We were graced with some great performances from David Harbour last year. He brought something fresh and exciting to the loveable Jim Hopper in Stranger Things Season 4 on Netflix. He then shocked fans with his hilarious turnout as a brutal Santa Claus in the dark comedy-action flick Violent Night. Harbour has continuously flexed his acting muscles across his career while still flaunting the recognizable charm that launched him into stardom in the first place. Now at the start of 2023, David Harbour is giving us another surprising performance as a mysterious silent ghost named Ernest who befriends a family in the new Netflix original film We Have a Ghost.
Based on the famous short story Ernest by Geoff Manaugh, We Have a Ghost follows a young attractive family who moves into a new home only to soon discover that it’s haunted. The ghost in question is Ernest, a balding man in a bowling shirt, which is far from your average Casper. Instead of packing up their bags, their son Kevin (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) catches the paranormal spirit on camera and posts the evidence online, turning them all into overnight social media sensations. When Kevin’s family dives deeper into the mystery of Ernest’s past, they become a target of the CIA, forcing the tech-savvy boy and ghost to go rogue on the journey of a lifetime.
From director Christopher Landon, most known for his work on horror movies like Paranormal Activity, Happy Death Day, and Freaky, the new Netflix original is packed with huge names. We Have a Ghost boasts Marvel star Anthony Mackie as Kevin’s dad Frank, Erica Ash as his mother Melanie, newcomer Niles Fitch as Kevin’s brother Fulton, comedian Tig Notaro as a ghost-hunting government agent, and The White Lotus star Jennifer Coolidge as a comical TV medium named Judy Romano. Isabella Russo, Faith Ford, and Steve Coulter round up this exciting ensemble cast.
However, unlike everyone else in We Have a Ghost, David Harbour is tasked with giving a heartfelt performance without the use of his voice. Ernest is a silent phantom, which demanded a nuanced balance of physicality and expressive emotions in bringing the spirit to life. This presented a new challenge for the actor, and we got to dive into the specifics of We Have a Ghost with David Harbour himself in our exclusive interview. We cover how he approached the paranormal role without using his voice and where he draws his comedic inspirations from, even in roles like Jim Hopper and Santa Claus. Lastly, we asked Harbour how he’s feeling about his big summer coming up in 2023, as he’s preparing to shoot both Stranger Things Season 5 and his return as the Red Guardian in the MCU with Marvel Studios’ Thunderbolts around the same time.
Exclusive Interview with David Harbour for We Have a Ghost on Netflix
In We Have a Ghost, you play the film’s titular spooky spirit who haunts the house our main characters move into. What about that pitch got your interest and made you want to play Ernest the ghost?
David Harbour: First of all, I really like Chris Landon. He directed a movie called Freaky that came out a couple of years ago. I really liked the genre-bending aspect he brought to [We Have a Ghost], sort of subverting expectations, and I really liked the script. It reminded me a lot of E.T. where, you know, there’s this “alien” presence that the government and all these people get interested in and it takes this boy on a journey to take the alien home. It was an emotional read for me. That was really quite beautiful. Then there was also the other challenge that I really liked the idea of playing a character with no voice. I thought that would be a very interesting thing to do, to have to convey and reveal all these different things without saying a word.
Right, and since Ernest doesn’t speak in the film, your performance is mostly physical. Was a comedic silent role like this more challenging than you expected? Was it something that you were excited to explore as an actor?
David Harbour: I think both. I really like a challenge, but you also want to be good in things. But I prefer a challenge more than doing the same thing. So it was a lot of fun. It really forced me to get very specific about who this person was within the story and what I needed to reveal, because I didn’t have lines to help me do that. So I really needed to be specific on this is what this guy needs to be, this is what he needs to reveal to move the story along. That sort of focus helped me a lot. Also, I was really lucky in having a scene partner like Jahi [Di’Allo Winston]. We had a really nice chemistry, and I was really moved by him.
Famous characters of yours like Chief Hopper and, more recently, Santa Claus are each very different but still humorous in their own ways. Hopper is more serious with moments of levity while Santa is more of a comedic badass. Ernest in We Have a Ghost even has elements of pantomime. Where do you draw all these comedic elements for your various performances?
