David Harbour: Raising Hell In Hellboy

April 11, 2019
Stranger Things star David Harbour swaps his sheriff’s uniform for something far wilder in the action horror superhero extravaganza Hellboy.

Did you ever feel that this was going to happen in your career? That you would be the action star of the year? “I’d always thought that my career, especially in movies, would be as a villain. I had been cast in movies as a villain up until Stranger Things. I’d always been the guy who dies or who Liam Neeson beats the crap out of. I always thought that I’d be on the Alan Rickman side of the equation, on the Chris Walken side of the equation. But to now be on the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Bruce Willis side of the equation…those are the guys that I grew up with. The first movie I saw in the theatre was Raiders Of The Lost Ark; I saw it like fourteen times. I just would look up in awe. The idea that I could do that or be thought of as that, is wonderful.”

Would Harrison Ford be your ultimate action star? “There’s a great thing about Harrison Ford when he shows up for a fight, or when he has to do something. Chris Evans sort of does it too now. You see this look in his face of like, ‘That guy’s going to beat the crap out of me.’ As opposed to this heroic thing, which a lot of the guys do. Where it’s like, ‘I’m in control here.’ You see this fragility in Harrison Ford. He’s like, ‘I’m not capable of this. And then he ultimately overcomes.’ But that’s always what I like and find more dramatic: when your hero is a little less than capable and knows it and has to find something inside of them. Harrison Ford does that. Bruce Willis does it well too, but Harrison is my favourite.”

Hellboy is a pretty creepy hero… “Yeah. I have been a fan of the character for years. I love the Dark Horse comics, and I loved the two movies that came before. The characters were really interesting. There were a couple of feelings when this role came along. One, I was very flattered that they thought of me. The other feeling was that I was very intimidated for all the love that people have for this character, and for what’s come before. Then they pitched me this idea of it being really dark and really brutal. Then I read the script and it has this really dynamic struggle of what is good, and what is evil? How do we define ourselves? Or is it our genetic nature? Is it our conscious will? I found those things all really interesting and appealing. And then there were terrifying things, like the makeup and stuff like that. But ultimately I got really excited about the idea of bringing this character to life. It’s a superhero movie, but it’s also in its essence an old school monster movie, with practical suits and horns and goo. I got really excited about that.”

How long does the makeup take? “It was three hours in the morning. The face itself took about two of those hours. And then the body, horns, hair, eyes, teeth, hands, and tail took about another hour.”

How did you feel walking around with that stuff? “Initially it was very disconcerting and I was self-conscious. And then it ultimately got to be more natural than my normal life! I’d look in the mirror after I’d get home and I’d see my own face and I’d be like, ‘Huh?’ And then I’d get in all the makeup, and I would see Hellboy’s face and I’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, there I am.’ But it was very movable…it was like a wet suit type feel. They’d put me all in KY Jelly and slide me into this thing, and then zip it up. The only thing that was hard was the right hand. I would puppeteer the fingers, but it couldn’t really grab onto things. It wasn’t like you had a hand…just a wrist. And so whenever I would carry something, it would always press on the bones. The only functional thing that I could manipulate was this left hand.”

So there was no having a snack while you were in the Hellboy suit then? “Well actually, it would come on and off. If I had 10 or more minutes, we could take it off and I could use both hands. But there were things that were surprisingly hard, like riding a horse. I couldn’t use my right hand so I had to ride with my left hand. There were things that you wouldn’t think of as being difficult that wound up being surprisingly difficult. The tail was also a weird thing. It would get in the way. Sitting in a chair is impossible with a tail. I’d have to sit on an apple box between takes, because it had no back. Or I’d be in a scene and I’d go sit in a chair and they’d be like, ‘We have to redo it. Your tail’s sticking out in front of your face.’ And you go, ‘Argh!’ It wasn’t that heavy though. It had a wire in it, so it would have some fluid movement to it. It just felt like it was me at a certain point, so I didn’t really notice it.”

So did you go back and read the comic books? “Yeah, I went right back to the Dark Horse graphic novels. I read them all in order, because there’s a sequence to Hellboy and his trajectory. I pulled a lot of stuff from those comics. I talked to [Hellboy creator] Mike Mignola, and then I would actually cut out frames of the comic and put them in this book of mine, where he would have certain closeup expressions. I liked those expressions, like things he would do with his jaw, his brow or with his body language. I wanted to, as much as possible, use that as almost a balletic structure. In ballet, you have first position, second position, third position, and then you fill that with colour and life and emotion. I treated Hellboy a bit like that. He had these positions, and then I would fill that with anger or whatever psychological dynamic was going on.”

