The Stranger Things breakout opens up (and hops in the tub) on the eve of his first—and certainly not last—stint as a mainstream leading man
You have been on five episodes of Law & Order. Did you ever get to a point where you thought, Really? Another one?
Wait, let me count: I’ve been on two normal Law & Orders, two Criminal Intents and one SVU. I call it the Dick Wolf Subsidy for the Theater Arts in New York City, because it’s the job everyone gets when they’re doing an off-Broadway play and making $270 a week. There’s no way you can pay rent on a Manhattan apartment with that kind of paycheck, yet it’s a prestigious, wonderful job, so you need to do a Law & Order every year to supplement your income. And the funny thing is, big stars who I love recognize me from Law & Order more than anything else. I remember Sarah Silverman grabbing me and being like, “Law & Order!” And even when I showed up to work on Stranger Things, Winona Ryder’s big thing was my silver-thief character from a Criminal Intent episode. So yeah, there was a certain David Harbour cult following in the Hollywood community around my work on Law & Order.
When did you first know you wanted to be an actor?
When I was five years old I played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, and I loved it. I was a big hambone. Then when I got into high school I really wanted to act, but I had no examples of people who did that. I grew up in Westchester, New York, which was a lot of businesspeople, lawyers, doctors—a very upper-middle-class community. There were no examples of a working actor, so I didn’t think it was possible. I went to college and tried to study some other things, but then when I got to New York I realized, right out of college, that I just had to do it. And so I waited tables.
The idea that I lost my mind and then came back and continued to act and to live in New York City revealed in me that I have mental fortitude.
You’ve been very open about the fact that you have bipolar disorder and are neuro-atypical. What does society not understand about being bipolar?
I mean, there’s so much. I would like to bring some light in terms of people not viewing madness as something alien to them. There’s an interesting thing in our culture where we have to brand certain things as other than us because we’re so terrified of them. It’s dangerous when we’re segregating society so clearly into sane people and insane people, and I know that I’ve ridden that line. I have a lot of experiences on one side where I’m in an asylum and being treated like a crazy piece of trash, and then I’ve been in this other world where I’m treated like a big-deal celebrity that people have to run around getting coffee for.
Your parents had you institutionalized when you were 25. How did that change you?
It was a voluntary institutionalization. It was recommended because I was having your garden-variety manic episode that a lot of bipolar people have, which is nonviolent but strange and confusing and disordered. I think the best version of a bipolar person I’ve ever seen done on screen was Claire Danes in the first season of Homeland. She’s just talking and not making much sense, but it’s right on the edge of sense. It was sort of like that. You hit a wall and realize there’s a wall there, and you also realize you have an internal resiliency that’s beyond anything you’ve ever known. The idea that I lost my mind and then came back and continued to act and to live in New York City revealed in me that I have mental fortitude, and it also gave me gratitude for every day that I’m not locked up. Of course I still have stresses, but truly I can breathe easy every day and go, “There is a hell, and I’ve been there, and every day that I’m walking around in New York City, even if people don’t like the movie I’m in, or whatever it is, I’m free.”
You attended Dartmouth College, an institution Newsweek once called one of America’s drunkest colleges. Did the school live up to its party reputation?
Yes. Yes. Yes. I drank all the time in college. I had a real problem with Dartmouth. I wanted to be an actor, but I sort of felt I had to have a fallback plan or something. I did that a lot for my parents. I went to Dartmouth, and I was kind of angry and resentful and I drank a lot. You could definitely drink a lot at Dartmouth. It was cold all the time, so we would spend a lot of time in the basement, just drinking crappy beer. But I take responsibility for my problem. When I got out of Dartmouth I was in my early 20s, and I got sober. I haven’t looked back.
You don’t seem like a former Dartmouth fraternity member. How did that happen?
That’s the conundrum I was dealing with. I grew up in a community that wanted me to be one thing, and I had a soul that didn’t want to be that thing. I felt human beings were different from me, and one way I could help to understand them was through this thing called acting. It was something I felt compelled to do. Had I had my complete druthers, I would have dropped out of high school at 16, moved to New York and auditioned and stuff, but I was in a world of prep schools and money and a certain way of being, and I didn’t have enough fortitude to stand up to that. I think ultimately that’s where the drinking and anger come from. Then you get out and realize over time that you might as well be yourself. I think that’s what has been developing in me—even up to today.
To me, human beings are sexy. If you want to exploit the fact that my body isn’t perfect but you find me sexy—then I’m cool with it.
Let’s talk Stranger Things. What did it feel like to go from being a working actor to being part of a mass cultural phenomenon?
