In Hellboy, director Neil Marshall’s (The Descent) reboot of Mike Mignola’s comic book creation, Stranger Things star David Harbour takes over in the role first made popular by Ron Perlman in Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 adaptation and its 2008 sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
In this new entry, the dark fantasy elements are downplayed in favor of a gorier, more horror-oriented tale that pits the demonic title superhero against an ancient sorceress (Milla Jovovich) whose history delves deep into British mythology and the days of King Arthur and Merlin.
Harbour plays Hellboy as a younger, angrier and more impulsive creature, still unsure about his place in the world and much more at odds with his “father,” Professor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), who rescued the young demon from a Nazi occult experiment decades earlier. The lure of the darker side of the universe is always present for Hellboy, even as he uses his formidable skills to fight giants, witches, monsters and other existential threats to humankind.
Den of Geek had a chance to speak with the gracious Harbour by phone ahead of the release of Hellboy, and in addition to touching on the upcoming third season of Stranger Things and his recent casting in Marvel’s Black Widow movie, we discussed at length his decision to play Hellboy, what he drew upon for the character, how he dealt with the makeup and whether he and Ron Perlman spoke about the role.
Den of Geek: Was it a tough decision for you to take this role, based on the previous film history, the makeup requirements and all that?
David Harbour: I think all of those things played on my mind, when I got the call. There first is sort of initial concerns of the fact that it was a reboot. I prefer the term re-imagining. I like the movies that have come before, the Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman movies, a lot. I thought Ron was terrific in those movies. It was like, “Why are we going to do this?” I think was my biggest question.
Then, they really pitched me this idea that it was a more violent interpretation. It was R rated. It was gory. It was more horror-based, it was darker in tone and pallet and thematics, more of an identity piece, more of Hellboy as a younger man struggling with his own place in the world. The issues with the father, the new relationship with the father and also the fact that we go directly to the source material of the Dark Horse comics. It almost pulls stuff from the page in certain ways, color-wise and also from the actual characters. In that way I got very excited.
Then the hurdle becomes about the makeup. I saw the sculpts and we did some tests and then the minute we did the test, it was so worth it. The makeup is so good. To do it practically is so beautiful, especially in this day and age, when a lot of stuff is CGI. It’s such a special thing to be able to do. Joel is such a genius and I was worried about it.
I had friends who have had disasters with that stuff, but getting into it, it was actually kind of great. It was what I feared as being the worst part of the process and it actually was the best, because it allowed me to do some work that was larger than life. It allowed me to wear masks to express these larger things. It was a concern at first and it became a really liberating thing, as I was shooting and I actually started to like it.
As far as taking over a role previously played by another actor…there’s always this big sense of everyone holding their breath over who’s going to play James Bond next, or who’s going to play Batman next, but at the same time, every day, somewhere in this world, somebody is playing Hamlet or Willy Loman or something like that. I wonder why we put so much more pressure on these types of roles.
Well, the weird thing about things like this is…I think film is a very powerful medium, first of all, but also they’re viewed as film scripts, as opposed to the source material. I think that the thing about Hamlet is, it’s a play, first and foremost, but the thing about comics, too is they’re source material that takes them in all sorts of directions. There is a Batman comic that has all these different things. It’s not Adam West, or Michael Keaton, or Christian Bale, it’s this comic that is evolving itself.
I do think that people get kind of crazy about it, but there is an opportunity in this, as well. There’s an opportunity to illuminate something different and something new. I think that is sort of always met with some degree of trepidation, or wonder, or fear, but I also think it’s something that ultimately, people like.
I know that I have my favorite James Bonds, whatever, but I sort of like the excitement of someone taking over and someone bringing something new. As the culture changes, as tastes change, the idea of bringing something new, might be sort of new to certain genres, or new to movies in general maybe. I’d say, with theater, it’s been a lot longer history of that, but I think it’s also exciting.
Do you know Ron Perlman? Have you spoken to him at all about any of this?
We had dinner in LA, before I started shooting. This would be a year and a half ago. It was with Patton Oswalt, a mutual friend. I had reached out to him. It was mainly just a dinner about my admiration for him as an actor, plus I think he’s a great guy too and a really strong presence on social media and very opinionated and I also just admire his work over the years.
