Why ‘Stranger Things’ Star David Harbour Pushed for Hopper’s ‘Reinvention’ in Season 4

TheWrap Emmys Magazine: “As a man, I’ve been sort of compartmentalized sometimes as being a dad figure and my fear is that you’re just completely desexualized or dehumanized,” actor said

This story about David Harbour and “Stranger Things” first appeared in the Comedy & Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

In the latest season of “Stranger Things,” David Harbour goes to an entirely new place, both physically and emotionally, with Hopper, his doughy, small-town sheriff, burdened with a tragic backstory and a knack for stumbling upon supernatural mysteries. In the globetrotting new season, Hopper is stuck in a snowy Russian prison waiting for help that may or may not come from Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman). He has become spiritually richer, more solemn and reflective, but still a man of action, rallying his fellow prisoners to fight back against an otherworldly (but not entirely unfamiliar) foe.

Making this all the more impressive is the fact that his character seemingly died at the end of the previous season of “Stranger Things” (which aired way back in the summer of 2019), the victim of a doomsday device secreted beneath a flashy new mall. “He’s a lot like us in that he always wants to be trying something different,” co-creator/showrunner Matt Duffer said. “And this year it was very different, you couldn’t get more opposite to Season 3, where it was almost a ‘Romancing the Stone’ vibe, to him being isolated in this Soviet-era prison where there’s no comedy. So much of it is in this internalized pain, (which) we wanted to explore with Dave.” Harbor was happy to oblige.

Jill Greenberg for TheWrap

You’ve said that you didn’t want to play the doting dad for another season. Can you talk about that? 

I think they’ve always had an arc for him. I wouldn’t want to take credit for changing the direction of what the Duffers (Matt and Ross) feel about it, but I think that they’re always responsive to what we want to do, and they’re very brave in terms of allowing the characters to grow. As we’d seen Hopper’s growth, both in domesticity and in waistline, we were like, “How much further can he go down this road of being the angry dad yelling at his daughter for kissing a boy?” Something had to turn, and something had to shift. He had to have a reinvention. 

His fake death allowed him that complete reinvention. Then once we had that part mapped out, it was like, Wow, what would be a really fun, exciting re-imagining of the essence of Hopper? It’s a much more real warrior, this real beast, this animal that we’ve always known he was, but we all wanted to see that stripped bare. As a man, I’ve been sort of compartmentalized sometimes as being a dad figure and my fear is that you’re just completely desexualized or dehumanized. It’s like the mom jeans of roles. You just become a foil for a child who has the actual life, and you just are a character in that. I want to still be able to play a man in all his complexity. They allowed me this, and it’s very gratifying to do that.

Did you lobby for the big monologue where Hopper reveals that he is indirectly responsible for his daughter’s death? 

It’s something that the Duffers and I had discussed from day one of the pilot—what’s up with Sarah’s cancer? Because I’ve always been interested in this “Memento” idea of a man chasing himself, as being the ultimate nemesis of himself. I just love that idea. I was like, “Why does he feel so guilty about Sarah’s death? It’s cancer, nothing in his control.” I was like, “Well, let’s make it a tangible thing. Let’s make it physically toxic and poisonous and actually responsible for her death.”

We have this backstory throughout, but I wasn’t sure that we’d ever get a chance to play it. It was just one of these things that we knew I could pay little homages to in various ways with emotion, but it wasn’t something I ever thought I would actually say. Then we had this opportunity, and it was really exciting to read it after they wrote it. It was beautiful, and the great thing about this season is Hopper barely speaks in the first four episodes. It’s basically him breaking his ankles, trying to get out of chains, and then eating peanut butter and curled up in bed or doing pushups in a cell. He doesn’t say anything.

Then he gets back, and he’s at his lowest point, and he just unleashes. It’s almost like a flood of this mess that he’s been keeping inside. I like the randomness of it. There was something about this that didn’t make sense that he was saying it right then, and there was something quite emancipating about,  you’ve done this thing, you got out and then you’re right back to where you started. It was like you’re carrying around this weight, and you just have to rip that out and just let it fall where it falls. It was about the fact that he finally was at his lowest point and had to release his dark secret. Almost like a weight, he had to just shed it.

Are you reinvigorated with the character heading into the final season?

Yeah, should I survive. Again, it’s not that I was sick of Hopper in any way, it’s just that I wanted to find new colors. I very much love his dad struggle. That’s the core of who he is, taking on this surrogate daughter. Even that monologue comes from a fatherly place. I think you’ll see going forward that that storyline is the central storyline that he’s going to have to wrap up. But what I really wanted was to explore what kind of man he needs to be to defeat this evil of the Upside Down. The sci-fi world is a very interesting world, because I consider it like a morality play. People survive or don’t survive sci-fi worlds when they’re well told because of who the person needs to be to survive that world. 

I like the fake death because we can allow him now to be the man that perhaps can either save Hawkins from the Upside Down or be consumed and destroyed by it in his own morality. That progression has always fascinated me, and it does reinvigorate me to say, Oh, so here he is in his stripped down-ness. Who is he going to become going forward now that that’s all been laid bare?

With any luck, Netflix will keep the lights on and provide you guys with another big budget for next year.

They have lost lots of subscribers, but I still think they’re pretty healthy if you look at the numbers.

The product sponsorships alone…

Yes, the Demogorgon Doritos will keep us in business, hopefully.

Read more from the Comedy & Drama Series issue here.


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Photos by Jill Greenberg for TheWrap