Veteran actor David Harbour has become an awards fixture in the past calendar year. His role as Police Chief Jim Hopper on “Stranger Things” brought him a first ever Emmy Awards nomination a few months ago, and he competes at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards (first time as an individual) this month. His rousing speech at last year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards when his cast won was a highlight of the entire year.
Gold Derby contributors Riley Chow and Tony Ruiz hosted a webchat with Harbour before the 2017 Emmys about the first and second seasons of his hit Netflix drama program. Watch that video above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby (Tony Ruiz): David Harbour, Chief Jim Hopper on “Stranger Things,” I wanna go back to the SAG Awards and one of the great acceptance speeches of recent times. How much planning went into that speech and did you expect the kind of reaction that you got from it?
David Harbour: I didn’t expect it at all. First of all, I didn’t expect us to win, like, at all. But I did prepare a speech because I have very mixed feelings about award shows. I think it’s kind of silly to pit us against each other. I think that certainly I can’t do what other people can do. It’s kind of crazy what they do. But I thought, it was platform where I wanted to say something a little bit broader about art and about culture than just, “Thank you” and thanking my agents and stuff like that and I knew if I got up there and I didn’t have anything, whatever my intentions would be I would say something stupid. And so I worked on it for about a week and I thought a lot about it and for me it was really about… I’m very proud of “Stranger Things” and I’m very proud of a couple of the subtle things we do in the show in terms of, I feel like we embrace real people in a sci-fi genre. They’re people that aren’t that capable in a certain way. They have flaws and they have problems and I want to see more of that in my sci-fi, in my comic book, in my sort of characters I admire. I don’t wanna sit back in awe of people. I wanna be able to identify with them and then watch them go on a heroic journey, so my speech was really about that form of… I consider it sort of a narcissism in the business that I want to kind of eliminate more and more, so we can identify more with our characters and shows.
So it was very much about that, and then when I got up there, it’s so terrifying. You just can’t believe your life. We’re walking up the aisle and Denzel Washington is there giving me a high-five and then you get up onstage and Meryl Streep is applauding for you and trying to rise to her feet halfway through the speech and I just got so scared. I started shaking, the paper was shaking, ‘cause I just couldn’t believe that Meryl Streep was applauding me. But I had something very specific to say and I was pleased the way it went. I’m a theater guy, so it was a big room and I started to get very big, but I did not expect the response to be what it was, and especially afterwards, people just so jazzed about it, it going kind of viral there for a minute, and I think part of that was the passion that I had for this with the big speech and part of it was also the great Winona [Ryder] memes that came out of that in terms of all the facial expressions she had. And I kind of love that, because you have me being impassioned and being very much who I was, and her being very much who she is, this quirky, very expressive actress and it kind of embodied the whole show. We have all this passion, all this intensity and we also have a lot silliness, too, so it was all great. It all worked out.
Gold Derby (Riley Chow): Yeah, I wanted to ask what your response was to the Winona Ryder response, too.
DH: I thought it was really charming and I actually thought it sort of helped the speech in a certain way, because the speech was very earnest and very intense so to have her go through all this with us and be the everyman, kind of confused about what I was saying and whether or not she was onboard, and then kind of getting onboard. The whole journey was quite fascinating. And I love, there was little memes that came out of it with this pizza that was flying (laughs). I just thought it was really charming. I love her, I think she’s so interesting and unique and she’s such an expressive human being that I thought it was hilarious and great as much as everybody else did.
GD (Riley): Now, going back to the beginning when you first got cast on “Stranger Things,” you actually mentioned in your last interview with Gold Derby that the Duffer Brothers were familiar with your work from another show and that’s what got you the part. So I’m wondering, what show was that and what was it in that role that they thought would make you right for Jim Hopper?
DH: I was very curious about that, because I’ve done a lot of stuff but I’ve never really been seen very broadly and so I had done this show called “Manhattan” where I was recurring and it was a show that Tommy Schlamme created and it was about guys building the atom bomb in Los Alamos in the early ‘40s and it was about these scientists and I played this guy Reed Akley, who was this scientist. He’s kind of the villain. I was recurring on it and he’s kind of the guy who has all this money and power and in the end you think he’s gonna be able to solve their bomb problem and he sort of pretends like he does, and then at the end of the show you realize that he has no idea what’s going on, he has kind of a breakdown. He really lied about a lot of it. I don’t know what specifically it was about that part but I remember asking them on set being like, “How did you guys know me?” And they were like, “‘Manhattan.’ ‘Manhattan.’” So they had known some other work of mine, too, but they said that was really secured them. And there was a kind of vulnerability to that character even though he had a strength to him. There was a kind of vulnerability and messed-up quality to him as he unraveled. Maybe that was it, but I don’t know specifically, but I know that was the role that got them really interested.
