Q&A: David Harbour talks about how he almost quit Hollywood before ‘Stranger Things’

‘Stranger Things’ star David Harbour remembers how he was an unwilling participant in a humiliating audition for ‘The Boy From Oz’ with Hugh Jackman


David Harbour may come off as a gruff, tortured guy trudging through his spooky workday as Police Chief Jim Hopper in Netflix’s sleeper hit, “Stranger Things.” But in real life the actor is engaging, charming and ready to spill the beans on Season 2 of the sci-fi series (which returns in October), the “horrible” kids he had to work with and how his interpretation of “Hellboy” will be darker than Ron Perlman’s portrayal of the comic book character.

Here are several highlights from his Envelope Emmy Contenders chat in The Times’ video studio.

He binge-watched Season 1 of ‘Stranger Things’ at the same time as everyone else.

“I couldn’t stop watching. ... I knew what was coming, but I will say I got lost in it to the point where — and this is sad and pathetic — I was on my couch in the East Village watching the scene where I’m saving Will and I’m crying on my couch, going, ‘He saved that little boy.’ I forgot completely that it was me, that I was involved in the show. … I was just drunk on [creators Matt and Ross] Duffer magic. I love the show and I’m so rarely proud of things that I do. I see all the flaws [in my work]. It really is those creators and directors that are true geniuses … they just elevate it.”

He had the same questions we did at the end.

What happened to Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown)? Why is he leaving the Eggo waffles? What’s the deal with the lab? Is the Upside Down still around? [But] I had no illusions about Barb being resurrected.”

He was surprised by the show’s sleeper success. But he didn’t get matched with Hopper on the ‘Stranger Things’ character quizzes.

“I’ve done a lot of work — supporting work in different stuff — and I get like two texts [when people I know see it]. And that weekend my phone went off. People had seen the show and loved it. Then the Buzzfeed quizzes came out — ‘Which “Stranger Things” character are you?’” — I was the monster. I didn’t get Hopper. My stand-in got Hopper. It was very embarrassing. The very best one to get was Barb and I didn’t get Barb either.

“I just got on Twitter a couple years ago but I never really used it because nobody followed me and then the show came out and it became an onslaught and I got addicted. … I read tweets, fan art and fan fiction [while recovering from surgery] about Hopper and Joyce (Winona Ryder). I love the passion of the fans. I’ll read it all day — Hopper-Joyce making out. I’ll read it.”

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Co-star Winona Ryder was his high school crush.

“She was my high school crush with ‘Heathers’ and ‘Beetlejuice’ and she’s such a great person to work with. She was just so game [to jump in] and our process melded so well. It was like a dream.”

He’s also used Ryder’s SAG Awards meme.

“I haven’t used it since after my [cultural call to arms] speech. I just remember I had this speech and I really wanted to get it out and I was nervous about getting it out, and I was up there and I handed the award off and as I’m starting the speech Winona handed me this heavy award. So I have this heavy award, there’s a child jumping on my back, I’m shrieking. So I couldn’t focus on the fact that she was having every emotion possible with her face. It was amazing. It was every emotion possible. We would make jokes on set where we could CGI her entire performance just with that 30-second clip.”

We would make jokes on set where we could CGI her entire performance just with that 30-second clip.

— David Harbour of "Stranger Things"

He almost quit acting but the Duffer brothers and script wooed him back.

“I got the ‘Stranger Things’ script like a week before NBC canceled ‘State of Affairs.’ I really had this moment where I’m like, ‘I’m done.’ My neuroses is very sophisticated: I was like, ‘I am done. Hollywood is done with David Harbour. They are finished.’ And then these two young dudes, these North Carolina Duffer brother dudes sent me the script and they were really interested in me. But I was like, ‘This is a lead in Netflix, there’s no way I’m going to get it. This is amazing. There’s no way.’ And the script was so beautiful, well-written, sweet, fun and exciting. It was an indie movie and then you throw in like Jaws, a shark or something. I went in, read one scene and signed on very early.”

He lobbied to get Hopper’s ball cap into the show.

“[Hopper is] someone who wants to hide and he just has so much shame and he has to make money so he takes this sheriff job. The last thing he wants anyone to see is his bloodshot eyes and read this expression on his face. I wore a baseball hat the whole way [through the audition] and got it into the script. … I got it designed, but they didn’t think it would work. I said we’re gonna shoot it. It’s my one thing I want. People loved it and I think it’s a great thing too because it rides the line of a real personal piece but it also has that swashbuckling, Indiana Jones-type flair — an anthropologist with a fedora who’s running around tombs.”

