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'Stranger Things' Star David Harbour On Acting And Living With Bipolar Disorder

Dec 2, 2019
Originally published on December 4, 2019 11:56 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry GROSS. Our guest, David Harbour, stars in the popular Netflix series "Stranger Things." And if you don't watch that, perhaps you recognize him from having hosted "Saturday Night Live" this season on an episode that was just rebroadcast on Saturday.

On "Stranger Things," Harbour plays the police chief in the fictional town of Hawkins, Ind., in the 1980s, when the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy leads to the discovery of a secret government agency that kidnaps children with psychokinetic powers. Their experiments have accidentally opened a portal to an alternate dimension filled with monsters that start attacking the town. A few years earlier, Harbour's character, Jim Hopper, lost his daughter to cancer, which tore apart his marriage. When "Stranger Things" begins, he's suffering from depression and self-medicating with pills and alcohol.

But as he's drawn into the supernatural events surrounding Hawkins, he's able to draw himself up and become a hero, albeit a flawed one, as he bands together with a group of adolescents to fight the monsters. He even adopts a girl who has escaped from the secret government agency. She goes by the name Eleven and is played by Millie Bobby Brown.

David Harbour spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with a clip from Season 3 of "Stranger Things." Jim Hopper's adopted daughter now has a boyfriend. That couple spends a lot of time in her bedroom making out, and it's driving Hopper crazy. So he seeks advice from Joyce, the mother of one of the band of kids, who he also has feelings for. Joyce is played by Winona Ryder.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STRANGER THINGS")

DAVID HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) And then El (ph), she just slams the door right in my face.

WINONA RYDER: (As Joyce Byers) Uh-huh.

HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) You know, it is that smug son of a bitch, Mike. He's corrupting her, I'm telling you. And I'm just going to lose it. I mean, I am going to lose it, Joyce.

RYDER: (As Joyce Byers) Just take it down, Hopper.

HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) I need for them to break up.

RYDER: (As Joyce Byers) That is not your decision.

HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) They're spending entirely too much time together. You agree with me about that, right?

RYDER: (As Joyce Byers) Well, I mean, they're just kissing, right?

HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) Yeah, but it is constant. It is constant, OK? That is not normal. That is not healthy.

RYDER: (As Joyce Byers) You can't just force them apart. I mean, they're not little kids anymore, Hop (ph); they're teenagers. If you order them around like a cop, then they're going to rebel. It's just what they do.

HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) So what - I'm just supposed to let them do whatever they want?

RYDER: (As Joyce Byers) No, I didn't say that. I think you should talk to them.

HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) No, no because talking doesn't work.

RYDER: (As Joyce Byers) Not yelling, not ordering - talk to them, you know, like a heart-to-heart.

HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) A heart-to-heart? What is that?

RYDER: (As Joyce Byers) You sit them down, and you talk to them like you're their friend. I find if you talk to them like you're on their level, then they really start to listen. Then, you know, you could start to create some boundaries.

HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) Boundaries.

RYDER: (As Joyce Byers) Yeah. But, Hop, it's really important that, no matter how they respond, you stay calm. You cannot lose your temper.

HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) Maybe you could do it for me.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: (Laughter) That's a scene from "Stranger Things" Season 3 between Winona Ryder and our guest, David Harbour. David Harbour, welcome to FRESH AIR.

HARBOUR: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

BRIGER: So your character, Jim Hopper, what's his arc in the third season? It seems like he's frustrated a lot. He's frustrated that his adopted daughter and her boyfriend don't respect him. He's also frustrated romantically. I think he has feelings for Winona Ryder. How did you decide to play him this last season?

HARBOUR: Yeah, I mean, it's funny. You know, he's gone through a lot of stuff over the years. It's been two years. And, you know, in the first year, he was sort of struggling with, you know, sort of coming alive again after the death of his daughter and fighting this monster. And then in Season 2, he struggles further with opening up. And again, he fights a huge interdimensional monster. And this season, his greatest challenge arises, which is his daughter starts kissing boys in the other room next to him.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

HARBOUR: And I think that, like, he's crazier than ever this season. And I think that's the fun kind of paradox of the show, is that - or even the characters - just a guy like Hopper, who can - is very capable in certain ways. Like, he's a very capable detective. He's a very capable - you know, in Season 2, he's building tripwires outside his house. I mean, he's a very capable man in certain ways. And then when it comes to relationships, he's sort of incapable, and certainly, in terms of raising a teenage daughter, he's just completely incapable.

