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Stranger Things' David Harbour on Seducing Jake Gyllenhaal, Fighting with Winona, and 'Hopper Butt'

david harbour interview

It's official: Stranger Things has been renewed. The series that viewers and critics heralded as “the show of the summer” has made a star out of longtime character actor David Harbour, who portrays Sheriff Jim Hopper. Out’s readers may recognize Harbour as Heath Ledger’s competition in Brokeback Mountain. “I’m the third gay cowboy in a two gay cowboy movie,” he jokes.

We caught up with the newly minted leading man, who also stars in the blockbuster Suicide Squad. Here, Harbour talks romantic scenes with Jake Gyllenhaal, pushing Winona Ryder's buttons, and what fans can expect to see in the second season of Stranger Things

Out: Congratulations on the success of Suicide Squad. How does it feel to be in a summer blockbuster that made $135 million —and set a record for an August opening?

David Harbour: Not as cool as being in Stranger Things on Netflix.

Really? Why is that?

Suicide Squad in terms of money and prestige, and maybe cool factor, might be bigger. But the 8-hour story that we get to tell in Stranger Things is moving and magical in a way that I like.

Stranger Things is set in the '80s, which is when you came of age. What was your own experience of that decade?

Well, fashion-wise it was horrible. Haircut-wise it was awful. But in terms of movies it was great. All those Lucas-Spielberg movies —I don’t know if it was because I was younger or if the movies were interested in something different. But I felt like when I went to the movies in the '80s, I was in bliss

Tell me about Brokeback Mountain and the choices you made for your character —Jake Gyllenhaal’s other love interest.

I remember being sent that script and meeting Ang [Lee, the director] and feeling like it was a really beautiful movie that at the end of the day is about love. For my character, I thought about having a secret that could threaten to destroy your world, something that with these guys was so shameful, but so necessary to their reality they couldn’t deny it. It’s almost like grass shooting through a sidewalk —our nature comes through. 

Stranger Bb

David Harbour in character in Stranger Things (left) and Brokeback Mountain.

 

Heath and Jake’s characters enjoy a lengthy courtship before they ever get involved physically, but you have one tiny, brief window of opportunity on a park bench to seduce Jake.

Before that scene happens, there's a scene in the dance where we kind of lock eyes at one point and he goes off and dances with my wife [Anna Faris]. And even just in that moment, you’re right — there is so much that has to be unsaid. I mean, the first thing he talks about is how his wife won’t shut up. These guys are so trapped —and they both sense that in each other. They feel that they can be understood. 

At the time, did you all realize that it was destined to become an LGBT classic love story?

I remember when we were making it that there were a lot of late-night talk shows making jokes about it. Which I wasn’t really keen on. People underestimated it. When I read the script and when we were shooting, I thought that it was very special and that the world would really appreciate it. And I was right. It’s a movie I am very proud of.

In Strangers Things, your characters tries to save a gay kid from a faceless monster who wants to kill him. Does this storyline have any metaphorical significance for you?

I love that interpretation. I’m not gay, but my understanding of it is that being gay, you feel like a freak. You've adopted this idea of queer as a culture. And I definitely understand feeling different, feeling alone, feeling like a nerd, so I have a lot of empathy. And I love the journey of being able to protect someone who feels different and alone and to embrace them and have them be included — to save them and to bring them into the fold is a wonderful thing that a human being can do. 

It seemed like you were supposed to be Winona’s love interest since your characters dated in high school. Why didn’t you two ever hook up?

We started the series and I talked to [creators] the Duffer brothers about that. We were all interested in that, but we didn’t have time for it —we were still searching for the kid. If we do come back for a second season, then I would really like to see that happen only because they’re both such lost, broken people. If they can find love with each other, I think that would be a great thing. 

You admitted that Winona would occasionally get on your nerves. What did she do that was so annoying?

It was not a one-way street. I would get on her nerves too. I'm an annoying person to be around for long periods of times. We both have big hearts and are not afraid to be who we are and say what we feel. It’s ultimately what I came to love in our working relationship —that we could have all these complicated feelings. Basically, being on set with Winona was like being in a relationship. And in a relationship, you fight. So we knew how to push each other’s buttons. And we knew what each other’s limitations were, what each other’s weaknesses were, and that would come out in the work. 

That’s a very diplomatic answer. You also worked with Winona’s ex, Johnny Depp, in Black Mass. Who was your favorite costar: Winona or Johnny?

Johnny is a lovely guy, but I only had one scene with him. And work-wise, Winona and I are practically like an old married couple. So if I have to choose? I’m sorry, Johnny, but I’ve gotta go with Winona. 

Are you aware that viewers were commenting on your rear end?

I know! And there's a big thing about “Hopper Butt.” I’ve never really thought of my butt in general, but I am pleased that people are excited about it. I didn’t work out a lot to get in shape for this guy. I eat doughnuts. I have a real body. And I appreciate the fact that people like that and aren’t disgusted by the fact that I have a belly and love handles. It’s a step forward in our culture that we want to see representations like that on screen as opposed to simply perfect aesthetics. 

Well, you’re bound to become a sex symbol in the bear community.

I’m a bear, huh? That’s nice. I like that. Does that mean I get to hibernate for six months of the year?

Not exactly. There's a trend of actors getting ridiculously ripped for roles, but you clearly decided to flaunt it to embody this hard-drinking cop in small town America. 

To me, acting is about someone’s soul and who they are as a human being. But the problem with film and television is narcissism. We all like to look good in pictures. It was definitely a temptation of mine to try to get in really good shape, but I was like, no, I want to honor this guy.

One final question: Why couldn’t you save Barb, too?

That's the big question and it is Hopper’s greatest regret. Thank you, Internet, for bringing it up every single day of my life.

 

Stranger Things is currently streaming on Netflix.

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