DA delighted Harbor denies he became British. And yet… the evidence is piling up. First the stranger things star begins our interview with a cup of tea. He’s also married to London’s own Lily Allen. And now he’ll spend his summer hitting the boards of the West End. “I am so Not British,” he tells me, before saying in an exaggerated, hoarse voice, “I talk real cowboy in the house.”
If he talks to me over Zoom from his home in Brooklyn, he’ll only relent on one thing. “The only thing I’m going to say about your island, which I love more than anything in America, is” – and he says it as if it were a new expression he’s trying out – “Sunday roast meat Idea. We have something in America called Thanksgiving. You have it everyone Sunday. And I was blown away. Lily made a roast early when we were together and I was like, ‘What the hell*** is this?’ She says: “This is a roast”. I was like, ‘This is Thanksgiving!?’”
Am I a little sad that we can’t claim him as one of ours? Maybe, but Britain gets him for the summer at least. Also, long-term adoption would probably never work. Harbor is consistently his own type: emphatic and unreserved in conversation. When he’s serious about something, he sits forward, his face close to the camera; When he laughs, he leans away and throws his head back with a roar. Narrative has already formed around the idea of him as an “overnight hit” in his 40s, a late bloomer who found big hits as Police Chief Jim Hopper on Netflix stranger things. The world has grown fond of the character, this broken, lonely curmudgeon with a deceptively sweet soul. But talk to Harbour, and as pleased as he may be about the turn of events in life, he would define “success” a little differently. Blockbusters seem to be his business – he’s been in Bond and Black widow — but really, he’s an old-school thesp. His early career was steeped in Shakespeare and Stoppard, and he won an early theatrical role in Revolutionary Street after Sam Mendes saw his Tony-nominated performance Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Now he returns to the stage for Theresa Rebeck’s crazy house, plays a role written especially for him. The couple had once talked at the theater. Harbor liked Rebeck’s writing style; he was amused by her compliments on his acting. She had told him, “I really like it when you’re loud. You’re such a big guy, when you scream it upsets me so much.” He wanted to use his newfound success to amplify certain voices, “to have control of the stories I want to tell” — so he pleaded Rebeck to write a play for him.
“I’ve had some issues with, you know, insanity — or what society calls ‘mental illness,'” Harbor tells me. (He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 26 and spent time in a psychiatric facility.) “So I told her stories about my situation, she told me stories about hers, and she went and wrote this beautiful piece about it a kid who’s taking care of his dying father, and that kid was in a mental institution and the rest of the family doesn’t really trust him.” Harbor plays the son and Bill Pullman plays the father.
crazy house calls for “a solid two hours 45 minutes of relentless words, experience, emotion, behavior.” The work is intense. But – serious, sitting forward – tells Harbor to be here. “I feel liberated. I feel my mind is light. That’s what I was born for,” he says softly. “For example, I really wasn’t born a movie and TV guy. I’m a theater animal. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid and I really kind of come alive on stage, my whole body. It’s one of the few places where I feel like I can really live.”
Oddly enough, if Harbor were really British – if someone said that to me with a British accent – I’d think they’re just a luvvie. But I buy it from Harbour. For him, theater is like therapy, a place where he can follow the impulses that he had to learn to moderate in real life. “The idea that you can allow yourself that freedom is something that I think mostly crazy people have. The psychotic brain is very similar to the reptilian brain and only responds to impulses. But it’s also something that as a theater person, or as an actor in general, because I can hide behind a mask, I’m happy to… throw it all out,” he explains.
