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Film Notes: ‘Stranger Things’ Actor David Harbour Returns to Dartmouth

  • Winona Ryder, left, and David Harbour appear in a scene from 'Stranger Things.' (Courtesy Netflix)

  • Millie Bobby Brown, left, and David Harbour appear in a scene from the Netflix series 'Stranger Things.' Harbour, a 1997 Dartmouth College graduate will appear at his alma mater on Sunday, May 13, 2018.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2018

The last time David Harbour visited his alma mater — “I want to say 15 years ago,” he estimated this week — the 1997 graduate of Dartmouth College was working regularly as an actor, if in relative obscurity.

“I was doing a play in Boston, and I went up to Hanover for the afternoon to talk to some theater students,” Harbour recalled during a telephone interview from his home in New York City. “I’ve been going to colleges over the years to work with students whenever I can. I bring a certain perspective.”

Harbour, 43, brings the perspective of a veteran performer back to Hanover. On Sunday night, the Dartmouth Film Society will screen a 90-minute sampling of Harbour’s work in the college’s Spaulding Auditorium, after which the Emmy- and Tony-nominated actor will particpate in a Q&A.

After two decades of steady work, Harbour is riding a wave: He’s taking a break from shoots in Georgia for the third season of Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things, on which he plays a conflicted small-town police chief, and post-production is underway for the big-screen reboot of Hellboy, in which he plays the demonic anti-hero from the graphic novel series.

“I thought something like this was going to happen, but that it would happen a lot sooner,” Harbour said. “As time has gone on, I’ve figured out that things don’t come along until you’re ready for them. That’s when things have come to me — when I really want them and when I really need them.”

By the time of his previous return to campus, Harbour had played guest roles in two TV series — Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Hack — and played the young adult son of pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in the biopic Kinsey, which starred Liam Neeson in the title role.

Soon the pace would pick up: In 2005, Harbour played the young professor Nick in the Broadway and West End revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a production that starred Kathleen Turner as the formidable faculty wife, Martha. Next came a steady stream of roles on and off Broadway in plays by Tom Stoppard, David Mamet and Shakespeare, between which he found supporting roles in movies ranging from Brokeback Mountain to Revolutionary Road.

Brokeback was an eye opener,” Harbour said of Ang Lee’s 2005 adaptation of an Annie Proulx story starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as closeted ranch hands. “The power of a story like that, I hadn’t found in TV or film to that point.”

That experience led to yet more steady work. In addition to amassing screen time, he learned from watching the stars of movies such as 2014’s The Equalizer, in which Denzel Washington portrays a relentless and resourceful fixer-for-hire.

“He doesn’t look down on his characters,” Harbour said of the two-time Academy Award winner. “This was a character a lot of people would have overplayed, in what was a rock-’em-sock-’em action picture. Denzel never overplays things. That sort of sophisticated work had an impact on me.”

Stranger Things co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer noticed enough sophistication from Harbour to offer him the role of the police chief Jim Hopper in their Netflix series. He’s evolved into the adult heart of a show that follows the efforts of residents of a small town, many of them teens, to cope with supernatural forces seemingly beyond their control, all while dealing with everyday concerns.

Stranger Things is a whole different level,” Harbour said. “I had been a supporting guy. Getting this, I remember thinking, ‘I have to go back to work, in a soulful way, to bring myself to it.’ It’s almost a rebirth of why I wanted to do this in the first place, and I have a lot more technique now. At some point, if you’re lucky and you work hard enough and long enough, you hit a project that makes you feel like a kid again.”

It helps, Harbour added, that his mix of craft and experience are coinciding with the boom in edgy TV series on Netflix and Hulu.

“When I was breaking in, TV networks weren’t taking the kind of risks they do now,” he said. “It was kind of kismet. When streaming services opened up, people like the Duffers could take a chance like this with a guy like me. I’ve been waiting for this kind of throwback, a Harrison Ford kind of messed-up cop. It was kind of built for me.”

So was the new Hellboy, in which Harbour co-stars with Milla Jovovich.

“You have this hyper-realistic world that I had to approach very groundedly,” Harbour said. “You have an entirely different body, different vocal cords. You have to approach that technically. At the same time, you have to remember that at bottom, he’s an orphan, with an adoptive father (a scientist played by Ian McShane). There’s a lot of rich material that allowed me to really go for it.

“I could work on him for a long time.”

The Hopkins Center welcomes David Harbour on Sunday night at 7 at Spaulding Auditorium, with a screening of clips from his movie and TV career since his 1997 graduation from Dartmouth. For tickets ($8 to $15) visit hop.dartmouth.edu or call 603-646-2422.

Series of Fortunate Events

Billings Farm and Museum extends its Woodstock Vermont Film Series into the spring and the summer, starting next weekend, with two screenings of Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. At each showing, next Friday and Saturday nights at 6, Northeast Kingdom filmmaker Jay Craven leads a discussion of the movie after the lights come up, in his first public appearance as curator of the series.

While Ex Libris runs seven minutes longer than In Jackson Heights, Wiseman’s previous exercise in cinema verite, it held my attention — read, kept me awake and engaged — more consistently than that earlier, noble effort to examine a community in flux. Much as I hate to admit it, it helped that Wiseman wove, between bouts of the library system’s everyday workings and challenges, samples of the library’s celebrity-author readings by and discussions with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and Richard Dawkins.

Screenings in the subsequent months, all at 3 and 5 on Saturday afternoons, include:

June 30 Peter and the Farm, Tony Stone’s 91-minute documentary from 2016 about an aging, troubled Springfield, Vt., farmer.

July 28 — the documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.

Aug. 11 Menashe, a 2017 drama, in Yiddish with subtitles, about a widower struggling to retain custody of his son against his ultra-Orthodox community’s legal system.

Sept. 22 California Typewriter, a 2016 exploration of the obsession with the analog device shared by, among others, actors Tom Hanks and Sam Shepard, author David McCullough and singer John Mayer.

Admission to each screening is $6 for museum members and $11 for others. The museum advises viewers to order tickets at least the morning of, if not a day or two before, by calling 802-457-2355.

On the House

The Mascoma Film Society this week announced its lineup of free screenings for the summer in Mascoma Valley Regional High School’s lovely, comfortable auditorium in West Canaan. The series resumes on June 13 with Across the Universe, Broadway director Julie Taymor’s cinematic exploration of the 1960s and the music of The Beatles through a romance between an upper-class American woman (Evan Rachel Wood) and an impoverished artist from Liverpool.

Subsequent movies, shown on either Wednesday or Friday nights, include Agnes Varda’s Oscar-nominated documentary Faces Places on June 27, Raiders of the Lost Ark on July 6, Gary Oldman’s Academy Award-winning turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour on July 18, Close Encounters of the Third Kind on Aug. 1, Paddington 2 on Aug. 3 and Les Miserables on Aug. 8.

While the society doesn’t charge admission to the screenings, which start at 6:30 p.m., it welcomes donations at the door to help meet expenses. To learn more, visit mascomafilmsociety.org.

Hop to It

If you like your comedies extra-dark and are not a stickler for fidelity to history, the Hopkins Center is offering two shots at The Death of Stalin, Scottish (and scatalogical) director Armando Iannucci’s re-imagining of the power struggle that followed the 1953 event of the title. Just don’t bring kids younger than 15 or so. Or your mom. Screenings are scheduled at 7 tonight and next Friday night at Loew Auditorium in Hanover; tickets cost $5 to $8, and are available by visiting hop.dartmouth.edu and by calling 603-646-2422.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304. Film- and television-related news also can be submitted to highlights@vnews.com.