It was super fun, but it was very unexpected. We were just hunkered down making the show, and I was completely neurotic about whether or not I was good in it and whether or not the show was good. I have no gauge anymore about whether people will like something. Then, the weekend it came out was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ve done a lot of work over the years, and usually what happens is two people from my past will text and be like, “Hey, man, you’re great in Rake.” That weekend, hundreds of people I hadn’t spoken to—my phone lit up from all these contacts going, “Stranger Things, Stranger Things, Stranger Things.” And then these BuzzFeed articles came out about “Which Stranger Things character are you?” I was like, “Holy shit, I’ve never been a part of this.” I’m so happy it happened with Stranger Things, because I love it so deeply.
How about those articles on your dating history and your new status as a sex symbol?
It’s a double-edged sword. It’s extremely gratifying even to be acknowledged as sexy when you’re in your 40s, to be acknowledged as good, for people to like what you do. It just makes you feel great. I got into this business to move people, and clearly you’re moving people in positive ways, and that’s a beautiful thing. For about the first three months I was on cloud nine, and then it started to become a little weird. I actually don’t like to go out as much now. The fact that people assume they know you is very strange. It feels like I’m on The Truman Show. Everybody has an impression of me before I even meet them, even at the laundry or the deli, and that’s something I haven’t dealt with most of my life. And in some ways I miss my anonymity; some car will cut you off in the street and you’ll go, “Motherfucker,” and then they’ll be like, “Oh, hey, man! You’re great.” And then you’re like, Shit, I can’t even yell at this guy!
Do you think that as a kid you would have hung out with Mike Wheeler and the boys?
Yeah, because I think they’re exactly like my crew. I was never really part of the popular kids in middle school, but I was not the nerdiest of the nerds either. There was a kind of a middle group that I feel Mike and his group occupy. People ask me sometimes which character on the show I identify with the most, and it’s Noah. People thought I was a bit of a weird kid and overly sensitive, and so one of the reasons it was so fun to play Hopper was that I got to save that kid. In a way, it was like I was saving myself.
Merriam-Webster posted a GIF of you on Twitter as a visual definition of “dad bod.” You’ve been a good sport about it, but does it ever sting a bit?
It does, but I’m into expanding people’s idea of what’s sexy, because I think our culture is almost anorexic in terms of what it views as sexy. To me, human beings are sexy. If you want to exploit the fact that my body isn’t perfect but you find me sexy—if it’s used in that context, and sometimes it is—then I’m cool with it. Whatever gets you to broaden your scope and find your own Hopper in your world—that guy or that girl at the deli who has a beautiful soul but is a little bit fat or whatever—that’s what I want to expand in this world. I’m all for working out and being healthy, but this obsession with perfection, especially physical perfection, is ludicrous, and it’s ultimately a losing battle. I don’t care how beautiful you are, you’re going to hit 60, if you’re lucky, and you’re not going to look so great. You might as well enjoy yourself and other people for more than what they are physically.
What was it like to go from being the “dad bod” champion to working with Ryan Reynolds’s personal trainer to get in shape for Hellboy?
I couldn’t do a lot of training because the thing is all prosthetics. A lot of what I was doing was power and strength training, and it does change your mind-set. When I’m working on a character, my subconscious starts to take over and I start to just do things and make choices like that character. When I play Hopper, it’s a certain way, and then when I played Hellboy it got into this kind of bestial thing. The weight training and all that stuff kind of fueled this hulking horde—this kind of bold mentality that I really liked.
You go above and beyond with your fans when it comes to Twitter: You attended one fan’s senior year photo shoot and officiated at another’s wedding. Will you do anything for your fans?
[Laughs] I won’t do anything, but I got to this place with social media in general where it had become sort of an echo chamber. No good was coming of it, but I had a lot of feelings, so I was like, What can I do that would actually make people feel good and that would put me out there a little bit? I came up with these Twitter challenges. To me, because I’ve been through the gamut with social media, I now feel it’s a bit of a game of double dare where you want me to stand on the table and quack like a chicken or whatever. Anything I can do to provide a little more joy in this weird world we’re living in right now that is simple and pure and just unadulterated fun, I’m down for.
It’s important, even through your depression, to continue to look at things that scare you.
Speaking of Twitter challenges, you got enough retweets for Greenpeace to send you to Antarctica. Do you have hope for humanity’s ability to solve climate change?
