Robert Englund is one of the most recognisable horror actrs of the last twenty years. Even though he has been covered in latex for most of his movie outings his distinct acting style and sinister mannerisms helped to create one of the greatest anti-heroes cinema has ever experienced, Freddy Krueger. We caught up with him in Manchester at the recent Collectormania event for this exclusive interview.
ZH: Could you start by just telling us what you’re doing over here?
ROBERT ENGLUND: I’m here for my friend, Jason who normally has me here for his Collectormania in Milton Keynes, and I love it because we always stay in this little village in Milton Keynes in the shadow of Cleo Lane and Johnny Dankworth, I love Jazz, and there’s some great walking and hiking there and there’s a great pub! I’ve been doing this for years since Freddy Vs Jason came out. It was such a huge hit after all the other Nightmare on Elm Street films and I hadn’t really been seeing the fans for a while for I was doing family films and directing in most of the late nineties and mid nineties and a few movies in Europe.
When the box set of DVD’s came out and Freddy Vs Jason it brought me a third generation of fans and I hadn’t been in the north a lot, I’d been in the South of Europe at film festivals meeting the fans and being on jury’s with Christopher Lee and things like that. But I hadn’t been signing autographs and meeting the fans and doing Q & A and such so its been fun the last couple of years, in fact the last three years or so to come to London and Sweden and Brussels, Netherlands and Germany to meet the Northern European fans. The great thing is when I come to Europe a lot of the time I see memorabilia or poster art that we don’t have in the States that I haven’t seen before and I’m a bit of a collector myself.
There’s a really famous outlawed Nightmare on Elm Street poster in the UK and they ripped off the James Bond logo where you’re looking down the sight of a gun at James Bond and believe me I’m not as six pack as David Craig, it was a great, cool silhouette of me and its says “Odeon” and “Opening in the UK” and I managed to score one of those last year for my office wall. But I love seeing that stuff, occasionally I’d see a Thai poster, someone here (at the Collectormania event) would have been to one of the old colonies and brought back a Nightmare on Elm Street poster.
I saw one of me from last time devouring Patricia Arquette, a giant Freddy swallowing her like a worm. But it was circus colours, it was just amazing, you’d need a loft it was so big, there’s no room in my place. And that’s kind of fun for me too, to see all this stuff that I haven’t seen before.
ZH: Why does horror appeal to you so much?
ROBERT ENGLUND: Well you know I loved it as a child and I was fascinated. Then I kind of grew out of it for a while and become this snobby, classically trained actor (laughs). There are several things I remember as a kid, I remember this big coffee table book that my Godfather had, and he was a book salesman and it was Life’s Picture History of Hollywood and it was all the archival photographs from silent films up to the 50’s. I remember looking through that. I love the Frankenstein stuff, the Golden Age of horror stuff and the photos of the sets and the one with Karloff getting his make-up on and smoking a cigarette.
But I remember being fascinated by this sequence of photographs of Lon Chaney, the “Man of a Thousand Faces” the original Phantom of the Opera, and these photos which were about twice the size of a postage stamp and everyone of the completely different across two giant pages of this coffee table book and I remember being so intrigued by that and I think that sort of lit the fire and then in America as a child in the 1950’s there wasn’t as much programming, there were only three networks so when you saw Frankenstein or King Kong you saw the original uncut version so you saw where King Kong stamps on the little native baby and it squishes through his toes and where Boris Karloff breaks the little girls neck because he cuddles her too much and throws her in the lake and feels bad, you know?
Really strange and wonderful stuff I got to see all of those as a kid and I was already obsessed by Twilight Zone, the original Twilight Zone. I remember being 8 or 9 years old and we’d all argue about what the shows meant in school and here it is 50 years later and I’m working with Richard Matherson again the guy who wrote those shows so that’s a circle remaining unbroken. A kind of karma.
I liked all kinds of horror film I remember in later years in the sort of renaissance of horror Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist and really liking those. The high budget horror come along like Silence of the Lambs but in between them I did my first horror film and Wes Craven sort of taught me to respect the genre again and I was able to go and see a low budget like Terror Train with Jamie Lee Curtis shot in Canada and it had hand held camera and the train moving a sense of claustrophobia you know the reality of being trapped in that environment that train environment. So I found some quiet little gems in real life.
You know I walked into a matinee of Texas Chainsaw Massacre one day and the original Hellraiser and things like that so I became a fan and a participant in the early 80’s and my movies were huge hits which opened the doors internationally for me so I met people like Dario Argento one of the great Italian horror directors. I met people like that so that sort of snowballed on me, made me part of that world and now I’m constantly called upon to be on jury’s at film festivals and present awards for horror and science fiction festivals. I’m like in that world sort of, I do other projects but that’s sort of my meat and potatoes
ZH: What are you up to at the moment, work wise?
ROBERT ENGLUND: I’m pretty busy right now. I just spent most of 2006 directing a film, a little teen comedy that I also helped raise the money for it. And you go through casting and pre-production and so it was almost a year of my life and it’s just finished. They’re shopping it now at the American Film Market and having screenings as I sit here. I’ve just hit that wall where all I can see are the flaws even though I’m very proud of it.
Its very funny I’ve got some of the girls from Mean Girls in it, got a new, strange little Internet artist names Andy Milonakis from MTV, and, I don’t know if you remember, Lyn Shaye with the saggy breasts from There’s Something About Mary. She’s also in Kingpin; she’s my insane landlady and a really terrific soundtrack by Master P. I took that old 80’s song from the UK, Our House, and re-did it into a down shifted rap beat and it worked really well as the film is called Killer Pad and its about a bunch of boys who are seduced into renting a house in Hollywood that’s really a portal to Hell! It’s pretty silly stuff, but, err the music is great, I’m really proud of that.
I have a film coming out in January that I just saw at the Hollywood Film Festival called Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and its terrific Blair Witch mixed with Psycho. It’s almost a “How To” book for a serial killer with this wonderful, charming actor in the lead and lots of people you know; Zelda Rubenstein from Poltergeist, this wonderful actor Angela Goethals who was on 24 last series and she played the schizophrenic daughter. Scott Wilson from CSI, so I was really happy to do it as I’m the Donald Pleasance, monster stalker.
It was a lot of fun with some really talented kids got together and did it and I just want to work with them again. Really bright, smart kids from Pennsylvania of all places and not via Hollywood. Then is just had a direct to DVD movie called Heart Stopper by Bob Keen who is most famous for his work on Hellraiser, Star Wars and Alien for predominantly special effects make-up but doing a lot of directing now and he’s associated with a group of people up in Canada and have a great war chest and are making some great little horror movies up there. But this is more of a serial killer movie also and that came out at Halloween.
ZH: Before you became famous for playing Freddy Krueger, here in the UK we knew you as friendly alien Willy from the sci-fi series V. Were you on a break when you got the part of Freddy?
ROBERT ENGLUND: I was on a break. Contractually I was obligated to do the series V after the Mini Series in those days it was the same contract, and I had this weird little moment of time and the only thing that fit into my schedule was Nightmare on Elm Street and I went up for an audition. You must remember back then that we all thought of Wes Craven as the next David Lynch because I remember being into a rock and roll music in the early eighties called New Wave, I think you guys called it that too, and it was a great scene because it wasn’t that expensive so you could go out every night and it would cost you $1.50 to get into a club, at the most.
And it was very democratic and it was just a minute of time and it was a wonderful time before all the rents became expensive in LA so the clubs could be on the East side or the West side or downtown and it was just a lot of fun a lot of great bands back then. I remember this one club I used to hang out back then and it had these two black and white TV’s over the bar on either side and this was just at the beginning of the video revolution and they had clips done in an MTV fashion of sequences from The Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left and I’d had a couple of drinks and I was in love with the bartender, this little punk girl that I kind of had a little crush on and I remember vividly sitting there nursing a drink flirting with this bartender and seeing those clips so when I was told Wes Craven wanted to see me I was pretty excited.
