Stranger Things’ David Harbour on social media, new fame and his SAG Awards speech

By Kyle O'Brien | Creative Works Editor

March 3, 2017 | 9 min read

David Harbour is well aware that his recent fame from the Netflix smash Stranger Things is hard earned and possibly fleeting. That didn't stop him, however, from being quite outspoken and passionate at the SAG Awards earlier this awards season, which launched him to perhaps greater notoriety, at least temporarily.

Harbour addressed his newfound fame, the speech and how he communicates with fans on social media at a panel at Social Media Week (#SMWNYC) in New York on Thursday afternoon. The discussion was a one-on-one with Steve Ellis, the CEO and co-founder of influencer marketing agency Whosay, who brought out Harbour's many opinions during the hour session at the Times Center.

Steve Ellis and David Harbour

Whosay's Steve Ellis chats with actor David Harbour at Social Media Week

Ellis launched right away into the subject of Harbour's SAG speech, giving him a chance to explain it and its repercussions.

In the speech, Harbour said that great acting can change the world but that actors should go deeper. "Through our art to battle against fear, self-centeredness, and exclusivity of our predominantly narcissistic culture and through our craft to cultivate a more empathetic and understanding society by revealing intimate truths that serve as a forceful reminder to folks that when they feel broken and afraid and tired they are not alone...we will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no home. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters, and when we are at a loss amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will, as per Chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the weak and the disenfranchised and the marginalized. And we will do it all with soul, with heart, and with joy."

The latest marketing news and insights straight to your inbox.

Get the best of The Drum by choosing from a series of great email briefings, whether that’s daily news, weekly recaps or deep dives into media or creativity.

Sign up

The speech was met with tremendous applause at the awards, then later lauded by some and chastised by others.

"I was very grateful to the people that got it, and a bit disturbed by the people that didn't get it, said Harbour, who talked about how many conservative news sources and sites had just singled out his "punch some people in the face" as being anti-Trump.

Harbour read from the speech (from his Instagram account) and pointed out that it was mostly talking about the responsibility within the industry to do right rather than be an overtly denunciation of political agendas.

Harbour has had a long and very unglamorous career as an actor. He pointed out that he has been acting since he graduated from Dartmouth twenty years ago, and in that time his most notable roles have been mostly as bad guys and in off-Broadway plays.

He was nominated for a Tony Award 10 years ago and "soundly lost" so he has been watching awards mostly from his couch and saw the inherent narcissism in the behavior of performers.

"It was less about us actually receiving something. I wanted to say something - not as much about a reward as a passing of torch," said Harbour. I was a nerd as a kid, an outcast...I've been called names, I want to protect people who feel that way."

As such, Harbour wants to make sure he gets to know all sides of society, not just the cultural elite on the coasts, which he said he has been lumped in with.

A newbie at the social game

Playing an ordinary guy, a Midwestern sheriff with love handles and scruff, in a wildly popular show has helped him connect with more people, and utilizing social media - something he is new to - has helped him get there, albeit not without its ups and downs.

"I've only really been on Twitter since the show came out last July. On Instagram maybe only three or four months. I initially really liked and was a little too crazy about it," he said, adding that when the show came out he got 1,000 followers a day, which was gratifying. He would hear things from guys in the Midwest who said that Hopper made them want to be a better man, which he said was profound and moving. But then, he said, it got to be too much and credited Winona Ryder with helping him pull back on his social addiction. He started to set limits and those became intrinsic. Now, he only tweets out something every few days.

Instagram, however, is something he sees as an obligation.

"I feel an obligation to post a selfie of me doing something ridiculous. It's a fun obligation. That responsibility feels fun. I manage it all myself. I do it off the cuff. Me and Donald Trump use it the same way," he joked, referring to the fact that he doesn't have anybody else managing his account and his posts are his own, warts and all.

Opinions on everything from acting to communications

Ellis helped the loquacious Harbour plumb the depths of his despair and celebrate his highs in his career. He asked about his low points and compared acting to being an entrepreneur.

"To start as an actor, the odds are already against you. Every year you have a crop of new talent...You have to be wildly tenacious. You have to have a rock solid ego - like you deserve it," said Harbour.

Steve Ellis and David Harbour

He told how he hadn't worked for about five months and before that worked on an NBC show that wasn't renewed. He wasn't getting phone calls. So, he thought of giving it up, going back to school and becoming something else, like a doctor, he said only somewhat jokingly. Instead, he went back to acting class, a humbling experience, and dove deeper into acting. After that, he landed Stranger Things and his trajectory was set.

He said that our paths are defined as much by our failures as our successes, and that the fear of not working again is something he feels all the time.

Still, now that Harbour has tasted success, he sees an obligation to speak out. He wants casting agents to pick real people as leads, as they did in the 70s and 80s with stars like Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman, who had soul and not chiseled good looks. He thinks that a singularly creative vision is a lot more powerful than 40 people hedging their bets, citing Netflix giving the Duffer Brothers the freedom to make Stranger Things their own.

He uses Google for search, but uses trusted sources for news and truth, like the New York Times and the Washington Post. He says that to avoid living in the Upside Down (the scary world in Stranger Things come to life as our current political and social situation), we need to thwart the attack on language that has taken away meaning and makes language a way to beat down people rather than lift them up.

"I think we should think about what we're saying and the ramifications and meanings," he said to applause of those in attendance.

He would love to see some perspective in terms of the truth rather than a tabloid reality. "Continually talking about terrorism is maddening. I would love to see more perspective. I would love to see someone pull back more - the reality is much broader."

Harbour admits he is relatively new to the sponsorship train, but when opportunities present themselves, "what attracts me is personal lifestyle and if it's cool – although I’m a middle aged PTA dad in a way. It should be intuitive. Honest"

On brands and with networks shows and big movies, Harbour said: I feel like money can be a very dangerous thing. It can allow you to not take risks. I want to be able, as an actor, to take risks,” he said, adding that things can get watered down when safety is chosen over taking risks. He sees a need for authenticity, especially for corporate entities. “I want to feel like they're authentically saying what they want to say,” he said.

Overall, Harbour just wants more truth out there, be it through social media, through honest portrayals by actors, by brands selling their wares or through people just talking honestly and openly.

Oh, and also, he said that Barb is definitely dead.


More from Entertainment

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +