David Harbour hated Stranger Things. The title, that is. Initially the Netflix series was called Montauk, after the show’s original setting, but logistical changes forced the show’s creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, to choose a new location—they decided to shoot it in Atlanta—and to change the title. Harbour, who had been cast as police chief Jim Hopper, was not pleased, a sentiment he made abundantly clear in an email to the Duffer brothers.
“We got this long email from him complaining about the title,” Matt Duffer tells me. “About how awful it was, and how it was going to destroy the show. If something feels off to him, he says so and we talk about it and it results in a stronger series. It’s not bitching and moaning. It’s just David. There’s no filter. I like to work with people like that. You know what they’re thinking the whole time, as long as it’s coming from a good place, and with David, it’s always coming from a good place, because he cares.” Oh, Harbour cared all right. “I loved the title Montauk,” he says. “I thought it was very strong and powerful, and then when I heard Stranger Things, it sounded hokey.” Eventually, Harbour says, “seeing it with the font and moving titles, it all made sense.” Audiences and critics agreed. Since its debut three years ago, the hit series has received a number of awards. Harbour himself has been nominated twice for an Emmy and once for a Golden Globe.
His Jim Hopper made one hell of an entrance. He’s introduced with a tracking shot through a doorway into a squalid dining room/living room with a TV blasting the local news. The camera pans to Hopper, asleep—or, judging from the many empty beer cans on the table, passed out—on the couch, shirtless, his scraggly, bearded face pressed into a pillow. If not for a dog barking outside, startling him awake, there’s no telling how long Hopper would’ve been out cold. Still shirtless, jeans unbuckled, he steps outside onto his deck and lights up a smoke, shivering, then goes back indoors to brush his teeth and pop a few pills, which he washes down with a Schlitz. He dons his khaki uniform and badge and heads to the station.
A few exchanges with underlings and the citizens he is supposed to be serving—one of whom, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), is there to report her son missing—make clear that Hopper is no Andy Griffith. He is, rather, a drunk, a slob, and an insensitive prick. But there was something about Hopper that made him irresistibly endearing and hinted at a tenderness. Long before we learned that he had lost his daughter, there was something that suggested the booze, the pills, and the prickishness were all a front, a coping mechanism. He seemed to be suffering from a trauma, a darkness that was at once killing him and keeping him alive. That something was everything the forty-four-year-old Harbour brought to the character. He understood who Hopper was because much of the same could have been said about him at another point in his life, and even still. As Harbour explains it to me, he suffers from “a condition that dangles me over the abyss of a form of madness.”
Jeezus, he’s a big dude, I think as Harbour greets me with a smile and a handshake in the lobby of a boutique hotel near his East Village apartment. He has reason to grin on this late-spring morning. Hellboy, a reboot of the 2004 Guillermo del Toro film based on the comic book, in which Harbour plays the half-demon title character—his first starring role in a feature film—is coming out in a few weeks. (It will bomb, but no one knows that yet.) Season 3 of Stranger Things will begin airing on Netflix on July 4. And Harbour and his lady, the singer-songwriter and actress Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein in the Fantastic Beasts films), now have a puppy, which Sudol named Gertie after Drew Barrymore’s character in E.T.
Seeing the bearded, six-three actor in his burlap-like overcoat and fingerless knit gloves, I can’t help but be reminded of Hagrid from the Harry Potter series. Harbour emanates a gregarious energy, an uncontrived passion he often seems to be trying to restrain. His Cro-Magnon-like shelf of a brow lends his resting expression a mien somewhere on the spectrum between brooding and menacing. As the actor sits on the couch in the lobby, his flannel shirt rides up and his belly pokes through. He doesn’t seem to care—or notice. If you were to look up “dad bod” in Merriam-Webster . . . well, you wouldn’t find anything, because officially it has yet to be recognized as a term. But on the playful Merriam-Webster Twitter feed, the example offered is a photo of Harbour as Hopper. Harbour, who is active on social media, responded to that tweet thusly: “Holy hell @MerriamWebster. The old joke. When you look up ______ in the dictionary you see his face. Now I am living in this joke.”
