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While Stranger Things has given its young stars a rather speedy route to stardom, its also offered something of a career boost to its older cast. Take David Harbour, whose Emmy-winning turn as police chief Jim Hopper has seen him jump from supporting actor and Broadway name to action star (at the age of 42) thanks to his upcoming lead role as the wise-cracking half-demon in Neil Marshall’s Hellboy reboot.
With a week of shooting left on the film, Harbour took two days away from production in Bulgaria to jet into the Middle East for the Dubai International Film Festival.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, the actor discussed the career and life transformation Stranger Things has offered, likening the new Hellboy to Hamlet and his infamously fiery speech at the SAG awards (and what he might say this time around).
How has Stranger Things changed your career?
It’s changed my career dramatically. I was never given an opportunity to really stretch my muscles in film in that way and really craft a character. I really had eight hours to craft this guy and his journey and arc and I’d never been given that opportunity, so in that way when I was I really took it by the reins. But beyond changing my career, it also changed my life in the fact that I’d grown sort of cynical about my role in movies and TV as being this supporting guy who carries a gun and runs around and so Stranger Things reawakened my love of storytelling in those mediums. I’d always had theater in that way and had those opportunities, but in terms of film and TV, it really reignited this earnest and sincere impulse to tell stories, so I’m super excited about the medium.
Did you ever anticipate this relatively small Netflix show becoming such a global phenomenon?
No, not at all. I knew it was good and I knew it was special when I saw the first couple cut together at the premiere. For me it was right up my alley as a sort of show but in terms of tapping into the zeitgeist of what people want to watch, I had this idea that we’d become this kind of niche show. But I never imagined that it was cross the boundaries that it has. But I’m so happy that almost the thing I’m most proud of, the show that I’m most proud of is the thing that is most successful. I don’t know if that lines up always for people. Some people get very successful for something they’re very cynical about — like Alec Guinness in Star Wars. He thought it was ridiculous. Whereas for me, I’m so proud of Stranger Things. I’m so proud of everyone’s work in it. And it’s become so successful. So for those two to meet is incredible.
After Stranger Things, was there an avalanche of scripts?
I wouldn’t call it an avalanche, but I would say it was a rolling snowball, yes! I’ve been very selective, basically. The great thing about Stranger Things is that a lot of times as an actor you have to act just to make money. I was doing plays in New York for $200 a week and couldn’t pay my rent. And now I’m at a place where I have enough money and don’t have to take the roles, and basically what I’m looking for is things likes Stranger Things and hopefully like Hellboy that have entertainment value but also voice to a certain loner perversity that I want to embrace. One of my impulses in acting has always to make people feel less alone. Myself, I suffer from loneliness. And I think we all feel alone. I’m looking for stories that help people deal with loneliness, and help them if they are monsters, they don’t have to undertake monstrous actions. And maybe they’re not monsters.
We’re scarily almost a year on from your famous SAG Awards speech, and the world seems a much darker place. If you were to give the speech again now, what might you say?
Well, maybe you’ll see it. We’ll see if we get another ensemble award. Because I do have some ideas. But in general there was a real fieriness to the speech when I gave it, I was really fired up, it was early on.
Trump had only been in office a couple of weeks…
Yeah, and we’d had the Muslim ban come in and that night there were protests at LAX. I said to myself, if wasn’t going to go to those and was going to put on a tuxedo and go to an awards show, what does that say about me and how can I contribute in some way to this feeling? And now that I would say that I feel that I’ve sort re-evaluate my position on what’s effective and what isn’t effective. I just want to be effective in terms of bringing people together. In some ways the speech was really exciting and fun and also really said what I felt, and also in certain ways there’s such a divisiveness in our country around some kind of Hollywood elite ideal, which I’ve never felt. I live in a 400 square foot studio apartment in New York!