The simple answer is no. I think we’re in a really bad place, and I don’t know, with self-centeredness the way it is, that there’s any way out. So yeah, I get depressed. But I think it’s important, even through your depression, to continue to look at things that scare you. It truly is the most terrifying concern of our lifetimes, and it’s the concern that drives all other concerns. If you have a problem with migrant caravans or illegal immigration, that’s climate change: Food shortages and surpluses are happening in different areas and places are getting destroyed, and so people have to move. Most of the political concerns around this world stem from climate change. If we could make the earth a more uniformly palatable place to live, there would be fewer wars over territory, resources and things like that.
But even in the midst of inevitable defeat, you still have to seize the struggle, right? It’s kind of the idea of Albert Camus’s The Plague: We’ve still got to wake up every morning and go to work even if we know we’re not going to stop the plague.
Do you want to have kids one day?
I’m on the fence. To be honest, I don’t want to have a kid if in 15 years the planet is dead and they’re 15 years old. Also, we do have a certain thing in our culture where we deify family. It’s like when anyone has a baby everyone’s like, “Oh my God!” They’re so happy for them. I want to imbue people who choose not to have babies with the same joy, because the greenest thing you can do for the entire planet is not to breed. I’ve done it for 43 years—but you can all call me a hypocrite and not a good environmentalist when I do have a son or daughter five years from now.
A lot of your work evokes the soulful, wounded leading men of the 1970s. Who are your acting heroes?
Certainly Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss. All these guys from those 1970s films, which is where I learned what it was to be a man. When Stranger Things came along and I thought I could do that for another generation, it was so gratifying. I don’t feel we show as much on-screen—or if we do, we give some nod to a character’s damage but don’t actually go into it. Their damage is too unpalatable for commercial entertainment and too indulgent for independent entertainment. It’s hard to find that balance of a damaged hero you can get behind.
In 2017, Stranger Things won a Screen Actors Guild Award and you gave a fiery speech calling out bullies and making the case for empathy. Where did that come from?
It’s funny, because that speech has been interpreted by a thousand different people a thousand different ways. I get death threats from the people who thought it was about Trump supporters. For me, it genuinely was a cultural statement. I thought to myself, What would Hopper do? I’ve been a Hollywood outcast for so many years, but I wanted to give a bit of a cultural critique of the narcissism that we contribute to a culture that makes people feel alone, as opposed to the ultimate, fundamental reason for art, which is to make people feel included. One of the things I’m so proud of about Stranger Things is that, like the “dad bod” thing, people can feel included. They can feel they don’t need a perfect body; they don’t need to be so witty and smart and strong. They don’t sit back in awe of the characters; instead they actually identify with them and then see that those characters can do heroic things. In a way, we were the nerdy kids at the table, so I thought I’d get up there and say, “Let’s do this together. Let’s contribute to a culture that creates empathy and destroys narcissism”—as opposed to getting dressed up and sort of being Kardashian about the whole thing.
Which were more intense, the online comments or the IRL ones?
I think I was on the front page of Reddit or whatever, but there were also neo-Nazi death threats: “We know where you live” and “We got all the guns” and “We’re coming for you, you piece of shit.” A lot of people come up to me and say they love that speech. I’ve never had someone come up to me and say, “That speech you gave was a piece of shit, you dick.”
You talked in that speech about rejecting bullies. Were you bullied at all in school?
Oh yeah, I think probably most of us were. But I don’t think bullying ends when you leave school. People are bullies in all kinds of ways. I have bullying qualities that I hate about myself. So that speech is as much for me as it is for other people. It’s a reminder of things that I want in this world, ideals that I don’t necessarily live up to myself.
If you had achieved your current level of success in your 20s, how do you think you would have handled it?
It would have been awful. I would have been a jerk. I would have been mean to waiters. My narcissism would have been through the roof. I would have felt entitled and deserving. But the great thing about success happening after the age of 40 is you don’t really care. If there is any kind of divinity that has guided my life, it’s the things that have been prevented from happening. I wanted that kind of success in my 20s, and I was prevented from having it, and then I wanted it in my 30s, and it was prevented. Finally, after I turned 35, I remember completely giving up on that dream and thinking I was too old, and then it came to me. Like, okay, I got it—when I don’t care, it comes to me.
You’ve said that you’ve felt broken and alone most of your life. Has success helped?
Yeah. I feel more assured and more confident. Success doesn’t make a dent in the fundamental issues I struggle with, like human relationships, but when I’m embroiled in that brokenness or that alone feeling, I can sort of rely on “Well, at least my apartment’s nice.” At least I have those things to fall back on. But the core issues are a lifelong trek through therapy and self-understanding, and those issues still exist and are just a product of being alive. As human beings we’re these crazy and interesting creatures that have too much consciousness for our own good, these weird fleshy things that walk around and are confused. I’m not apart from that at all.