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.