The younger David Harbour didn’t have such a good sense of humor about himself. In an Actors Studio sort of interview he did last year with Kyle MacLachlan, Harbour said that when he first got into the business, “I think there was a ton of narcissism. I was worried about my camera angles. Or how I looked on film. . . . I was worried about being handsome, romantic, or strong.”
He began his career off-Broadway and by 1999, at the age of twenty- four, made it to Broadway in The Rainmaker. Two years later, he was cast in Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love. The roles were small, the checks even smaller. To pay his rent, he did a few bit parts (e.g., “Mike the Waiter”) on Law & Order and spin-offs Criminal Intent and SVU, gigs he refers to as “the Dick Wolf subsidy for the theater arts. It paid my rent in New York for months at a time when off-Broadway salaries certainly would not.”
Harbour was a heavy drinker throughout his early twenties. “I was the life of the party,” the now-sober actor says. “Then I was a jerk.” In 2005, when he was thirty, Harbour realized the booze had been a form of self-medication and that he had deeper issues. Harbour says his behavior “got weird, inappropriate.” He doesn’t want to get into it, but he wasn’t himself—only he was, and that was the problem. With the support of his parents, Harbour voluntarily checked himself in to a psychiatric hospital.
“The joke around voluntary commitment is that the voluntary part ends when you cross the threshold of the doors,” Harbour says. “The commitment length is determined then by the medical staff based on behavioral factors. I was released only when heavily sedated and overtuned medically.” He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “It took about a year to adjust the medications to get them to acceptable levels.”
As he was getting sober and psychologically evaluated, his career was going well. Harbour earned a Tony nomination for his performance in the 2005 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which starred Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. Harbour was Nick, the biology professor who wants to make everyone happy. Then he landed his first film role in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Next, he played a corrupt CIA station chief in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace and, that same year, Shep Campbell in Revolutionary Road, Sam Mendes’s adaptation of the Richard Yates novel. After a tryst with his neighbor April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), Shep discovers that, like her, he loathes his ostensibly perfect suburban life.
Harbour, who grew up in White Plains, New York, in the 1980s, found much to relate to in Revolutionary Road. Mom would have dinner on the table at 6:30, and Dad, a real estate broker, would put his briefcase down and join the family. Houses were big. Lawns were green. All was outwardly idyllic, but Harbour despised it. He couldn’t reconcile his comfortable White Plains life with the ills of the world around him. Why do we just walk by the homeless? Why do we tolerate violence? “From five years old, I’ve had these questions. There has always been this very willful piece in me that has had trouble letting these things go,” he says. “You become a bummer.”
Harbour explored the Catholic faith, inspired by Oscar Wilde’s epic letter from prison, De Profundis, which he read following his time in the asylum. “There’s only one ray of hope in De Profundis, and it’s when Wilde is talking about Saint Francis of Assisi. So I went down that path. That’s where all this religious stuff has come to. Living within the hypocrisy. But not trying to live with hard-and-fast rules, which is why I gave up the Catholicism, because I know, for myself, my hard-and-fast rules take me to the asylum.”
Acting has been a form of therapy for Harbour. He’s found that it helps him make sense of the world, or rather enables him to channel the complex senselessness of it all into something that just maybe gets people to think differently about who and what we consider normal about ourselves and those around us who are hurting, dealing with their own private traumas. And that’s what makes Harbour so damn good at playing Hopper.
“The guy lost his daughter,” Harbour says. “But five years has passed. He’s developed this shtick to be able to live. I was interested in what it was like to see that guy in a supermarket five years after he lost his daughter as opposed to a month. So part of that is the layers of cover over that tragedy. The Who gives a fuck? Brushing his teeth with beer. Pill popping. This sense of Nothing can hurt me anymore. When Joyce comes in and asks me to save her son . . . a thought came into my head: He’s almost glad she’s lost her son. He’s thinking, You can feel my pain. That nastiness of character is something he has to purge or he will die. I think it’s the most wonderful thing to be able to do with your life, to explore human beings and all of the manifestations of their psychology and still be able to be in the world like an okay person and not be completely crazy.”
