When the cast of “Stranger Things” won best ensemble in a drama at last year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, David Harbour — who plays Chief Jim Hopper on the Netflix series — stepped up to the mic and delivered an impassioned acceptance speech that seized the political moment. “When we are lost amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will, as per Chief Jim Hopper, punch people in the face when they seek to destroy the meek and the disenfranchised and the marginalized,” he said.
Nearly a year later, he may well have the opportunity to sound off again, given his nominations as supporting actor at both the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards. The cast is also in contention again in the best ensemble race.
Now back in New York having recently wrapped production on “Hellboy” in Bulgaria (“It was hard,” he jokes, “I’m 40 years old, and I’m running around punching giants”), Harbour talks with Variety about his plans for another moment at the mic, should he win, as well as getting back in “dad bod” shape and that dancing Hopper GIF that’s gone viral.
Congrats on the nominations. What does it mean to you?
I think it’s super nice, but it’s not why I do it. I’m so happy that I get to touch people around the world, that’s the most satisfying aspect of it. I have people very different from me coming up to me saying they were so moved. That’s why I do it. But in terms of icing on the cake, and recognition from your peers, it’s lovely. And I really do love making a speech. If I win, I have some fun speeches that I’m excited about.
What do you have in mind?
You’ll have to see! It’s just a fun platform. A lot of [last year’s speech] was about being an artist, what it means to be an artist in our society. I think that I want to be more personal about how I feel we can have an influence in the way culture is shaped in America — what I feel “Stranger Things” has done for that, and where I feel like I want to go as an artist. It’s fun to think about those concepts and ideas. So we’ll see if I get to say them or not.
The second season was as warmly received as the first, but you must have felt a lot of pressure going into it.
We all felt a lot of pressure going in, at least I certainly did. You want it to be better. I’m not often proud of the work that I do, but I was so proud of Season 1 that I was almost like, ‘oh s—‘ going into this season. How are we going to top that? There are horror stories like “True Detective.” The risks that the Duffers took, they had the potential for that sort of thing. This could be really bad. But I think we all hunkered down and we have such a good dynamic, it’s so creative that environment. They wrote some good scripts. Every scene and every day, we just tried to make it sing. I feel like we achieved it. Now going into Season 3, we’re getting more comfortable. We’re getting better. And I’ve never felt that. The tapestry just seems so broad. A lot of people tell me when you’re on a show for a while, you get bored with it. and I don’t foresee that with this. The tapestry just seems to get larger and more creative. So I’m excited to see where we go next year.
Any hints you can reveal?
I have absolutely no idea, and also I’m not allowed to talk to you about anything. Because I’m always the person that gets in trouble. But they haven’t told me anything. I think I’ll be in it though, that’s all I know.
What do you want to see happen?
I’ve been pretty vocal about how I love the dynamic between Joyce and Hopper, which I don’t feel like we got a lot of time to explore in Season 2. I just love that dynamic of these two lost people. I equate it to Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown” or Indiana Jones and Marion in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” These great, throwback, they hate each other but love each other kind of tropes. It’s done so sophisticatedly by the Duffers, and Winona is really game for it, too. We love playing scenes with each other. I would love more stuff with her. That’s a feasible one — and then there’s stuff that I don’t think is feasible, but I do think the internet knows my love for Joe Keery. I would love to see a Hopper and Steve get-together, but I seriously doubt that’s going to happen. I’d love to work with Gaten. I want to get into the backstory of Hopper more. When Eleven goes into the basement, she sees a bunch of boxes, one of which says “Hawkins Lab.” “Dad.” “Vietnam.” “New York.” There’s a lot of story we can get into around Hopper’s time as a cop in New York, Hopper’s time in Vietnam. I would love to see more of that, but we have a ton of great characters, so I don’t know how much they’ll be able to do.
The Duffers have been pretty good, though, about planting clues. The Internet has been speculating about that stairwell.
(Laughs.) I’m not supposed to comment on that. I think the Duffers have a plan. There’s a lot of things coming, but I don’t know too much about that.
What about Sara’s backstory, and that blue hairband?
There’s a lot of timeline stuff to explain with Sara as well. Sara dies theoretically five years before our story. In terms of the timeline, we say in the first season that I moved back to Hawkins after that experience. And we have me calling my ex-wife, who is remarried and has a kid. There’s a lot of rich material there, and with secrets around Sara and that whole event, which I hope we’ll get into in future seasons. Maybe not in the way you think. But there is a lot more complexity to Hopper’s relationship to Sara’s death. I would love to see them go further into that.
You’ve said we won’t see Season 3 until 2019. Can you confirm that?
I’m not the authority on any of this. But if you use logic, our first season came out July 15. Our second season came out October 27. Theoretically, if we keep on the same timeline, what’s our next release date? I guess it would be January or February 2019. But I don’t know. I would love for it to be as soon as possible. We just want to make them good, and good takes time. It all goes into shaping a really beautiful product, and that’s the most important thing.
You had to get into shape for “Hellboy,” but will you be getting your famous “dad bod” back?
I’ve already started the donut training. Six donuts a day! We’ll get there, folks.
Did you ever imagine Hopper would become such a sex symbol?
In this business, certainly it’s a lot crazier for women than it is for men, but there’s such a thing where there’s a lot of judgment on the way you look, and on your body. The fact is for years I had been trapped in a certain narcissism and a desire to have a certain body and look sexy. The fact that I got famous and become a sex symbol around my normal frumpy love-handled self is so gratifying. And dare I say culturally gratifying as well. What makes someone sexy in my mind is who they are. It’s not necessarily how they look. If you have a dad bod, if you wear it well, and still shake your hips pretty good, I feel like you too can be a sex symbol! I think that’s what we should venerate as sexy. Not people who eat organic chicken all day and spend nine hours at the gym. That’s not a society that I really care about.
Yes, we’ve seen you shake those hips! That Hopper dancing GIF has gone viral.
I thought when we shot that scene, I thought Jim Croce would have a huge resurgence. All the kids are going to be reintroduced to Jim Croce, who I f—ing love. But the f—ing silly little dance that I do? I thought that was going to be overlooked. But unfortunately Jim Croce has not had the tremendous resurgence that I wanted him to, but my dance GIF has become a huge thing. It’s as funny to me as it is to anyone else. Let’s all enjoy him dancing!
Was that scripted or improvised in the moment?
That was ad-libbed. [Director] Shawn [Levy] and I have different memories of this. I chose the song, and I remember him saying put on the music. But I said, ‘Shawn, I want to dance. I know it’s going to be weird, but I want to do it.” I think one of the reasons why it works is because Hopper is such a serious, sensitive, dark dude. He’s not normally a dancer. That’s what I found compelling about it. So on the day it was us playing around. They said, “We don’t even know if we’ll use it, we’ll probably cut away.” And then when they were in the editing room, it became this thing.
You’ve been an actor for a long time. How has this success changed the scripts that have come your way?
The one really gratifying thing is that it has cast me in this leading man category, which I like. Which means I’ll have to get more say in crafting the stories that I want to tell. The other thing is, people send you scripts that are a lot like Hopper, but I’m interesting in stretching myself. I’m developing some stuff with people that are very different from Hopper. I’m interested in exploring that now. I want to grow as an artist. I want to bring into the world all kinds of different things. The next thing I do will hopefully be wildly different from Hopper.
Joe Keery said he’d shave his head if you win. Will you hold him to it?
No, I’m not allowing Joe to shave his head! My power as David Harbour lies in Joe Keery’s hair. So I would never allow him to shave his head. That is not happening, Internet! Do not worry. I would never do that to you, I promise.