Harbour Lights Up

David Harbour never thought he had what it takes to be a leading man, but “Stranger Things” has made him a star to more than 60 million people
| By David Savona | From David Harbour, September/October 2020
Harbour Lights Up
Portraits by David Needleman
David Harbour lights up at WS New York in Hudson Yards, Manhattan.

There were plenty who doubted that David Harbour had the makings of a leading man—himself included.

“Being a movie star was almost too big of a dream,” he says, remembering how he looked up at the big screen as a child watching larger-than-life stars take him to different worlds. “Those people all seemed so good looking, I just felt it was an impossible realm. I sort of viewed them with this glow like they were otherworldly. I felt there would never be a place for me in that. I had a lot of self-hatred about the way I looked.”

He’s 45, and while he’s been acting professionally for more than 20 years (starting with plays) it took a long time for him to become a star. The bulk of his film and TV work has been as a character actor—a corrupt cop in The Equalizer with Denzel Washington, the neighbor in Revolutionary Road living next door to Leonardo DiCaprio, the creepy kidnapper who squares off against Liam Neeson in A Walk Among the Tombstones. “I had gotten to a place in Hollywood where I was playing fifth and sixth on the call sheet. Supporting characters. Normally a bad cop,” he says. “It was good—I could make a living and could
support a theater career that allowed me to do more artistic kind of stuff, but I had really given up on the idea that I would be able to tell stories that I really cared about in TV or film.”

He’s sitting comfortably in his bright, well-decorated downtown Manhattan apartment on an August evening, and he has welcomed a virtual visitor into his home, a visitor who has already lit up a cigar. “I’m going to smoke with you too,” he says with enthusiasm, reaching for a fat Montecristo Línea 1935 from Cuba. After the careful application of a wooden match, he is puffing away, a smile growing from behind his thick, dark mustache.

The cigar is the only thing fat in this picture. Harbour is surprisingly lean, far slimmer than he normally appears on-screen. To achieve the look of a character who has been in prison, he shed ample pounds from his six-foot-three frame for season four of his hit show, “Stranger Things,” and he’s been trying to keep off the weight to be ready for when filming resumes. Not that it’s been easy. “My girlfriend was into baking cakes and that was a problem,” he says. “Even though I’m very skinny for me right now I gained 20 pounds on lockdown.”

He has a prominent, powerful jaw, his chin seemingly tailor-made for action roles, and a heavy brow that lends gravitas to his stare. This being the age of Coronavirus, the smoke session is taking place over screens rather than face to face. Harbour’s space (impressive enough to have once made Architectural Digest) is smoker friendly, especially since said girlfriend, English singer Lily Allen, is an ocean away. (In September, just before press time, Harbour and Allen were married in Las Vegas.) “I got an air purifier, I got the window open,” he says, taking a puff of the Monte. “Right now it’s my bachelor pad, so I can do what I want.” 

Doing what he wants is a relatively new luxury for Harbour, afforded by the success of “Stranger Things,” one of the most popular shows ever from Netflix. Millions have gobbled up each episode from the start, and it has grown in popularity every year since its 2016 debut. “ ‘Stranger Things 3’ is breaking Netflix records!” the streaming giant tweeted in celebration on July 8, 2019, four days after the release of the new season, claiming that more than 40 million households had watched the show the first four days it was available, more than any other film or series from the company. By October 2019, the latest update from Netflix, that number had climbed to 64 million. The show is a monster.

Set in a small, fictional town in 1980s Midwest America, “Stranger Things” is centered around a group of nerdy, middle-school friends who play Dungeons & Dragons and deal with the challenges kids entering puberty have always endured. But in this world, the monsters are real, and one of the kids goes missing, caught in the supernatural powers that have infiltrated the once-sleepy world of Hawkins, Indiana. His distraught mother, played by Winona Ryder, reaches out to Harbour’s character, Chief Jim Hopper, for help.

When we meet him, Hopper is a mess, a big, world-weary man in a big hat who swigs beer for breakfast to dull the pain of losing his daughter. The cliché of a grumpy cop who finds his heart  becomes a fascinating character you can’t help but love in Harbour’s able hands. He’s one part Indiana Jones, a little Chief Brody from Jaws and a lot of cool uncle—the kind of cool uncle who doesn’t hesitate to punch people in the mouth, if they really need it. 

“Ah, he’s the best. I just love him so much,” says Harbour. “He really is that trope of this broken down, tough detective, and underneath this big, bear exterior he has this soft, gooey center. I think that trope can be so cliché and it’s hard to get that right.”

Viewers have watched Harbour get it right for three seasons, his character evolving through the episodes. (Spoilers follow.) He rescues and adopts a lost, young girl known as Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown, a powerful telekinetic who escaped years of scientific clinical experimentation with no experience in the outside world. As she discovers her new life, Harbour becomes her protective dad, bellowing “Leave the door open three inches!” when he spies her kissing a boy in her room. 

