Published On: Mon, Apr 15th, 2019

David Harbour on getting beaten and burdened to play Hellboy

When David Harbour hears the Rolling Stones tune “Sympathy for the Devil,” he can relate.

The Hellboy lead actor might even have a teensy bit of empathy for ol’ Nick. It’s about these horns Harbour had to wear in the rebooted film, which opened Friday, where he’s the spawn of an unholy union between damsel and demon fighting a devilish diva played by Milla Jovovich.

Those horns hurt like hell, man. Not the stubby shaved ones Hellboy rocks for most of the movie, but the Bullwinkle-sized ones he wears during the apocalyptic finale.

“The shaved ones are fine,” declares the New York-born Harbour, 44, during a Toronto press visit last week. He’s dressed in shades of charcoal grey and sporting a beard so bushy it looks flammable.

“But the big horns Hellboy wears at the end, those are notoriously tricky. Swinging a sword becomes very difficult — I kept hitting myself! They’re also very heavy. They had to give me a special skullcap that would give me headaches after about an hour.”

And don’t forget the tail. Wearing that was no satanic picnic, either.

“I also have sympathy for (the devil) because I have a tail in this, that’s actually the trickiest part of the costume. That tail gets everywhere. It gets caught on everything. You can’t sit in a backed chair, because it’s there. So many things you don’t realize. I also have sympathy for cats, as well. Tails are tricky!”

If it sounds like Harbour is complaining, he’s not. He’s happy to have a lead role, since he often plays the supporting star in films like the 007 actioner Quantum of Solace and the romantic drama Revolutionary Road. He’s also well known as a regular on Netflix’s horror/sci-fi series Stranger Things, where he’s Sheriff Jim Hopper.

Harbour is also delighted to be back in Toronto — he was part of Suicide Squad, the T.O.-shot supervillain jam — but he’s got Hellboy seared on his brain at the moment:

I heard you had dinner with Ron Perlman, the original Hellboy. How was it and did he have any advice for you?

It was lovely. He’s a super, lovely guy. I just talked to him as a fan of his career. I sort of wanted to know more about his life, as opposed to just that specific (Hellboy) thing. His advice was, “Make sure you have fun!” And I didn’t take that advice. It was very hard work.

It looks hard. You get slammed against walls more than I can recall happening to any other actor.

Anything that you love is an enjoyable thing to do, but it’s hard. I imagine it’s like playing a hard game of tennis against Pete Sampras. It’s going to be difficult when you’re doing it, but there’s an exuberance to that difficulty. And yes, I did get slammed a lot. These big Bulgarian wrestling types were the stunt team, along with these New Zealand guys who ran it. They’re big, powerful guys and there was a lot of getting thrown around. I got beat up. I broke my toe, and my knee got screwed up and stuff, but you only live once, right?

Why doesn’t Hellboy smoke cigars or scarf Baby Ruth bars in this movie? He did in the Guillermo del Toro original.

I don’t know that Baby Ruth is in the comic (book). The original is the comic by Michael Mignola, and that to me is the original creator and the original story. The comic also had this pancakes thing, but I do know that Mike got kind of sick of that, of his own work. I think that he wanted (the movie) to be less goofy and kitschy in a certain way. He wanted a certain brutality to it. It’s like any production. If somebody does a production of Hamlet and they add something to that production, that’s their Hamlet.

Were you onside with the film being considerably bloodier than its predecessors, enough to get it a “hard R” rating stateside? (It’s 18A in Ontario.)

Yeah! Oh, yeah, yeah! If it were up to me, I’d go even further. I like it to be dark. There’s a scene where a witch is eating things she shouldn’t be eating, just for the psychological horror of it. I think one of the great things about the comic is that the apocalypse is no joke, and I think that’s what we want to feel in this. Monsters are no joke. They’re brutal. And I like that.

From your point of view, how does the horror of Hellboy compare to what’s happening in Stranger Things, which is considerably more family-friendly?

It’s funny, Stranger Things does have the perception of being family-friendly and it is family-friendly. But I smoke cigarettes in that, all the time, and it has mature themes as well, a mature theme throughout the series. In terms of comparisons, I do think it’s a more brutal world in Hellboy, but in this season’s Stranger Things, Season 3, there’s some brutality, too.

You told Playboy recently you think it’s an actor’s job to provoke the audience. Please elaborate.

I probably used that term because it’s like a Banksy thing or it’s been co-opted by Banksy. But it was started by journalists. Back in the late 1800s, journalism was meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I think Banksy took it on as artist and I think I feel that as well.

Why do you want to provoke?

Because I think that one of the joys of viewing art is that it can broaden your perspective. And I don’t think that you broaden it without a certain degree of pain. Simple pleasure will always be like McDonald’s: it’ll always be the same or it will devolve. Whereas the incision of the surgeon, when made gently and carefully, can heal. But it requires a bit of an incision.

I feel like that’s the provocation of the artist, or of the journalist. You have to provoke a little bit to get the colour of truth.

Peter Howell is the Star’s movie critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @peterhowellfilm

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David Harbour on getting beaten and burdened to play Hellboy