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David Harbour, the Hellboy Next Door

Twenty years into his career, the ‘Stranger Things’ star is finally experiencing a moment: his own superhero movie, a major Netflix series, and internet-dad fame. Harbour is still getting used to it.

Efi Chalikopoulou

A question you’d never expect to ask yourself is, “Am I gonna have to beat David Harbour at bowling?”

The Stranger Things and soon-to-be Hellboy star and I have just started a game at Frames, a bowling alley hidden inauspiciously within New York City’s Port Authority. (If the Port Authority is a corroded, smog-filled digestive system, Frames is situated at the end of the tract.) But to be fair, Frames is not what its location would indicate: decked out with sleek tables, leather couches, and big-screen TVs playing Meghan Trainor videos, it is essentially a nightclub that just also happens to permit bowling—though, Harbour and I are here at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday. Perhaps it’s this incongruity—or that bright neon sign that says “SIT DOWN BE HUMBLE”—that explains why Harbour’s first roll is so bad.

“Oh, Jesus. Wow,” he says, tugging at the bottom of his black polo shirt and staring at his lack of pin-related destruction in disbelief. “I hit one pin.”

There’s something about David Harbour that makes you think he’d be good at everything. There’s something about him that makes you want him to be good at everything. As Chief Hopper in Stranger Things, he’s easy to fall for, and root for, but Harbour has also shown a certain facility in real life; an ease of motion, an extraordinary amount of self-assurance—he’s the kind of guy who can give a rousing pep talk, but also sell you laundry detergent. He appears to be a person with a solid grip on everything he does, but he doesn’t exactly seem to have a handle on this. “I don’t really have much strategy,” he tells me after the first lackluster roll. “It’s just, like, trying to hit pins.”

This puts me in an awkward position, with really only two less-than-ideal choices. I can either bowl to the best of my ability, thereby risking the embarrassment of a man who is about to helm the new Hellboy franchise and is also the size of a (well-proportioned) refrigerator, or I can bowl badly on purpose, which would be an obvious ploy, because there’s only one way to do worse than Harbour did, and it involves chucking a ball into a gutter. After a deep breath, I choose option one, and hope Harbour can appreciate a guy who won’t go easy on him.

“Fuck,” he yelps after the pins—more than one of them—crash together and fall. “This is gonna be bad. Oh my god; humiliating! Oh, no. This is bad.”

David Harbour as Hellboy in ‘Hellboy’
Lionsgate

Harbour has been a working actor for nearly 20 years, but it’s only relatively recently that he’s become familiar enough to make you reconsider the amount of effort that ought to be put into rolling a ball. His rise has been protracted, a bit unexpected, and probably best ascribed to a combination of forces: undeniable talent rising to the top, good timing, and a magnetism amplified by internet culture.

A self-described theater kid at Dartmouth in the mid-’90s, Harbour moved to the East Village after college to pursue acting and never left the neighborhood. “I’ve always loved it. I just feel like there’s still a bunch of freaks in the East Village—real holdouts that are still real weirdos.” Now he’s one of them.

His first big gig came in the form of a time-honored tradition for New York–based actors: playing a sick murderer who has a creepy obsession with dolls in a 2002 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He’s fresh-faced in the role—a strange sight far from the visage we know so well today—but most of all committed, convulsing and pushing his facial expressions so strenuously it seems as though blood vessels might pop. But the affecting performance wasn’t a big break, and Harbour was forced into the role of a toiling actor. Small parts came with enough frequency to squeak by—minor characters in Brokeback Mountain (as a buttoned-up, closeted cowboy), Quantum of Solace (as a buttoned-up, mustachioed CIA agent), and Revolutionary Road (as a buttoned-up neighbor), returns to the Law & Order well in 2004, 2008, and 2009. “I was living at the poverty level through, I think, all of my 20s,” Harbour says. “I would make $365 a week, living in Manhattan—that’s crazy. You can’t live on that. I’d sometimes get a Law & Order and that would be, like, a big subsidy for the theater arts. It’d be huge; take everyone to dinner.”