Being a daddy to a teenager is hard; it’s even harder when that teen can move objects with her mind.

Season three ended with Harbour’s character sacrificing himself to save his friends and his town. He disappears in an explosion and is mourned for dead. But a teaser for the fourth season reveals that Hopper is alive, if not well, somehow transported to a gulag in the Soviet Union (remember, the show is set in the 1980s) and looking in dire need of a sandwich. Shooting was interrupted, so there’s no date for the new season, which, in a normal world, would have been out before Halloween.

Delays are also the name of the game for Harbour’s latest film Black Widow, which has him stepping into the spandex world of the Marvel Universe for the first time. He plays Red Guardian, a Soviet superhero who teams up with Scarlett Johansson’s titular character. Originally slated for a May 1 release, the date was pushed to November 6, then moved again to May 2021.

Born in White Plains and raised in nearby Armonk, New York, Harbour was a little like the youngsters in the show in which he stars. “I was the nerdy kid who was made fun of. I was a bit more thoughtful than my friends. A bit of a late bloomer. Kind of bookish, into D&D.” When he was five, he appeared in his first play, and he quickly fell in love with theater, going into the city to see noted actors like Tony Randall perform on stage. Harbour was a tall kid, and played soccer as a goalie until he was forced to choose between acting or sports. “I went for the plays,” he says. 

He describes his childhood as happy, with its share of bumps. “It was very normal, suburban, happy childhood. I think I certainly am a complex character though, and I think that I had some issues with the suburban value system. I acted out in various ways.” Drinking was one way of coping, a habit he gave up more than 20 years ago. “The other route was artistic expression,” he says. “On the surface it’s happy, normal, but I definitely was drawn to expression in art, which is not natural.” He rubs his chin, looking off as he reflects. “I think if you grow up totally happy and normal I don’t know if you really want to get up on stage in front of a thousand people and express yourself. I feel like that’s an abnormal response, and it comes from some trauma, to a certain degree.”

When he was 26, he was diagnosed as bipolar, and checked into an institution. He’s in the process of writing a book about how he overcame those challenges. “When you go through an overwhelming experience, you can be met with an institution that tells you what you’re feeling is wrong and bad and needs to be
medicated,” he says. “As I’ve grown older, I think there’s a lot of different people in the world that think in different ways. I don’t want kids to go through that experience that I went through.”

He’s an Ivy Leaguer who graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in drama in 1997, and two years out was acting professionally on stage. His role in the play The Rainmaker earned him a Tony nomination. Almost fittingly, he tore his Achilles tendon while playing Achilles in a 2016 performance at Shakespeare in the Park. 

Acting led him to cigar smoking. He got into cigars about 13 years ago, while filming the Bond film Quantum of Solace. “We were in Panama shooting that one particular scene,” which called for a cigar—so boxes and boxes of Cubans were procured, leaving plenty of extras. “We all got a bunch of boxes of them,” he says. “It’s kind of hard when you fall in love with cigars on a $200 million James Bond movie and you go back to your studio apartment in New York.” 

The cigar he’s smoking during the interview isn’t bothering anyone, but he has taken grief for his puffing. He was doing a play in Los Angeles during his early cigar days and got into the practice of smoking cigars during intermission. The problem? A kissing scene came in the following act. “My costar hated me for this,” he says laughing. “I would do mints, I would brush my teeth—she was so mad at me, but God I loved that.” He puffs. “I love them.”

His normal go-tos are robustos, either Partagás Serie D No. 4s or Romeo y Julieta Short Churchills. He also smokes Padróns, and has a particular affinity for the Family Series 50 Years maduros. His desert island smoke, budget be damned? “The Behike is like a Cadillac—I’ve only had a handful of those.” 

Back in 2015, when he was approached by Netflix, Harbour was feeling like he was running out of chances. His NBC show “State of Affairs” had just been canceled, so he threw his all into “Stranger Things.” “It felt like a last at bat for me, and I was like if I’m going to do this I’m really going to swing for the fences and put my whole soul into this thing.” Harbour spent half a year in Atlanta filming, a time he has called “the worst six months of my life.” The method-acting discipline he follows had Harbour descending into the sad, intensely flawed Hopper character. 

“There is a real, lonely darkness to him,” he says. “He’s really dead inside. He’s in this place of deep regret and then he has to confront his worst fear. I just went into this dark world. I’d shoot, just go back home, I just lived in this sort of dark place. It took me like a solid week to let it go.”

