David Harbour has earned his second consecutive Emmy nomination for playing Officer Jim Hopper on “Stranger Things.” The actor is also coming off his first individual nomination at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Golden Globes, on top of winning at the Critics’ Choice Awards.
Harbour recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Sam Eckmann about the response from fans and critics to “Stranger Things,” his relationship with the many kids in the cast, and what he has planned if he wins the Emmy this year. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: David Harbour, this is your second consecutive Emmy nomination for your work as Hopper on “Stranger Things.” What does it feel like to just be continually embraced by this huge body of voters?
David Harbour: It gives me a tremendous amount of anxiety (laughs). No, on one hand it’s extremely wonderful but it’s funny, you’d think that you get more confident the more people embrace you and for me I just wanna work harder and it feels like there’s kind of an expectation now. I like it but it just feels like I just wanna work even harder. I wanna get deeper with this character. I wanna go further. I wanna just do lots more with it. It has a plus side of making you feel really great, like this community is embracing you and they’re really liking what you do and on the other hand it puts a fire under you, like let’s top it each year. It’s good and bad. That’s just my own neurosis, too. I’m sure other people deal with it in a much more positive way but for me, the grass is always… semi-green? I don’t know. I don’t know what the metaphor is.
GD: Is that also from the fans as well? This has become a huge part of the zeitgeist. It’s one of these shows that everyone watches. After seeing Season 2, is there pressure from the fans, too, ‘cause everyone’s clamoring for the next bit to come out?
DH: It’s funny, I actually feel less pressure from the fans. We have some amazing fans who are just very accepting of wherever this story is going. The fans that I meet on the street and everything, I just feel like they just love it so much. For me, I felt like there were things in Season 2 that maybe weren’t as good as Season 1 or I have all sorts of opinions like everybody else. But all I hear whenever I meet up with fans is how much they love it, how watchable it is, how much they love these characters and I don’t think the fans are judging it as much as other stuff I’ve done. I think they just really love it, and that offers us a freedom, so I feel like as the show rolls on, I feel like we have much more freedom in terms of what we’re doing. People really do respond to the show in a really beautiful way and I think they have confidence certainly in the Duffer Brothers as creators to play with this world. I don’t worry about disappointing our fans. I feel like the critics and the critical eye is tougher on us, but I feel like the fan base is so full of so much love. It’s all I feel from our fan base. I’m not that worry about that. Maybe I should be, but I’m not.
GD: I don’t think there’s anything to worry. After you watched Season 1, coming into Season 2, did you have any new ideas in the offseason or a new way of approaching the character that you wanted to bring into Season 2 with you?
DH: Yeah, very much. I was sort of worried about doing a second season in general. That, to me, was my biggest fear, was tackling Season 2. I think Season 3, Season 4, if we do a Season 5, I think those I understand more, but Season 2 is really hard to understand, because the show was such a contained thing. I felt like it almost ended. There were a couple open-ended things like the Eggos in the box and certain things that you knew were breadcrumbs for the next season, but in general it felt pretty much like a complete arc, and especially for Hopper it was a very complete arc. He starts out the beginning of the season as this jerk who has just shut down, an alcoholic and miserable and then he breathes again, like he comes to life again. That arc is so beautifully written and it’s so clear to play and it resonated so well that I was kind of like, “Okay, if we come back for Season 2, what are we gonna do? We can’t do that again.” The weird thing about it is like, Gilligan’s off the island now. What you gonna do? We solved the problem. Hopper was dead, now Hopper’s alive. So I was very anxious going back that we didn’t rehash the same season. We didn’t have Hopper be a derelict and then grow up again. We started him somewhere else and then he moved somewhere else.
I felt like once I started getting scripts I saw that they really wanted to do that, and especially the relationship with me and Eleven, we see this flashback of his pain around being a father but we don’t really know what kind of father he was, so in a weird way, what he goes through with Eleven, we see a little more personally the type of father Hopper was or would have been, which wasn’t the best. It had it’s own complexities. Certainly he has a big beating heart but he makes mistakes. He doesn’t show up when he promises. He yells. He gets mad. He gets controlling. I think there’s a lot of things that he has to struggle with in terms of the limits of his control with something that he loves very deeply. I think that that’s a real problem for him to allow those boundaries to exist, especially because of what he went through. I consider Hopper a bit of a superhuman. He kills monsters. He’s like a heroic figure. The fact that you have this heroism that you’ve discovered in yourself and the fact that that can lead to a hubris where you feel like you can control a young adolescent, you can control situations emotionally that you actually can’t control. Even to the point where he can’t really process the fact that Eleven has the powers that she has. That was a whole other element where it’s like he doesn’t view her in the same way as other people. All these things I thought were really interesting directions to go with him, so the arc was very different but it was equally satisfying to play, and I was pleased that we certainly didn’t rehash what we did in Season 1. I was really happy about that, ‘cause I was a little bit scared of that.