BRIGER: He's not prepared for that at all (laughter).

HARBOUR: Right. And so it sort of thrusts him into the arms of Joyce, in a sense. I mean, she's a single mother who's done very well by it. And I think that the initial - there is the attraction and sort of longing underneath there. But the big impulse this season is that he needs some help for, you know, being a single parent. I think he has no idea, and I think that's really what binds them now.

BRIGER: As you said, like, the character starts out the beginning of the show very damaged. His daughter died; that destroyed his marriage. I think it's, like, maybe five years later, and he's self-medicating with pills. He's drinking in the morning. And, you know, he's surly and depressed a lot of time. But from the beginning, the way you play him, like, you can tell there's a lot more below all that, you know? He's really smart. He can be empathetic underneath. So as an actor, like, how do you let all those layers peek through?

HARBOUR: That's a good question. I mean, I think that it's almost like I get a little bit self-conscious when I talk about this in grand terms. But like...

(LAUGHTER)

HARBOUR: ...I do feel this way. So anyone who is annoyed with actors who speak in grand terms, please pause the recording at this point. Pause the station at this point.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: This is a spoiler alert, yeah. Come back in three minutes.

HARBOUR: But I'm going to go there. I do think that, like, the great painters of old - there's something like in Vermeer where, you know, it's just layers and layers and layers of paint. And you'll start with, like, a base color and then paint over and over and over on that, and then something else emerges. But underneath that is all that color and all that life. A lot of it's just sitting in a room and, like, by yourself, not going on Twitter...

(LAUGHTER)

HARBOUR: ...Just imagining things or using - I do some stuff called sense memory, which is, like, to develop sort of a world for this character who exists, and then certain things emerge from a two-dimensional script. I remember, like, early on with Hopper, there was something where Joyce comes to see him to ask about her son's, you know, disappearance, and she wants Hopper's help, and he is the chief of police. This is a job he's supposed to do, and he won't help her. I mean, he just says, you know, that it's - he's probably not - and he even makes some joke about the kid being gay. I think she says, his friends call him gay. And I think he goes, is he?

And in that moment, I sort of realized that, like, you know, you have this moment with the script where you're reading it over and over again, and you're sort of thinking of all these things. And I did have this realization - and this became sort of a cornerstone for his journey of, like, he - when Joyce comes and says that she's lost her kid, there's a sense in that - where Hopper is happy that someone else is experiencing the same pain that he is. And I think in the same moment, he feels like such a piece of [expletive] because he felt happy at someone else losing their kid, that he sort of realizes that, you know, he has to die in a sense. And so the whole arc of the whole show for me has been this idea of sacrifice with him.

BRIGER: You also said that this character - playing this character changes you. In what ways do you mean that?

HARBOUR: You know, Hopper's a guy who is 40 years old in 1983. So he's of - even a little older than my dad's generation. And I relate him a lot to my granddad, who flew gliders in World War II, was a guy from Texas, lived in Houston, became, like, a stainless steel guy. And I remember, growing up, my grandma - and this is not in a bad way - just, like, you know, when I would cry, she used to kind of grab me and say, like, boys don't cry; you don't cry. You know?

And there's a certain love of that that I always had. But this character sort of allowed me to explore a lot of that rugged Americana masculinity that I have in my lineage, in my bloodline, but I rarely get a chance, Being a, you know, Manhattan, very liberal actor (laughter), to really go to.

BRIGER: You also said that the Duffer brothers, as the show has gone on, have sort of tailored the roles to fit what the actors do particularly well, or just sort of, as they've observed the actors, they've altered the role in a way that seems to make sense to them. So can you give an example of how they've done that with you?

