From the great multiverse of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the overlapping realities of Down Under in Stranger Things, there seems to be one common denominator – having David Harbour linked to Russia.
At the end of the third season of the hit Netflix series, Harbour’s Hopper is discovered alive and well, but in a Russian gulag. And in the upcoming Black Widow, the first solo movie starring the founding member of the Avengers, Harbour plays Russian super-soldier Alexei Shostakov, better known as Red Guardian.
Says the 46-year-old actor with a laugh during a roundtable interview with Geek Culture, “It’s just a horrible coincidence that I’ve had to pay for a year of internet trolling about my, you know how Hopper wound up in Russia and then found some supersuit and kind of became the Red Guardian. It’s just a very funny coincidence,
And because Covid-19 delayed the release of the movie and the shooting of the TV series, Harbour made a conscious effort in not making a visual link between both characters.
“The funny thing is we tried to make them very different as a result of that. Alexei has long hair and a beard and the whole thing, and like I wound up for season four of our show which I’m kind of shooting now. I went to shave it all off. But yeah, it’s a weird, weird coincidence.”
The film, which has been delayed a year, takes place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, and positions Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) aka Black Widow’s last acts before fighting Thanos, when the reunites with her Russian family, fellow Black Widow “sister” Belova (Florence Pugh), former Black Widow and one-time spy mother, Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), as well as daddy himself, Alexei.
Whilst much of Natasha’s past has been kept secret, the movie gives fans a deeper look into the other people Natasha calls her family, as she reluctantly sets out to search for Alexei.
Heavyset, with scraggly long hair and a thick beard, Harbour transformed himself physically to take on the role of Red Guardian. Whilst the actor sports short hair and a neat beard in real life, Harbour presses that there really isn’t much difference between his on screen character and real life persona. In fact, Harbour finds Alexei a relatable character.
“I think that Alexei is a complicated dude who has made bad decisions in his past and is trying to make up for those. I think his heart is in the right place a lot of times but he does things with self interest, because he can’t follow through and I think that’s his lesson throughout the whole thing, is that he can learn to show up for other people beyond himself,” said Harbour of his character.
And the similarities also extend to Harbour’s own reality.
“I think that I’ve struggled with that. I think as an actor you are drawn to it (acting), primarily because you want to be the center of attention, you have this narcissism, but at its essence, hopefully, acting at its best is a service industry. It’s like you’re serving the public by bringing something beautiful to their life or entertaining them or making them see life differently so you know that duality helps me identify with the character like that.”
As Harbour neatly puts it, Alexei is a narcissist who constantly puts himself in the middle of every situation, and is completely oblivious to Natasha’s and Yelena’s feelings. And then there is the show’s attempt at reconciling his relationship with his two daughters, which again, is similar to his own life.
He recently married British singer Lily Allen and became a stepfather to her two young daughters. The actor still lives in wedded bliss and shared how Allen’s daughters calling him “Dad” and “some man in our lives” inspired him to take the next step into marriage, and gave him special insight into the discourse of what makes a real family.
“I’ve only recently gotten married and have step-kids now but for a long time I didn’t. I had these situations that were very nomadic like working on films when you become a tight knit family and then you’d disband very quickly so I understood the idea of people feeling like those relationships might be closer than they were. I myself feel like a relationship might be closer on a film set because of this hyper intensity, and then having it dissolve and being like, ‘Oh, it wasn’t really real’ – that was another thing I felt like I had sort of special insight into,” shared Harbour.
Throughout the movie, audiences will watch Alexei seemingly try to reestablish a relationship with his two spy daughters, particularly with the younger Yelena, and for all of the heartache the journey is shown on screen, Alexei’s growth wasn’t something that was initially planned in the script. Just like co-star Pugh, Harbour is thankful that director Cate Shortland was open to work with the actor and develop a journey for the character that Harbour felt was necessary, to give his character the heart and warm vulnerability that runs deep behind his mask of narcissism.
“We did a lot of personal stuff in rehearsals and we changed a lot of the script as well. We had two weeks of pre-production where we actually sat down every day – Cate, Rachel, Scarlett, Florence, myself, the writer and the producers – and we really went through the script and tried to make it as personal as possible because I think we found that the real important thing that we could bring to the film was this heart of this family,” recalled the star.
“One of the things that came out of that was the song that’s very important to Yelena and Alexei. You know that scene ended in a different way. It was a ridiculous scene of this narcissistic father, just a bumbling bad father who’s too concerned with himself and his own image, but we wanted to have something where we can see that he’s trying and he’s doing his best,” said Harbour.
“There are little things like that that weren’t in the original script but they were things that came out of rehearsals and discussions about the real heart of the film and I was really pleased that in a huge budget movie like this, they let us have all that input.”
Speaking of input, alot of Harbour’s additions into Alexei’s character is influenced by his own relationship with his father. As seen in the movie, Yelena and Alexei’s relationship revolves around driving around the block and putting on Don McLean cassette tapes, and it’s seen again later on when Alexei tries to make amends with his daughter. Reminicinsing back, Harbour shared that that very same activity was what his father used to do with him growing up.
Another relationship that Harbour wanted to touch on, but admitted he doesn’t have all the details, was on his character’s relationship with Captain America. Or if there is even one to begin with.
In the comics, the Red Guardian is the Russian equivalent of Captain America, as the Russian super-soldier sports a star on his costume, and also carries a shield, though with a red tone over the blue that Captain America dons.
In a particular scene, Alexi recounts and boasts of an old encounter with Captain America when the Red Guardian was in his prime, except that fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will remember that Steve Rogers woke from his 70 year slumber only recently, and much too recent for Alexei to consider it an old encounter.
So who was the Red Guardian fighting then? Harbour doesn’t know either.
“At one point he says to Natasha, ‘We (Captain America and I) were like colleagues, you know we hated each other but we respected each other.’. I don’t know what reality Alexi is living in. I think he’s living in his own psychotic delusional reality. I doubt that him and the actual Captain America ever even met really,” he admits.
“I like that Alexei is just jealous and just annoyed at other people’s fame and I just think it’s hilarious. I mean the thing that’s the funniest is he really does think that he’s up there with the Avengers, and for 10 years they’ve been making these movies and no one’s ever mentioned him. It’s fantastic that he burst on the scene 10 years later and is like, ‘Yeah everybody’s been talking about me this whole time, clearly, Captain America’,” joked Harbour.
But in some ways, the door is now open for the Red Guardian to face off against the new Captain America aka Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie).
“I really have no idea what the future of this character, but I would love to see more of this Russia vs America square off in terms of what Anthony Mackie is bringing, and I’ve said it before, like I love him. I think he’s a terrific actor. I think that his character is terrific, very American in a certain way and I would love to see what these two guys would do together.”
Until then, fans can catch David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian in the upcoming Black Widow movie when it opens in theatres on 8 July, with sneaks on 7 July and Disney+ Premier Access on 9 July.