GD: I’m glad you brought up Eleven because your father-daughter bond with her was really one of the main spines of the season and one of the best parts, in my opinion. How did you work with Millie [Bobby Brown] to create that bond together?
DH: I of course had to do a lot of personal work in terms of what I could draw from, but the great thing about working with Millie is she’s a very talented young actress, and she’s also a kid. She’s become kind of a superstar, and a lot of the world treats her as if she’s just this very sophisticated movie star, and I don’t have that relationship with her. To me, and when we were shooting it, she’s a 13 year old girl, who I think is very sweet and as assured as any 13-year-old is and also as confused as any 13-year-old is about what’s important and what isn’t important and all those things. I felt like we just fell into this very father-daughter thing that extended beyond the show. Maybe more avuncular, but I did occupy this space where I live in a very different world than she does and I’m someone who can view her as a kid where a lot of the world can’t, and I can really treat her like a kid where some of the world can’t, so that relationship was really fruitful to both of us. We were just very free with each other, and also we pushed each other. She pushed me, particularly because she pushes my buttons. A lot of the work on “Stranger Things” happens because of how personal we are with each other. I think we have very intimate relationships. We don’t take them outside the work, but when we’re onstage and working on scenes, it’s very personal what we do. I treated her like I would treat any leading lady that I worked with in terms of I gave it my all and I was very personal with her. She could’ve taken that in many different ways and she responded to it by rising to the challenges and by really going to deep places with me. I was very impressed with her. I’m very proud of her, what she did that season and I was proud of the bond that we created and the relationship that we created. It continues to develop, as it will in Season 3, but we have a very unique, special relationship that extends beyond the show but is framed in what we are all trying to do the show, and that’s very special.
GD: Because there are so many kid actors on the show, is there a sense of protectiveness and responsibility that you have with them that’s different from other actors you’re working with?
DH: Yeah, and there’s also a grumpiness that I have working with them, too (laughs). It is a weird thing, I have to say. Most sets I’ve been on, do a movie with like Denzel Washington or Liam Neeson or something, it’s a set with a bunch of guys and girls and adults running around, there’s action, and this set you do a scene with like five children and then if it’s a good scene, everyone will want a hug after the end of it. It can be wonderful and there’s some days when you really wanna work with adults because adults have a different sort of thing, and there are some days when the authenticity and sincerity and awkwardness of the kids is so beautiful. So yeah, it’s got its advantages and disadvantages, but it’s certainly the most unique thing I’ve ever done. I have real strong feelings about the kids, just because I care about them a lot but sometimes I get into trouble for it, because I don’t think that I understand the world today like they understand the world, or maybe that other people understand.
I’m 43, so I come from a different generation where all this new media… I play around with the social media and stuff, but all these new platforms of YouTubers and streamers and Instagram stars and all these things are not in my lexicon. They’re not what I know how to do, so in a way my protectiveness is a bit outdated as well. I want these kids to grow up and be Meryl Streep or be really great actors, and I don’t know if that’s fair. So I do have my own protectiveness and my own judgment. I don’t know that it’s always fruitful for them, so sometimes I just keep my mouth shut and sometimes, of course I’m invested in where their lives go. I care about them. I have love for them, so of course like any parent I’m invested in where they go but I’m also happy to see them make choices that may turn out very well and choices that may turn out as mistakes, but I’ll be there for them after all of this stuff. It’s very interesting to watch these budding talents, all this fame and everything. It’s fascinating and I don’t really understand it, and also I don’t really understand my relationship to it, but it’s developing as well.
GD: You have some of your most intense moments with them. It also provided this huge meme. I hope you’ve seen the Hopper dancing meme when you and Millie are putting the house back together.
GD: When you’re filming something like that, does it go through your head like, “Oh, this is gonna be an internet moment”?