HARBOUR: You know, I think that one of the things that they wanted to see after Season 1 was to put me and Millie together, just to see what that would bring out. I think they're writing specifically for character combinations a lot of times. And then in Season 3, I think they wanted to allow me to be - you know, I can be sort of a big, wacky guy in a certain way, and I wasn't allowed to be that on the show. I mean, Hopper's very contained in a certain way.

A lot of his stuff is very internal in the first two seasons. He's shut down in a lot of ways, and I think they wanted to sort of open him up and see what happens because I can be very, you know, wacky and strange. And I think we allowed Hopper to have some of that rom-com life to him in this big - you know, even down to his choice of shirt. He's just got a certain colorfulness to this season...

BRIGER: (Laughter).

HARBOUR: ...That I think they like about me and they wanted to put into the character a little more.

BRIGER: Yeah, there's a bit of a screwball comedy going on between you and Winona Ryder.

HARBOUR: Yeah, exactly (laughter). I love that. I mean, we watch, you know, movies like "Midnight Run" and "Bird On A Wire" and these old, like, you know, '80s, kind of classic, rom-com, buddy comedy things, which I loved growing up. And yeah, we wanted to play some of that.

BRIGER: They also thought you probably could grow a pretty good Tom Selleck mustache for this season.

(LAUGHTER)

HARBOUR: Yeah, I know. No one was quite sure, but it did - it was very busy.

BRIGER: It came out quite nicely, yeah.

HARBOUR: Much to my chagrin, it remained the whole season, and it was extremely caterpillar-like.

BRIGER: (Laughter) You were going to quit Hollywood, you said, before you got the script for "Stranger Things." Why was that?

HARBOUR: I don't know if it was exactly quit Hollywood. I mean, basically, what had happened was - you know, I have sort of two coasts in my life, right? I'm a New York actor. I live in New York. I do a lot of plays. And then I was sort of going into this film and television world as well. And I guess I'd gotten to a place where I only got to a certain level in Hollywood. Like, they - for whatever it was. I mean, at the time, I thought it was sort of looks or whatever. But I - now, it might have been personal stuff. I'm not exactly sure. I keep evaluating that.

But they wanted me to be kind of a supporting guy, and a lot of times it would be supporting, you know, like, law enforcement-type guy (laughter) or bad guy with a gun, running around, sort of yelling at Denzel Washington or Liam Neeson or whatever.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

HARBOUR: And so it got to be like a real job because there's not a lot of exploration in those characters. I mean, you can sometimes do fun things, and you always have opportunities in maybe one or two scenes, but they're never going to sort of allow you to tell your story. It's always going to be at the expense of whoever's, you know, leading the charge in terms of that particular narrative.

And so I kind of made an agreement with myself that I would invest all of my heart back into New York and back into theater, which is, like, what I truly loved and have always loved. And I've always felt like there was an embracing quality to New York, where we're a bunch of actors, but it does feel like we don't get as excited about each other, but we kind of take care of each other (laughter). Like, there's something in Hollywood where people can get really excited about you one year and just think you're a genius and then kind of forget about you. And I think in New York, we take care of each other. People - you know, once you're sort of in, you get put in plays a lot more.

And so I wanted to invest my heart in that community, and then I wanted to just use - drop into Hollywood occasionally to have to pay the rent. But when the "Stranger Things" script rolled around, I felt like - first of all, the script itself had such an earnestness to it that it really moved me. And then the character had such a beauty to it that, again, it really moved me. And when I got it, I was like, I may as well go full-bore and then, like, not try to play it cool here or whatever. Like, just be as messy as I possibly can and sort of invest as hard as I can, and I did, and it paid off now in a way that I - you know, I really relish the power of the storytelling of television and film now, which I didn't really before.

BRIGER: We're speaking with David Harbour, who stars as Jim Hopper in the very popular Netflix show, "Stranger Things." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "NIGHTMARE")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is David Harbour. He's best known for playing Police Chief Jim Hopper on the Netflix show "Stranger Things."

