‘Stranger Things’ Star David Harbour Reflects on What Really Made the Show a Supernatural Sensation

Kelly Woo
·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
David Harbour in Stranger Things (Credit: Netflix)
David Harbour in Stranger Things (Photo: Netflix)

Perhaps no stranger thing happened to David Harbour in 2016 than being part of one of the year’s biggest pop culture sensations, Stranger Things.

Netflix’s supernatural, 1980s-set drama took television by storm this summer and, in a matter of days, became one of the most buzzworthy series of the year. And Harbour — a character actor seen in television, in movies, and onstage — was, even in his own estimation, an unlikely leading man.

“I honestly didn’t think they would cast me because the role was so good, and I think other networks, they would really want a star and I don’t have that kind of star power,” Harbour tells Yahoo TV.

But Harbour won over fans as the gruff but charming Police Chief Jim Hopper, who doggedly investigates the mysterious workings of the nearby Hawkins Laboratory. And now the actor definitely has major star power as he films Season 2.

He chatted with us about when he knew Stranger Things was special, getting recognized by fans after the first weekend of streaming, and what’s next.

Related: Toast of 2016 Interviews with Sterling K. Brown and Game of Thrones Star Bella Ramsey

How did you get involved with Stranger Things?
You hear a lot of actors say this, but when I read the pilot, it was the best pilot script I’d ever read. At the same time, it was so sophisticated and clunky in its writing. It was very earnest, and it felt like it had magic to it. I’ve done a lot of TV that’s been clever and smart and even emotional, but this felt like it had real soul to it.

So, what happened was, the Duffers [brothers Ross and Matt, who created the show] had approached me through this amazing casting director Carmen Cuba. They’d seen my work and knew me from over the years. I loved the script and we made a two-minute tape, and out of that, it all came to be very quickly. Me and Winona [Ryder] were the first people to come onboard. After that, they cast the kids and everybody.

Netflix is really great with taking chances on people, and really believing in people who don’t really have much of a name. They took a chance on me. It was amazing.

David Harbour in Stranger Things (Credit: Netflix)
(Credit: Netflix)

What made the pilot script so special?
In terms of the sophistication of the writing, I can say that in the beginning, the opening of Hopper, you see him on the couch with all those beer cans. You cut away from this picture of this family, with this daughter there, then you see him on the couch drunk and popping pills and smoking. So you know that he’s messed up and something’s gone wrong with his family.

A lot of times, in pilots, people will be too scared that you’re not getting information quickly enough, so they’ll make that character sad or angry so that you can see the pain that they’ve been through. They want to reiterate that. But one of the great things is that one of the first scenes he has is that coffee and contemplation scene — we see him as being really funny and really snarky and sarcastic. That’s the sort of shtick you’d have to develop to survive the loss of a daughter. You have to develop a personality armor, almost. Instead of being an open wound, they really made him a three-dimensional character.

That was something that I feel like was very sophisticated in this modern climate of writing. I feel like we tend to hit people over the heads with stuff sometimes. This was very subtle in terms of who this human being is. It allows us to take this trope and three-dimensionalize it completely, so that he wasn’t just a cardboard cutout of somebody who had a tragedy and was sad. He really was fully fleshed out. That was what really amazed me, and I couldn’t believe that the Duffers were so young and had this sophistication in their writing.

While you were filming Season 1, was there a moment when you realized the show could be really big?
I had the opposite of that feeling! [Laughs] We were all so scared and down here in Atlanta and just working our asses off trying to tell a story. I think one of the great things about Season 1 is that you can feel that we aren’t patting ourselves on the back after takes, where I feel like a lot of other projects, you can sort of smell the fact that they think that they’re making great TV.

With this, the Duffers are, in my estimation, like kids. They’re, like, 30 years old, and we were sort of abandoned by Netflix down here in Atlanta. At one point, in Episode 4, I was talking to someone at the monitor and we were talking about the fact that I’m not in shape and I kind of look like hell and I’m losing my hair, and I’m supposed to be the leading man in this thing. And she was like, “Yeah, I don’t think it’s going to work.” So, we didn’t expect the response that we got.

I think there was this genuine response of people relating to these very, on the surface, ordinary people. We’re not the prettiest of casts. The fact that people really want to see real people is so gratifying. But we did not expect that. I sort of thought we’d be a niche, interesting sci-fi show, but the fact that it’s been so popular with so many different groups of people — I did not expect.

After the show premiered on Netflix, how soon did you start getting fan feedback on the streets?
It was very full-on right from the beginning. I think that first weekend, tons of people binged it. I lived in New York and I was amazed, because I’ve been acting for about 15 years and I’ve done a lot of work. As a character guy, you maybe have someone once a week, in New York, say, “Hey, I like what you do.”