GD (Tony): And you certainly have, over the course of your career, you’ve certainly played you share of villains and heavies and things like that. I was wondering, when you first got the script for “Stranger Things,” what was it about Jim that spoke to you, that made you say, “Yes, I want this part?”
DH: It was one of the best pilots I had ever read and he reminded me so much of those ‘80s leading men that I had grown up with, guys like Nick Nolte and Harrison Ford and Gene Hackman, and these really iconic roles from the ‘70s where these guys, they were messed up and they were struggling, but they also had this real grit to them, and this real shut-down, almost manly quality. I remember when I was growing up, my whole family’s from Houston, and I remember being young, being about five years old, and I remember my grandmother, I got stung by a bee or something and I cried and she didn’t hit me but she was like, “Boys don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” And it’s very unpopular nowadays, in terms of, people are very, they like to feel their feelings and they like to be expressive of those things but there’s something about that time that admire and that I kind of liked, these situations where you just have people where men don’t cry. Men don’t break down. They get things done. And I saw that in Jim. Even though he has this horrible tragedy, and there are moments in the piece where I do break down, but I wanted to make it very specific where he deals with it by drug use and by sleeping around. He doesn’t understand himself as well as a lot of characters on TV. A lot of characters are very self-aware, they kind of understand how they feel.
One of the things I really liked about Jim was that he doesn’t know he feels. And he deals with things through developing a schtick of sarcasm, getting through the day, treating people a certain way. And then we start to see his heart open up as he goes through the piece and we start to see him come to some sort of self-understanding. I love when characters have lack of self-awareness, ‘cause you as an actor know psychologically, he’s mean to children at the beginning of the piece. Nobody’s mean to children. He doesn’t even understand why he can’t stand being around children, and psychologically you of course know because he lost his daughter but I think if you’d asked him, he would just say, “I just hate kids.” I think those things are so wonderful, when a character is not self-aware and they grow to some sort of self-awareness and they open up. So that was what I really, really loved about him and really found unique in this particular time in our culture.
GD (Riley): Hopper kind of becomes our hero over the course of the season, but when we first meet him, he’s being mean to children and that kind of thing. How do you keep viewers still rooting for him early on or do you trust that everybody’s binging it anyway?
DH: Choosing me, ‘cause i have played a lot of villains, one of the liberating things, ‘cause I knew that he was gonna have such a heroic arc, I wanted to highlight the things that were horrible about him in the beginning, and one of the satisfying things I get when people watch it on Twitter and stuff, when they message me, is like, two episodes or one-and-a-half episodes in, they’re like, “What’s the deal with this Hopper guy? I hate him. Screw this guy. Why does everybody like this guy?” And then by Episode 4, they come out with, “If Hopper dies I’m suing Netflix.” They just love him because once he starts to on that journey, you get behind him. But part of my process with this whole thing was, let’s really make that journey real and let’s make him hard to like in the beginning. One of the traps that people fall into when they create leading characters is they make them so likable right from the beginning. And I think you don’t have to like someone, you have to be interested in someone. You have to pay attention to them, but you don’t have to like them. And I think that’s one of the satisfying things is you start to realize that people are more complex once you get to know them, and you get to see who they really are inside when they deal with crisis. And so it’s really more fun to have your leading character be not likable and then have them go on a journey. And I think we had more of palate for that earlier on. We had characters like Gene Hackman in “The French Connection,” who is at the beginning at that story, he’s tough but he’s kind of a jerk. He beats up people, he has this weird sexual thing where he’s handcuffed to a bed and his partner has to come un-handcuff him at the beginning of the movie. I like guys like that who are a bit more messed up and then you see him do something heroic and it’s just more fun. Because you don’t know that they’re capable of that heroism. You think that they might not be capable of it. And that’s the drama of it all.
GD (Tony): Is there a specific moment for you in the season where that transition between antihero and hero happens? Is there a specific moment that you clued in on?
