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David Harbour: ‘Stranger Things was different from anything I’ve ever experienced in my career’

As Stranger Things returns, David Harbour, aka Hawkins police chief Jim Hopper, talks about the weirdness of fame and how our upside-down world has created monsters for all of us to fight.

Hopper was dead to begin with. The last time we saw the roguish police chief he sacrificed himself in a multi-dimensional explosion to save Hawkins – and probably the world – from the paranormal menaces that plague the fictional Indiana town. 

The Season Three finale of Stranger Things seemingly completed the character’s journey from detached, dejected alcoholic to redeemed local hero. But like many wildly popular characters who die in film and television, he won’t necessarily stay dead. 

David Harbour
In Season Four, Hopper turns up in a Russian gulag
Photo: Netflix © 2022

Seven months after the third season broke all Netflix viewing figures (only surpassed by a couple of series like Squid Game and Bridgerton that benefitted from a Covid-sheltering captive audience), a teaser trailer was released on February 14 2020, hinting that Hopper survived – somehow ending up in a gulag in Kamchatka. 

Was the plan ever for Hopper to stay dead? 

“I lied to a lot of people,” David Harbour admits. “I told people that I didn’t know, but I knew. The Duffers and I have talked about the entire five-season arc of the show and the arc of Hopper, where he ends up.

“And we always planned this almost Gandalf resurrection – Hopper the Grey who descends into a pit and fights his demons to re-emerge as a different warrior and can take on the evil of the Upside Down in a fresh way.” 

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Hopper’s resurrection echoes Harbour’s own story. Today, he’s walking through Brooklyn on his way to rehearsals for new play coming soon to the West End, Mad Houseby Theresa Rebeck, where he co-stars alongside Bill Pullman. With lines to learn and Stranger Things premieres to attend, Harbour’s schedule is tight but he wanted to make time to speak to The Big Issue. 

Now 47, Harbour would have been roughly the same age as the young characters in the show, growing up in the Eighties in the town of Armonk in upstate New York. It sounds like he’d have fitted in perfectly with the young Stranger Things cast of characters. 

“I was nerdy. I was very sensitive. I’d like to read books and keep to myself. I never got to sit at the popular kids’ lunch table in school, as hard as I tried,” he says. 

David Harbour
Harbour as Red Guardian in Black Widow
Photo: Disney

If you met your younger self, what’s the strangest thing you could tell them about your life today? 

“Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to act. Being on a very popular television show, and also a superhero in the Marvel universe, that would blow my tiny mind away.” 

For years, Harbour was a jobbing actor. He’d pop up on Broadway and played supporting roles in loads of films you’ve seen but probably didn’t notice him in: Brokeback Mountain, War of the Worlds, Quantum of Solace, State of Play, Revolutionary Road, “the sixth guy chasing Denzel” in The Equalizer

After Stranger Things came Hollywood leads and induction into the Marvel universe as Captain America’s communist equivalent, Red Guardian. Then there’s the showbiz marriage to Lily Allen. The couple were married by Elvis (or an Elvis impersonator) in Las Vegas in September 2020. It’s a massive difference from a decade ago. 

“I hit the age of 35 and in my mind, I’d been fairly successful,” Harbour says. “I could pay the rent on an apartment, have food on the table and I was very happy about that. The dream of being on a talk show was always the marker for me and I gave that up at 35. And then it hit very hard a month after I hit 40.” 

A TV series he’d been appearing in, State of Affairs, was cancelled so he did what he had to do and auditioned for another. 

“I remember going in and I was very upset because I still was in this place where I didn’t have any money, I was worrying about how I was going to pay my rent. I thought it was one of these situations, which you get a lot when you’re a journeyman actor, where they’ve offered the role to a star. They’re just looking for a backup. I loved the script but I didn’t really invest very much in it.” 

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But he got the part. As good as Stranger Things seemed on paper, success was not guaranteed. “Even when we were shooting it, I felt like, this is a show I would love but nobody’s going to watch,” he says. 

Tens of millions did though. Over the first weekend of streaming, Stranger Things caught fire. 

“It was different from anything I’ve ever experienced in my career,” Harbour remembers. “I have like 150 contacts in my phone, of which you use about eight – my friends, my wife – but there’s all these contacts from a driver you had or when you meet an old friend on the street. One by one I started to get tonnes of text messages saying, Stranger Things is amazing, I love this show! 

“I’ve never experienced that before or since. It was really a magical moment. The reviews and numbers hadn’t come in but I knew at that point it was something special that really touched people.” 

Stranger Things
Photo: Netflix

After years of supporting roles, Harbour found himself as the beating heart of a TV sensation. Being on plenty of big sets with big stars served as good preparation when he became a big shot himself. 