We talked a little bit about the character and his journey with his particular films and his stuff with Guillermo and I was all very interested in all of that. But it was more just a couple colleagues talking about work, career and life. He’s a lovely guy and reached out to me and I know that he likes my work and always has been very supportive of me. It was great.
You are bringing your own take to the character, as is the film, but this mythology more than others is a very consistent vision from person, Mike Mignola, as opposed to something like Batman where different people are writing Batman comics over the years. Does it help to have a consistent point of view throughout the entire canon?
Yeah. My primary focus was with Mike Mignola and those Dark Horse comics, because Mike is the creator of Hellboy and I think of course, I’m going to want to do certain things that interest me, but I’m going to want to see what the spirit of Mike’s creation is. I’m very dedicated to the author. Even when I play theater, you’re always trying to uncover what Shakespeare’s trying to do. You may update it, or do certain things, but you want to know the mind of the author, I think.
That was very important to me, what Mike was doing. I would have conversations with him and text with him about certain ideas and things like that. I know that he likes the movie and likes my performance a lot, which is the greatest compliment I could receive, because Hellboy is Mike’s first and foremost and I think our movie really tried to pay homage to his creation.
You touched on the makeup before, so what was it like getting into it every day and did you sort of feel yourself disappearing and becoming Hellboy as the shoot went on?
Totally. It was about three hours, I think, when we started and I think we got it down to like two and a half. It was hard, especially on those Mondays, when you’ve got to get there at like 3:00 in the morning, or something. It also became a thing that as it went on, I had a little breakdown in the middle, but also, as it went on, there was this feeling of almost fetishizing it, in terms of enjoyment.
I would not recognize my own face. I would more recognize Hellboy’s face, because I spent more time actually, at least waking time, in that makeup than I did as David. I really associated my identity with that particular face, which is a different face than mine. I really started to get annoyed when I would see my own face in the mirror and I started to miss seeing Hellboy’s face. He’s got a better chin than me, all kinds of things. I really started to get into it.
Also, in terms of playing the character, not only is it liberating, it’s essential. It’s not a human being. It’s a rhinoceros. It’s a different animal. He’s a beast. He’s a demon. He’s from hell. He’s spawned into this world. In that way, you can’t do it just with your human body. You need, if you’re going to play a rhinoceros, you need the horn. If you’re going to play a demon, you need horns, shaved off or whatever. You need all these things. You need a tail. You need to know this animal is different from a human animal. It was vital that it was that intense, in a way.
I read that your left hand stayed red for the whole shoot.
Yeah. They would take off all the makeup, the mask and the body and everything and then, I have this red left hand, with nail polish and stuff and it just took so long and I wanted to get home and sleep. They’d always offer to take it off and I’d always be like, “No. I’m fine.” I walked around Bulgaria on my off days with this red hand with dark red nail polish and I looked a little bit like in my biggest fantasy, like David Bowie, like some kind of cool rock star, but I probably just looked like a weirdo.
Did anyone give you any strange looks, of comment on it, or anything?
Oh, yeah, yeah. People would just be weirded out. They’d be like, “What happened to your hand? Did you get a disease? Do you have a rash, or something?” I was like, “No. It’s just nail polish and some red paint. It’s okay. I’m not contagious.”
If all goes well and this turns out to be a crowd pleaser and does well at the box office, do you have a Hellboy story you would like to do next? I know there’s quite a few Easter eggs planted throughout the movie.
Yeah. The universe is so broad, but in terms of the characters that I’d want to bring in, there’s lots of characters from the BPRD that I’d like to bring in, but also, there’s so many stories that we can do and I also would like to flesh out more characters. I love that character of Lobster Johnson and I would want more Lobster Johnson.
That’s one of my favorite Hellboy relationships, his idolization of Lobster. When he was a kid, he dressed up like a lobster for Halloween, these sort of moments. There’s so many stories. I know that we had kicked around an idea that I really liked, but I don’t want to give anything away, in case it should happen. It’s such a rich world and those Easter eggs are in it and that could be a direction to go, definitely.
Hellboy is out in theaters Friday (April 12).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye