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David Harbour, 2022
Photo by Charlie Gray

David Harbour: ‘Theatre is home. Film is a pretty girl who doesn’t like you that much’

The ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘Black Widow’ star – and Mr Lily Allen – is hitting the London stage with a deeply personal play

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

In his early forties, American actor David Harbour went from virtual unknown to a nigh-on household name with his breakthrough role as Jim Hopper, the jaded smalltown police officer protagonist of Netflix’s hugely popular retro-horror ‘Stranger Things’. 

Despite Hopper’s apparent death at the end of Season 3, he’s very much back in Season 4, the second half of which drops on the streaming service July 1. Alongside all this, Harbour has found plenty of other outlets for his newfound fame, including playing boozy Soviet superhero Alexei ‘Red Guardian’ Shostakov in Marvel’s ‘Black Widow’, dabbling with meme-worthy social media celebrity, and marrying our very own popstrel Lily Allen.

Famously genial, he gives off the air of a man having a whale of a time with his latterday success, be that posing with a high-school student for her yearbook photos as a Twitter dare, or taking on certain film roles that look more like him amusing himself than bagging an Oscar: for example, his upcoming Christmas action movie ‘Violent Night’, in which he stars as Santa, who must save Christmas… by force!

Harbour’s (open) secret, however, is that he is a super-heavyweight stage actor. During and after a twenties marked by struggles with his mental health, he starred in numerous acclaimed Broadway plays, including Tom Stoppard’s nine-hour, three-part epic ‘The Coast of Utopia’ and a hugely successful revival of Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ in which he starred opposite Kathleen Turner and bagged himself a Tony Award nomination.

The transfer of ‘Virginia Woolf’ was his only prior experience with the London stage. But that changes with ‘Mad House’, a brand new dark comedy that US playwright Theresa Rebeck wrote especially for him. In it he stars as Michael, a man suffering from poor mental health exacerbated by the poisonous company of his dying father Daniel, played by fellow US stage giant Bill Pullman. As Daniel’s final hour draws near, Michael’s siblings return home to say goodbye to their Pa and jostle for his inheritance. 

Harbour Zoomed in from rehearsals in New York shortly before the first part of the new ‘Stranger Things’ dropped (so, sorry there’s no ‘Running Up That Hill’ question!).

You’re rehearsing a West End show in New York. That’s both unusual and also presumably fun for all the Brit cast members who got flown over. 

‘Yeah they seem to be having a good time! I was lucky that it was able to work out this way, I have kind of made my life about following my step kids around the world and they’re in New York now finishing up school and then spending the summer in London, so luckily we’re able to rehearse it here and then take it to you. 

‘Most of [the British actors] don’t know New York that well so I’m trying to give them my terrible recommendations. I wish there was a Time Out New York still! That was my gem when I moved here in 1998. Time Out, man: I’ve had some really great and some really horrible reviews.’

Time Out New York is digital now – you could definitely still get a horrible review…

‘Tell ’em I’ll be waiting for it.’

Brits know you for the screen but theatre has been most of your career, right?

‘I’ve primarily thought of myself as theatre actor my whole life, really. I was about to give up on Hollywood up until I got “Stranger Things”: I realised theatre was the place I had a home and film was a bit like a pretty girl that you’re dating who doesn’t like you all that much. So I’m the real deal, I’m not just dropping in [to London] doing my one-man show for my ego. This is what I love to do and fortunately I’m in a position where I can pick and choose a bit and where I can mount and spearhead a new production of a play by Theresa Rebeck.’

Mad House, Ambassadors Theatre, 2022
Photo by Marc Brenner

Bill Pullman has joint billing as an actor, but this is ‘your’ project?

‘Because of the success of “Stranger Things”, I’d been approached by various people asking about what would I like to do in the theatre next. I get to pick and choose a bit more now. And my mind immediately went to… well, not “Hamlet”, I’m too old, but something like “Coriolanus”. But then I was like: No, I want it to be a new play, I don’t need it to be a showcase for me necessarily, and I want it to be a woman’s voice. Theresa’s a great playwright and there was a play that we almost did together before. We sat down and she said “I wanna write you a play” and she had this idea about Dostoyevsky and the brothers Karamazov and this dying patriarch of the family.