Well, let's hear a great scene with one of your two main female co-stars in "Stranger Things." We heard a scene with Winona Ryder. Let's hear one with Millie Bobby Brown. Just for people who haven't watched the show - I guess there's some people out there - she plays Eleven, who's a young girl who was stolen at birth from this secretive government agency who's been doing experiments, trying to weaponize, like, her - she has supernatural abilities. And so she's not really socialized because she was, like, kept in isolation.

And by Season 2, your character has actually adopted her, and I wanted to play a scene from that season. I'm not going to get too much into the plot, but Eleven had run away to try to find her birth mother, and she's come back, and she's actually - she looks a little different. She looks a little more rock 'n' roll. So let's - you guys are sitting in your car together talking before, like, a big, big action scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STRANGER THINGS")

MILLIE BOBBY BROWN: (As Eleven) I shouldn't have left.

HARBOUR: (As Hopper) No. No, this isn't on you, kid. I should have been there. I should never have lied to you about your mom or about when you could leave - a lot of things I shouldn't have done. Sometimes I feel like I'm - like I'm just some kind of black hole or something.

BROWN: (As Eleven) Black hole?

HARBOUR: (As Hopper) Yeah, it's a - you know, it's this thing in outer space. It's like - it sucks everything towards it and destroys it. Sara (ph) had a picture book about outer space. She loved it.

BROWN: (As Eleven) Who's Sara?

HARBOUR: (As Hopper) Sara. Sara's my girl. She's my little girl.

BROWN: (As Eleven) Where is she?

HARBOUR: (As Hopper) Well, that's kind of thing, kid. She - she left us.

BROWN: (As Eleven) Gone?

HARBOUR: (As Hopper) Yeah. The black hole, it got her. And somehow, I've just been scared, you know? I've just been scared that it would take you, too. And I think that's why I get so mad. I'm so sorry for everything. I can be so, so...

BROWN: (As Eleven) Stupid.

HARBOUR: (As Hopper) Yeah, stupid. Just really stupid.

BROWN: (As Eleven) I've been stupid, too.

HARBOUR: (As Hopper) I guess we broke our rule. I don't hate it, by the way - this whole look. It's kind of cool.

BROWN: (As Eleven) B******'.

HARBOUR: (As Hopper) OK, sure - b******'.

BRIGER: That's a really great scene. I mean, you hear you trying to connect - trying to explain these really complicated things, trying to just - I don't know - just get to regrets you have. I mean, it's just really wonderful. I mean, did you guys practice that scene a lot before doing it? Did you?

HARBOUR: Not really. I mean, one of the great things about that whole season was just that Millie and I, at that point - that comes in episode nine, I think. And so we had been working together for months and months, and we had just sort of developed this relationship, both on- and off-screen, that was very, you know, father-daughter and complex in a certain way. And so I remember, when we got to it, I don't think we'd rehearsed it at all. Like, I think I said to the Duffers - you know, that I always like shooting Millie early because she's so strong when she's just, like, letting it happen and sort of - you know, when it's new for her. And so I don't think we even read it through. I think we just turned the cameras on and we just did it.

There's something very unspoken between the two of us that really got developed during that season and continues to this day. I don't have kids, but I feel very strongly protective of her. And so it was - those scenes are very easy to play in a certain way.

BRIGER: Yeah, I was wondering about that. Like, how do you navigate your relationship with these younger actors? Because I'm sure at some times, you do feel parental towards them. I mean, you're acting as a parent towards one of them. I bet at times, they come to you casting you in a parental role off-set. But of course, you're not their parent.

HARBOUR: Yeah. I mean, I think it has all the complexity that you could imagine. I mean, there are these wonderful parental things that you feel and that open you up. And there are scenes, you know, where you'll do a good scene and they'll come over and hug you afterwards. And that's not happening with other actors that I work with (laughter). You know?

But then there also is all the annoyance of being a parent, too. Like, I felt like they throw tantrums, or they make, you know, fart jokes all the time. You know, and then the other thing is that they're all going through puberty now. They're, like, 15, and so they want to talk about things that it's not appropriate for me to talk to them about.

(LAUGHTER)

HARBOUR: They'll come up and ask things, and I'll be like, I need to go get a cup of coffee, and you guys could discuss that among yourselves. But that is not my job now.

