David Harbour on Changing the Dialogue About Mental Illness With ‘Mad House’ and Hopper’s Fate in ‘Stranger Things’

David Harbour Mad House
Marc Brenner

After losing more than 75 pounds for Season 4 of “Stranger Things,” in which his character Jim Hopper was wasting away in a Russian gulag, David Harbour had one thing on his mind. 

“As soon as we finished my last shirtless scene, I sent my assistant to this great pasta place for lasagna,” Harbour recalls. “It only came in trays, so I gave her a little section and then I just took the whole tray and dove in like a maniac.”  

After battling starvation, Soviet guards and a Demogorgon in the hit Netflix series, Harbour is currently facing some truly scary demons — family. The actor is appearing in Theresa Rebeck’s latest play, “Mad House,” at the Ambassadors Theatre in London, running through Sept. 4. Eight shows a week, Harbour storms and thunders as Michael, a schizophrenic man who is released from a mental institution and thrown into equally harrowing conditions as he moves home to care for his dying father Daniel (Bill Pullman). The already tense situation isn’t helped when his selfish siblings Nedward (Stephen Wight) and Pam (Sinéad Matthews) appear, aggravating the fractures in his already fragile state. It’s a tour-de-force from the Emmy and Tony nominee in a script that manages to be both horrifying and hilarious — sometimes in the same moment.  

It’s also an extremely personal role for Harbour, who has spoken frankly about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 26 after an episode that landed him in an institution. And it was written specifically for him by Rebeck. The two had a mutual admiration, despite never having worked together before. Rebeck recalls seeing him in his Tony-nominated turn in the 2005 revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” before they met.  

“He’s such a stage animal. There’s a kind of vitality that gets released with certain actors that really puts you in the pocket of their mind and soul and intelligence. It’s an extraordinary gift,” she reveals. “I did also track him in TV and film, but he was always beating people up or shooting people in the movies. When he showed up in ‘Stranger Things,’ I remember thinking: ‘Thank God someone has finally figured out something to do with this amazing actor.’” 

Rebeck says they formally met when Harbour came to see Rebeck’s “Bernhardt/Hamlet” on Broadway in 2019 — “I believe I blurted: ‘Oh my God, I’m obsessed with you.’ Luckily he said the same.” And soon talk of collaborating followed. 

With the success of “Stranger Things,” Harbour says he had been approached about returning to the stage, and people were suggesting the “Rolodex of great roles” from Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Shakespeare. Says Harbour, “I realized I would like to do a new play and I would like it to be a woman’s voice. And immediately Theresa popped into my mind.” 

They had a meeting shortly before the pandemic shut down New York. “She told me she had this idea about a horrible patriarch and hospice care she wanted to explore, and I said I had experiences with what society calls mental illness that I wanted to explore,” recalls Harbour. “We came up with a very skeletal idea and both were really excited about it. Then the pandemic hit, and I wasn’t sure we would ever do theater again. But not long after, it was only May or June, I got the first act of a play.”  

Though Harbour says it was very different from the final script, he was immediately taken by those pages. “She really feels things in life, she doesn’t gloss over them,” he notes. “She’s in the world alive and her writing is alive and that, to me, is just beautiful.” By the end of the year, they had done a reading of the full play and immediately had interest from Ambassador Theatre Group in London. Moritz von Stuelpnagel directed the play, and the cast also includes Hanako Footman, Akiya Henry and Charlie Oscar.

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Bill Pullman and David Harbour in “Mad House.” Marc Brenner

Though Harbour talked to Rebeck about his experiences and even shared some of his own writing on the subject, Michael’s story is not his own. “The experiences in the play he talks about are not my actual experiences,” he says. But he can relate to the idea of “being branded crazy because of a certain sensitivity and lucidity and then a certain inability to deal with that sensitivity.” Harbour points out there are moments when Michael seems the sanest person in the family, but also has moments “when he gets overwhelmed and needy, and he has breakdowns and is this screaming guy that needs too much.”  

To that end, he finds it a truthful depiction, which is what he wanted from the start. “People often talk about wanting to open a dialogue about mental illness — it’s usually around some tragedy, unfortunately,” he notes. “But the colors of that dialogue need to be much broader in the sense of everything. We pathologize this idea of normal and in truth, everybody has a lot of different experiences we should try to appreciate. And I think that’s what I want to portray: a real uncompromising, unsentimental picture of what it might mean to be mentally ill.” 

It’s also a workout for the actor, who admits that after the first two-show day, he was exhausted before he found his rhythm — he also utilizes the steam room of a nearby spa to help soothe his voice between shows. “You adapt and you figure it out,” he says of pacing himself. It also helps that his co-stars, like Pullman, keep him on his toes. Though the pair had never worked together prior to “Mad House,” Harbour says he’s “fallen in love.” He adds, “He plays a lot of strait-laced characters, but underneath it, there is a real subversion. He’s always surprising me in exciting ways.”  

The actor says mischievousness is vital on stage, where he admits he worries about playing the same role day in and day out. It was also the reason he was hesitant to sign on to a series prior to “Stranger Things” and why he embraced all the changes — emotionally and physically — Hopper went through over the years. He loved the idea that he would put on weight as he became parent to a teenage Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in Season 3. “He wasn’t popping pills anymore so you see him stuffing himself with chips and salsa instead,” Harbour says with a laugh.   

And then when Season 4 found him in prison, sometimes giving away his food to barter, Harbour was happy to pivot. “I don’t want to play the same notes,” Harbour states. “So I said let’s go for it and have him lose weight and shave his head and do something that is such a dramatic difference from Season 3.” He is aware that many on the internet grieved the loss of Hopper’s heftier frame, to which he says, “I’m sorry for all the fans who lost the dad bod, but I will tell you this: David Harbour will have dad bods in the future, I have no doubt.”  

In fact, the actor will next be seen playing none other than Santa Claus — albeit as an action star — in “Violent Night,” hitting theaters Dec. 2. Coming from producers of “John Wick” and “Nobody,” Harbour says it’s a wild ride in a similar vein with an ass-kicking Santa Claus rescuing a family kidnapped by mercenaries. “When I signed on to do it, I thought, ‘This is either going to be a terrible idea or a really fun movie.’ And I think we’ve come up with a really fun movie.” 

And, of course, Harbour will soon be back to work on the fifth and final season of “Stranger Things,” but he can’t say anything — mostly because he really doesn’t know too many specifics. While fans have been worrying over the fates of their favorites, Harbour says his feelings about Hopper’s mortality have changed over the years. “There were several times I thought he should die,” he admits. “I certainly thought that in the beginning, because he was so destroyed and hell bent on destruction. Then when it seemed like he went in Season 3, I was happy for him.” 

But now, Harbour says, things have changed. “As he’s being resurrected as the man he wants to become, it would almost be nicer to keep him alive. Let’s see what they choose.”  

“Mad House” runs at Ambassadors Theatre in London through Sept. 4. For information and tickets, visit https://www.theambassadorstheatre.co.uk/shows/mad-house.