DH: No, to be honest it sort of does now. I joke with the Duffer Brothers that sometimes I think that they’re writing just so that the Funko Pops can come out next year in different colors and stuff. But in general, a lot of there moments that become internet sensational things are the things that we think the least about. That dance was something that was kind of spur of the moment. And I thought if anything that people would really get into Jim Croce again, ‘cause that song was playing and I chose that song, and instead it became all about my dancing to Backstreet Boys and Adele all these things. And I was like, “Oh, nobody even cares about the Jim Croce, it’s all just me looking like an idiot.” But it’s also been tons of scenes. There’s a little scene with me and Finn [Wolfhard] that people really love. I remember we shot that and it felt like it was 10 minutes, end of the day, nobody had time for it. So a lot of the stuff that you don’t really think too hard about, unfortunately or fortunately, becomes the big sensations. So yeah, I really don’t know what’s gonna hit and what’s not gonna hit anymore. I have no idea. I’m happy when something works out that I love that hits, but I don’t claim to know anything. I think it was William Goldman who said like, “Nobody knows anything,” and I believe that of myself. I don’t know anything about what the public will like.
GD: One of the great things about “Stranger Things” is that it’s steeped in all this sci-fi, horror nostalgia from the ‘80s but it has all these emotional pulls that we’re talking about. We’re pulled in by the characters. It’s grounded, it’s on practical sets for the most part, but I read that the finale, that huge finale with the Gate was mostly green screen. That was the one place where you really had to a lot of CG work. Was that a difficult transition to make at the very end?
DH: The funny thing about it is even though it’s green screen, there’s practical elements to it. So when we’re closing the Gate, we’re up in that cage, that little cage that descends, and that cage had to be suspended. It was like 30 feet in the air. It was at the top of this huge soundstage and it was swinging on these ropes, so they can get camera angles to do certain things and it was in front of a huge green screen, but that thing sways and I have a blank-firing shotgun up there that I’m going crazy with, Millie’s right there screaming and being lifted up, so as much as there are green screen elements, a lot of the practical nature of being 30 feet in the air and being afraid ‘cause this thing is swaying and you might fall and hearing a shotgun blast, a lot of these things are actually happening practically, so that sort of gets you in it as much as anything. I remember those days being the hardest days, not because of the unpracticalness of it, not because we had to pretend on a green screen but because we had to be suspended in these things and we were getting nauseous and it was long days and it was hot and confusing and there was a lot of live gunfire with machine gun and the shotgun, which always makes me kind of nervous. So actually all of that, if you can use that and put it into the scene, it wasn’t the green screen that was difficult to deal with, it was more that that intensity was really there, really happening. There wasn’t a Shadow Monster and stuff, but that didn’t matter.
GD: I think your everyman hero in this sci-fi world has lent you a lot of nerd cred. You’re gonna be Hellboy coming up, which will lend you even more nerd cred.
DH: (Laughs.) My people! The nerds. My people.
GD: Was that your world as opposed to the world that the kids on the show have now with social media? Were you more comic book and stuff when you were a kid?
DH: Oh god yeah, I was a “Dungeons & Dragons” kid in middle school and stuff. I wasn’t that much into the comics. I was into video games like Nintendo and stuff like that. Even back in my day it was like Atari, ColecoVision. I loved that stuff and I was real nerdy. I didn’t play sports or anything like that. I was not like a jock or a popular kid by any means. I was always a nerdy outcast kid who loved theater and sort of found expression in plays. So I very much relate to the kids. The funny thing is, Hopper’s kind of a jock-y guy. Clearly he was maybe in high school a football guy or some kind of cool guy who’s now kind of in the same town that he grew up in a weird turn of events, but I was not that guy. I was much more like Will Byers. I was definitely the nerdy kid.
GD: Before I let you go I just wanted to ask, because at the recent SAG Awards when you guys won Best Ensemble, you just came out of nowhere to deliver the most epic speech of the night and it was so incredible about the power of art. So should you win this Emmy category, are you planning anything to rival that one for if you win?
DH: (Laughs.) I do have one thing I would like to tell people, yes. There’s one thing I would like to tell people that I think is a bit of a softer message in certain way. That was a very galvanized event, but I have something important that I would like to say on that platform in terms of if I were to be chosen to win this thing, that there are specific groups of people that I feel a kinship to and that I feel like share the award with me, more than anything else, and I would like to talk about those people, but I’ll leave that a surprise just in case it happens. And if it doesn’t happen this year, who knows. Maybe 15 years from now it’ll happen. But yeah, that is the one thing I like the most about the awards. The award now sits in your apartment and it just becomes an object, but the night, the experience of the night, I consider it like passing a torch. Each year we pass a torch to different people and say, “You’re lighting where we’re going with our art or with our television or with our movies or with our theater.” I think that event of being passed that torch, it gives you an opportunity to say something about the culture, and I have a couple things to say about the culture, so we’ll see.
GD: Cross your fingers that you get a chance to say that on Emmy night. Best of luck and thank you so much for sitting down to talk with me.
DH: Thanks for having me.