BRIGER: I'm going to exit here, yeah.

HARBOUR: I have no good authority - well, maybe I have - I do not want to talk to you about this.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with David Harbour, who plays the police chief in the Netflix series "Stranger Things." After we take a short break, we'll talk about the episode of "SNL" that Harbour hosted this season that was rebroadcast over the weekend, and they'll discuss how Harbour deals with having bipolar disorder. We'll also listen back to my interview with New Yorker cartoonist Gahan Wilson, who died last month at the age of 89. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO")

THE CLASH: (Singing) Darling, you've got to let me know. Should I stay or should I go? If you say that you are mine, I'll be here till the end of time. So you've got to let me know...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with David Harbour. He stars in the popular Netflix series "Stranger Things" as Jim Hopper, the police chief in the fictional town of Hawkins, Ind., in the 1980s, when the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy leads to the discovery of a secret government agency that kidnaps children with psychokinetic powers. As we'll soon hear, Harbour has bipolar disorder and is pretty open about dealing with it. When we left off, they were talking about working with child actors.

BRIGER: You're really gaining a lot of celebrity from the show at the same time they are, but, you know, you're in your 40s, and they're teenagers. I mean, what's it like sharing that experience with them?

HARBOUR: I mean, I worry for them, and probably unnecessarily because I'm viewing it through my own lens. And my particular lens has been that fame is a very tricky thing. And I've always felt that I was very grateful for the mistakes that I was able to make in my teens, 20s, even 30s - like, big, grand mistakes - because they were not seen by a lot of people. And it allowed me a certain creative freedom where I could really find my own voice before that voice got adulation. And the problem with a 12-year-old is when you tell a 12-year-old that they're a genius, I think there's got to be some protection over what they've been doing. And I don't want a 12-year-old to be the same person as a 25-year-old or a 30-year-old.

BRIGER: Right.

HARBOUR: So I think there's a danger in giving too much adulation to someone so young. I think we should - I mean, in my view, I would love it if everybody was just really excited about the work they did but just remained completely quiet and didn't tell them (laughter). Then we could - you know, and then they could develop and grow as artists and become - because I want these kids to become the next Meryl Streeps or Daniel Day Lewises or whatever of our industry. I want them to be the leaders creatively, and I worry about them being stilted because of so much adulation.

BRIGER: You've said - talking about yourself when you first got into the business, you said, quote, "I think there was a ton of narcissism. I was worried about my camera angles or how I looked on film. I was worried about being handsome, romantic or strong." So how were you able to sort of get past that?

HARBOUR: I mean, I think the greatest thing about Hopper and sort of what happened to me for that character was he's kind of - I let it hang out in a certain way. I mean, I had been, up until that point, like, sort of working out a bunch and, you know, sort of playing these small roles and thinking that - and I let it all go, and I started eating donuts. Like, I really want to play the character. I let my hairline - my crappy hairline show. And I really wanted him to be a mess. And that was the thing, too, where it coincided with this place with Hollywood where I was like, it doesn't much matter anyway. I'm going to be playing a supporting role, so I might as well just go for it.

And the fact that I got such a great response from that as opposed to all these other roles that I played where I was in shape and I was finding my camera angles - here, finally, I wasn't doing any of that, and people were like, oh, we really like this. I was like, oh, OK. That's what I've been missing this whole time. It's, like, letting go of all of that and really exposing - what everybody really wants is they want to feel, I think, less alone and sort of understood by an artist and sort of...

BRIGER: Maybe see themselves...

HARBOUR: ...See themselves in their work.

BRIGER: ...On the screen. Right.

HARBOUR: Yeah. And so that was very liberating, and I was like, all right. I'll never look back.

BRIGER: You've been candid about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and actually being institutionalized, I think, in your mid-20s. Before you were diagnosed and started getting treatment, do you think that having bipolar disorder affected the way that you acted?

