Hellboy's David Harbour keeps it real

The actor battles the Upside Down in Stranger Things, struggles with his inner demons in Hellboy and uses social media in unexpected ways.
Mark Mann

When David Harbour talks about Moby Dick, lists the parallels between Hamlet and Hellboy, and explains why his "magical" journey to Antarctica helped him appreciate climate change, he seems a long way from the down-to-earth, grumpy, chain-smoking Sheriff Jim Hopper on Netflix's Stranger Things.

But then he tells me about his life and adventures, and I understand why Hopper is so likable and relatable.  It's because Harbour is, too.

Harbour says he was one of the nerdy kids growing up in White Plains, New York, who liked playing video games and Dungeon & Dragons. He admits to imagining himself as Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's classic, then has me laughing when he owns up to getting seasick on the Greenpeace boat trip he took to Antarctica. And he reveals that his perfect dinner party would include Shakespeare, RuPaul, Barack Obama and comedian Hannah Gadsby enjoying sushi, followed by a Duncan Hines yellow cake smothered in chocolate frosting.

"I love strip malls. I love shitty food. I love this country for its good and its bad," the 43-year-old Harbour says during our cover shoot in Atlanta. "I try to stay ordinary. Staying ordinary is good for me. I try to reveal the extraordinary through my art."

That art includes playing Hopper in season 3 of Stranger Things due out next year.  And it includes his starring role in the 2019 reboot of the Hellboy film series about a half-demon, red-skinned superhero who works to save humanity even though people are afraid of him.

Harbour talked with me about the iconic hat he wears on Stranger Things, his thoughts on being the inspiration for some notable internet memes and why he's having fun on social media. Here's an edited transcript of our conversations.

Is it true you don't know what a meme is? You've been the subject of a lot of them, including your dance shuffle in Stranger Things. 
I still don't really know what a meme is. Do they have a strict definition of what a meme is? The one I like was my hair person on Stranger Things took a lovely photo of me in a Christmas sweater and my Hopper uniform that was too tight for me, and I looked ridiculous. I was holding my hat a certain way. That got Photoshopped onto covers of Vogue, in a Michael Jackson video — just lots of different places.

Then, of course, the dancing thing. There was me dancing to all sorts of different music, which I really liked. You know, as a serious actor, which I feel like I am, I take my work very seriously, I feel like I should be against this in some way. But I just think it's hilarious and I love every minute of it.

Was that you dancing or is that Hopper dancing to Jim Croce?
That is definitely Hopper dancing. [Laughs] I am playing a character. It's not difficult for me to do. It's not like I had to study many different forms. It comes intuitively from a certain place, but I can dance better than that.

David Harbour CNET Magazine
Mark Mann

Can you?  
It is an acting moment. [Laughs] It is meant, the actual scene, to embarrass [the character] Eleven in a certain way, like your dad does when he does something ridiculous. I'm a terrible dancer in my own way.

Merriam-Webster turned the clip of you dancing into the definition of dad bod. Do you consider that an honor?  
Oh my God, my God, my life. [Laughs] It was an honor. I have a funny relationship with this dad bod thing. I sort of love it and the reason why I love it is actually very serious. I do think that in a certain way, I've become a bit of a sex symbol for our time -- there are articles about people digging Hopper. But I'm also like a little big and a little chubby. I love the idea of real bodies on television. And I love the idea of making real people beautiful and loved.

I think Hopper is so loved and he's got a real body like I have a real body. I'm sick of these bodies on television that are impossibly thin — and the guys train for months and months and then they even stop eating a couple of days before and dehydrate to look a certain way. I want people to feel good in their bodies, like I'm sick of twigs on both ends of the spectrum, men and women. I'm totally tired of twigs.

I want people to love their bodies. Look, I don't want you to be unhealthy. I want you to take care of yourself, take care of your heart. We don't want you to be obese. But these impossible standards that Hollywood sets — I don't find those people sexy anymore. I find them narcissistic and I find them cruel to culture because I think that art is meant to lead people. I don't want that cruelty in our bodies anymore.

I want more big girls in leading roles. I want big guys in leading-man roles. I want them to be the hero.   

You've told me that Stranger Things may go to season 4 or 5 — but that you already know how it all ends. What can you say?
We're either going to season 4 or season 5. It's still being debated. I do know the arc of the story, though. This was something that I discussed with [show creators] the Duffer brothers right from day one.  

