Before his breakthrough as the swashbuckling, beer-swilling chief of police Jim Hopper on Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” David Harbour was a character actor who gave difficult men a menacing but recognizably human core. He was a two-faced homewrecker in “Revolutionary Road,” a dirty cop in “The Equalizer” and a venomous kidnapper in “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”
The popularity of “Stranger Things,” and of Chief Hopper, an Indiana Jones-channeling fan favorite, has catapulted Harbour to higher-wattage roles. But not necessarily more wholesome ones — next year, he’ll star as a half-demon in “Hellboy.”
“One of the things I’ve been interested in my whole career is exploring masculinity and what it means to be a man,” Harbour said. “The sensitivity of a man, but also the violence and power that goes along with it.”
In Season 2 of “Stranger Things,” now streaming on Netflix, Hopper is living with the consequences of his newfound sensitivity. Nearly a year after helping rescue the 12-year-old Will Byers from the nightmare dimension known as the Upside Down (and possibly discovering a certain waffle-loving telekinetic girl who may or may not have been marooned there), an emboldened Hopper finds himself drawn deeper into the paranormal and into a will-they-or-won’t-they friendship with Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder).
Harbour, 42, spoke by phone from Sofia, Bulgaria, on a bad-weather break from shooting “Hellboy.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
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Q: What sort of emotional arc can we expect for Chief Hopper this time?
A: The first season was such a classic hero’s journey. What I started to realize with the new one is, once somebody has this heroic moment, this kind of savior moment, the danger then becomes: What are the limits to your heroism? Maybe you start to try to control things that you can’t control, or you start to think that you have powers beyond what you really have. I think that’s where we’re going to find him in Season 2, sort of coming up against that reality.
Q: What’s the dynamic between the kids and the adults on the show? Are the boys coming to you for life advice?
A: (Laughs) Occasionally. And I will say, occasionally it’s super embarrassing. They’re becoming teenagers now — they’re like 14 and 15 — and so of course there are girl issues and body issues. They want to know about girls or a little bit about sex. They’re hormonal teenage boys, and I get it, I was that way, too, but I don’t feel like it’s appropriate that I have those conversations with them. So I offer them little bits of advice and then generally go off and get a cup of coffee and wait until it dies down.
Q: You’re like a cool uncle.
A: Sometimes when they get a little out of hand, I also am the guy who’s able to be on set saying, “All right, come on kids, let’s get down to work.” So in some ways I’m a cool uncle, and in some ways I’m like a nasty physics teacher.
Q: Did you have any initial trepidation about playing a supporting role on a show focused on kids?
A: No, from reading the pilot I knew that Hopper was a great, great character that they would do justice to. One of the things going into Season 2 is there is a father aspect to Hopper, but I certainly didn’t want to become the dad on “Full House,” or whatever, who’s just a dad. Hopper gets to go do very heroic things, and he gets to have this relationship with Joyce — you get to see him as full-fledged human being, and that was really important to me.
Q: You’ve said that you were once told that you were “too fat” to play the Blob. Now you’re playing a shirtless superhero. How hard is it to maintain a healthy body image as a man in Hollywood?
A: The interesting thing about my career is for years I was trying to do that thing of getting in shape and looking cool — I would look at myself in camera angles and think how my chin looked the best and all this stuff. And I really couldn’t get that much work.
Then “Stranger Things” came along, and I had to really reinvest and go back to acting class and say to myself, “OK. I’m going to throw my heart and my soul into this piece.” And part of that was letting go of a lot of my narcissism. In that first scene (in Season 1), where he’s shirtless, I had wanted to get all in shape, and this acting coach was like: “Come on, this guy doesn’t work out. Play the character. Don’t play the five roles in front of the character, just play that actual character.”
And that was where things turned around for me. It was like, “Oh, people want to see real human beings,” and I’ve been cynical about that, and here I have this opportunity. And I really took it.