What is it with David Harbour and getting locked in Soviet prison? First, his Stranger Things character, Sheriff Jim Hopper, ended season three imprisoned in Kamchatka. Now the latest Marvel movie, Black Widow, puts his supersoldier Alexei Shostakov behind Russian bars, too. “It must be something about how much I love the cold weather and borscht,” Harbour jokes. “I’ve been plagued by internet memes for about an entire year and a half now.” The circumstances surrounding Hopper and Shostakov’s imprisonments are, of course, quite different. For his part, Red Guardian is a communist hero, jailed for political reasons before his two fake daughters, Natasha and Yelena, spring him out. As far as Marvel characters go, Red Guardian isn’t exactly the best the MCU has ever seen; he’s something of a washed-up buffoon, about as good at superheroism as he is at fatherhood. Vulture spoke with Harbour about bringing the oafish Red Guardian to life, the “dad energy” necessary for the role, and a little Stranger Things teaser.
You were a kid during the tail end of the Cold War, when the USSR was the outsize enemy of the USA. Did you bring any of that sentiment to Red Guardian?
It’s not a documentary; it is sort of a comic-book impression. I relish the ideas of Russia that Red Guardian represents. I grew up reading Russian literature in college. I was big into Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. I feel like the essence of communism — if I were to take it to a simple, simple essence — would be something like sharing or communal brotherhood. Marx did talk about … the dissolution of the state so the proletariat owns everything. And I think that Alexei, at his core, is not what communism has become, but he is a true, deep philosophical communist in the sense of believing that the workers should own production. That is something that I really love and appreciate. I like to play the rugged individualism of someone like Hopper, but I really did like the sort of communist paradox of being a supersoldier of the Soviet Republic.
Does someone like Kevin Feige tell you whether or not your character got turned into dust as a result of the Thanos snap? I’m curious what newcomers to the MCU are told about their character’s place in the larger canon.
Um, you’re not told much, but I can’t speak to anyone else. I think that this particular project was slightly different in the sense of — I’ve heard lots of stories of people having a lot of tests and doing lots of different things. For this project, it was [director] Cate Shortland who sat me down. I didn’t even know what she was doing. She was like, “I’m making this movie. It’s called Black Widow.” I didn’t even know it was really part of the Marvel thing until she pitched the story. And she really approached it like an independent film director in a lot of ways. It was a lot of rehearsal, a lot of playing around. There were also different iterations of the script. In the first version of the script that I read early on, [Red Guardian] didn’t even wear the super-suit at any point.
Kevin certainly has a lot on his plate and is one of the most popular guys for actors in this universe. I think they all have a plan, but you sign various specifics of your contract and they didn’t really tell me much. Things come up along the way, but they don’t really lay it out for you like, “Oh, in ten years, you know, he’ll be this.”
So just to clarify, you don’t know whether or not your character got dusted?
Oh God, dusted by the Thanos snap? Yeah, no, I have no idea. But that would be a very interesting thing. Like, what happens to that memory or that trauma of that event? I mean, you know, he goes off in our movie at the end with those Widows and stuff, but neither he nor Melina ever shows up in the Infinity War.
You seem to have created a bit of a niche for yourself, playing characters who straddle the line between competence and being wildly in over their head. Red Guardian, Jim Hopper, and to a certain extent, Matt, your No Sudden Move character. Why do you think that is?
Growing up, I was very much a nerdy outcast, and I felt very alone in a lot of ways. And part of my impulse for acting was to help people feel less alone. I do like to find contradictions in characters. I really like revealing the extraordinary through the ordinary. I’m not so keen on extraordinary [through the] extraordinary. I love boxers who maybe aren’t the strongest and aren’t the fastest, but they have tremendous heart and they continue to get up. My problem has always been that a lot of times, especially in Hollywood movies, men are so beautiful and capable and in shape and have it all under control that you can sit up and stare at them and admire them. But you can’t actually feel like, that’s me. I want people, when they watch my characters, to be like, “That’s me, and oh my God, look what that guy did.”
You also play a lot of characters who are somewhat begrudgingly father figures. Is being a little over your head just kind of a prerequisite for being a dad?
Nothing can prepare you for the mystery and insanity of having children around. I now have two stepdaughters and they are more than I ever bargained for in both beautiful and awful ways. I think any parent can relate to that idea. It has been interesting that I have been cast in the father role, because for years I was not a father. I mean, I was not a father up until, like, last year. So, you know, I got Jim Hopper, and even when I started Red Guardian, I was not a father. And I’ve been branded “dad bod,” and all these kids are like, “Be my dad,” so there is something that I must do that resonates with people.
Did you see the dad energy within yourself before getting all these parts?
What I did see was a masculine thing that wasn’t really right until I hit 40. Like, I’ve never been a 20-year-old guy, even when I was in a 20-year-old body. I was too old — too much of an old soul, in a sense. I just never fit that model of a 20-year-old, even a 30-year-old. So once I hit 40, I started to feel like I was the age I was supposed to be, and I guess that is the age when you’re supposed to have children and stuff. But I didn’t realize that it would be — in fact, when I started Stranger Things, one of the hardest things that I had to work on was the idea of loving a child more than yourself. The idea of taking a bullet for someone else was something that I never really felt before in my life and I had to do a lot of work on it for that first season.
Both No Sudden Move and this upcoming Stranger Things season were or are being filmed in accordance with COVID safety protocols. Are those protocols and the reasons for them difficult to set aside while you’re acting?
It is difficult. I appreciate the safety protocols. I certainly want everyone to be safe. I do feel like there comes a point, though, where corporate insurance takes over and I feel like we’re still in that phase. It is troubling because there’s something about the human creative element that big, large-scale productions just won’t acknowledge. When we were deep in the pandemic, I completely understood. Now, coming out, I just hope that we get to a place where we can really just adhere to guidelines from big institutions like the CDC, as opposed to these new sorts of corporate policies springing up all over the place. It’s troubling because acting really is about interacting and it’s about being messy.
Is there anything you can obliquely tease about the next season of Stranger Things?
The monster is developing. I think that’s a really interesting thing. What’s happening to Hawkins spirals out in a certain way, but the Upside Down and that monster are getting more etched out, and I think we’ve only hinted at that in the past. And for Hopper’s story line, you’re going to see a lot of really cool backstory that you haven’t seen before. But at its essence, you kind of know already that there’s a monster in a prison in Russia, and Hopper is there, and he’s got to get out.