In a summer littered with film disappointments, the pop culture zeitgeist that’s captured the attention of every kind of audience is an unassuming sci-fi-meets-horror-meets-family adventure Netflix series, Stranger Things. The show, about a 12-year-old who goes missing in a small town of Indiana, is a throwback to the iconic films of the ‘80s like E.T., Close Encounters of a Third Kind and Stand by Me.
Actor David Harbour, who has worked with iconic directors from Ang Lee in Brokeback Mountain to Sam Mendes in Revolutionary Road and writers like Aaron Sorkin in The Newsroom, plays the lead on the show opposite Winona Ryder, as police chief, Jim Hopper, who must uncover the strange going-ons. In an exclusive Skype interview, he gives us a lowdown on the phenomenon that the show has become.
So are you aware of the incredible response to Stranger Things from India?
(Smiles) Yeah! One of the things that’s so amazing is that Stranger Things feels to me like a very American show, you know. It’s set in Indiana, a small town in the Midwest, but the fact that Indian people are moved by it, are touched by it, is very, very gratifying. It means we have something universal that connects us all. I love that.
What was the idea that the show’s creators, The Duffer Brothers, have for your character, Chief Jim Hopper?
We talked a lot about the skeletons in his closet. This guy has been through a lot of pain because his daughter died, and he’s channeled that into his ferocity of this search for Will. Like, he couldn’t save his daughter, so he’s going to punch his way into saving this kid. And it is so gratifying to be able to play this kind of a leading man role, because you don’t necessarily like him at first, you know? He’s kind of a jerk to children, he drinks, he smokes, he makes fun of Joyce (Winona Ryder) and her kid. And then, instead of making the villainous choice, he gets to go make the heroic choice.
The Duffer Brothers really let me take the reins on this. They’re just really great (chuckles). And they’re children! They were born in the ‘80s, when I was like 10 or 12, so they didn’t know about it as well as I do, and yet, I really think they captured it so perfectly.
The show had so many great homages to the ‘80s. Did you guys look at any ‘80s characters for reference points to Chief Hopper too?
Yeah, I mean, we talked about Han Solo (chuckles), and we talked about Indiana Jones! It’s funny… the hat wasn’t in the script. But I wanted to have an iconic hat that Hopper’s grandfather would have and who’d have passed down to him. And now it does mirror Indiana Jones. We also talked about this swashbuckling guy, who was dark, angry and messed up, and doesn’t know if he loves someone or has that self-awareness… like Han Solo. So yeah, they were big influences, and so was the character of Chief Brody from Jaws, who has this fear of sharks and the water, and then has to go and confront that. In the same way, Hopper has a fear of children dying on him, and he has to go confront that.
The show is like the ultimate tribute to Steven Spielberg. Were you also influenced by him when you were a kid?
My initial love of movies did come from Spielberg. I mean, there was such an earnestness of purpose, where it’s like, ‘movie magic’. You know, movies used to just be magical. Spielberg’s movies were magical. And I feel like we’ve, kind of, gotten a little bit away from it in movies now, it’s kind of become a little bit cynical. And I feel like Stranger Things has that magic quality to it.
Did you relate to any of the kids in the show? What do you remember from that time that you could use in the show?
I guess I was mainly like Finn. You know, I never got to sit at the popular kids’ lunch table, but I, sort of, had my band of geeky friends too, and I was like the leader of that, and would galvanize them (smiles). You know, one of the things we captured so well in the series, I think, is that it was a simpler time back then. It was less technology, nobody had cellphones, so you could kind of get lost in the woods. Like, now-a-days, I feel, like, every kid has a cellphone and so you text with your mom if there’s a monster running after you (chuckles).
What’s interesting is that Winona Ryder was a teen icon in the ‘80s. Did you ever bring that up when you were working with her on the show?
Yeah, I tried not to bring that up initially, because I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable (laughs). I was such a huge fan! I had such a crush on her for years and year. I was like 17 years old, when I saw her in Heather, and I used to think she’s so beautiful! And she’s still so beautiful and such a good actress too. And she’s just such a strong woman yet so vulnerable. So yeah, by the end, once she got to know me and she knew I wasn’t a very weird person, I got to geek out with her and tell her (laughs again).
So what can you tell us about season 2? The show’s not been officially renewed so far and fans are dying to hear of the confirmation.
Umm, I do know that they want to continue to use the same characters, should we come back. And I know that they want it to feel like a sequel, as opposed to like a continuation, like how Star Wars was its own thing and Empire Strikes back was its own thing too? (Smiles) So we may not have the yellow scrolling text at the beginning but we may pick up later and reveal to you in some way what things have happened in the interim. And I feel like that sequel quality is also a very ‘80s thing, just like the show.
David Harbour’s Notable Filmography:
Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes (2016)
David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016)
The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things (2016)
Scott Cooper’s Black Mass (2015)
Sam Shaw’s Manhattan (2014)
Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer (2014)
Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom (2012)
David Ayer’s End of Watch (2012)
Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet (2011)
Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (2008)
Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace (2008)
Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005)
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Note: This interview first appeared in HT 48 Hours on August 18, 2016.
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