DH: Absolutely, and in fact, what I love about it, and what I think is so sophisticated about the writing is that it doesn’t come from a noble impulse. The transition that he makes is when they find the body. He does start looking for him more and more when he gets freaked out in the shed. He organizes a search party, he senses that something’s weird. But then what happens is they find the body and he has a conversation with this guy where he’s watching the news and they talk about how it wasn’t the right coroner that came in. They brought somebody in from state. And then they talk about this guy who was brought in from state and their state is all controlling it. It should be a local event. And people start lying to him. And the only thing that really activates him is his own pride, the fact that people are lying to him. So he doesn’t have a genuine impulse to even save a child. He have any nobleness in him, which I loved about him. It starts with this thing of, “Why are you messing with me? Why are you lying to me?” And that’s the activator, and then as he starts to realize there’s this whole conspiracy, that lifts him up into, “I can actually save someone. I can’t actually redeem something out of this.” But I love that the activator, it really comes in Episode 4, after we find the body and he’s there and he decides to go to that bar with that O’Bannon character, and start to mess with him and start to say, “That quarry’s state-run, right man?” And he’s like, “Yeah it’s state-run.” And he’s like, “No, you’re lying to me. Why would you lie to me about that?” And that’s the activator where the guy takes off and he goes out back and he punches him, he’s like, “What are you lying about? What’s going on here? What’s the real deal?” And so that sort of search for the truth that comes out of pride, as opposed to, “I really wanna know the truth,” it’s more like, “You’re lying to me? Nobody lies to me.” And that that’s the activator. I love that.
GD (Riley): You and Winona Ryder are the top-billed actors on the show and back at the Golden Globes you guys campaigned in the leading categories. Now for the Emmys you’ve both gone supporting. I’m not sure if this is a decision by you or Netflix but are you able to speak to it?
DH: I think there’s a little bit of politics behind that in terms of, I think it’s a bit tactical. There are so many great actors and actresses in those leading characters, and I feel like because it is such an ensemble show, I don’t know that we get to do as much as those characters in the other shows. In something like “House of Cards,” even though it is an ensemble, it clearly is Kevin Spacey’s show and so in this, it really follows three stories. You follow the kids, you follow the teens and you follow the adults being me, Winona and Cara [Buono]. And so I think that we felt there just wasn’t enough screen time to justify the leading categories, because it is such an ensemble show. But also, you’re right, we were the top-billed actors but then as the show developed and as it came out, it’s very clear that all the characters are so iconic and even all the performances are so terrific and iconic that we were like, “We really are an ensemble show and we really should be in supporting.”
GD (Riley): If you are nominated for Supporting Actor, do you know what episode you wanna submit?
DH: Is it a specific episode?
GD (Riley): Yeah, you have to choose one episode that you feel is your best showcase and then Emmy voters have a chance to watch that if they want to watch episodes before voting.
DH: I guess I should think about that, then. I really do love Episode 8 for Hopper. I think that you really get to see the onion peeled back and you get to see my do a lot of stuff, but I also like the middle of the show. I like 3-5, too. I like when he discovers the body, I like when he cuts open the body, I like when he goes on the journey in 4 and I like the opening of the lab stuff in 5, when he realizes that Joyce was right. So I don’t know. That’ll be a hard decision. I’ll probably just go with 8 because it really is the emotional climax of him, and there’s a lot of really good stuff in that, so I guess I would say 8. I guess I would say 8 because it has the most impact. It has the most emotional impact. But you don’t get to see him punch anyone, which is a disappointment, but that’s alright.
GD (Tony): Well then what’s the fun of that?
GD (Tony): Throughout your career you’ve really made a habit of going back and forth between film and TV and the theater and doing really complicated stuff, doing Edward Albee and doing Shakespeare. Is there one medium that you’re most drawn to or do you actually like the variety of being able to go back and forth?
DH: For a long time I would have said theater, and I still do as an actor, I feel like it’s the freest medium, because film and TV ultimately is a director’s medium. They control the focus, they control the frame, they control where you look, whereas onstage you’re there the whole time. So you can reveal things that the director may not choose to highlight in a film but you yourself, if you’re sitting back and tapping something with your hand you can reveal something that the audience might see in a play that the director might not choose to highlight, so in a way you have more control. But I will say that I had become a little bit cynical about my place in film and TV for the last couple years pre-“Stranger Things.” And then “Stranger Things” really reinvigorated my belief in being able to tell a story that I really believed in. So it sort of reawakened my love for those mediums. And so now I would be hard-pressed to really choose what I love the most, ‘cause I’m really, as a results of “Stranger Things,” getting into film and TV more, and thinking like, “Wow, we can really tell stories that are so broad-based and that touch so many people.” In theater you’re only gonna touch however many people come to the shows. It can be very expensive and exclusive in a certain way and the great thing about Netflix is if you’ve got 10 bucks a month you can watch whatever. So I love the fact that it’s more broad-based and that you can reach a whole group of people that I don’t get to reach in the theater, so yeah, I’m kind of reinvigorated and I think I’m gonna be doing more film and TV now, but hopefully I’ll get back and do a play or two. I love them all, I can’t really decide.