By Oriana Schwindt
Photographed by Justin Bettman

Styling by Alicia Lombardini
Grooming by Melissa Dezarate
Shot on September 2, 2016 in
Brooklyn, NY at the Bonfire Bar

At a good 6-foot-2, with a solid build and 42 years of life behind him, David Harbour doesn’t look like a nerd. But while the Stranger Things star shares the rough roguish charm of his character, Sheriff Jim Hopper, his roots are more akin to those of the four Dungeons & Dragons-playing geeks that make up the heart of Netflix’s summer hit.

“I was most like Will,” Harbour tells TheWrap. “Even that haircut -- I had that same bowl haircut. I was a real kind of geek outcast, nerdy. I liked Dungeons & Dragons. I had this kind of openness and earnestness.”

He enjoyed playing D&D with characters that were akin to Hopper, what he describes as “these broken gladiator figures.” He’s also more comfortable hitting than being hit, something he learned during a six-month stint in Pop Warner football in fifth grade.

“I hit someone for the first time, and I went home and said, ‘I love hitting people,’” he says. “And then the next day I went to practice and got hit, really hard, and I came home and was like, ‘I don't like getting hit.’” Thus ended a possibly promising football career, but Harbour isn't one to dwell on the past: “I’m an actor, not a football player.”

Harbour is a journeyman actor, the kind who labors for years in the New York theater scene, eking out a living with day parts on As the World Turns and various Law and Order’s until all of a sudden he's playing across from Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and getting nominated for a Tony.

“That was when my mom finally stopped encouraging me to become a dog walker,” Harbour says with a laugh. Then came parts in the feature film Quantum of Solace, HBO's The Newsroom, and finally, Stranger Things.

What was it that drew you to the part of Hopper, other than, “I need a job”?
Well, that was a concern. But it was the best pilot script I’d ever read, I think. There’s a delicateness to the writing that’s beautiful. He’s a real tragic figure—he’s got a lot of sadness to him, a lot of anger. A lot of times, with a character like this, you see they’ve lost a child, you see them reveal that depression early on. But what I loved about him was that he’s a funny guy. He’s sarcastic, he doesn’t take life too seriously. And I thought that juxtaposition was very real, and very true to how a human being would deal with a tragedy like that.

Hop’s hat has become almost an iconic thing unto itself.
In the script, Hopper doesn’t wear a hat. I never wear a hat to auditions, but I did to this. I think he’s a guy that hides—he hides who he is, and I wanted them to feel that.

There are a lot of iconic film hats from that period. So I wanted Hopper to have one that was different. So I worked with this guy at Worth & Worth, and we designed this hat called the Open Road, which is a hat that Eisenhower made popular. We thought this hat might be something Hopper’s father had worn, and his grandfather had worn, and it had been passed down from generation to generation. So there are these details, there’s a discoloration where there was a band, it had a band when his father had it.

What else did you add to the character?
A lot of him was already there on the page. One thing I did add was his infidelity, his messing around with younger women. ‘Cause I thought, this is a guy who has lost a child and so intimacy is very difficult for him. I thought that could add some nice color and humanity.

What was your first paid acting gig?
It was almost an internship, but it was this summer thing called Theater Monmouth, up in Maine, and it was fantastic—you did, like, four Shakespeare plays in a summer. They fed us, they housed us, and they gave us $50 a week, which we would promptly spend, at the beginning of each week, at the Cumberland Farms buying 30-packs of Miller Genuine Draft and playing poker with the rest of the $5 that was left over. And after going to college at Dartmouth, I moved to New York and started a theater company with some friends.

Doing plays in New York is no way to make money, it's impossible to live. So, I got a job on As the World Turns as Officer Shanks, this sort of bumbling cop. They were paying like $1,000 a day, and I'd work like four days a month and be like, “Fuck you motherfuckers! I'm gettin' paid!”

And of course you were on just about every Law and Order, as is a rite of passage for all New York actors.
Oh, Law and Order came calling. I got to work with Jerry Orbach! He was amazing. I was really nervous, and he was the coolest, nicest guy—and he didn't have to be, you know, he'd been doing that for a million years. I tell you, if I'm in my sixties, I don't know going to be as nice to some young dayplayer as he was to me. He looked at me and said, "You got this."

What can you tell us about season 2 of Stranger Things?
Apparently there's an episode called “Pollywog,” which is very exciting for me, because I love pollywogs. I know that there’s a lot of story, a lot of twists and turns. We feel like Eleven, or some form of Eleven, is still out there. And so I think Hopper and Eleven have some kind of intense story that surrounds his daughter and him almost taking on sort of a surrogate daughter. And I have been informed there is a very epic punch that occurs this season. Hopper gets to really knock somebody out. I wanted to make sure there was a good punch this season.

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