Playing grizzled police chief Jim Hopper in Netflix’s Stranger Things turned David Harbour into a household name. Before, he was a character actor beloved of directors like David Ayer (End of Watch, Suicide Squad), Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) and Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road). But he was front and center in the Duffer brothers’ series, as a reluctant officer of the law content to coast through life in his small town until the disappearance of a neighborhood boy forced him into action. It was a startling performance, as the dark secrets of Hopper’s life came to the fore, and it was complemented in the public consciousness by the barnstorming speech Harbour gave at the SAG Awards earlier in the year. In the midst of the Trump administration’s so-called “Muslim Ban”, Harbour took a stand: “As we act in the continuing narrative of Stranger Things, we 1983 Midwesterners will repel bullies, we will shelter freaks and outcasts, those that have no homes,” he announced.
On the set of the show’s second season, Harbour reflects on the first season’s surprising success, and hints at the challenge faced by the show’s creators in avoiding the “Sophomore Slump” for Season 2.
You’ve been around the industry for a while at this point. When Stranger Things launched on July 15th last year, were you surprised by how quick the reaction was?
I’ve never experienced anything like it in my career. I’m so close to it, I can’t tell if it’s real, but it certainly felt phenomenal. It was something that was so personal to people. There wasn’t much advertising; it was something that people discovered for themselves and told their friends about. It’s so pure, it wasn’t artificially hyped up. That was what was super gratifying; that it was grassroots. People just fell in love with it for real. I’ve never experienced anything like that before.
Did it feel special when you first read it?
I thought it was the best pilot script I’ve ever read, and certainly the best character I’d ever been asked to play, in terms of his complexity and his depth, and the sophistication of the writing. I feel in storytelling, people are so afraid that you won’t get it unless you pound them over the head. In this show, he wakes up and you see the picture of his dead daughter, and you’d know this guy’s messed up. But in the next scene, he’s making jokes about some other guy’s wife, and you realize the sophistication of a guy who’s been through tragedy but has lived five years and has had to develop a way of living with it. Just to have it be, “We’re not going to tell you exactly who this guy is, we’re going to let him be a real human being,” was really very unique.
But when you’re shooting it, we’re all just in the trenches. I think we were just all neurotic, and we definitely went through some fearful phases. We were untested in that way. The Duffers had done one movie that was shelved by the studio, and Winona had never played a motherly figure. These kids sure hadn’t done a lot, and I’d never been a leading man in a show. We were all just trying to do our best.
I never expected the show to have the broad appeal that it has. I have kids who are 12 years old coming up to me, and also people in their 60s, telling me they love the show. I get people whose kids watched it and told their parents they had to watch it. I’ve had parents tell their kids they have to watch it. I’ve never seen a show like that.
Your character’s journey seems particularly unlikely. When we meet him in Episode 1, we don’t have any sense that he’s on the right side, or he’s going to be able to figure this out.
You’re right. We’re making an eight-hour movie. And because of the cliffhangers, you follow the characters slowly on that journey. It’s very satisfying to play something where you’re not indicating the outcome. You really are letting the person go on the journey with you. With Hopper. I’m very interested in the drama of the leading man being someone who is incapable, becoming capable. With the superhero thing, it’s like they’re all so capable that the villainy doesn’t really mean anything. I look at older movies. Look at The Taking of Pelham 123. You have Robert Shaw, who is this badass villain, and then he’s up against the dumpy Walter Matthau. That guy is never going to take him down. So the drama of not really believing in your hero is, to me, so much more satisfying when they do actually get the guy in the end.
For Hopper, there needs to be a reawakening. He’s in this habitual pattern where nothing really matters and he can’t make a difference anyway. And what’s key is what sets him off is not the heroic journey. It’s that people start lying to him, and he doesn’t like it when people lie to him. That leads him down a path of heroism. Hopper is just a guy who doesn’t like you to fuck with him. So once that happens, he’s going to go to the end of the rope for that.
Having said that, he does get to become the hero by the end. What does that leave for him in the second season of the show?
I think that breath he takes where he saves the child at the end is like the first breath he’s felt in a long time. He breathes again, as Will wakes up. So you’re right, this guy’s OK.
I think the journey, then, has to be something different in Season 2. And it is very different. You get to peel the onion back more and more as the seasons go on, and learn what these people are made of. We start with a guy, in Season 2, who has been on a heroic journey. He’s had this reawakening, and he is a hero, and I think we start with the delusions of what that might bring to you, and the fantasy life that might be dangerous. What does that mean for him going forward? You’ll start to see the pitfalls of that as the season goes on. What I love about Hopper is that he’s not a cartoon. He does come up against real life.
Has the experience of making the show changed at all, now you know it’s been popular with people?
[Laughs] Yeah, the kids are on Instagram a lot more. That’s changed.
There are a couple of things. We didn’t know what we were making. We didn’t know that it was that special. We thought it could be, but now we know that we have something special, and I think we feel an obligation for the fans. We feel an obligation to the people. I’m terrified in that way. I’m more afraid this season than I was last. I was very afraid last season, but I’m more afraid this season because we’re very aware we do not want a sophomore slump. Each scene I’m thinking a lot more specifically, and I’m thinking a lot harder. We feel the ownership of this great thing and the camaraderie, and also we feel this pressure.
It’s like, you created vanilla ice cream in the first season, and it’s so tasty, so delicious, but in the second season you can’t redo vanilla. You have to create strawberry. Some people are going to like strawberry and some people are going to like vanilla better. But you can’t try to recreate vanilla. We’re going to take a lot of risks. I think people are going to be pissed off by things. I think they are going to be elated and excited about things. It’s all further in terms of going on this journey.