HARBOUR: Oh, God, yeah. I think there's always been a link between creative people and what society defines as mental illness. I think that - you know, for me personally, one of the things that I've felt in my life has been that I've been somewhat of an outcast or I've been sort of too sensitive for a lot of people. I've been too much in a certain way. And so acting allowed me to channel all of this neurosis, this sensitivity, into a character.

And I think in a certain way, I mean, one of the - if you could - I sort of like to be very diverse in my characters, but if you could call me a certain brand, I guess it would be sort of a heroic outcast in a sense because I am a big guy and I know how to fight, but at my essence, I have a lot of empathy for those people who are lost and who feel like they don't really know what's going on because I myself have been there. And that's very - I have a lot of empathy for those people.

BRIGER: You started getting treatment and have said that you got medication. Were you worried at all that, like, taking medication would, like, dampen your ability to act?

HARBOUR: I'm still worried about it.

BRIGER: You are?

HARBOUR: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, I do. I continue to take medication for this. I have found, though, that my stability has been - the thing that has benefited my stability in this by far has been psychoanalysis and the validation of my narrative by the culture. To a certain degree, fame has also helped my problems. And so medication does have a place in this. I think for acute cases, it can be very helpful. But I think if you don't go into the trauma, as I didn't for years - I used medication, but I would descend again and again, and I would continue to have problems.

So I think what you have to investigate is - you know, you've got to go to the source of the wounds, and the wounds are psychic, you know? And you have to really go in there. And I found that - I've been in psychoanalysis for four years, and I've been very stable for four years. And that's a direct correlation, whereas I've taken medication for - what is it? - like, 18 years, and I have not been very stable under simple medication. And so - although medication has helped in certain ways.

The medical - and that's why the medical model is something that's very popular nowadays, which is helpful in a certain way. But the social model of madness is something that we need to get more involved in. I mean, people need - I think communities need to be stronger. Like, our empathy needs to be stronger. It's a very - and also, like, therapy - social therapies need to be a lot stronger.

BRIGER: Did you start talking about this stuff publicly after "Stranger Things?"

HARBOUR: I did, yeah.

BRIGER: And did you feel like you were doing a public service in some ways, sort of showing that - here you are, an actor who has been able to be successful, and you've had to deal with these issues and...

HARBOUR: I mean, I've always wanted - you know, I had a - I've always wanted to do it in a very dramatic way, too. Like, I had a whole speech prepared for an award I was - you know, and I didn't win. And so that ruined it. But it was...

BRIGER: You didn't stand up and say - wait, I have something to say.

HARBOUR: Exactly. I was so excited. And then - you know, because I do feel like I want kids - if you're a kid and you like, you know, live in Oklahoma and you're 10 years old and you just got diagnosed with OCD or ADHD or, you know, bipolar, I want you to know that, like, you know, you can be a powerful, strong, successful - even a strong cultural voice in this world with this, you know, label attached to you. It doesn't define you, and it's certainly not a death sentence. If anything, like, the neuro-atypicality, I think, propels you to being a greater free thinker and more equipped for creativity in certain ways. And I would encourage all those people to not feel outcasted and to act out in bad - in ways that can be gnarly but to actually embrace, like, their artistic sides and to realize that their outcastness and their differentness is also linked to their specialness. They are intertwined in a beautiful way.

So I did have this big speech prepared. I was going to, you know - and I wanted to do this public - and then it just sort of like leaked out. I think it was on Marc Maron's podcast. And it just sort of came up and went out. And I think that's probably a better way to go about it. I think it's something that I do wish that we would talk more about because I think everyone in this world knows someone with mental illness. It's your mom. It's your dad. It's your co-worker. It's your friend. And the fact that it is treated like it's, you know, for lack of a better word, such a crazy thing is crazy to me (laughter). Like, we should be discussing it more freely. And so I guess it's a public service, but to me, it feels like it should be something that's very normalized and that we really come together to try to fix this big, complex social issue.

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor David Harbour. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "BLACK AND TAN FANTASY")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with actor David Harbour. You hosted "SNL" earlier this year, and there's this great spoof trailer that I wanted to play a little bit of. I'm sure probably a lot people have seen this, but it's a parody of the Todd Phillips movie "The Joker," replacing the lead character with another green-haired - or green-furred character. So I just want to play a little bit of that - of this. In the beginning, you're a garbage collector. So here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CHRIS REDD: (As character) Damn, that smells straight like ass, man.