And another way Hopper is like Indiana Jones...

“Hopper just punches people. When he gets at a loss for words he just hauls off and decks people. [Indiana Jones] was one of the iconic characters that me and the Duffers grew up watching and it’s what they wanted to bring to that guy.”

What it’s like going from antihero to hero. Or more specifically, being a mess.

“If you take anything from [the show] you can tell David Harbour is having a really good time. Just like being kind of fat, unzipped with his pants on the deck, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer in the morning. There is a quality to that shower scene, the whole opening montage, which I just relished. So rarely do you get to play a lead character in a TV show where they don’t want you to be [perfect]. And the Duffers are so human. They want the real, they want the love handles, they want the receding hairlines. They don’t want you to be perfect, and so rarely do you get a chance to do that, where you get to play a mess but you’re actually a mess. I was like, I’m going for it man. I am all in. I’m going to be a mess. It is very liberating. You don’t have to spend a lot of time in the makeup chair. It’s fantastic.”

They don’t want you to be perfect, and so rarely do you get a chance to do that, where you get to play a mess but you’re actually a mess.

—David Harbour of "Stranger Things"

Working with a young cast is disgusting (wink).

“Nightmares. All of them. Horrible human beings. I was joking before but it’s the farting that goes on with 12-year-olds. The amount of bodily functions they can’t control is amazing. It’s all kinds of boogers. When you go to work you should not have to deal with someone like — yeah, it was bad [laughs]. Also now they’re growing up, now they’re 13, 14 and you know what happens then, right? The hormones, hair growing. It’s like weird to watch a human being develop. There are little moments of weirdness [about girls]. It’s great and it’s horrible because you want to sort of get your workday done and they’re sort of crazy children.”

There’s a lot of pressure to succeed in Season 2 because Season 1 was so good and he is “absolutely terrified and petrified” of it.

“We don’t want to re-do the same thing that we did. So we’re definitely doing something different. The characters are there. But we’re definitely moving in some darker directions. Some very different directions that some people will love and some will not like so much.

“If we don’t totally mess it up, we have a couple of more seasons maybe in it. We started laying some pipe in Season 2 that may not even pay off [until later]. But I know where it goes in future seasons. I know a grander arc now and that is very liberating to be able to play.”

The Christmas lights in Joyce’s house were actually the scariest part of the show.

“That was such a fiasco. Untangling Christmas lights is the true tragedy of ‘Stranger Things.’”

His interpretation of “Hellboy” will be different than Ron Perlman’s version.

“We really want to do our own thing. I think everybody respects [Guillermo del Toro’s] movies and likes those movies. I just went out with Ron Perlman the other day and I’m a big fan of his. He gave me some pointers, which I appreciated. But we’re a big fan of those movies and a big fan of what they did and so we don’t want to do something like what they did. We want those movies to stand as their own. And so we want to take it to a very different place.

“The original comics are a little darker in terms of the character of Hellboy. He certainly has that bravado but he’s also neurotic and messed up. We want to make him a little darker I think and of course I have my own brand on whatever Hellboy’s psychology is that you’ll see. I love what Ron did and I’m not going to try to compete with it in any way. I’m just going to try to bring my own thing and my own take on who this messed up demon boy who is fated to end the world and really doesn’t want to and where that’s going to go. I hope it will be interesting, I really do.”

Ron Perlman gave him a pro “Hellboy” tip on makeup.

“He just said it’s horrible and it’s already shaping up to be that way. It’s just hours and hours of red paint and horns. I hope [I can sleep through most of it].”

He wishes “The Newsroom” was still around to take on the current political landscape.

“Elliot was my character on that. All of Aaron Sorkin’s characters are so smart. I really wanted Elliot to be the dumbest one on the show. Like I really wanted him to be the guy who cared most about how many followers he got on Twitter, not so much about the news. It would be fun if they brought it back. I really would want Elliot to have a rift with Will [Jeff Daniels] though and be a real Trump supporter. He’d probably try to justify the covfefe tweet.”

Watch Harbour’s full interview below.

In an Emmy Live Chat that turned into a bit of a comedy show, David Harbour shares his 'sophisticated' neuroses while discussing 'Stranger Things'