It’s been seven years since Harbor took the stage. A lot has changed for him. At the time, he was single and didn’t take care of himself. He made $250 (£200) a week — not a living wage for New York — and kept his overheads so low he didn’t even have a cell phone. He did it because the work was important to him. “I think even if I couldn’t make money or advance in this industry, I would still do community theater. It was always about pure expression for me,” he says. “I’ve never really cared about success. I was more concerned with being great. I think the two are different.” He describes friends who live in the East Village and do Off-Broadway theater as “great”. “They are not economically successful in a way. But they are still among my favorite actors in the world.”
hmm No interest in money or success, meticulous commitment to community theater. Not what you would expect from a guy who has been in numerous superhero movies. What does he think of the idea of Marvel ruining cinema? He leans back; out comes the booming laughter. “I don’t see it as anything other than entertaining, funny stuff,” he says. Nevertheless, he wishes that there would be “a wider scope” in the film world. “When I grew up Goodfellas came out in theaters, and it was like… this Captain America his day. We all rushed out to see it. And I don’t know if these films can really still exist in this climate,” he says. That Marvel has managed to become such a dominant brand, he says, is “a smaller piece in a much larger cultural puzzle.”
His role as moustached, naughty CIA guy Gregg Beam in the 2008 Bond film Quantum of consolationShe “now feels like a random thing that happened.” Harbor has two bets on who the next Bond will be: himself. Or Lily Allen. He saw no time to die and admired the way the character, normally trapped in time, was able to develop. “The problem with James Bond is that he’s always going to be, I don’t know, 35 and kinda sexy. So what do you do with James Bond when you start, you know, you’re human. So I like that they showed him the respect. Aside from Sean Connery, he became the quintessential Bond for our generation and it was quite interesting to give him the ‘let’s just kill him’ respect.”
It was an example of a brand taking a risk and throwing a hand grenade into fans’ expectations of more than half a century. It’s a tricky balance, something Harbor is all too aware of when the stranger things Machine starts up again. It’s “stressful,” he says, laughing. The fourth season is now in the world. When they started this funky, neon-colored show about misfits, he didn’t think anyone would see it. Now it has a worldwide fan base. He thinks it’s stayed true to its essence – but people will have their own thoughts. “It’s always an interesting time to see if audiences can give us that leeway or if they reject it.”
He’s always trying to mentor younger castmates Millie Bobby Brown and co who have grown up in the limelight. “You are involved in what is a minefield. The popularity and money they’re dealing with at ages 12 and 13 is… it just makes you an adult. You’re not really getting the childhood I want.”
But there’s another reason why he’s thinking about today’s youth. Throughout our conversation, Harbor talks about the adjustments he’s made to his life now that he has kids. After marrying Allen in 2020, he is now stepfather to her daughters Marnie, 9, and Ethel, 10, who “came as part of the package.” He gets a little sticky when he mentions her.
“It was a stroke of luck for me because I’m in a relationship with three women now. Very strong-willed women,” he jokes, underlining every word. It’s a responsibility he takes seriously – even enjoys. “[It] brought a whole new depth to my life that I never had before. Made me a whole new man. And that is wonderful.”
I was thrilled to see Harbour’s alarmingly chic apartment, which he featured in a viral film Architecture Digest Video – but he’s undressed. That was still from his “bachelor days”. He and Allen are renting while they design a new apartment that they plan to show at some point. “I thought I was quite a master at it. Then you marry Lily Allen and realize you’re a dork compared to her taste in design.”
Interior design could be the end of artistic collaboration. Allen snagged an Olivier nomination for her stage debut earlier this year 2:22 A ghost story and while acting together is something they’ve talked about, Harbor insists it “would have to be pretty specific.”
“The energy that we have in our personal lives is really nice, and bringing in draaaa-ma… In general, I like to keep fairly firm boundaries around people I work with because I like to be impulsive and spontaneous and provocative as I can when I’m working,” he says. “I like it when someone hurts my feelings on stage – really hurts my feelings. And when I keep those boundaries with someone, we don’t have to worry about being friends or, you know, lovers out there. We can just get together and like, really throw down and work. And so I don’t know how I would do that with Lily. We really need to find out.”
Maybe he’s not British. But he really is an old-school thesp.
Mad House runs at the Ambassadors Theater through September 4th
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/david-harbour-interview-stranger-things-b2106873.html Interview with David Harbour: ‘I’ve had some issues with insanity’