It wasn’t until 2012 that things started to pick up for Harbour, as he landed recurring roles on shows including HBO’s The Newsroom and, later, WGN’s Manhattan and NBC’s State of Affairs. He performs admirably in all of them, his strong brow and bellowing voice affording him the level of austerity necessary to play a cable news anchor, a scientist, and a White House chief of staff. “I’m very happy with the choices I’ve made,” Harbour says of his years bouncing around from role to role. “Some of them paid well, some did not—sometimes millions saw it, sometimes five people saw it.”

But something was still missing, and it isn’t until you watch Harbour as Chief Jim Hopper in Stranger Things that you can pinpoint what that something is. When Hopper first appears on screen, you can practically smell the booze on him through the TV. He moves like a man with hard-earned back pain, breathes like he’s tired of doing it, and has a beard that appears to exist out of complacency rather than agency. Seeing Hopper take a long drag from a cigarette in the premiere episode—shirtless, a gut spilling over his still unbuckled jeans—is witnessing the moment that David Harbour became David Harbour, America’s imposing TV dad.

Most of Harbour’s roles before Stranger Things hadn’t tapped into this air of reluctant heroism; all of those characters simply had their shit together, and many of them were tightly wound bad guys. But Hopper’s general messiness, apparent lack of desire to improve, and underlying warmth were new, sympathetic notes for Harbour. Then 41 years old, Harbour embodied Hopper’s deep-seated suffering, laying a foundation for the revelation that comes as the first season progresses and the character rediscovers his life’s purpose.

Stranger Things, with its heavy emphasis on nostalgia, fresh storytelling, and vibrant cast, became an instant hit for Netflix in the summer of 2016. Within its first 35 days on the streaming service, Stranger Things was watched by about 14.07 million people aged 18 to 49. And because of the show’s focus on younger people, fandom exploded online, where younger people congregate. Sales for Eggo waffles, the preferred snack of Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven, boomed; fervor over the treatment of a minor character grew so loud that the actress who played her was eventually nominated for an Emmy; and Harbour became the internet’s preeminent dad.

“We’re not surprised at all,” the Duffer brothers, cocreators of Stranger Things, say of Harbour’s viral fame over email. “That’s just the David we know and love. The minute anyone gets to know him, they become fans for life.”

The timing of Stranger Things was perfect for Harbour—not only because, at 40 years old, it was the first major opportunity for the actor to show off his range, but because it came as internet culture was taking over as the primary conduit of popular culture. And because the show was released just a year after the term “dad bod”—of which Harbour possesses the quintessential version—entered the lexicon. Armed with his ideally beefy frame, a sort of wise wit, and the moral authority earned via Hopper, Harbour began to set the internet aflame with his every move over the next two years. He posed in a fan’s senior pictures; he officiated a wedding; he danced with penguins; he became a spokesman for Tide, starring in a meta Super Bowl commercial while wearing a gloriously white outfit; and on a nearly daily basis, he interacted with fans, responding to their thirsty tweets, imploring them to send him Hopper fan fiction, and openly embracing his status as the Dad Bod That Was Promised.

“I [learned] that people like it when I curate something, which I needed,” Harbour tells me. “I needed confidence in my voice. I had it in acting, but I didn’t have it in my own particular thing.”

Harbour’s most viral moment was an impassioned speech surrounded by his Stranger Things costars while accepting the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Ensemble in a Drama Series. Winona Ryder’s hilarious gamut of facial expressions—most of them conveying a form of confusion—were the money shot of that moment, but Harbour’s words, delivered days after Donald Trump took office, were equally resonant, and the best synthesis of who the actor is, and what he believes in. “We are united, in that we are all human beings and we are all together on this horrible, painful, joyous, exciting, and mysterious ride that is being alive,” Harbour yelled into the microphone uproariously. “Now, as we act in the continuing narrative of Stranger Things, we 1983 Midwesterners will repel bullies. We will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no home. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters. And when we are lost amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will, as per Chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the weak, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized.”