David Harbour CNET Magazine
Mark Mann

I know somewhat a lot of Hopper's place in that story because the more you can know about the end of your story, the more you can set up. I feel with acting you can sort of see a character make certain choices and you can feel what is behind it. As you see the end of the story, you'll start to feel why certain characters behaved certain ways. I think that stuff's really important, like knowing where your character's going.

A lot of times you don't get that in TV. But the great thing about this is that we knew what season 1 was, and we had ideas about if it extended — because we didn't know we'd get picked up — but if it extended, what the end of the actual thing would be. Like Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi have an arc to them. I think Stranger Things, be it season 4 or season 5, has an arc to it that I understand.

I feel very proud of that because we're not going to get lost in our story and leave these strands. We're going to tie things up.

Two things you took credit for bringing to Stranger Things are your sheriff's hat and the Jim Croce song. Is there something they didn't use?
Oh yeah. I have lots of ideas they don't use. I like to take risks in all sorts of ways, many of which do not pay off.

I remember I saw Raul Julia and Christopher Walken do Othello. Chris Walken was Iago, and Raul was Othello. Chris was great, and Raul was just terrible. I used to remember being like, "My God! This guy's such a good actor and he's terrible." That's why he was a good actor — because he could just swing for the fences and just be so bold. I love that.

I emulate that. I want to stretch those limits — and when you stretch and take risks, the risks don't always pay off. It's why they're risks. So yeah, there's been lots of bad ideas that they hate.

Did they hate Hopper's hat at first?
They were very against it. They just didn't think it fit. They didn't think it looked good. I was inspired somewhat by Gene Hackman. I had heard he works a lot with hats. He's always finding a hat for a character -- that pork pie in French Connection. I love that.

So we found this hat. I had to go, "Just trust me on it." And then, once we started shooting with it, they really got into it.  

Let me ask you about risk-taking and Hellboy. Were you a comic book fan when you were a kid?
I liked comic books when I was a kid, but I was much more of a video game guy. But I got into the Hellboy graphic novels in my 20s because they were recommended to me by a friend who was really into graphic novels.

Hellboy David Harbour promo shot

David Harbour in one of the first promo images for Hellboy. 

Simon Varsano

I thought they were gorgeous and really interesting -- this world of demons and devils, weird old folktales like Baba Yaga, and characters that just emerge from these weird disparate mythologies that come together in this Hellboy universe.  

I like that because it has an alphabet that we understand, but it's put together in new ways, like new words and new sentences.

You've said you're going to bring a little bit of Hamlet to the Hellboy reboot next year.  What's the Hamlet connection?
He's spawned into the universe by Nazi occultists to bring about the end of the world. And he is captured by Broom, who decides to raise him. So he's an orphan who was adopted. English isn't his first language, to say the least. He's destined to bring about the apocalypse and he, in his heart, just really wants to be a good guy. He idolizes people he grew up with in comic books, like Lobster Johnson, and he wants to be like a paranormal detective.  

So he's kind of a silly, sweet creature but also a demon. And he lives in a world where human beings don't accept him for who he is. So even when he winds up saving people, they still show up with pitchforks and torches to try to kill him. I think the biggest struggle for him is he's hunting down monsters, and yet he is one. So what is he doing, exactly? That's a big conflict in him.

What I think I meant by the Hamlet comment is that he's sort of a tortured guy. And he deals with it in certain ways that certainly Hamlet doesn't. He's just very witty. He's got this dry, sort of put-upon humor, but underneath all of that is this desperate conundrum of like, "Where is this going to end? What's the end game for this?" I think that when I compared it to Hamlet, I was saying it's a mature movie with adult themes.

He's an adult struggling with adult things. It's not like whether or not I should kill the bad guy by punching him. It's more like, Who's the bad guy?

And humor?
Of course. You can't do Hellboy without humor.

He's the guy who the bad guy will give a huge monologue about — I'm destroying the universe — and Hellboy's like, "You talk pretty tough for a guy with no pants." He's always undercutting the situation and he has these one-liners. The script's really funny. One of the ways he deals with the world is to have this dry humor about it because it's so painful.

And how is it different from Guillermo del Toro's 2004 and 2008 Hellboy movies?
In the Guillermo del Toro ones, it was sort of a brighter world. Our color palette is a little darker. Hellboy has a lot more issues. He's a little more lost, a little more confused and conflicted. I think that makes for a darker tone in terms of what he's willing to do. It's more of a character piece, I think, than the Guillermo del Toro ones, which are a bit more spectacle and team-based and fun. Ours is a little more of a character study.

