In Stranger Things 3, the citizens of the fictitious town of Hawkins, Ind., have a turbulent Fourth of July ahead of them. But the unconventional teenage protagonists of the show, led by grumpy police chief Jim Hopper, are ready for the challenge.
Hopper is played by David Harbour, a veteran actor who began his career more than 20 years ago. He found success on stage, TV and film, but Harbour didn’t land a breakout role until the ‘80s nostalgia-fueled, sci-fi adventure came along.
The first two seasons of the Netflix hit saw Hopper as an unlikely hero: a curmudgeon coping with immense personal loss and perpetually disgruntled by the kids in town.
This season, Hopper is the adoptive father of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a teenage girl with other-worldly capabilities and her first boyfriend, Mike (played by Finn Wolfhard). But, before anyone can stress about the throes of young love, the teens and Hopper are tasked with saving Hawkins (and the world) from the dangerous paranormal forces of an alternate universe known as the Upside Down.
While Harbour understands the allure of the dashing, leading man roles, he also believes that imperfect characters, like Hopper, offer actors the chance to shine a light on the weirdos of the world.
Balancing the chief’s rougher edges with his growing tendency toward tenderness is one of Harbour’s favorite parts of this season. He hopes his fallible and complicated characters speak to real human experiences and ultimately help his audiences learn deeper empathy for others. It’s a theme he touched on in an acceptance speech he gave at the SAG awards in 2017.
“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,” he said. “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 homes. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters.”
On the types of characters he’s drawn to
There’s a temptation to be larger than life, to be more beautiful and more capable and I’ve always been drawn to characters that are less-than capable, that make me feel not alone in my weirdness, in the fact that I don’t always fit in, in the fact that I don’t always do the right thing. …
That sort of mess I want to bring to the screen so that people can maybe feel deeper empathy for others. We’re all a bit of a mess. I mean, we’re all kind of chaotically struggling to get through this life in various forms and there’s a lot of joy in that, and a lot of sadness, and a lot of all kinds of different emotions. So, I’ve always wanted to portray that much more than to be someone who people looked at as perfect.
On watching his young co-stars grow up
[In this season,] you watch the kids grow up in real time. And you feel the passage of time, more strongly than anything you could write or act….
I mean, it’s very strange. And like, I sort of mirror Hopper in a sense where I started off with them trying to be very separate, you know, even with my work, I just wanted to be apart from them. And then as the show grows and they grow and they become more of who they are, we’ve gotten closer and closer.
On the advice he gives to the teen actors on Stranger Things
I think that as young artists, they’re getting so much success and … I want Millie [Bobby Brown] to be the next Meryl Streep and I want Finn [Wolfhard] to be the next Daniel Day-Lewis….
I mean, I have these desires for them to be the great actors of the next generation and I feel like that takes work. And it takes development. And it takes acting classes, even when you’re paid a lot and well-respected for your acting. Even when it’s good at a certain level, it still takes development of that tool.
On how his career aspirations have changed over time
Of course, in the back of my mind, there was a draw to fame. I looked at the celebrities I grew up with — you know, Harrison Ford or Gene Hackman and these guys — and I looked at them as a sort of American royalty. And I remember feeling like I wanted to be a part of that.
And then, as I’ve progressed along that line, it’s become more and more apparent that my goal is to get messier. You know, I want to be the messy artist that I always dreamed of being when I was a kid.
On the audience’s love and continued pursuit of justice for Barb, a character slain during Season 1
It’s funny, I was just thinking about that the other day. She was such a great character. And it’s so rare. ‘Cuz I watch the season and … I think each season gets better, especially this season, I think is so beautiful and epic and profound. And I was like, “Oh, we can’t get any better than this!” And the only thing I thought was, “I kind wish Barb was around…” She makes everything a little better!