This was, like, the minute I left my apartment on that Monday, I had people every 20 minutes coming up to me and just loving the show and so moved by the show. And of course, wanting selfies. Then, fan art started to pour in. People putting that much passion into loving something — you really touch people on a different level. They want to draw about it, think about it, write little fan fiction pieces. That was another element that told me we really touched people here, because that’s special.

Why do you think Stranger Things became such a huge pop culture sensation, and, as you said, so popular with many different groups of people?
It’s funny because a lot of people, when they initially talk about it or when they talk about it in the press, they talk about the nostalgia factor. I think that the show transcends that. It’s a very earnest story about people who are broken and outcasts and ordinary, like we all are. And they come together and go on this brave, heroic journey.

I feel like there’s a ton of narcissism in Hollywood today. Well, I think it’s always been there to a certain extent, but I feel like it’s gotten crazy where we’ve lost touch with what human beings are about. It’s become about people who are really pretty or work out a lot or are young. What Stranger Things has in it is really ordinary people — actors who don’t look like actors, people who behave like ordinary human beings. When those people go on a journey, it’s really special.

In terms of my character, one of the things I like which is a throwback, which I don’t think we have anymore is — I was watching The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and it sets up this villain as this guy Robert Shaw, a very intense guy, and it has your hero be Walter Matthau, who’s kind of dumpy and kind of grouchy. And you’re like, How’s that guy going to take down the villain? I think we sort of have that in this, where Hopper is this jackass at the beginning and you don’t expect him to do what he does. I think that people are a little bit tired of their heroes being so perfect and so capable.

David Harbour in Stranger Things (Credit: Netflix)
Photo: Netflix

Looking back, do you have a favorite scene or episode?
When I watch it, the most moving one was Episode 8, when they are in the Upside Down and they’re looking for Will and they finally saved it. And Hopper has all these flashbacks to his daughter. To me, that was a secret I carried around in all these episodes, so when we finally saw it come to fruition, I found it very moving.

You probably can’t say much about Season 2, but what can you tell us about Hopper’s journey?
It’s a year later, I can tell you that. They’re still dealing with some of the fallout that happened last year. They do address the issues of Hopper getting in the car, and we do address the issues of the Eggos in the box, and we do address the issues of Will coughing up that slug.

In a sense, though, you’re going to see a different journey for Hopper, where he starts out having accomplished this task. He starts out in a much better place in Season 2 than he was in the beginning of Season 1. But one of the interesting things with Hopper is that there’s a bit of him that wants to live in the fantasy world as a result of this success. In a sense, you’re going to see an unraveling of that. I can’t say anything more than that, but the arc, to me, is just as thrilling. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of man he is and the traps he may fall into.

And we will get more into the complexity that’s his daughter. There are a lot of secrets that are still there. Also, you have to remember the time period, in terms of what Hopper’s backstory may have been, which will start to be revealed. He’s 40 years old in 1983, so he’s lived through Vietnam, he’s lived through the corruption of police departments across the country back in the ’60s and ’70s. There’s a lot of things that Hopper could have been involved in that will be interesting to tease out. I think one of the great things about being a successful show is that now we can really go into who these people are and why they do what they do and really make them fully real.

David Harbour and Winona Ryder in Stranger Things (Credit: Netflix)
Harbour and Winona Ryder (Photo: Netflix)

A lot of fans wanted something to happen with Hopper and Joyce. Any chance for romance in Season 2?
I want to see that too, you know! But I think it’s going to be a bit of a harder road than we may think. Joyce and Hopper aren’t going to be waking up in bed together at the beginning of Season 2.

I think Joyce and Hopper both could get a lot from each other. In fact, one of the most interesting things about that relationship is she’s someone who’s known him through life, so I think there’s a bit of that fantasy that maybe she knows him better than anyone. But is that fantasy really a reality, and is that something that’s sustainable and something that could really work? Is it something that’s really good for Joyce?

Is Hopper really able to be a parent to a kid? Is Hopper really able to show up to a single mother who has kids? Is he really the guy you want him to be? He’s a damaged guy. I mean, there’s just a lot of factors blocking it, but you know, hey, I want the same things as you guys. Playing Hopper, I would like to be happy too!

Season 1 sort of came out of nowhere, and went on to phenomenal success. So how is Season 2 going to top that?
I didn’t know myself, and in fact, before I got scripts, I was scared. And then I read the first script and literally the first five minutes, I was f***ing blown away. We open the world in an entirely interesting way, and we start to address the little questions you may have already, or you may not have even known you had.

We’ve read four now, and I know the arc of the season, and I have to say, I’m so impressed with the Duffer brothers and the crazy ideas they have. If we can do the acting and the production side, it feels like it’s going to be spectacular. And I am not scared anymore. I’m just excited to show it to everyone. It’s going to be really beautiful.

Season 1 of Stranger Things is now streaming on Netflix. Season 2 will premiere in 2017.