And then I read the script and I thought it was amazing as Wes is a terrific writer. He’s a humanities professor and has a real gift with words and before I met him I was expecting this kind of heavy metal guy, you know, black fingernail polish or something like that. And Wes is this sort of preppy, Ralf Lauren kind of a guy and err, it was kind of fun I just, I think as I remember I kind of played a sort of staring game with Wes. I was just staring and kept my mouth shut and I think its because I have a thin face maybe he thought when they put the make-up on me I would kind of look normal still on film.
I think the casting director knew me as I’d been up for almost every movie and all the best actresses in Hollywood demanded that I screen test with them but I didn’t get a single part. I kind of cancelled myself out by being so different for all these parts. I was up for the Jock and I was up for the monster and I was up for the funny guy and I was up for the nerd and I think I kind of cancelled myself out. I think the casting director was my champion or Wes saw something that, by the time I got home, I got the part.
And it was a big challenge (the make-up) and I wanted to try that and I think it goes back to that thing, that book I had as a child, that Lon Chaney “Man of a Thousand Faces” and just how different he looked in every photo and as an actor you need to do that on the stage a lot but on film you don’t get that gift a lot.
A lot of acting is just sort listen to that voice in the back of your head saying, “Robert, don’t act, don’t act”, and that’s not so much fun. As an actor you get worried you get caught acting and listening to that voice telling you not to act and there’s something hypocritical about that artistically and with the make-up and everything you get the chance to change your voice the way you move and it was kind of fun and liberating at the time I think, for my acting.
ZH: Did you ever expect it to became so successful?
ROBERT ENGLUND: I knew we were onto to something, my ex-girlfriend used to come to the set and she was an extraordinary talented girl who actually found a lot of big Hollywood stars when she was at Yale and had them in all her plays and she came on the set and instantly said “That kid”, meaning Johnny Depp, “is going to be a huge star” and Johnny had such a baby face then you never knew he would become the leading man that he did. When Johnny lost the baby fat in his face he really became beautiful and he really became the movie star of the millennium. But he really did have those chubby cheeks when he first, I mean, he was as cute as a bug’s ear but she called that.
Then I remember about a third if the way through or so Sean Cunningham from Friday the 13th came on to help Wes as we were running out of money and running out of time and I watched Sean work one day with Heather Langenkamp the actress, I think I was just off camera or something, and I could just tell that we were onto something and New Line back them would hire the best and the brightest and they wouldn’t pay you much but you knew if they liked you as they’d leave you alone and you’d do two or three movies for them that year. So if you figure that out, if you do two or three movies for them that year and two or three movies next year by two years from now I’ll have done six movies.
If I can mind my money maybe next year I could buy a house or something or a nice Condo. So it was kind of this nice carrot, creatively you were left alone and even though you weren’t making a lot of money you knew you’d be working for two years and you were almost guaranteed work if they liked you so they attracted these really great art directors, set decorators and effects people and now that I look back with hindsight I realise when we did this movie it was like old Hollywood, it was a period of time when special effects make-up and CGI and computer graphics.
Everyday they were inventing something new it was a great fun time of discovery and we were able to do a movie like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and see a $1 million special effect and be blown away and everybody would come back and talk all night and do drugs and drink or something and by the next day they could figure out how to do that effect in the Stanley Kubrick movie for about $10,000 - $20,000, the same effect because we were moving so fast, the new technology and everything so it was kind of an invigorating time.
ZH: Has Freddy been your favourite role?
ROBERT ENGLUND: Freddy’s been very, very good to me erm, I don’t know if he’s my favourite role or not. It’s hard for me to distinguish anymore. I’ve done close to70 movies, it’s hard to distinguish the part from the finished product from the process, you know, some movies are just fun where you are and everything. One of my early films I really liked doing but was cut out of was Stay Hungry and I really enjoyed that film.