This movie is quite violent. Were you okay with that? “I like that. I like Tarantino movies, for instance, where the violence itself is a character in the world and it gets almost silly at a certain point, which I like too. And then I also like the idea of the apocalypse being no joke. It’s not a PG-13 apocalypse, it’s a real apocalypse. The other thing is that you’re dealing with monsters and monsters should be scary. Violence and scares go together really well. It should be shocking. With this genre, it’s interesting when you make additions that are very R-rated. Deadpool created such a storm with this R-rated version, which was mature in a certain way. I’m very interested in bringing different things to the genre as opposed to doing a similar thing. Hellboy does a different thing. It’s scrappy, it’s really hard, and it’s really gory. That’s welcome when somebody tries something new, so I like that.”

What scares you in real life? “Jesus, what scares me? Everything! Spiders are terrifying, but I don’t mind snakes. I love snakes actually, but spiders are terrifying. Physical pain is my least favourite thing in the world. But death is obviously the biggest thing that scares me. And then just simply aging deterioration. We’re all going to get older, and I never seem to talk about it with anybody, so that all scares me…the breakdown of the body and the mind. But then there’s a lot of stuff that really doesn’t scare me because I’ve been to a lot of scary places in my life. There’s a lot of fearlessness that I have around even consciousness itself. I’ve been through Hell, in a lot of places in my life, so I know that there’s a lot of things that I’m not afraid of.”

 You can’t just say that without explaining! When you say you’ve been through Hell, what do you mean? “Let’s see, how can I put it? I’ve had a lot of problems with the arbitrary laws in society and it’s driven me crazy at points in my life. When I was in my twenties – and I’ve talked about this publicly already – I was incarcerated in a psychiatric institution. So I guess that I’m not afraid of people being human. Let’s say that. I’m not afraid of myself being human and having frailties and struggles with the idea of being alive. And the idea of this magical, scary, painful, wonderful, insane journey that we’re all on together. The idea of people and myself being messy doesn’t frighten me as much as I think it may frighten other people. I relish in the mess and I wish that there was more mess in the world. But the mess of bodily deterioration and death still scare me. That’s the one thing that still frightens me.”

It’s interesting that at this point in your career you’re doing more action… “Oh totally, yeah. I shouldn’t be doing that at 42 or whatever, because I break my toes and I bust up my knees and stuff like that. It was a weird thing to be asked to do this because there’s a ton of action in it, especially in that suit. I would get so overheated. They’d put air conditioning tubes in me, and sweat would pour out of my horns. It was a wild shoot.”

Did you talk to Ron Perlman before you shot? “I did, yeah. We had dinner, but it was less about the actual project itself. It was more just about my admiring him as an actor, and of his presence in the world and who he is. I just wanted to talk to him first of all, as a colleague, and also just as a guy. I wanted to express my admiration for him. He had made those two films with Guillermo Del Toro, and they were really great films, so we talked about the passing of the torch and what all that stuff was. But he was just really gracious and really kind. He was a lovely guy, very supportive. It was a very nice dinner.”

With Stranger Things, Hellboy, and now your role in Marvel’s upcoming Black Widow movie, you’re a real geek idol… “Well, that’s very cool, because I myself am a geek. I love the geek culture and I’ve always been a fan of it. I always liked to play Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid. I’m big into video games and stuff like that. I love these big fantastic worlds that geeks get into. I feel like I’m really in with my people now.”

Now that you have this much younger fun base too, where is the strangest place that a kid has approached you? “Oh my God. Kids approach me everywhere, but a lot of adults like Stranger Things too. The kids are rabid though, and I think they express that to their parents. So I get a lot of really ashamed adults coming up to me, who would never be caught dead walking up to a celebrity, and asking for a photo. I can see the embarrassment and the horror on their face and they just say, ‘I’m sorry to do this, but my child would kill me if I told them that I saw you and I didn’t get a picture. My 12-year-old would kill me.’ And I’m like, ‘Alright, come on, let’s take a picture!’ But I love this idea that you love your kids so much that you’re willing to risk that horrific embarrassment of coming over to a man in an airport or in a restaurant or wherever you are, on the streets of New York, to ask for a photo. People come up to me everywhere. The only one that I severely dislike, and these aren’t kids, are people that approach you in public bathrooms. I really just want to pee and leave. I don’t want to have to take a selfie. That’s really not cool. But in other places, it’s very nice to have touched people’s lives in that way and for people to be so appreciative. It’s very gratifying.”

Were you surprised at the success of Stranger Things? “Yeah, beyond surprised. I thought that it would be a very niche genre show, that maybe some people would really love. Like myself probably! But I never thought that it would be a worldwide phenomenon, like it is now. I think it deserves to be, and personally I think it’s the best show on television…and not just because I’m in it! Actually in spite of me being in it, because I’m actually very critical of myself. But I love it so much, and I think it’s a really a great, great show. It deserves to be popular, but you never know what people are going to like or not like. And I’ve never been right in my career. I’ve always been in things that I thought were going to be great, and they always tanked. And then I thought things were going to be terrible and they did really well. So I’ve never been right. And then this came along and I was like, ‘God, this is so great. It would be great if it had a life!’ And then everyone was like, ‘This is so great.’ The stars aligned on that one, but I never expected it to be what it was. Never.”

Hellboy is in cinemas now.

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