By Dave Itzkoff
It’s never a particularly good time to be a loser, but it’s an excellent time to be David Harbour, who so fully embodies misguided characters in his latest films.
Harbor, who is perhaps best known as the reluctantly heroic Police Chief Jim Hopper on Netflix’s Stranger Things, is currently starring in Black Widow, the Marvel film directed by Cate Shortland that premiered this weekend. In it, he plays Alexei, a Russian super soldier who used to lead an exciting life as the costumed champion Red Guardian. Now incarcerated in a wintry prison where he has become haggard and overweight, all he can do is reminisce about the good old days that may not have happened the way he remembers them. That is, until his rescue by Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), the spies he raised as his own daughters.
Alexei is the latest in a series of strangely compelling deadbeats for David Harbour. He also appears in Steven Soderbergh’s new HBO Max thriller, No Sudden Move, as Matt Wertz, a milquetoast accountant involved in a criminal enterprise far out of his league.
And these are exactly the kind of characters Harbor likes to play. As he explained in an interview on Thursday, “Winners are awesome, and we like them, rah-rah. But for me, the beauty of man is in the flesh and the failures. We are all weak.”
Having performed over the years in Broadway productions of Glengarry Glen Ross and The Coast of Utopia, as well as films such as Brokeback Mountain and Revolutionary Road, Harbor called his current renaissance “another step in a very even, slow trajectory, which I like it.”
Now 46 years old and married to pop singer Lily Allen, Harbor said he was happier having found success at this stage of his life. If he’d had this much attention as a younger man, Harbor said, “Oh, god, that would be miserable. It took me so long to cultivate an artistic voice. If people judged me this early on whether they liked what I was doing, I wouldn’t survive.”
Speaking via video from New Orleans, Harbor went on to talk about the making of Black Widow and No Sudden Move, his unusual influences, and the comfort of working with Soderbergh during a pandemic. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: Is there a story behind how you were cast in Black Widow?
A: It’s a strange pedestrian area. I have friends who tested for Guardians of the Galaxy who talked about top secret hideout and getting laces (dialogue pages) and then burning them. My agent said Cate Shortland wants to meet you for a movie she’s doing. He didn’t even know what it was about. I sat down with her and she said, “I’m doing this ‘Black Widow’ movie for Marvel with Scarlett Johansson.” And then she went on to pitch my character as this guy who is big and violent with tattoos and gold teeth and also wants you to like his jokes. She presented me with these incredible contradictions, and we talked about all these family dramas with desperate people, movies like The Savages and Ricky Gervais on The Office. And I was like, hell, yes on so many levels.
Q: Take a closer look at the Ricky Gervais connection.
A: It’s just that he’s so desperately insecure, and that insecurity manifests itself in boastfulness. I like this kind of people. He has such deep regret and emotional guilt now, but he can’t feel any of those things. So all he does is subsist on his sociopathic charm and his need for validation. Someone like Hopper (in Stranger Things) has guilt, but it’s so internal, while being loud in every way. Stinky and sweaty and big and hairy. So cringey, as the kids say.
Q: Is it flattering to hear from a director that she sees you as this person?
A: I have such a strange ego. I always feel flattered, and then years later I look back and think, What were you flattered by? I am an outsider myself. Growing up, I certainly was. And I’ve always wanted to act because I wanted people to feel less alone.
Even when I played villains, people would say, “There was a way you humanized the experience so we understood someone, instead of judging them.” So that’s what flatters me – you’re using me as an artist to understand this deeply troubled and confusing individual that a less capable person would make fun of. I might do both. But I hope I can give you some understanding for him.
Q: Have you ever worked with Johansson, Pugh or Rachel Weisz, who play the other members of your makeshift family?
A: I had never even met them. But then we had about two weeks of rehearsals, which is rare in a movie of this size, and we really addressed that family dynamic from the get-go. I felt like Rachel was the woman I was supposed to be with – not insulting Lily Allen, because she’s the real person I was supposed to be with – but it felt like Melina and Red Guardian had something beautiful. Scarlett felt like the oldest child; I started to see her as rigid in a way, and I started to make fun of her rigidity. And Florence really felt like the baby of the family; I just wanted to pamper her and make her laugh.
Q: What did you film first: the prologue scenes where your character is neat and groomed, or the main scenes where he went to seed?
A: I had grown the beard and hair for Stranger Things, and I thought, “Let’s use the weight.” So I started eating even more. I got to 280 pounds, and I loved it. I said to the first AD (assistant director), “Listen, we need to record the flashback stuff at the end so that by the time we shoot the flashback, I’ll lose the weight and I’ll be skinny.” And he said, “You’ll never be thin.” (laughs) I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do that, man.” And I lost about 60 pounds from the shooting. The first thing we shot was in prison, so that belly coming at you, that’s all real belly. And when we fired, I started to lose weight. I was just really hungry during the shoot.