The critics like his work in the show. In 2017 he and the “Stranger Things” cast won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series. Harbour won the Critics’ Choice Award for Supporting Actor in a Drama in 2018, and was nominated for an Emmy the same year, only to lose to Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”). Christy Lemire of RogerEbert.com has called him “the endlessly intriguing and appealing David Harbour.” Critic Jeremy Egner, writing in The New York Times, said: “The show [“Stranger Things”] simply doesn’t work without Mr. Harbour’s and Winona Ryder’s deeply felt performances.”

Far from predicting the hit “Stranger Things” would become, Harbour expected it to bomb. “We thought it was going to tank—there were no ads—I thought Netflix was trying to bury this thing.” The result was immediate. He noticed more and more people waiting after the play he was doing in Central Park,
hoping for an autograph. Then his phone blew up. “My phone started lighting up with texts from drivers I’d had three years ago, who had my number. 

“ ‘Hey this is Bob, your driver from eight years ago,’ ” he says, mimicking an old Uber driver. “Stranger Things” is awesome!’ I’m an actor who was known—but not like this. This was night and day. People were moved by the show.”

Far more modest and reserved than his bombastic Chief
Hopper character, Harbour is quick to credit others for the fame, tipping his hat to the show’s creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, better known as the Duffer Brothers. “I think it’s pure storytelling gold,” he says. “Their touch is so special. They know how to craft a story, they know how to keep you watching. It has a lot of heart to it.” He jokes about how even critics seem to watch plenty of the show. “Even when we get negative reviews from anybody, they’re like, ‘Well, I sat down and watched all nine hours like that,’ ” he says, snapping his fingers, “ ‘but it’s terrible.’ ” 

Negative reviews for the show are certainly the outliers—“Stranger Things” boasts an enviable 93 percent rating on the ratings aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.

“In my career, this is the one—it’s no wonder that it launched me in a way,” he says. “This is a special key and lock that I’ve never gotten to do, it’s really, really special.” 

And now he has his role as a Marvel superhero. Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) is an Avenger, and Harbour’s character Red Guardian is the Russian version of Captain America, a super soldier who is a father figure to Johansson’s conflicted hero. (Marvel, knowing his love of cigars, gave Harbour a humidor bearing the symbol of the character when the movie wrapped.) Harbour is excited about his role, but feared delays from the pandemic could relegate it to the studio’s Disney+ channel. “It’s meant to be seen on the big screen,” he says. But he shrugs, knowing this is out of his hands. “We are under the thumb of something much larger than any of us. There’s a little bug out there with all these spikes on it that says this isn’t going to happen. Good luck talking to that. It doesn’t matter who you are, we’re all struggling with this, we just all got locked down. So, not being able to promote and release a movie does become a luxury problem in that sense. I was very happy to have enough money to pay my rent, to have my girlfriend and her daughters to have a family with me at that time, to not be alone. So in that way, I did feel very lucky.”

One decision he made during the time of quarantine made him feel extra lucky. “It was right before the pandemic, I was supposed to do ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ for this charity War Child, which I love, and I was really excited to do it.” Then people started to get sick, and the world began looking increasingly unsafe. He questioned whether he should fly. The producers lined up a private flight. “Finally they said, ‘OK, we have a private plane for you’…and there’s only one other guy on the plane, and it was Andy Cohen,” the host of several shows on Bravo. “We decided not to go, and the week after, he revealed he had Coronavirus. I was like thank God I didn’t get on that plane!”

He takes a puff of the cigar. “It was a weird world, where things day to day changed. It was amazing to see something unfold so quickly.” He’s lived in the city for more than 20 years. His last evening in a city under quarantine before flying to London to be with Allen and her children was surreal. “Broadway and Houston, there was not a single car, not a single human being... It felt like some zombie apocalypse movie.”

On another day in the big city, one slowly emerging from the lockdown, Harbour is wrapping up his photoshoot at WS New York, the tony club and restaurant in New York’s Hudson Yards area. (The operation is affiliated with Wine Spectator, which, like Cigar Aficionado, is owned by M. Shanken Communications Inc.) Harbour moves outside with the photographer and crew for some open-air shots, holding a cigar. He takes out his pack of wooden matches (his preferred method of lighting, even when fighting a breeze) and ignites a Romeo y Julieta Churchill.

The traffic is slow on this summer Friday, and Harbour and the photographer move into the middle of 11th Avenue, which would normally be bustling with cars and trucks. The city is on pause, just like so many projects, so many dreams, so many aspects of life in this most confusing of years.

Harbour takes a big puff of his Romeo, jams it in his jaws, then spreads his arms wide, that big wingspan that once defended soccer goals but was destined for the stage. He’s happy, thrilled that he’s finally getting the roles that allow him to speak his mind, his craft boiled down to one simple premise.

“Our true function as artists,” he explains, “is to make us all feel less alone.

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