What were you into when you were a kid?
I was not one of the popular kids. There was the popular kids table and there was the super nerdy table. And I was the middle table. I developed my cadre of nerds. I was big into art, D&D and video games, and that is not what the popular kids were into. That doesn't make you very popular with the football players and the cheerleading squad.

What's your favorite piece of tech?
I'm so into those little earbuds now. The AirPods from Apple. I mean, I'm addicted to Apple products. Those jerks, they're the worst. They are, because they're making stuff crappy now and I know they're doing it on purpose and they ask me to update my crap every five seconds, but I'm wildly addicted because I went to college and it required you to have an Apple computer. So good job, Apple.

And I'm very into the new industries that are being created through things like Twitch TV and livestreaming of esports. I'm into the esports community with these games like Hearthstone and Fortnite. The livestream personality thing is very interesting to me.

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Mark Mann

Many people think social media is a toxic place, but you seem to be having a lot of fun on Twitter. What's your deal?
I knew the medium might be the message here, in the sense that social media might be best used to provide some fun for the world -- maybe do some good. Because I do think it has power when you have millions of followers. It's a sort of currency that you can use.

I was like, I can do things maybe that help people, kind of brighten their day — things that are strange and weird and specific to me, but they aren't yelling about things. People would ask me all these silly things on Twitter. They asked me to go to the prom with them or do this or do that. This one girl asked me to take her senior photos with her for high school. And I said if she got 25,000 retweets I would do it, but I wanted to hold a trombone and wear the school sweatshirt. She got it in hours because all my castmates retweeted and wanted to humiliate me in this way. So we did it.

We set up a shoot that looked like a high school shoot. And we had a trombone, some pompoms, some school sweatshirts and we took senior photos, and she used them in her high school yearbook.

Somebody wants me to officiate their wedding. So that's happening. I'm getting ordained and I'm going to officiate this person's wedding. We'll see how that goes, but I like ones that are kind of silly and unique, and things that cause me some stress and some pain — as opposed to just sign something or take a selfie. This is annoying. I have to get ordained, and I have to figure out — in the state of Illinois — what the requirements are. I have to figure out all of this nonsense. Then I've got to get there and I stand up in front of people.

So if you have something that's kind of annoying that I could do but kind of like not crazy annoying, but like slightly annoying — and you get an enough retweets — I'm generally down to do that.

Is that how you ended up dancing with penguins in Antarctica?
I asked Greenpeace how many retweets it would take to take me down to Antarctica and dance with some penguins. And they were like, astronomical — like 200,000 or something. I ultimately got 400,000 retweets. It was insane the amount of love that people had for this endeavor. Greenpeace took me down to Antarctica on a ship and I threw up constantly for four days. I thought I was going to die. And then wound up having this epic experience of seeing all the wildlife down there, feeling this magical place and learning a lot more about climate change.

It started out as a very silly thing and it became very serious and a passion of mine. We have a lot of work to do on this planet, especially with these beautiful preserved places like Antarctica that are sort of untouched — I want to keep them that way.

I watched the video and saw you dance among the penguins, but they didn't seem particularly impressed.
I know, I was surprised. [Laughs.] They apparently don't have Netflix down there. Their Wi-Fi is terrible.

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Mark Mann

I also read your description of how an enormous leopard seal crawled out in front of you, and then puked out two penguin skeletons. That kind of ruins the magic, doesn't it?
Yeah, it was a vision of hell. I'm happy for the ecosystem that a thing like that exists. There are things in this universe I don't like or understand, but are very important for our ecosystem. But I don't want to see them anymore. They're horrible, crazy-looking beasts, so let's leave them alone.

Fur seals, which are the adorable ones you see, are actually more dangerous. The leopard seals kind of leave you alone. The fur seals don't like human beings. They apparently are faster on land than the fastest human runner, so they can outrun you. And their bite is so infectious that it's an evac situation if you get bit, because there's tons of bacteria in there. And if you're in between them and the water, they are truly upset. You could be 20 feet away, and if you are between them and the water, they just start honking at you like MOOOOOOO, MOOOOO all the way across the beach. 

One started howling at me and this reporter from The Guardian. We walked all the way around the beach — hundreds of feet away — and he was still screaming at us the whole time. It's like that thing when you're in the prison yard. He was going to humiliate us the entire length of the beach as we walked along, and all his buddies were like, Look at those chumps.

They're terrifying creatures. So let's leave them alone and have them live in the Antarctic — away from us.  

This story appears in the winter 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.