“It influenced my behaviour in two ways,” he explains. “I very much have an appreciation for the supporting actors that come in. Sometimes you show up on a set, and you feel like a third wheel, so I’m always conscious of including people. There were stars I worked with who I felt were demanding or aggressive in certain ways. I never really understood it, then I got in their position and I really started to understand it. People feel like they have ownership of you. 

“I remember working with Denzel. At one point [the director of photography] wanted him to lean into this light as he was doing the scene. And he turned to the guy and was like, ‘Look, you’re here to light it. I’m here to create realistic human behaviour’. And I was like, wow. Because a lot of times you feel like you’re a puppet. It was great for me to see a star stand up and go, what I do is important – and you have to leave me alone and let me do it. So yeah, I became nicer in certain ways. And I also became more firmly boundaried in others.”

Harbour met the marker of success he’d set for himself, getting invited onto late night talk shows. But being a star began to get in the way of being an actor. 

“I thought that that was the dream, I really wanted to taste that nectar because it wasn’t offered to me. I drank it in deep for about six months. I was walking around the street high-fiving people. Going on my first talk show. And then you realise this is actually not why I got in the business. All this other stuff I have to do for the business, for big corporations like Netflix, for the show. But what I really just love to do all day long is act.” 

Despite saying this, Harbour reassures The Big Issue that talking to us is a pleasure. He’s not just interested in promoting his new series, he has big issues of his own he wants to discuss.

When his followers on social media mushroomed, Harbour felt he’d found his platform. He went to Antarctica with Greenpeace to dance with penguins and raise awareness of climate change; viral posts saw him appear in fans’ yearbook pictures and officiate their weddings. But now he thinks social media doesn’t hold any answers. 

“You’ll scroll past Supreme Court ruling rage onto a meme about Drake,” he says. “I stepped away from posting political stuff on Instagram and Twitter because I feel like the very nature of the apps demeans the content. In terms of actual activism, I’m looking to find my place. My particular big issue is what society would call mental illness. I was diagnosed at 26 as bipolar after an episode that landed me in an institution.  

“I have been struggling with the medical model of mental illness for a long time,” Harbour continues. “I started to really get into talk therapy around the particular trauma, and I find that narrative and stories, dealing intellectually and emotionally with personal trauma, has been far more liberating to me than hospitals and drugs.

“I have definitely been in and out of the system. And there were times in my life where very easily I could have ended up on the streets, but I luckily had a family who could support me through those lean and very trying times. 

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“Part of the reason I wanted to do this interview is because I really appreciate the work that you guys do in creating jobs and opportunities in a very grounded way for people that are trapped. I was in a condition of people calling me crazy for a long time, until I found my own particular way out.

“There is a mental illness component that requires medication, but there also is a very social component to mental illness. It’s not like a broken leg. What defines crazy is social inappropriateness. But it’s very socially inappropriate, in a sense, to not have enough money to live on. Being mentally ill is a natural condition of poverty. When you can’t participate in society by going out buying lunch and go into a store and stuff, it’ll make you crazy. It’s chicken and egg. They go hand in hand. 

“We have to solve both of those issues. And I think you guys are definitely working on one of them by giving people jobs and helping them out. That’s tremendous.” 

In the same way as storytelling helped Harbour deal with his own mental health issues, storytelling helps us all process what’s going on in our internal or external lives. And really, that’s why Stranger Things generates such affection from fans. Although we may not all be fighting actual monsters, we’re all in the midst of some kind of battle, looking for inspiration in seeing how others overcome adversity. 

“Yeah, exactly,” Harbour agrees. “Overcoming trauma and overcoming their difficulties, and hopefully becoming better people and more able to be a part of the world.”

Season Four will be streaming on Netflix from May 27

Stranger Things has always explored good versus evil on an individual and universal level. Its reflections of our topsy-turvy, deeply divided world shines light on where we are, where we might be going, taking the personal and political to a different level.

What about the biggest political issue of the moment? In Black Widow, his Red Guardian character was motivated then imprisoned by Russian ideology. Season four of Stranger Things finds Hopper stuck in a Soviet gulag. 

The only person who seems more nostalgic for the Eighties than the makers of Stranger Things is Vladimir Putin, doing everything in his power to be back in the USSR. 

“The nature of history, it’s cyclical, and it does repeat itself,” Harbour says. “It’s a terrifying situation that we have been in and that is escalating now with Russia. We started filming [Season Four] three years ago so in terms of the Ukraine conflict, we had no idea that any of this was on the agenda. But America and Russia and the Cold War is something that we’ve been exploring since the beginning of the show.” 

In prison, Hopper is known simply as the American. Finding out if and how he overcomes his captors may project insight onto the situation. 

“That’s been a very interesting idea as a character when you play him in this Russian prison,” Harbour says. “What is their conception of an American? What is an American in the Eighties? As history cycles in a certain way, it’ll never be exactly the same. But like a spiral it continues to come back around.”

Stranger Things season 4 is released on Netflix on 27 May

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