HARBOUR: (As Oscar) I don't know. I kind of like it.

REDD: (As character) Yeah? You like trash so much, why don't you live in it?

HARBOUR: (As Oscar) Why don't you bite me?

REDD: (As character) Damn, Oscar. Why you such a grouch, man?

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As announcer) From the studio that brought you "Joker" and the twisted minds at Sesame Workshop comes the next gritty antihero origin story.

EGO NWODIM: (As Susan) Why do you think you're always in such a bad mood?

HARBOUR: (As Grouch) Is it me, or are things getting worse out there?

BOWEN YANG: (As Smiley) The once-friendly neighborhood of Sesame Street has now become a haven of crime and corruption. I'm Guy Smiley, ABCDEFG News.

BRIGER: (Laughter) So what was it like for you to host "SNL"? Was that something you sort of imagined yourself doing?

HARBOUR: It was a dream come true. I mean, I've watched that show since I was, I think, 6 years old with my parents. And I don't think I have to do anything else in this world. I think I have - once - I've always wanted to host "SNL," and I never thought I would ever do it. And so it was literally a dream come true. It was also the most terrifying thing I've ever done. About halfway into the week, I was figuring out ways to try to break my leg so I could get out of it.

BRIGER: Yeah, 'cause the pace is crazy. Right?

HARBOUR: The pace is crazy. And they - you know, you just don't know if anything's going to work. And it just all comes together at 11:30 that Saturday night.

BRIGER: Right. And things get cut. And...

HARBOUR: Oh, totally. And even as the show's running, things are changing. And just, lines are - it's crazy. But the Oscar the Grouch thing was really special to me. It was the only thing that I came in and pitched. Like, they...

BRIGER: Oh, that was your idea?

HARBOUR: Yeah, it was - me and my girlfriend came up with this idea. And actually, it is funny 'cause me and my girlfriend came up with this idea. We thought it would be funny if it was Barney the Dinosaur or something. And then I was at my brother-in-law and my sister's house. And my brother-in-law was like, it'd be funny if it was Oscar the Grouch. And I was like - oh, that's kind of genius.

So the three of us came up with this idea. And so I told Streeter and Mikey Day, these writers, I said - I was like, yeah, I don't know, maybe some parody of "Joker," like an origin story of Oscar the Grouch. And they started riffing in the room. They were like, yeah, maybe there's homophobic slurs on Bert and Ernie's door - and you know, just all the tragic things that could go down on Sesame Street.

And it developed into this amazing, wonderful thing 'cause of the genius writers and production people they have there. I mean, it's an incredible operation. The fact that they - we mounted that - wrote it and mounted it in three days, basically, from Thursday till Saturday, is incredible.

BRIGER: Wow. For someone who's maybe thought of themselves as an outsider or a misfit, even in your chosen career, what's it like now to be so celebrated for your work? Like, how does that change your point of view about yourself?

HARBOUR: It's - I mean, the short answer is it's great. And the longer answer, I guess, is that it's somewhat complex. I do feel like I have a certain new confidence with what I do, and that has its own good and bad, too, because I - there was a hunger that I had for years and years around not being seen that is sort of good for my creativity as well.

BRIGER: Right - so you don't get complacent.

HARBOUR: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. But I've - you know, I managed to - as I go along, I'll manage to throw out enough terrible projects your way so that I'll stop being complacent. And then I'll have another success, and then I'll throw a couple more bad ones. So yeah, I'm going to ride the wave. Don't worry.

BRIGER: David Harbour, thanks so much for being here.

HARBOUR: Thanks, man. It was my pleasure.

GROSS: David Harbour stars in the Netflix series "Stranger Things" as the police chief Jim Hopper. After we take a short break, we'll remember Gahan Wilson, who was best known for his cartoons in The New Yorker, Playboy and National Lampoon. He died in November at the age of 89. We'll listen back to my 1986 interview. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION'S "DOUCE JOIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.