This idea of us coming together I think also fits in relationship to the show; Hopper himself has softened a bit, the warm, fiery passion can actually go down towards a warm glow. So in that way I feel like I would like to say something more about a softer technique, coming from a place of inclusiveness and of love, which was part of the speech but this thing that people grabbed onto was this fieriness.
And Winona Ryder’s face…
The pizza memes! That woman is extremely expressive! Of every emotion!
Are you actively involved in any organizations outside of work?
Somewhat. I’m very interested in mental illness and in how mentally ill people are perceived. And I think that’s one of the dangerous things that’s also happening in America. I’m classically defined as mentally ill myself. Mentally ill people 99 percent of the time are the victims of violence, as opposed to the perpetrators, and I believe that neuroatypicality is something that’s very unique and wonderful for a society as opposed to something else. So that’s a cause of mine that I work with. But in general I just like my primary work just to speak to humanity and I’m hoping that my acting, which is my primary thing that I’m good at, can somehow open people’s hearts and maybe make them feel more empathy in their daily lives. I’ve tried other tactics of helping out, and I’m just not skilled at it. I tend to try to use my actual skills to do things, as opposed to overextending my idiocy into other realms.
How’s the Hellboy shoot coming on?
It’s great! It’s a very difficult shoot. There’s tremendous prosthetics and makeup, and on top of that there are these stunts that are totally outrageous for a 40-year-old man to be doing!
Are you doing your own stunts?
Hell no! There are about eight guys that play me. We are a team of Hellboys. But even the close-up stuff is difficult. But it’s also really exciting. It’s the first time I’ve gotten to make a full-on proper monster movie. It is a superhero movie but it’s also old school Frankenstein, Dracula, monsters running around. So when do you get a chance to do that?
Is this your first action role?
I’ve done little action stuff. I did a movie with Jamie Foxx that was kind of action and, you know, Jim Hopper’s a little bit action, he does throw a good punch. But in general, this is my first big action movie. The amount of fights and stunt work in this is beyond anything I’ve ever done. And thank god it came in my 40s! It’s insane — nobody wanted to cast me when I was 20 to do this stuff when I could actually have done it, but now they’re like “step up, come on, run around, roll on the ground!”
It’s a quite different Hellboy to Guillermo Del Toro’s version, right?
I’m a fan of those movies, and Guillermo is obviously an extraordinary director and Ron’s an extraordinary actor, and his definition of that role was very iconic. So in terms of approaching it, even when they approached me I was like, why do it? It’s already been done. And they said they wanted to do it differently. And there is something when you go back to the actual graphic novel that is a bit darker and bit less clean. And even in terms of the character arc of Hellboy himself, this piece focuses a little more on his internal struggles. I equate it to Hamlet, a little bit, it’s got a certain Hamlet feel to it. “I am the beast of the apocalypse! Should I become the beast of the apocalypse? To be or not to be the beast of the apocalypse” is kind of the question.
That picture of you and Ron Perlman having dinner did the rounds. What was discussed?
It was funny because when it came about I reached out to him and I was like, ‘This is weird.’ And he totally understood and knew what was up. And we went out to dinner with my buddy Patton Oswalt, we had a conversation. He’s an amazing guy and super sweet, was wishing me well. And then he says something like, ‘Just have fun.’ Which is something I need to remember when I work because I’m so intense. And the other thing I will say for reporters everywhere, in honor of his request: stop asking Ron Perlman about the Hellboy reboot, please stop asking him about that. I get it. He’s answered the questions. Leave the man alone!
Finally, and back to Stranger Things, would you like to see Jim Hopper and Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers get together? They could both do with a bit of companionship.
But Bob just died, so I’m not slipping into her DMs anytime soon. But I will say that there are two things: I love Winona Ryder and I love mess. And I think the mess of Jim Hopper and Joyce together, the romance, the mess, the tragedy, the drama, would be really fun to play and really fun for an audience to watch. But I leave all that to the Duffer Brothers. But sure, two lost lonely people getting together… the sparks and the drama would fly.
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