Role Recall: David Harbour on famed director who told him to act 'more handsome,' his 'Stranger Things' breakout and hard 'Hellboy' lessons

For David Harbour, it’s all about perspective. The 47-year-old actor is among the rare species in Hollywood — right up there with Bryan Cranston and Jon Hamm — who reached mainstream fame at a relatively “old” age thanks to an excessively buzzy television series.

In Harbour’s case, it came with his instantly beloved post-40 role as grizzled police chief Jim Hopper when Netflix’s sci-fi streaming phenomenon Stranger Things popped off in 2016.

Up until that point, Harbour had been a self-described character actor. But what many people don’t realize is the White Plains, N.Y. native had under-the-radar (or discarded) roles in a host of major productions you probably saw well before you knew the name David Harbour.

Like many actors, he started on stage (Broadway’s The Rainmaker), soaps (As the World Turns) and procedurals (as four different characters in the Law & Order universe!), but he also had a scene cut from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), turned up for a vital sequence in Brokeback Mountain (2005), got his Bond on in Quantum of Solace (2008), drew recognition for stealing scenes from Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road (2008) and appeared in the superhero movies The Green Hornet (2011) and Suicide Squad (2016) long before his post-Hopper hot mess Hellboy (2019) and subsequent palate cleanser Black Widow (2021).

“It's given me a well leveled perspective in terms of external success being almost independent of your particular love of whatever you're doing,” Harbour tells us about his late-career surge in a new Role Recall interview. “One of the things that's always guided me is just whatever level I can do it on. I just love [acting] and I love it so much that I'm willing to fly here, fly there, sacrifice my weight, my sanity, all these things, just ‘cause I love this thing. And it doesn't matter if it's on the biggest show in the world or in just a community theater production that 50 people are gonna see. For me it's just the pure love of the thing. And I think that’s why it's great to have success.”

Harbour is indeed having great success. He’s still surviving Stranger Things through its reenergized fourth season, will reprise his role as Black Widow’s Red Guardian in Marvel’s 2024 antihero team-up Thunderbolts, and is now a full-on headliner in film’s like his new release, the hard-R-rated Christmas actioner Violent Night.

The actor clearly had a blast playing a boozed-out Santa Claus forced to recall his days as a Nordic warrior to help save an uber-wealthy Connecticut family (but mainly, the sweet-natured young girl in peril) when a band of mercenaries take their estate hostage.

Harbour remembers being pitched the concept by producer David Leitch and director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow). “I was like, ‘This is ridiculous guys. This is so dumb. What are we talking about?’ But then Habour read the script, and he was hooked.

“It has all the action set pieces and it has this kind of Die Hard train to it, but underneath it all, it has this little girl believing in Santa Claus. There's something about that that's so funny and disarming and charming to have this bloody old Santa just being like, ‘Thank you for believing in me.’ There's just a lot of deeply funny stuff in it… I've never seen a movie like this and I've never seen a movie that attempts to do what we attempt to do in this movie, which is to make a Christmas movie a kick-ass action John Wick movie. It's insane. So I like that swing.”

Here’s what the candid and affable actor had to say about the most notable roles that led him here.

On his first Law & Order appearance in 1999, a series he would return to three more times, twice playing a murderer.

Law and Order was not my first job, my first on-camera job in New York City was As the World Turns. But my first kind of big TV job was Law & Order. I played Mike the waiter [in the 1999 episode “Patsy”]. Jerry Orbach was still in the show… It was a very big deal. It was the first time I was on a set. There were all these background [actors] and all this lighting… I was just really excited… And then the great thing about Law & Order, because it was shot in New York, for us actors in New York, every two years you could go back on each of these [spinoff] shows and be a different villain. So you'd wait around for two years and then you'd be able to come back.”

On his deleted scene in War of the Worlds (2005):

“I was credited as ‘Dock Worker’… I was in a scene with me and Tom Cruise at a bar. I don't know if you remember the movie, but [Cruise’s longshoreman Ray Ferrier] works nights and he gets off work at the dock and he goes and he's late to pick up his kid. And that's where the mom gets really mad at him for being a deadbeat dad sort of situation. Well, in the original screenplay, there was a scene where the reason why he's late is he's out drinking with his buddy at the bar after his shift at like 8 in the morning. And his buddy at the bar was me. And we had a little scene in this bar and it was not a great scene. It was also not a necessary scene to the film at all… And we shot it and I remember thinking it was probably gonna get cut, but Spielberg was there and it was so exciting to meet him. He cast me. And then, you know, it just got cut, just never wound up in the movie.

“It’s crushing. It’s crushing and horrible. But it was kind of great ‘cause years later Spielberg produced Revolutionary Road and he came up to me at another table reading for something else and he was just ‘Oh, David, I just wanna say ‘I really love you in Revolutionary Road. I think you're just terrific. We're so happy. I really one day would love to work with you.’ And I did not bring up the fact that we had already worked together and he had cut me out of his movie [laughs].”