Now, Harbour is at an inflection point. As Stranger Things rounds into the second half of its run (Season 3 premieres on July 4), the actor is embarking on a new journey as Hellboy, the red face of a rebooted franchise. Just last week, he joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe, signing up for a role in Scarlett Johansson’s upcoming Black Widow film. At 43, after decades of bouncing from small character to small character, Harbour has become the character at the center of the frame. It’s a strange transition for him, one he hasn’t really wrapped his head around: When I point it out he responds, “Oh really?” He’s no longer just another weirdo hiding out in the East Village, and it takes some getting used to.

David Harbour in ‘Stranger Things’
Netflix

Harbour is meticulous in everything he does. Eating sliders at the bowling alley, he carefully ladles a dab of dijon mustard onto a bite before diving in. Then he repeats the process—same amount of mustard, same amount of care. A conversation with him is a similar exercise in caution and contemplation. He answers many questions with a question, like a physically enhanced Socrates, going to great lengths to drill into the meaning of what you’re saying before he crafts a response. It seems he’s always been this way—cradling a size 14 bowling ball, he makes fun of his former self for being “a pretentious 19-year-old who was writing theater manifestos.”

Because that image of a man shirtless and unkempt, surrounded by beer cans and smoking a cigarette, fits Harbour so well, you expect him to be this freewheeling, booze-swilling beacon of manliness. (And you expect him to be good at bowling.) But he really isn’t. Raised just north of New York City in Westchester, he’s always been a theater kid in a football player’s body. He studied English and drama in college, and apparently became a bit of a philosopher. “In my childhood, I was very confused by human beings and how they behaved,” Harbour says, explaining how he got into acting, of course. “Then I got to a place where, if I expressed this confusion, people would kind of applaud it. And I was like, ‘I have to do this.’”

It’s a good thing Harbour had found such a sense of purpose—for a while it’s all he had. “I was so wildly unsuccessful, on a grand level, that the only reason to do it was because there was meaning,” he says. “I found so much meaning in what I was doing that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t on the cover of People or whatever.”

The way he puts it, things were much simpler in the pre–Stranger Things days. He knew who he was, and no one else did, but that was OK; the anonymity was freeing. “You start to realize that no one is watching, so you might as well do what you want,” Harbour says. “I think I learned that [through] the heartbreaks and failures in my 20s. That was really good for me—had I been wildly successful in my 20s, I would have made a lot of bad choices.” It’s much different now, though.

Harbour downplays just how bewildering his rise to becoming a transistor of internet culture was in 2016 and 2017, bashfully looking away at the mention of his sudden popularity. I have to remind him that not every actor has fans begging them to officiate their wedding, that even fewer are magnetic enough for that request to be retweeted over 125,000 times in less than 24 hours, and that even fewer are magnanimous enough to actually agree to go through with it. Part of this is humility, and a previously established acceptance of his relative insignificance in the world; the other part of it is that enough time has now passed since Harbour’s explosion, giving him the distance to reconsider the impact he’s made.

Pulling at his beard, which has grown long and remained unmanicured, Harbour ponders, as he often does. “Recently I’ve gotten kind of—I don’t know. I’ve had mixed feelings about it.

“Even in the embrace, it has a similar feeling to being an outcast. It’s seductive because I’m being embraced, [but] I’m much more complicated than that, so maybe you want to hold off on that embrace.” Harbour is calm and collected, but you can tell he’s wound up, dying to get this off his chest. “It was really good and validating, but then it was becoming this thing where it was like, I don’t want to be sound bites. I want to be a complicated individual. … Can’t we feel complicated things? I certainly feel that way in my most intimate relationships; I sort of want to feel that way about the world.

