The actor behind Jim Hopper tells IndieWire about a potential big finale reunion with Eleven and “epic action sequences” still to come.
Harbour agrees. Ahead of “Stranger Things 4: Volume 2,” the actor spoke to IndieWire from London, where he’s starring in “Mad House” with Bill Pullman. Like Hopper in “Volume 1,” the actor is largely removed from his castmates as the Upside Down descends again on Hawkins, In., but he reflected to IndieWire on the years spent playing this character and its inextricable link to his own life.
“I was just ‘dad’ to a lot of people!” he said, noting his history as a “wacky artist” and single man. “It was a very surprising thing, and it allowed me to open the door to wanting that. Now I have that in my own life as well.”
Harbour’s fatherly journey took off with Hopper, a grieving man whose quest to save a young boy leads him to caring for the many children (now young adults) of “Stranger Things.” It’s mirrored in his relationship with the young actors, now global megastars, and in how Hopper relates to Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who believes him dead after the events of “Stranger Things 3.”
“You have Hopper being a difficult emotional person, you have her being difficult in the fact that when she’s upset with you the windows in your cabin bust out,” Harbour says. “You have these two difficult people who are desperately entwined and need each other so much. How is that relationship going to resolve?”
Hopefully with a joyful reunion and the promise of more time together in “Stranger Things 5.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: What’s it been like playing Hopper all these years and seeing the character and the show become so huge?
David Harbour: It’s probably one of the greatest honors of my life to be able to play such a beautifully written character, but also to have that character be so beloved, and have that character continue for so long and change and grow over time. It’s been the greatest honor of my career for sure.
What’s something about the experience that surprised you?
There’s so much of it that surprised me. On the external [side]I feel like everything surprised me. I was surprised very much by the fame that ensued, the fact that I’m recognized now has been a very surprising and crazy experience that I didn’t have up until I was 40. For that to begin at 40 was a very strange thing. To have it open up the opportunities that it has was very surprising.
In an internal place, it’s been surprising to see people respond to me as a father. I had always been a single man, wacky artist in the East Village, never had any interest in marriage or fatherhood, and then to have all these people feel like I portrayed this dad, to the point of even like a dad bod was a very surprising thing.
What’s your relationship been like with the young cast behind the scenes? As you said there’s so much fame and success and they’re going through it at a totally different, formative time in their lives.
I’ve always been very worried for them. I tried in my own way to maintain a sort of mentorship. My fear for them is — there’s the Tennessee Williams letter about the perils of early successand he was talking about it when he was successful at like, 29. If somebody’s telling you “you’re a genius,” it’s hard to learn going forward. The space that I was able to occupy for the young cast was to treat them like kids, and just be like, “You guys are still 11 years old, you got a lot of stuff to learn,” while the rest of the world treated them like geniuses and showered them with money, adulation, fame, popularity.
In some ways that works and creates a nice relationship and something for them to rely on. And then in some ways, it’s hard because I’m just in a very different place in my life than them and my experience is so wildly different. In a certain sense, I also have to let go and realize the limitations of my good intentions, and that’s been a process along the way. I think it’s mirrored in the show, even in Hopper’s relationship with Eleven. He wants to love her in the best way he can, but he also realizes she’s a person with super powers and he has to let go. It’s a very interesting dynamic. I think in a way the kids on the show are that way as well: They’re like little creatures with superpowers, and you have this ordinary man in his 40s trying to deal with them.
Did you learn anything unexpected from them?
Early on, I was nervous about working with kids cause I’ve worked with adults a lot. You’re always a little bit nervous about show kids who are so presentational. I think it was really one of the first scenes I had with Mike — Finn [Wolfhard]and I remember him being so almost unaware of his body. He had this freedom where he was just moving his shoulders and his arms and clearly wasn’t thinking about doing it. He just was free as an actor in a way that I hadn’t seen before, in a long time, and I certainly hadn’t felt, and I was blown away by that. I was like, “God, I wish I could do that. I wish I could be free and unselfconscious.”
Do you have a favorite moment from the series — both behind the scenes and within the show itself?
At the end of the first season — it’s so vivid in my mind — we’re walking around in those vines… It was done so shoddily back then, the monster was a puppet, and Winona and I are walking through the library with these hazmat suits on — they kept fogging up and it was terrible and it took like 20 minutes to go to the bathroom because you had to unhook all these different things. Then we had to save little 10-year-old Noah Schnapp [who] was lying on the ground, and I’m having to do fake CPR on him but so intensely that I wound up bruising him a little bit and I was terrified.