And I did enjoy Phantom of the Opera I was kind of hammy but I really did enjoy doing that even though there was a lot of make-up involved with that. And an Italian movie I did which is really more process than performance conquering the language problems and it was just a lot of fun to do. Sometimes its just small parts, sometimes its just television because they were just fun to do like a silly comedy role. V was so much fun for me because I had so much time in front of the camera and I really learned to relax in front of the camera. On stage a lot of people love my energy and its easy to like my energy but its not necessarily the best thing I have to offer. A lot of directors want that from me and on V I was able to fight that and learn how to really relax and kind of hide from the camera a little bit and it was a great lesson in relaxation.
ZH: The popularity of the Freddy character worldwide, was this a surreal time for you?
ROBERT ENGLUND: Well I guess around ’89 was really an extraordinary time with the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and I think it maybe cost me a directing job or two and maybe an acting job or two from the typecasting but it was also so great for me because it was so international. You know I’d be staying in the Michael Jackson Suite in Tokyo and things like that. But the strange thing with this because of the DVD technology New Line put out this phenomenal box set of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and almost immediately after that we were in pre-production for Freddy Vs Jason so I’ve had this huge boost since the millennium because of that maybe peeking in 2004.
Then in 2004 I did a reality show in the United States and had to turn down all of the gift roles that were coming my way thanks to Freddy Vs Jason which is why in 2005 I did a load of movies for kids and low budget horror and such so all of these movies were piling up for me to do so my timing was a little off but its been almost a third wind off the original success and peeking about somewhere between ’89 – ’90 and then we did Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994 and the box set of DVD’s then the beginning of Freddy Vs Jason.
I have never done more than one movie a year and we did seven movies in 10 years and then we did number 8 in 2003 so its been nice, I’ve never been beat up by the progress of it all. But it’s strange I don’t know if Freddy has been my favourite part probably he’s because he’s like an old pair of shoes when I play him and if we did another one it would be Freddy Vs Prozac!
ZH: Would you make another one?
ROBERT ENGLUND: There’s been some really nice talk, I don’t know if you know a director called John McNaughton who made a great little cult film Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer but he’s one of the director’s who works best in a docudrama style, he’s great with that. He’s really found a middle ground between documentary making and storytelling I would love, and his name’s been mentioned, to do a prequel and I wouldn’t have the make-up on. My theory is that we’d structure it like a Law and Order episode, you’d see the children killed and who did it and you’d see the cops you know, chain-smoking, pill popping cops they break a few laws but they know that that son of a bitch Freddy Krueger did it and they get me and I’m incarcerated and then there’s a trial and these will be the best bits in the movie.
There’s two fat and horrible disgusting lawyers you know with combed over hair that get me off, get Freddy off and then of course the button is the parents going berserk and drinking too much and taking pills and freaking out because their children deaths have to be avenged like the villagers and the monster in Frankenstein and they burn me alive and that would be the button for the whole movie and to me that would be very enticing for me to do and I wouldn’t have to wear the make-up until the end probably so that would be great, I’d like to do that.
And then there’s been some talk of getting together with the Sam Raimi franchise The Evil Dead, but they’re going to make The Evil Dead for a new audience so that won’t happened as Sam and Bruce Campbell are doing that. Then there’s been some talk, some conferences with John Carpenter and New Line Cinema which leads me to believe that maybe that they are thinking of Michael Myers and Freddy and Jason coming together. I live in Laguna Beach and my local bartender has a great idea for that, I better not pitch it anymore and to save it but that would be an interesting idea so you’d really have a worth advisory and set it before they killed of Jamie Lee Curtis so we’d have someone really strong to go up against us.
ZH: Have you ever had a weird encounter with a fan?
ROBERT ENGLUND: I have some bizarre, there’s going to be some this weekend, I have Freddy fans with full body tatt’s, they look like yakuza Freddy fans and they have Freddy coming out of their flesh, you know, Freddy eating some girl on his back, Freddy wrestling Jason or something like that. But these guys always turn out to be really nice guys. Speed Metal or Heavy Metal rockers but really sweet guys as opposed to when I did V, I had a girl fan who was so obsessed with my character that she strapped her breasts down and had a 1970’s perm like mine and literally wore the costumes that I wore on the show, you know, the little lizard alien uniform with the little alien swastika and she was a really bright kid.