“So if I can add joy—if I can go officiate a wedding—that’s good. Or if I can go take high school photos with some girl, that’s a fundamentally funny, nice thing to do. That’s what I want to use it for, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to do those things. Even simple things like that, people attribute intent to what you’re doing, which is so fucking crazy.”

“That’s a long answer,” Harbour admits with a smile. He doesn’t seem sad at any point during this monologue, but he’s certainly still adjusting to this relatively newfound fame, the spotlight that he’s now under, which can often feel more like a microscope. A naturally contemplative person, he’s needed to step away to understand the purpose of his actions, as it seems even he has underestimated his own magnetism. But the undeniable truth is that he doesn’t have all that much time to meditate—as he takes on Hellboy and joins the cast of the Black Widow movie, he’s only becoming more recognizable. The spotlight is only growing larger; the microscope only intensifying.

Though, after shanking a ball straight into the gutter, I’m starting to wonder whether all this heady talk is a ruse to throw me off my game. “Ah yes,” Harbour giggles in my ear. “You’re letting me catch up. Yes.”

David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn in ‘Revolutionary Road’
Dreamworks

The first thing Harbour did after being cast as Hellboy was go to Paragon Sports in Union Square. He wanted to know what it would feel like to carry all of that extra weight; to have a right forearm the size of a filing cabinet. The shopping cart certainly raised a few eyebrows.

“I got a wetsuit and I put a bunch of football and hockey padding all over it,” Harbour explains. “I sewed together this hockey glove with two shin guard things on the side and made this Red Fist of Doom. Then I got a wig and had all this hair, and all this stuff, and I had a mouth piece. … It was the worst Hellboy cosplay you could imagine.”

It’s a scene straight out of a comic book origin story—the fledgling superhero who throws together a sad, makeshift costume before perfecting the suit, or getting hooked up by Tony Stark. It’s also undeniably funny imagery, Harbour clopping around his apartment in unwieldy hockey pads, shin guards pasted onto body parts that aren’t shins. But it also speaks to how seriously Harbour takes all of this. “Once I put the stuff on, it just feels totally different,” he says. “I wanted to be true to the comic, and there’s certain gestures that he has and does; there’s certain things he does with his jaw, and I wanted to find those things. I needed all these fake props to do that.”

Hellboy as a franchise is a strange beast—much like Hellboy himself. The Ron Perlman–led Hellboy came in 2004, at a time when comic book movies hadn’t yet become Hollywood’s most reliable entity. With Guillermo del Toro at the helm, the movie was unapologetically niche, pulpy, and bizarre at times. Hellboy was mildly profitable, though not exactly successful, and yet a sequel was green-lit nonetheless: Hellboy II: The Golden Army was released in 2008, with Perlman settling into the role as if it were made for him, and del Toro indulging in his fantasies even more. By then, Iron Man had been released and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was getting underway, but Hellboy remained an idiosyncratic offshoot, a product that existed more because of the will of del Toro than any commercial reasons.

The 2019 iteration of Hellboy wasn’t initially conceived as a full-on reboot. The original plan was for del Toro to finish off his trilogy, but as Hellboy’s creator, Mike Mignola, explained in 2017, that never came to be: “I would’ve loved to see Guillermo do his third movie and finish that story,” Mignola told Nerdist. “But over the years it became very clear that wasn’t going to happen. About three years ago, the producers, the screenwriter Andrew Cosby, and I all started working on this new story. Del Toro didn’t want to have anything to do with it, he wasn’t going to direct. He was offered to be a producer, and Ron [Perlman] wouldn’t do it without Guillermo.” And so the plan changed to rebooting Hellboy, making it both darker and R-rated.

It’s that darkness that initially intrigued Harbour when he was approached for the lead role. But he also couldn’t deny the appeal of throwing his hat into the superhero ring. “I want to be involved in the superhero conversation, because it is the cultural conversation, whether you think that’s cool or stupid,” Harbour says. “In the way the Greeks had Achilles and Hector, we have Captain America and Iron Man.”