I remember it being so cathartic and vivid. When I saw it, it was the first time I’d ever watched anything I had done and gotten lost in it to the point where I could cry. I didn’t see it as myself playing Hopper. I just saw Hopper trying to save — really trying to save his dead daughter, and I just started crying. It’s the most vivid moment backstage for me and the most vivid moment in the tears when I watched it.
What would you say is the most significant change in Hopper as a character over the course of the series?
Oh, God, he’s been through so many. We’ve seen him be this lost guy at the beginning who comes back to life; and we’ve seen him be a father who struggles with control issues; and then we’ve seen him be a man sort of stretched to the brink and not know how to emotionally relate to anyone. Now we’re seeing him in Season 4, stripped bare… and really re-finding like who the center of this is. Going forward, I’m anxious to see who he becomes so that he can be this person that needs to fight the evil of the Upside Down and certainly someone [like] Vecna. I’m always trying to piece together what this arc is, and who he is so he’ll come together and make all of the gestalt make sense when you watch the whole thing.
It’s really been about a man struggling his own guilt with his daughter — a man struggling to kill the murderer that is him. All these different shades have been all fun to play in various colors, but it’s all to that end: “How do I rid myself of this toxic guy who literally is poisoned — who has poisoned the people that he’s loved?”
This season he’s been separated from the rest of the cast, so how was it to play that and get into a different headspace?
It was really fun! I was able to go with the Duffers to Lithuania, be in 20 below weather in bare feet, not eat any food, and just be messed up, shave my head with a bunch of Lithuanians who barely spoke English. It felt like we were making an entirely different movie. That was really exciting. The other thing is it made you long for all your friends. I had a real need to get back together with everyone which is I think everybody’s hope at the end of Season 4, that they come together. That longing was amazing.
Talk me through that moment in Episode 7, when Hopper and Joyce finally reunite.
It’s an amazing moment. And the problem with amazing moments are that you read them in the script and you’re just like “FUUUCK.” You just feel the pressure. Here it is: He’s been away, he feels like he’s killed her. He’s in such despair, and then lo and behold, his miracle, his knight in shining armor who saves him is this woman that he cares so much for. It’s such an epic, incredible moment and we shot [it] a bunch of different ways. Initially there were some that we did where she’d run over to me and I just embraced her [right there and then]. We did about 10 takes of it, and then I was like, “You know what I think it is, man? I just think he’s so in survival mode, I don’t even think he thinks she’s real.” So when she comes over to him there’s this moment where he kind of stares, pulls her away from him and looks at her, and then embraces her again. That’s when we could go into the smile.
I was really appreciative of the Duffers allowing me to find the reality of this moment. I had a lot of takes that were big and emotional and all that stuff and then I was like, “No, it’s got to be simple, it’s gotta be weirder than that.” And I was very happy we all came to that and that they let us use that take because I think it is the most sophisticated.
Hypothetically, if there were a big Hopper/Eleven reunion in Volume 2… how would Hopper feel going into that after everything he’s been through?
[Laughs boisterously] As we know, the Duffers are writing their own show that will surprise you, be all sorts of things to you. They are responsive to what I call fan service. They want to give you what you want. It’s very possible that that reunion would come. As you’ve seen even with Enzo, whatever they bring up pays off. Some things were brought up last season in the letter that was very profound for people. Maybe you would see something like that perhaps play in the reunion.
The fact is these are characters that are deeply entwined and need each other so much. Of course that reunion has to be quite special because of their need for each other. And then what would be really interesting to me would be going forward, since you haven’t had a lot of that stuff in this particular season, what is the culmination? Certainly after the end of Season 3, but all throughout the season, this idea that Hopper hasn’t had a daughter for a long time and that Eleven hasn’t had a real father, and that you have these two very difficult people in different ways…How is that relationship going to resolve? I think that’s the reason why people are so responsive to it. Not only is it simple father-daughter stuff and it’s sweet, but also there’s a danger and a real potency beneath it that I think people’s nervous system responds to when they watch it.
Describe Volume 2 in a few words.
It’s the race to the finish. What you’re gonna see is us sprinting as hard as we can — not only are you gonna see the Duffers sprinting there cinematically in this epic, extraordinary way, but you’re gonna see all the characters [doing] more and you’re gonna have these epic action sequences. In terms of Hopper’s arc, you’re gonna see him be more vulnerable and more powerful than you’ve ever seen, and I’m just so excited for you. I can’t talk about it anymore. I need you guys to watch. I think you’re gonna be blown away.
“Stranger Things 4: Volume 2” premieres July 1 on Netflix.