David Harbour: Yeah, it’s so weird. I don’t really define it. I don’t even really break it down into comedy or drama. Like, you say Santa is comedic, and I don’t disagree with you, but I approached it as if it were the most dramatic role in the world about a guy who has problems, who doesn’t believe in himself or this world, and who winds up in a house and having to save the day. So it’s really the investment. As an actor, if you pour that investment in, everything feels real and the situation itself will usually take care of the comedy. I mean, it’s inherently funny that this guy says, “Mr. Claus, well, you can call me Santa.” And the more you put a spin on that as like, “this is a funny line,” the worse it gets. Whereas it’s better if you keep it pretty straight.
So I think the approach is always about creating a character, whether or not it’s in drama or comedy, and letting the situation and the tone dictate whether it’s funny or dramatic. I just like playing all sorts of different people. I like doing different movies with different genres, I like to always present an audience something new. I want people to get excited when I’m in a movie. You can maybe expect that it’s going to be a little unexpected, it might be something that you don’t immediately compartmentalize. I like that concept. But in terms of characters I’m drawn to, I am always drawn to three-dimensional people who aren’t necessarily classic heroes or villains, but are somewhere in between the very three-dimensional.
Can you tell us what it was like to work with an incredible ensemble, including Anthony Mackie and Jennifer Coolidge?
David Harbour: Anthony I didn’t have that much together. He’s a great guy though, big personality. Very cool. Jennifer Coolidge is amazing. I only had one day with her. But it was a very specific, intimate day where I was basically, like choking her (laughs) and all sorts of things. She’s as amazing as you expect from all these interviews and these award shows. Then the other one that I love is Tig Notaro, she is hilarious. We had a lot of downtime sitting around waiting for setups and she just would make me laugh so much. You know, stories about the Indigo Girls, Taylor Dayne, all these things. She’s quite hilarious. I really loved her.
You’ve got a busy summer coming up with shooting Thunderbolts and the final season of Stranger Things. How excited are you to jump into both roughly at the same time?
David Harbour: Yeah, I’m feeling exhausted already. I feel like I need a nap. Just thinking about the year, it’s going to be crazy. It’s nothing like I’ve ever done before. You know, Stranger Things had to go. We have to get going because the kids are growing up, we got to shoot this thing! Then Thunderbolts came around, and I was terrified. I was like, “Oh god, if these things don’t work out, and I can’t do one?”
Luckily, the producers on both really made it work. They went to great lengths to make it work, but it means that I’m going to have to be running back and forth between sets in Atlanta, doing this crazy schedule. But, you know, I’m young and virile, so I figured I’d be able to do it. It’s going to be a hell of a summer. It’s going to be just a lot of work, but it’s a blessing. You know, I’m doing two amazing projects. So I’m fine with being exhausted.
Stranger Things rightfully rose your career to a whole new level. What are your thoughts on the series nearing its conclusion and how your fellow cast members have seen recent huge success in their growing careers?
David Harbour: What’s funny is when I started the show, I never ever wanted it to end. That’s why I love the show. I think it’s a great show, even if I wasn’t in it. Now we’re almost nine years from filming the first season, and I think it is time for it to end. But it is, of course, very bittersweet. You know, there’s a sadness there. But also, we’ve all grown up. It is time for us to leave that nest and try other things and different projects. And to let the Duffer Brothers try different things as well. I mean, those guys are so talented. I want to see what they come up with next. So it is bittersweet, but it’s definitely time.
Finally, we’ve already discussed 3 exciting projects you’re tackling this year, but what other kinds of roles are hoping to look for going into the future?
David Harbour: I got a bunch of stuff in the works that we’re developing. Unfortunately, you’re in the position where you get to ask me these questions and, as I’m sure you’ve heard a million times before, I can’t tell you anything. But there’s a bunch of really cool stuff coming down the pipe. I do have Gran Turismo coming out in August, which is this race car movie with Sony PlayStation. It’s a really exciting, fun movie directed by Neil Blomkamp. Then after this summer, there’s a lot of stuff that I’m developing.
It’s really exciting. I’m really looking at just as I said, being involved in projects not so much for the character, but more for like, what movie do I want to bring to people? What movie would I want to see in the theater? And a lot of them are movies that subvert expectations and that are cross-genre in certain ways. Also, ones that, you know, really make you laugh, really make you cry. That’s what I’m here to do!