David Harbour on his love of Stranger Things
He is here in the Gulf to collect his Esquire Man of The Year Award. What – you may ask – has Mr Harbour done to deserve such an accolade? Was it the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series? Maybe his Golden Globe Award in the category of Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role award? Or perhaps it was the Screen Actors’ Guild award in the category of Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series.
CV aside, mix these awards with his critically-acclaimed theatre career; Hollywood blockbuster release next year; and being everyone’s favourite character in one of the biggest (and most addictive) shows to grace our over-watched Netflix screens, then yes, it appears David Harbour is a worthy winner indeed.
He enters the Black Tap burger joint at Jumeirah Al Naseem and is as low-key as you would expect. Polite introductions followed by a typical jetlagged exclamation “I’m starving! Shall we eat first?”
When the beasty Texas burger comes out, he relaxes instantly. Although he has been around for some time, it is his recent role of Chief of Police Jim Hopper in hit Netflix series Stranger Things that really catapulted Harbour into the spotlight.
For anyone who has been living under a rock this past year, Stranger Things is the American science fiction-horror television series from Netflix. Created, written, directed and co-executive produced by the Duffer Brothers.
The first season, released in July 2016, is set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, in the 1980s. It focuses on the investigation into the disappearance of a young boy amid supernatural events including the appearance of a girl with psychokinetic abilities, who helps the missing boy’s friends in their search to find him.
Could he ever have of imagined the global success this left-of-the-middle show would reach? “I didn’t know it was going to be this successful but I knew… I hear other actors say this about their scripts and it always annoys me because I always want to say it, but when I read it I thought it was the best pilot script I had ever read.”
But as any Stranger Things fan will tell you, it isn’t just the well-written script that has wowed audiences, the slick, otherworldly visuals have appealed to a diverse range of superfans.
“I got this look book with the pilot which had a bunch of frames from Jaws and the Firestarter movie and Close Encounters and E.T. with descriptions of the characters and I knew it was special.”
Despite this, actor insecurities raised their ugly head and made Harbour question if it would get the success it deserved. “I was worried we would be the first show that Netflix didn’t renew! Maybe no one will watch it, what if you have a party and nobody comes?”
But this concern was thankfully never realised as Stranger Things has become one of the highest watched Netflix shows to date. “I don’t think they even knew how special it was.” he admits.
He is joined on screen by acting royalty Winona Ryder, one of the most successful and iconic actresses of the 1990s, who plays character Joyce Byers in the show. Judging by the various public interactions and Harbour’s own social media channels, you imagine the cast all eating dinner at each other’s houses each week.
“I don’t have that much of a personal relationship with a lot of the cast members outside of work.” He continues “it’s almost like I love everyone’s work so much and I’m so blown away by them, I don’t really want to get to know them as much, because I am a fan.”
But surely Joe Keery, David Harbour’s main content filler on his twitter and Instagram accounts is a close friend? “No. Even my social media obsession with Joe Keery, I really barely know Joe! I don’t have to hang out with him, because I love what he does so much and I’m just a fan.”
It is the child actors, or “kids” of Stranger Things as he refers to them, that really are the stars of the show, amassing a cult following in a very short period of time. “Winona is amazing and has a lot of experience because she was a child star when she was like fifteen so can really guide them.”
He continues in a stern voice. “I am very protective of those kids, I’m kind of that grumpy uncle. Because everybody is up their ass about how amazing they are, and they are! I will not take that away from them, but they still need to develop into the artists that I want them to be.”
The “kids” he is referring to are Finn Wolfhard, 14 (Mike Wheeler), Gaten Matarazzo, 15 (Dustin Henderson), Caleb McLaughlin, 16 (Lucas Sinclair), Noah Schnapp, 13 (Will Byers), who play the four boys alongside Hollywood’s current flavour-of-the-month, Millie Bobby Brown, 13, playing the lead female role of Eleven.
With such a young cast, Harbour instinctively plays a fatherly role, helping them handling the pitfalls that come with child fame, trying to ground them on a professional level. “Millie is so talented, but I want her to be the next Meryl Streep, so that when I’m in the nursing home she can come and show me her Oscar, so I’m kind of hard on the kids because, I’m kind of the only one who can be.”
He continues “I’m always encouraging them to work on their craft, to work on their point of view, to work on their artistry, to develop and deepen who they are, as opposed to getting lost in this fame which can, as we’ve seen, with so many child stars, ruin them. I don’t want those kids to wind up in rehab at 20, I want them to be winning Oscars at 35.” They are currently well-on-track for such acclaim and under Harbour’s watchful eye, don’t seem to be going off-track anytime soon.
Outside of the child characters’ popularity, Harbour’s portrayal of Hopper in Stranger Things really has struck a chord with audiences. A character with many sides and layers but still somehow very relatable. “I don’t know if I would be mates with Hopper.” He says. “I love him, but I don’t know that I like him.”
We now get to see the acting calibre of David Harbour. His approach to roles, his character breakdown and complexities they each come with. “Hopper’s based a lot on my extended family from Houston, he represents a dated concept of rugged masculinity.”
You can see his empathy for the character. “I would very much disagree with him on a lot of things; I think he has issues, he is not a nice guy in some ways. But, he’s a beautiful guy. I don’t know that I would hang out with him; but, from afar, he’s beautiful.” Says the actor with a smile on his face.
Although Harbour has brought Hopper to life through the screen, it was the American film and television writers Matt and Ross Duffer who are truly to thank for the series. “The great thing about the Duffer brothers is that they allow us not to be mundane. They encourage us to express ourselves and our opinions on the characters,” says Harbour.
Seeming genuinely thankful to of been asked to play such a role. “There is just so much rich onion to be peeled back with Hopper, I actually don’t think I’ll get bored of him no matter how many seasons we do. I would not say that about many characters that I play.”
Harbour’s love for Hopper seems to run deep, and maybe it is that love that is responsible for the character’s success. It’s clear that he still seems excited about playing him, and working with the Duffer brothers. “I’m constantly pitching them ideas; some of which they can’t stand and some of which they like.” He laughs. “It’s really collaborative. They really see what you’re doing in the rehearsal and they shoot accordingly and highlight what you’re doing, which is such a gift.”
He continues with his admiration on the twins: “I give tremendous credit to those Duffer brothers, they just know how to tell story, they know how to keep you on the edge of your seat, they know how to affect you emotionally, they know how to keep you watching, and they really are masters of their craft.”
The script, the slick visuals, the talented cast, the concept, it’s hard to pinpoint but easy to understand why Stranger Things has reached the success it has. Sci-fi meets nostalgia with a slice of thriller, it’s a multi-genre phenomenon.
“Listen I consider myself an intellectual, but when it comes down to it, my favourite movie is Raiders of the Lost Ark. The thing about movies, you always sort of wish that a monster would show up, and that’s the great thing about Stranger Things, You have this intense drama where Joyce can’t pay her bills, Hopper has this daughter that he lost."
"All this small town drama and then you’re like you know what would make this better, a monster from a different dimension of course.” Harbour speaks with an ease and enthusiasm on this project, you can tell he is proud of it. And rightly so. “It’s so nostalgic, it taps into this feeling of when we were kids and just on bikes we didn’t have cellphones, we were just messing about in the woods with our friends.” he recalls fondly.
“But, it’s weird to see these 13-14 year old kids who love it and you think, why do you guys love it? What’s your nostalgia, you weren’t even an idea at this point? They think Joyce’s wall phone is part of the Upside Down!”