Harbour just had to find the right entry point: “I definitely wanted to do a superhero movie, and I wanted to do one that was complicated, that was R-rated and fucked up, because I’m just not Captain America. Like, in my soul. I’m just a darker, weirder dude than that.”

Hellboy’s tortured existence and paradoxical nature also spoke to Harbour, ever the deep thinker. “The great thing about Hellboy is who he really is at his core is a bad dude—a monster,” he says, lining up his next roll. “He wants to be more beautiful and more noble. His actual DNA is to be a villain. To me, it turns the superhero thing on its head.”

Harbour then reaches back with violence and hurls another ball down the lane. “That’s it!” he exclaims, his large frame leaning to the right as he tries to will the thing toward the remaining pins. It grazes one and throttles into the backstop, leaving one pin standing. “Almost,” Harbour sighs. “That would’ve been a 7/10 split thing.” Professional bowlers, he and I.

By the 10th frame, Harbour has overtaken me—though neither of us are going to brag about this game when we get home. We haven’t even cracked 100. While I try to chalk up this embarrassing display to trying to be nice and welcoming, or merely being distracted by Harbour’s mustard strategy, Harbour resorts to humbly putting things into perspective. “That’s a failing grade. A 91 out of 300 is not good.” The scoreboard resets back to frame one, all set for another game. Harbour rolls his eyes. Neither of us picks up a bowling ball for the rest of the day. Instead, we recline on a swanky leather couch, though the neon lights, lasers, and Meghan Trainor videos do not stop.

For the first two years of Stranger Things’ existence, Harbour was like the cast’s guidance counselor—the sage who’d already seen it all. “He’s a role model for everyone—but especially for the kids on the show,” the Duffers tell me. “They all look up to him and learn from him.”

“I don’t have kids myself.” Harbour says when I ask him what it’s been like to watch actors like Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, and Noah Schnapp grow up in front of him. “I’ve never been that close to a kid [to] watch them grow up and have personality changes and hormonal changes, and brain changes. It’s weird.” (As for whether Harbour wants his own kids, he’s not ready to say one way or the other—besides, he already has a dog he can coddle like a child. “When the dog goes to the park and none of the other dogs play with him, I get super mad,” he says. “I tell my dog that they’re all just jealous.”)

“They’re all on this wild roller coaster that I know nothing about,” he continues. “I was looking at this picture of Finn online and he’s just this cherubic little boy. Then I see his Instagram and he’s a rock star in Amsterdam. I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ To them, it’s normal, because they’re just growing up. That stuff is definitely weird to watch. … The only thing I can offer to them is to [adopt] a life of taking risks—a life not always of success, [but] a life of self-expression. Because popularity comes and goes, you know?”

The irony is that while this advice was for Brown, Wolfhard, and the rest early on in Stranger Things’ run, it’s now relevant to Harbour’s own career. He’s a superhero now, at the onset of a new franchise, and also one of the most recognizable faces on one of Netflix’s most popular shows—and soon, a prominent character in a much-hyped Marvel movie. The actor who toiled for so long is now in a position to shed that skin, to move from starving artist to full-blown movie star.

Harbour doesn’t foresee his attitude ever changing, though. “I mean look, I think Hellboy is great and if people like it and we want to make more, I’m down with that. I’ll shave the beard and everything and get in that horrible costume again. But for me, it’s always about making risky, odd choices as opposed to curating some kind of career [off] the pedigree of Stranger Things. If I was better at that, who knows, I might be Tom Cruise or something. But I think I’m just good at being weird.”

At this point he’s picked up one of the many decorative pillows Frames has strewn on the couches, a glittery monstrosity; he strokes it like a cat, and delivers a mission statement.

“I’m not interested in playing a version of Jim Hopper for the rest of my career. I kind of want to continue on this path of things I find interesting. If they continue to be successful, that’s great. I won’t argue with it. But I doubt that every single one of them will pan out. I’m OK with that. I understand the vicissitudes of fortune; I understand the wheel, and I’m fine to take a ride.”

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