’I’ve had some experience with what we call “mental illness” and the overwhelming of the nervous system and how society deals with the messiness of that, and I shared a lot of those stories with her and she went and wrote this play. It’s not the direct narrative of my life by any means, but it is very personal. Bill came on five maybe ten months ago, which we’re just very fortunate to have, he’s just such an incredible actor – he’s fucking Bill Pullman!’

The plot is basically that you and your siblings are feuding over the inheritance of your dying dad, Daniel?

‘Well they’ve come to deal with his inheritance, [my character’s] brother and sister. I’ve been the one taking care of him for the last 11 months. My character [has] also spent time in an insane asylum for a little bit: he has some instability. The title is really great because it is actually a play about real estate – the house is worth a lot of money – but it is also about a kid who struggles with his father and struggles to accept the world on its term. But I think he is also in a weird way the only sane voice in the midst of an insane thing like death.’

It’s been marketed as a comedy; is it a comedy?

‘There’s a line in “…Virginia Woolf” – “I have a fine sense of the ridiculous, but no sense of humour” and I think that’s the comedy of this play. There is a ridiculousness to our self-importance around death that you see here. And the other thing is it’s about family, brother and sisters now in their forties complaining about who is staying in what room. You’ll laugh because it’s true, you’ll see yourself in it.’

Does playing a character literally based on you feel different to any other role?

‘It just becomes more personal – you’re still approaching it as a character, but there are certain sections of the play where you don’t have to do much work. There are big sections of the play where I’ve experienced the complexity of the moment, so I can almost let it fly in a weird way. It’s like playing tennis with a player whose style you know really well: it’s been very freeing.

You seem like you’re handling success extremely well! Is it a blessing it didn’t happen to you until your forties?

‘Absolutely, I would have been a nightmare if it had happened in my twenties, even in my thirties, as my wife reminds me.’

Of course! If anyone knows about finding fame early…

‘Yeah, exactly. In your forties you don’t take life as seriously and you sort of realise that fame is just something the world beams on you for some reason but also for no reason. You’re old enough to understand all the bullshit around it. Wasn’t it Julius Caesar who just paid a guy to follow him around saying he was going to die? It was one of the Caesars! [it was Marcus Aurelius] One of the important things about fame you have to remind yourself of: you’re just going to die, don’t blow it out of proportion.’

Stranger Things season four
Photo by Tina Rowden/Netflix‘Stranger Things’

To what extent does ‘Stranger Things’ own your life now? The new episodes are comfortably movie length…

‘I mean the shooting takes a long time and it’s very cinematic. You’ll have a little eighth-of-a-page scene of me running through the snows of Lithuania, and it’s a crane shot or something: that type of stuff takes a lot more time than just two actors on the set shooting dialogue. But it’s not really imposing on my life just because I love it so much. And each season feels like a new iteration of something. Hopper is very different this time: it almost feels like moving on to a different project, but with people that you love and trust. It certainly doesn’t feel like an imposition.’

Were we ‘supposed’ to think Hopper was dead at the end of Season 3? I know people who absolutely swore blind he was but your return wasn’t exactly kept under wraps.

‘I mean, of course after the blast sequence [Hopper gets trapped in an exploding machine] you think it and with the [very moving] letter [to his adopted daughter, Eleven] you think it. But then there’s a little scene in Kamchatka where the Russian talks about “the American” and if you notice throughout the series the Russian guy always calls me “the American”: he says it five times. We thought audiences would make that jump pretty quick but a lot of them didn’t. And I think that’s partly because of the letter: a lot of people were really moved by it, really moved by Hopper’s apparent death and even though you don’t want him to die, there’s a piece of you that wants that to be closure, you wanna have a good cry. But I can assure you that the larger story of “Stranger Things” as we move forward has even bigger payoffs to come.” 