Harbour has been seeking ways beyond acting to have an impact on how society addresses inequities, and in particular mental health. (Last year, it was a discussion he had with this magazine’s editor that inspired Esquire to publish a themed issue offering “Sane Advice for Crazy Times.”) Recently, Harbour has been exploring charities and nonprofits dedicated to mental health, but he says, “I find the catches and caveats in the major charities I’ve researched to be problematic.”
As an alternative, he mentions Lumos, the organization started by J. K. Rowling that works to keep children out of orphanages by providing needy parents with resources. “She believed the paradigm was off and needed to be reinvestigated. It’s the same with this. Even branding a charity based on ‘mental illness’ has so many assumptions that I can’t fully get behind it. I’d like something pure in its intention and scope, and so I’m starting my foundation to explore this.”
When he first heard about the script that would become Stranger Things, Harbour had been doing plays and television work, but nothing that clicked. His most recent series had been the NBC espionage thriller State of Affairs, on which he played the chief of staff to the president. “Everyone had good intentions,” he says. “But the problem with network TV is it still operates like a dinosaur. There was just no way they were going to make a good show with all of the fear around network television. Too many restrictions.” The series lasted only thirteen episodes.
Harbour didn’t know what, if anything, he was going to work on next. “I just always felt like I was an oddball. I was too intense. I was kinda fat. I’m messy. I didn’t fit the mold they wanted. You are a commodity more than anything else, in Hollywood,” he says. “You can either be the fat funny guy or the slim leading man, but the in-between, it confuses them.” It didn’t confuse casting director Carmen Cuba, who reached out to Harbour’s manager about the Duffers’ project. Cuba had seen Harbour in a play. She doesn’t remember which one, but she does remember “whenever David was in a scene, he was the energy. He was where the attention went.” He read the scene where Joyce comes to tell Hopper her son is missing, with Cuba reading Joyce. The Duffers watched the video and called him—together, of course—to tell him he got the part.
Harbour doesn’t think he’s ever talked with just one of the Duffer brothers. Ever. “You don’t understand, they’re like one entity,” he says. “You think you’re talking to Matt [on the phone], and then all of a sudden you hear Ross. Only once have I texted them individually. Even their email is one email. I think they receive one paycheck.”
The series that began with Joyce’s son Will Byers disappearing into the Upside Down world is now entering its third season. During season 2, Hopper took on a fatherlike role for Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), caring for her as he couldn’t for his own daughter. Harbour says that Hopper’s evolution will continue in season 3. “He is forgiving himself, and his ghosts are forgiving him slowly as well. But he still has a ways to go. He is reconciling what it is to be a man in this world. He grew up a certain way and he has to unlearn some of that, and cherish some of that as being his strength. The Hopper arc has always been an arc of redemption. He’s redeemed as a man with purpose or justice in season 1, redeemed as a father, mostly, in season 2, and in season 3 we’ll get another aspect of the redemption he needs.”
As he describes Hopper, Harbour sounds as if he’s also talking about himself—and he’ll be the first to tell you he is. Like Hopper, Harbour has given up on expecting to find definitive answers to his existential questions. Like Rilke, Harbour says, he’s learning to live in the questions. Harbour is becoming more at peace with his pieces, and more patient with those among the rest of us who are all so perfectly sane. But that doesn’t mean Harbour’s going to keep quiet about what bothers him.
When the Stranger Things cast won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series, it was decided that Harbour would give the speech. He was given a minute but took a minute and a half. No one complained. He closed by saying, “At a loss amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of individuals and certain institutions, we will as per Chief Jim Hopper punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the least and the disenfranchised and the marginalized. And we will do it all with soul, with heart, and with joy.” The crowd gave him a standing ovation. Meryl Streep leapt to her feet and pumped her fist.
I asked him about that SAG-speech moment, and he said he had another speech written, in the event he himself had won for best actor. The speech he didn’t get to give was directed at parents whose children are diagnosed with conditions like his, to make the point that such a diagnosis is not “a death sentence. For those parents and kids to know—as I am celebrated by society and hold a gold trophy—that I had been incarcerated for societally inappropriate behavior earlier could help. Either it gives them hope of achievement or, perhaps even better, makes a bit of a circus of the whole thing and takes the air out of either side of the equation. Win or lose, we’re human. And we’re all a mess.”