Harbour hilariously recalls Ang Lee telling him to act "more handsome" on the set of Brokeback Mountain.

"I was like, 'Bro, I think that's a note for your casting director."

— Kevin Polowy (@djkevlar) December 2, 2022

On playing a married man who has his eyes on Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack in Brokeback Mountain (2005):

“[Director Ang Lee] was so funny and weird. I really loved him… It was such a strange thing ‘cause I read that script and I was like, ‘This is one of the great movies of all time. It's a great love story. It's a beautiful script.’ And it really was just right from the page, just stunning. And then when we were shooting the movie, I remember on all the talk shows, it was like a big joke, ‘the gay cowboy movie.’ It was just a big joke all over everywhere, how we were making a gay cowboy movie. It was so ridiculous. And I remember thinking that when you see this movie, you'll get it, but on the page it looks silly.

“When I got up there to film it, they were doing some really fun work… You could just feel that we were making something really creative and really beautiful. And then I remember Ang would just say some weird stuff occasionally. Like he gave me a note as he came in for a real tight closeup at one point and I did a couple takes of it. He wasn't quite happy… And then finally he came over to me, came up right close to me and went ‘More, uh, more handsome.’ And then he ran away and I was like, ‘Bro, I think that's a note for your casting director.’ But I took it as best I could and tried to square my jaw off. And he liked it [laughs].”

On playing CIA agent Gregg Beam in Quantum of Solace (2008), the second movie to star Daniel Craig as James Bond:

“Part of the reason why it was fun though is ‘cause it was Marc Forster’s Bond. Marc was an indie [filmmaker], he had made that movie with Will Ferrell [Stranger Than Fiction]… And they tapped him to do this huge Bond movie. It was one of these experiences where, yeah, you're doing this Bond movie, but Marc's directing. So he cast me as [this CIA chief] with some wacky mustache… It was a crazy fun thing. It was just fun to be a part of that world and to be able to have a wacky take on this American CIA kind of sleazeball…. But for me it was more than just being a part of the Bondverse. It was more about being a part of Marc's movie and his stamp on that particular universe."

On costarring in Revolutionary Road (2008), the much-hyped drama that reunited Titanic lovers Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet but didn’t live up to expectations:

“It was sort of a weird thing because it was the first time in my career where I wasn't smart enough to understand the hype machine as it is. So I believed it. It was kind of this moment where everyone was like, ‘Oh oh oh, you're making a piece of history right now and people are going to know your name.’ And we were all patting each other on the back like it was a big deal. And then the movie came out and… you know, the movie's all right. And I was all right, but nobody really cared all that much. So I was like, ‘Wait a minute.’ So it sort of allowed me, in terms of this business, to understand that whatever people say, whatever the hype is, whatever the thing is, this thing has an independent life of its own.

“And you should never believe what people think or say… It’s like [famed producer] Robert Evans said, ‘Nobody knows anything in this business.’ I mean, really, nobody knows anything. And I think that was my real first tangible example of that. I thought that this was a big shiny thing and it just didn’t quite happen in that particular way. And so it's been a really refreshing way to allow your expectations to be what they are and allow things to sort of breathe as opposed to get so attached to having something be more than what it is.”

On where he thinks The Green Hornet, the 2011 superhero comedy starring Seth Rogen, went wrong:

Green Hornet was really cool. I mean, it was such a mess in a certain way… It wasn't a mess because of the inadequacy of its parts. It was almost the too muchness of its parts. It had Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg who were writing it, and Seth is the lead, right? Terrific comedy writers, really strong take on an anti-superhero movie. Then you have Neal Moritz producing it, from Fast and Furious, and just like a huge Hollywood blow-up producer. And then you have Michel Gondry, like this weird independent filmmaker making it. And something about the Bermuda Triangle of those three just made it this weird unwieldy thing where each of them are so talented in their own particular directions, but it just pulled in so many weird ways that, in the end, it doesn't quite coalesce in the right way.

“I still think that movie wasn't quite given the props that it should have been. If you look back now in the universe that we're living in, the post-Iron Man world that we live in where superhero movies are given this sort of respect and love, I feel like that movie had a lot of real fun, cool elements to it. But it just didn't work because of these disparate parts, I think.”

Harbour had some pretty interesting insights on why he thinks The Green Hornet (2011) didn't work.

— Kevin Polowy (@djkevlar) December 2, 2022

On speaking “Sorkinese” in HBO’s The Newsroom (2012-2014):

“That was a pretty amazing experience… It was a wild set. It's very different than anything else I've really ever done because [creator Aaron Sorkin] wields such respect and such power… Normally in movies you could play around with dialogue and you can play around with stuff. It's like we have this term where, ‘It's not Shakespeare.’ You tend to interpret your character in that way. And here, you had the script supervisor running over to you if you’re in the middle of a big speech… She’d be like, ‘David, it's somebody, not someone.’ So yeah, it was a very meticulous process.”

