‘interrogation’ scene in the middle school,” recall the Duffer Brothers. “They all thought he was the best actor they had ever seen!” In their own words, the boys seem to have been a little bit in awe of his skill.
Finn Wolfhard, who played Mike Wheeler, describes him as an “urban legend,” because they usually shot their scenes at different times. “When we did work together,” Wolfhard explains, “he was always so patient and prepared. He just makes you more pro by being there. If you’re in a scene with him, you see his eyes and he is really living in that scene, and the time in it. It all comes together and you just get sucked into it.”
Caleb McLaughlin, who played Lucas, adds that Harbour was a “true professional” who “taught [him] to stay in character at all times while filming.” Probably the most telling thing about the e-mailed statement McLaughlin sends, though, is that he refers to Harbour as “Mr. David.” It’s a title that conveys an interesting mixture of respect and friendship.
For his part, Harbour says that he loved working with the kids… at least, most of the time. “It’s kinda horrible and it’s kinda great,” he admits. Among the greatest relative hardships, he says, was the relative lack of other adults to hang out with in Atlanta during filming, and occasionally he’d get a little bit frustrated—though that actually proved productive in at least one instance.
“There’s that one scene where the kids are all hiding on the bus, and I kick these guys’ asses and come in and tell them, ‘Let’s go,’” Harbour says. “I remember they were farting in the bus, they were being kinda rowdy and unruly that day. And so I came in, and I was like, ‘Come on, let’s go,’ and then there’s another take, I’m like, ‘LET’S GO!’ That annoyance and frustration was just something—I just let that rip and that was improv’d.” In hindsight, of course Hopper would be exasperated; and of course he would hide his affection for the kids behind a gruff, irascible exterior.
Harbour tells me that he tries to remain somewhat distant from the boys when they’re off set, so that he can still be intimidating if the script calls for Hopper to be intimidating. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been any memorable or light-hearted moments. Wolfhard recalls a time from the first episode when McLaughlin, impersonating Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin, actually cracked Harbour’s straight face. “Caleb was really funny and I could see off camera that David was starting to lose it, and when the scene ended we all laughed so hard,” he says. “Super funny. When Season 2 is over, someone should really put Harbour in a straight up comedy.” For his part, McLaughlin seems to take great pride in being the only one who could make Harbour laugh.
He does a good deal of laughing in our interview too—perhaps the most important reminder that I’m not actually talking to Chief Hopper, a man whose “death mission,” as Harbour puts it, pretty much precludes humor. One admission that gets us both cracking up: he hasn’t seen Suicide Squad, despite playing a minor role in the film. Even if it weren’t bad, though, the film probably wouldn’t have lured him to the theater. Rather, he’s attracted to the work of auteur directors, citing Christopher Nolan, Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, the upcoming La La Land) and documentarian Matt Fuller as some of his favorites working today. The Duffer Brothers, too, make that list. “One of the things I’m really proud of with [Stranger Things] is that the Duffers’ voice as directors really comes through,” he says. “It couldn’t be directed by Scorsese or these other people. They have such a unique voice.”
Beyond distinctive film, Harbour has a real passion for Shakespeare, which takes us off on a long and informative tangent. “When I was in 8th grade, I saw Branagh’s Henry V in the Paris Theater, and it changed my life,” he recounts. “I feel like Shakespeare is so epic, in a way that sci-fi genre stuff is epic, it transcends the mundane and it takes you to this place of real passion and real beauty.” I ask him to name his favorite work of the Bard, and he responds with one of Shakespeare’s more obscure works: Coriolanus, a tragedy about a contemptuous Roman general who, after being banished from his own city after a military victory, returns with a vengeance. He also tells me that he’d love to play the titular role in Richard II someday.
That is, once his Achilles heals, and once Stranger Things Season 2 wraps. But given the show’s success, it’s probably to be expected that Harbour will be playing more leading men, carrying on the legacy of Nicholson and Hackman and Ford in bringing old-fashioned grit back to the screen. Chief Hopper showcased the nostalgia strain that runs strongly through today’s cultural fabric, and Harbour’s been waiting a long time for that stage to be set.
Zach Blumenfeld enjoyed procrastinating on his law school readings to write this piece. Follow him on Twitter.