And one day she was freaking me out so much I told her she was writing me all these fan letters and I told her she was a fabulous writer and that she should focus this energy into a screenplay or something. I think that’s a lot healthier (laughs)
ZH: You starred in some of the great American TV shows such as Soap, Charlie’s Angels, Knight Rider and CHiPs, was this a good training ground?
ROBERT ENGLUND: You know, I was a movie actor, first of all, I was part of the independent renaissance of the ‘70’s as opposed to the Sundance renaissance of the ‘90’s and my first 5-6 years in Hollywood I was working for the best directors in the world. I worked with Robert Mulligan who directed To Kill a Mocking Bird, I worked with Daniel Petrie who directed the seminal black film A Raisin in the Sun that made Sydney Poitier a star and he discovered everyone else in that movie. He discovered teenage Lou Gossett Jr who won an Oscar for An Officer and a Gentlemen.
I worked with Bob Raffelson who discovered Jack Nicholson and directed Five Easy Pieces. I worked with Robert Aldrich who did the genre we’re all very familiar with, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane but he was also Robert Rossiter’s first directors and did populists things like the original Longest Yard and movies like that as well. And I worked with all sorts of wonderful people. I starred in a movie with Henry Fonda, I had a nude scene when I was 23 years old with Susan Sarandon, you can imagine what Susan Sarandon looked like then! I insulted Barbara Streisand in a movie, had my nose broken by Richard Gere and Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sally Field.
I worked with the old silent screen actress Lillian Gish, the Oscar winning actor Jack Warden who made one of the Walter Matthau/Julie Christie movies; I was this good movie character actor. Then Jaws came out and everything changed for a lot of us because Jaws made it that we had to have a blockbuster every summer and it kind of changed the way in which movies were made so the independent movies kind of went away, it was a tragedy that happened.
Jaws wasn’t a tragedy, it changed the industry, the other big thing was Dennis Hopper, I love Hopper, I starred in a movie with him, a Disney movie with Dennis Hopper! (laughs). Dennis took a ton of money from Hollywood and went down to Peru to make his great epic movie and just wasted a lot of money and hurt the independent film in Hollywood, kind of dried up all of the investment money, at the same time an event movie like Jaws came out and everyone said, “If I have an event movie every summer instead of having five movies and have an event movie I’ll put all my money into one thing and I’ll have a summer movie”, so in the late ‘70’s I began doing television and that’s when you go on a lot of interviews and I kept going. I did all the big cop shows like Police Story, Police Woman I did Police Dog!
I did Charlie’s Angels, you know, those shows I did ChiPs I did them all for as an actor when they do a re-run you get a nice little cheque, before there was cable, that was the money you got from all of those re-runs I just did tons and tons and tons of television.
I don’t know if it was good training, I think the real breakthrough for me, and it wasn’t as a movie actor, the big epiphany was on V, just that hiding from the camera, relaxation thing just came to me then. I worked with some actress on that show named Faye Grant and she’d just had a huge hit called Tales of the Gold Monkey with Stephen Collins and when you’re in a TV show you can have so much screen time you can be saturated and at times its good to play a scene like this (hides his face behind his hand) and then just turn to say your line and face the camera save it a little bit, hide yourself a little bit and turn to the camera every once in a while that way you have a little more control than the editor and I worked so much with her, it was really frustrating as an actor and fun as she wasn’t really giving me a lot.
When we’d go home we’d go to someone’s house and have a beer and a pizza and watch the show and damn it she was always the best thing in the show because she could control when they had to cut to her for moments and that was a big lesson and just not always having to give but letting the camera take from you. I did a lot of work before that that I’m proud of but that was a turning point for me it was around ’82 and I’d already been in Hollywood nine years.
ZH: If you could take one memory away from your horror work, what would it be?