On thinking the script for Stranger Things (2016-present) was brilliant, then thinking it was going to bomb while they shot it:

“I had no idea it would blow up the way it did because, as I had said about Revolutionary Road, my expectations in terms of this business have been managed at every step by something failing to live up to my expectations of it. And so finally when I get a script like Stranger Things, I immediately read it and I was like, ‘This is fantastic. I'm sure no one will watch it.’ So that was really what I thought: I think this is probably the best pilot script I'd ever read. And I certainly loved the character more than any other character I think I'd ever read. I was like, ‘This feels like the old Harrison Ford movies that I watch. It feels like Jaws. It feels like these Gene Hackman or Nick Nolte or Roy Scheider movies. It feels like these guys that I grew up with in the '80s, these leading men. Like it feels like this guy that I've just been dying to play and that I admired… But I really did think, ‘I'm sure no one will be interested in this, but we'll make it.’ It'll be a really niche small audience of people that are die hard like fans… I also didn't think they would cast me, and then they did.

And then we made it and it was just us in Atlanta with a really small crew and no money and working really hard. In the middle of this process, I had nights where I would just be in a panic attack thinking ‘This is terrible.’ Like, ‘This is a terrible show. I'm terrible in it. And it's just gonna be humiliating.’ [Even when it was about to be] released, Netflix didn't seem to be advertising it. A friend on another show told me there were no ads up around New York City. And I was like, ‘Why are there no ads up?’ And he's like, ‘Netflix is just burying the show. They hate it.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, my big break on Netflix, and they hate it.’ I thought it would just be another failure in a long string of failures for me. And that's why it was all the more satisfying, cause instead of this big hype thing, it felt real grassroots, like people discovered this little show on Netflix and it ballooned into this zeitgeist, which it is now. But I never imagined that that people would love it as much as they do."

David Harbour on watching his #StrangerThings costars like Millie Bobby Brown & Finn Wolfhard blow up.

"It's terrifying and thrilling at the same time… To see the world just fall in love with them to the point where they just want to eat them up is terrifying."

— Kevin Polowy (@djkevlar) December 2, 2022

As for watching his young co-stars like Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard become world famous:

“I imagine it's like an experience of any parent [laughs]. Not that I'm their parent, but it's like terrifying and thrilling at the same time… I have such a protective quality ‘cause I know them as kids and I know them as just little actors who were on set. And then to see the world just fall in love with them to the point where they just want to eat them up is terrifying. So I worry for them. And also I'm thrilled that they are embraced for their talent. But it's a scary thing to watch a young psyche have to deal with the kind of crap that like, even as a 40-year-old man, is difficult to deal with. When I feel protective of them, it's just very tricky.”

On lessons learned from Hellboy, Harbour’s reboot of the series originated with Ron Perlman that bombed at the box office:

“I learned not to f*** with established IP, that's for sure. A beloved and established IP. I mean, I guess that's the biggest lesson learned. I feel like whatever failures or successes that movie was, of which there are many, the movie itself had such a thing going into it that it was like almost impossible. Whereas something like Stranger Things or even Violent Night, it's an original idea. And so people can judge it for whatever it is when it comes out or when they see it, but they don't have going into it so much stuff. And I feel like that to me is what's so difficult about existing IP. It's difficult about Star Wars, it's difficult about these things that are beloved. And the great thing about Stranger Things is that we get to make Indiana Jones, but we just don't call it Indiana Jones. We call it Stranger Things and we call him Hopper or whatever. But he gets to have his moments and people don't get mad at you for calling it Indiana Jones. They just watch it and enjoy it. And that's a tricky thing with existing IP."

Me: What lessons did you learn from Hellboy?

David Harbour: [laughs] That's a good question… I learned DON'T F**K WITH ESTABLISHED IP, that's for sure.

— Kevin Polowy (@djkevlar) December 2, 2022

On how Marvel’s Black Widow (2021) helped him get over Hellboy’s failings:

Black Widow was something that was a different beast. [Red Guardian] is a character not really well known in the comics. You're allowed to mess with him. And [Marvel] really is the Cadillac of all brands in terms of that particular genre. I’ve never worked on anything like a Marvel production. They really are at the top of their game on so many technical levels and on such strong structure. And then they really allow you creative freedom to play. And I've never seen anything like that sort of confidence with their brand and with what they're doing. So yeah, making that movie was an extraordinarily wonderful experience for me.”

On returning to the role in Thunderbolts (2024):

“I just had hopes and occasional desperate Hail Mary emails into the ether of the MCU, with various producers or whatever. But he's a really good character and [Marvel chief Kevin Feige] had said in interviews that was probably not the last you'll see him, things like that. But I didn't know that there'd be an actual [vehicle]. You never know. So I was just really happy when it came around.”

Violent Night is now in theaters.

Watch the trailer:

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