Black Widow, Marvel, 2021
Photo by Marvel Studios‘Black Widow’

‘Stranger Things’ was one of the first really big made-for-streaming hits: was that an exciting time to be at the forefront of something so new?

‘It was more nerve-wracking! I remember before it came out there was absolutely no advertising anywhere. And my feeling was that nobody was going to watch it, nobody was even going to pay attention to it. But once it hit and there was a sort of grassroots love for the show that was very, very exciting. But the months and weeks leading up to it I thought my screen career was over, this was my very last shot, I’d do this series and that was it.’

You always look very different from role to role, there’s a lot of weight loss and gain – is that something you enjoy?

‘Yeah it really is. Physically it’s hard, but it’s the reason I got into acting as opposed to I dunno, memoir? Because I like wearing the mask, I’ve always really liked the chameleon nature of myself. Of course, we all have personality traits but we can be many different things, and I have always been interested in exploring the levels of humanity down from the darkest dark to the lightest light.’

Even the beard growing must take a lot of commitment.

‘That “Red Guardian” beard was pretty extraordinary, I look back on that as probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done. I was walking around in the street with that thing. But you know I love it because you get to disappear, you get to be a different human being to the world.’

If I don’t know you’re in something I sometimes struggle to realise the actor is actually you.

‘It’s always been a trademark of my career even when I wasn’t known at all. People have always been like “You’re a chameleon, you look different.” Growing up, I remember watching Kevin Kline and being a bit jealous, because there’s always a sense in every role that he’s Kevin Kline. And I feel like I don’t have that at all, I just disappear, David Harbour is erased. It’s the only way I know how to do it.’

You were a social media celebrity for, like, a year or so around 2017/18 – what did you get out of it?

‘It felt like a real fun playground at first. I already had a Twitter account but I wasn’t really a social-media person at all, and then I sort of overnight got very famous and got thousands of followers. And it became this fun little club. I really thought it could be a galvanising tool. I did like this high-school photo thing and then I did this wedding [he officiated at a fan’s wedding] and then I thought: All right, let’s go to Greenpeace, let’s save the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. And people got bored. I tried to do something real, I got real burnt, and I thought: This is not the pace for reality, this is a place for memes and advertising.’

Back to beards: is your Santa beard in ‘Violent Night’ real? 

‘No, unfortunately! You know the hardest part about the beard? Whitening hair is a very, very difficult process, it gets yellow and weird. We tried a lot of different things that didn’t really work until we just got this very good wigmaker. It looks incredible, even if it’s very annoying to wear.’

And just to be clear, in this film you’re Santa and you have to save Christmas by… shooting people?

‘I hope it’ll be super-fun. It was really hard work, we were training with the guys from “Atomic Blonde” and “Nobody” and “John Wick”, like Greco-Roman wrestling, jujitsu… There’s a backstory to all this which I won’t spoil, but it’s an incredible action movie and also a Christmas movie. It has a “Die Hard” quality to it, but instead of John McClane you have the big fat jolly man. I think people will lose their minds.’

Your wife Lily Allen made her professional stage debut last summer with ‘2:22 – A Ghost Story’. Did she talk it through with you before taking it on?

‘Oh God, yeah. Yeah, she used to ask my opinion about these things, right up until she got an Olivier nomination. It’s really been a great journey for her and I’m so impressed with what she’s doing, she really wants to do more plays in the theatre, and not Disney musicals or whatever the popstar version is. She wants to work in a form that allows her to showcase her brilliance.’

Any update on the return of ‘Red Guardian’? 

‘I mean, I think the last we heard [Marvel producer] Kevin Feige said in an interview that “This likely won’t be the last time you see Alexi”, so I myself can’t say anything and also don’t know anything really. But I like him saying that I and I think there’s a lot more to explore there. Should I get the call and should they announce it… well, I can’t promise you’ll be the first to know. But you’ll find out.’

‘Mad House’ is at the Ambassadors Theatre. Until Sep 4.

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