ROBERT ENGLUND: Well, I think, I guess the great gift of international success I wouldn’t know you, you wouldn’t be here filming this, I think I’d been to Europe a minimum of two times a year every year since 1982 directly as a result of V publicity, awards, festivals, A Nightmare on Elm Street publicity, screenings other horror movies and films Urban Legend, things like that and that international audience has just been this great, great gift that horror movies gave to me and that was a nice one-two punch that was V (science fiction) and Freddy (horror) that opened the doors for me.
I think that’s the greatest gift that it’s given me and I’ve done eight or nine movies in Europe now and that’s great too. I could go up an audition for three, four, five, six ER’s before you even get one and then you could get cut out a lot because there’s so many people on that show but I can go off to Italy and make a little movie and sit outside eat some really good pasta and drink some wine and sit on set and say, “hey we’ll get the shot tomorrow, I don’t mind” and I love staying in a villa somewhere and also at my age it’s a terrific gift and is almost like going back in time and being a movie star and I would never have gotten that if I hadn’t put all that make-up on, wiped myself with the Vaseline and scared those teenage girls in lingerie (laughs).
ZH: What do you think makes a good horror movie?
ROBERT ENGLUND: I think everything starts with story and you can have all the special effects in the world and all the gore in the horror movie but if the story’s not there it’s not going to succeed. I think the one reason we have the great, brutal phase of horror right now with the Saw films, Hostel, I think they’re the punk rock songs answering the bloated rock songs of the ‘70’s and the crap Disco of the ‘70’s and I think too many horror films of recent years, big budget and small budget, relied on the CGI and the effects if they couldn’t entertain us or scare us and I think that’s why we’ve gone back to this really brutal, graphic, violent horror sort of punk rock horror like some of the original brutal horror movies like Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the original Hellraiser, things like that. And so I think you’ve got to have a script, I mean I’m English trained and that makes all the difference as America is more director first and I think you guys are still story first and I think that’s got to be the guideline.
ZH: What are you up to at the moment, work wise?
ROBERT ENGLUND: I’m pretty busy right now I just spent most of 2006 directing a film, a little teen comedy that I also helped raise the money for it. And you go through casting and pre-production and so it was almost a year of my life and it’s just finished. They’re shopping it now at the American Film Market and having screenings as I sit here. I just hit that wall where all I can see are the flaws even though I’m very proud of it. Its very funny I’ve got some of the girls from Mean Girls in it, got a new, strange little internet artist names Andy Milonakis from MTV, and, I don’t know if you remember, Lin Shaye with the saggy breasts from There’s Something About Mary.
She’s also in Kingpin, she’s my insane landlady and a really terrific soundtrack by Master P. I took that old 80’s song from the UK, Our House, and re-did it into a down shifted rap beat and it worked really well as the film is called Killer Pad and its about a bunch of boys who are seduced into renting a house in Hollywood that’s really a portal to Hell! It’s pretty silly stuff, but, err the music is great, I’m really proud of that.
I have a film coming out that I just saw at the Hollywood Film Festival called Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and its terrific Blaire Witch mixed with Psycho.
It’s almost a “How To” book for a serial killer with this wonderful, charming actor in the lead and lots of people you know; Zelda Rubinstein from Poltergeist, this wonderful actor Angela Goethals who was on 24 last series and she played the schizophrenic daughter. Scott Wilson from CSI, so I was really happy to do it as I’m the Donald Pleasance monster stalker. It was a lot of fun with some really talented kids got together and did it and I just want to work with them again. Really bright, smart kids from Pennsylvania of all places and not via Hollywood. Then I just did had a direct to DVD movie called Heartstopper by Bob Keen who is most famous for his work on Hellraiser, Star Wars and Alien for predominantly special effects make up but doing a lot of directing now and he’s associated with a group of people up in Canada and have a great war chest and are making some great little horror movies up there. But this is more of a serial killer movie also and that came out at Halloween
ZH: Robert Englund, thank you very much
Many thanks to Collectormania and The Monster Company for helping organise this interview.