Q: You are a newly married man – how did all this physical transformation go at home?
A: (Dry) It’s a true testament to my undeniable charisma when I say my wife met me at 280 pounds with this beard and hair. We went on a date at the Wolseley (restaurant) in London, and she really fell for me at my worst, physically and hair-wise. So as it progressed, I started to lose weight and exercise. And frankly, she has mixed feelings about that. What a good place to be in a relationship. It’s really good to start the relationship from that part, as opposed to the young handsome buck and watching yourself degenerate over the years.
Q: Were you able to do many of your own stunts in the movie?
A: They really want you to do it. They are very encouraging. But I’m the anti-Tom Cruise when it comes to this sort of thing. I don’t want to fly the helicopter. I want Alexei to be a production of eight different people. I am the face. I’m very happy to put the stunt people in it. But I do my own arm wrestling. I wouldn’t let anyone else arm wrestle for me.
Question: Your most famous characters are now men who, beneath their outward shabbiness, possess at least the potential to redeem themselves. How did this become your particular turf?
A: That’s what I love about Alexei and what I love about Hopper. It comes from my view of Walter Matthau. In The Taking of Pelham One Two Three you have this goofy protagonist and pit him against Robert Shaw, who is the naughtiest Brit in the world. You think he will never take this man. But there’s something about his American heart that we want to love, and I love to embody that. Once Hopper spun around, it was like waving at the gates. Give him the father body and let him smoke cigarettes, let him be a total mess.
Q: Just a few years ago you played a lot of intimidating powerhouses and downright villains. How did you get out of that?
A: It was very interesting to be seen as a bad guy. There were heavyweights, but then I was also portrayed as real, dangerous psychopaths. There’s something about the psychopath’s mental freedom that I can embrace in a way. It really was (casting director) Carmen Cuba on Stranger Things who said, “I know this guy has been the bad guy and he’s been fifth and sixth on the call-up lists for a long time, but I think he’s the Harrison Ford.” No one had seen that before. I always blamed it on the jawline or forehead, whatever it was. It really takes a refined eye, no matter if he has a double chin. His heart is there.
Q: How did you get your role in No Sudden Move?
A: It was shut down during COVID, so they remodeled it and put that movie back together. A few people couldn’t do it, so a few replaced them, and I was one of them. Steven Soderbergh’s process is very simple: he sent me the script. Would you like to do this? Yes a lot. And then I met him on the first day.
Q: Judging by the screenplay, what did you read about the character?
A: Matt lives in a prison of his own making. Matt’s tragedy is that he can’t be who he is, and he’s been living with this lie for a long time. There’s a carrot dangling in front of him, and as one of the characters in the movie says, he had the brass ring and he just let it pass. That is the true tragedy of Matt Wertz. There is some excitement that he can finally live a life, after so much struggle. And he disappoints us. (laughs)
Q: Was this the first movie you made during the pandemic?
A: That was my first pandemic shoot. Stranger Things had returned for season 4 in September and they didn’t need me until January. And I was shocked. I love my wife and kids, but I also have to get a job because I’m going crazy here trying to homeschool them. This job came to me, and I took it. We were in Detroit for 2 1/2, three months, secluded in a hotel. But luckily it is Soderbergh. He did Contagion. So all the CDC guys he worked with were there on set. We were talking about the vaccines. I’d go to Soderbergh and say, “When is this over?” And he’d say, “Oh, sometime early next year there will be vaccines.” I was like, “Which one?” He says, “Pfizer does a really good job – two shots.” It was incredible. You make this film and you discover what is really happening at the CDC.
Q: What can you say about the new season of Stranger Things?
A: Uh. I want to tell you something. I have my prepackaged answer, which is true, it’s been a super exciting season. It’s gone to a whole different place. It started in season 1 with this small-town police chief, and now it’s become a sprawling case with a Russian prison and a monster.
The brothers (series creators Matt and Ross Duffer) love video games, manga and anime, and we’re definitely capitalizing on that this season. We talked about The Great Escape and Alien 3 as influences. In terms of Hopper, you get to see a lot of backstories that you haven’t seen before, it’s just alluded to. Unlike this dad he’s become, who eats chips and salsa and yells at his teenage daughter, you’ll discover a little more of the warrior he was.
Q: Was there anything you could take from that experience to Stranger Things now that you’ve made a mega budget Marvel movie?
A: I’m doing a lot more stunts than ever this season. And I – if I do say so myself – did some pretty impressive things. And that really came from being humiliated on the set of Black Widow, unable to do those things. There is an ego in me that is growing. Hopefully, by the time I’m 55, I’ll also be hanging out of a helicopter and making my own version of Mission: Impossible.