Q&A: How Stranger Things’ David Harbour Helped Tide Hijack the Super Bowl

The actor discusses his first commercial gig

David Harbour hugs group of older people playing tennis in white shirts for Tide ad.
David Harbour stars in Tide's Super Bowl campaign, which played with many ad tropes. Tide
Headshot of Marty Swant

It’s around 4:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in January, and David Harbour is sipping La Croix through a straw. He’s just finished playing a round of tennis with a few senior citizens at a country club on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Harbour, the 42-year-old actor best-known for playing Jim Hopper on Netflix’s Stranger Things, isn’t an avid tennis player. And yet there he was, dressed in tennis whites, happy to pretend.

Harbour was there to star in his first pharmaceutical ad. He was also filming his first car ad. And his first mattress ad. And his first diamond ad. In fact, over the course of four days, he filmed a dozen ads—and they were all going to be in the Super Bowl.

Here’s the thing: Harbour wasn’t hired by a dozen brands for the Big Game. All of these commercials were actually part of a trick that Tide hoped to pull off. The Procter & Gamble brand shot multiple spots to air over the course of the Super Bowl, all in hopes of hijacking the dozens of non-Tide spots to imply to viewers that every single ad they see might actually be an ad for the detergent brand.

Harbour, who is slated to play the titular role in Lionsgate’s forthcoming adaptation of Hellboy, took a break on set to chat with Adweek about his acting process, his character and how he decided to do his first commercial. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Adweek: So why did you want to be in a Tide spot? What exactly about the idea appealed to you?
David Harbour: I liked the idea. It’s wildly—I don’t want to use the word cynical—but it’s wildly self-aware. I think that’s hilarious, just the fact that you have this character who’s sort of this Rod Serling of the Twilight Zone of advertising, coming in and being like, “Wow, maybe every ad is like a Tide ad!” He pops up in all of these different ads to kind of reveal to you that what you think you’re watching is not actually what you’re watching. … On one hand, he’s sort of omniscient, kind of a God character who floats throughout the Super Bowl, gets involved in these scenarios, gets absurd in them and plays that role as well. Like … if I’m in a pharma ad, I’ll act like a fucking idiot or whatever. I can get a little hoity toity about this stuff, but I liken him almost as a Greek god like Apollo who comes down and plays with the mortals and then goes back to his castle and talks about what they’re doing.

How is your acting process different for these spots than if you’re shooting a movie or a TV series?
There are hilarious constrictions [in ads] that we do not generally have in movies. You have them in network shows, but I’m lucky because I do a show on Netflix called Stranger Things, which nobody gave a shit about at the beginning. They let us do whatever the fuck we wanted because they were like, “You guys will probably be terrible, and we’ll just take you off the air.” We lucked into this megahit, but we still get to do whatever we want. So things like [Stranger Things], I’ll smoke a million cigarettes, which you can’t do on television at all.

Things come up like that there are things we would never think of. There was something that came up logistically [in the Tide ad] where I was in a car and wanted to wipe something off my shirt but I couldn’t take my hand off the wheel because that would imply a certain bad driver. And I was like, “Oh, that’s really interesting that you guys are thinking that way.” Like in Stranger Things, they were like, “Of course Hopper would take his hand off the wheel. He doesn’t give a fuck.” But that’s the thing—the characters themselves have to have a responsibility to the product and to the corporation profile that we don’t follow so much in movies and TV.

I know a lot of actors want to internalize their character to better play it out. Is that internalization different for this?
It’s funny. I do feel like anything benefits from character logic. That can be from the dumbest ad to the greatest Shakespearean drama to the silliest Saturday Night Live sketch. There is a certain specificity in detail, which you can get when you’re paying attention to stuff like that.

Even on your relationship to props. The problem is you can put people in a certain costume, but if they’re not actually wearing the costume, they’re not. I mean I don’t have any relationship to a tennis racket, right? David Harbour has no relationship to a tennis racket. If I’m playing this role though, I have to have a relationship to it. I have to use the tennis racket in a certain way in terms of structuring a character logically, and it’s important. It adds resonance and depth. You may not notice it in a moment. And a lot of people on set just may be like, “Just say the line. We just want to hear the line. We just want you to watch the camera.” But the subtle way you twirl a tennis racket, the subtle way in which you touch your girlfriend’s wrist, or whatever it is that gives it personal resonance, to me registers to an audience in a deeper way as opposed to a cliche. I’m always trying to avoid cliche and to make things personal in a more richly resonant way.

How would you describe this character?
I think he’s a bit psychotic, to be honest. That’s what I love about him. He’s just like a trickster. That’s why I relate him to a Greek god. He’s like Hermes or like a coyote in Native American literature. He’s like this trickster artist who just shows up and messes with whatever pool he’s in and ripples the waves in real ways.

That’s not the typical character you’d expect in a laundry ad.
That’s what’s fun. Because it’s Tide—it’s really fun for Tide to like go into that area, which is why I was gratified they chose me. I understand a brand like a whiskey choosing me … but the fact that it’s Tide and it’s this big detergent brand—”We want to get a little whacky. We want this dude from Stranger Things who’s a little whacky.” I’m not the nicest dude on that show, but I’ve got a big heart. So it’s got all those colors, so I think that’s what’s fun to do with mainstream brand, and I really like to see mainstream brands take risks like that and go for more authenticity instead of pandering. And hopefully I can bring it to this commercial. Hopefully we can make a genuinely funny little art movie.

One last thing I was curious about is do you think differently about the audience? How is it different acting for the Super Bowl and for Tide versus for Stranger Things and Netflix or for a movie?
Not at all. In fact, the only thing I think about all my audiences is that they are smarter than me, funnier than me, more emotionally deep than me. And so I’m trying to reach them with my best, my funniest, my subtlest. But in terms of the world, I don’t pander, I don’t cater. I don’t anything. I’m just trying to give the best human expression that I can to any particular genre, which could be comedy, could be drama, could be horror, could be thriller. But I’m just trying to give the best version of that. There is actually no consideration even in terms of cultural anything. To me, it’s a very big audience, a very different audience, but I’m just doing what I’m doing, which is trying to touch and affect people. That doesn’t change no matter who I’m trying to do it with.

Do you want to do more commercials?
That’s a good question. If they’re specifically as appealing and interesting and unique as this one, then yes. If not, then not really. That was the thing about this thing. It really is kind of singular. I’d never done a commercial, nor did I ever plan to do a commercial. … To me, the content is what’s important. Is it a good story, a good narrative? I’ll come. If it’s just me selling soap? Then not so much.

@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.