Freddy Krueger is one of cinemas greatest horror villains. He’s relentless, driven and, most importantly, fun to watch. On November 9, 2014, A Nightmare on Elm Street turns 30 and Toronto’s Festival of Fear is celebrating by bringing together three of the 1984 film’s stars, Heather Langencamp, Jon Saxon and Robert Englund, for a look back at one of the most iconic horror films in history.
For this momentous cinematic anniversary, we chatted to Robert Englund, the man behind the makeup of Freddy Krueger about spending the last 30 years (and eight movies) with him.
What many cinemagoers don’t know about Robert Englund is that he’s an incredibly accomplished stage actor. Beginning his career at the young age of 12 in a children’s theatre program at California State University, Northridge, he went on to study at Meadow Brook Theatre in Michigan, a branch of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. When asked if he felt that his classical theatre training, and clear talent for character acting, helped in the crafting of one of the greatest horror icons since the Universal Monster movies of the 1960s, he defers. “Well, you know, it’s all Wes, I have to tell you,” he says. “Wes bridles at the fact that we really pushed the envelope with the humour, but in fact that was already implicit in the original. Freddy cracks wise. He sticks his tongue out of a phone. He chops his fingers off. He eviscerates Tina and wears her face. He has one-liners, ‘I’m your boyfriend now.’ He’s already kidding around. He’s a cruel clown. And that’s all Wes.”
It’s obvious to everyone who has seen a Nightmare movie that this is simply not the case. The character of Freddy Krueger is in equal parts terrifying and delightful, and that doesn’t come just from a good reading of the script. “I think if I am responsible for anything it’s that I fought to retain the fedora. At the last minute both Bob Shaye and Wes Craven were considering changing the hat,” he says, continuing his humble explanation, but then goes on to add, “I also sort of brought the physicality to Freddy, the way he moves, there’s a certain swagger. I remember one day standing in front of the mirror and I was six hours into the day and I was tired and I had that glove on and my right shoulder was dropped low because that’s the glove hand shoulder and I looked in the mirror and I thought, ‘What do I look like, what am I reminded of?’ And I realized I looked kind of like a gunslinger in an old cowboy movie, in an old western. So I kind of used that, I kind of embraced that, that kind of posture. Now it’s become kind of the signature posture of Freddy. And that kind of worked for me. People don’t understand it when I say this but I was influenced a little bit by Kalus Kinski and Nosferatu and a little bit by Jimmy Cagney in his kind of legs spread, planted posture. Cagney’s a small man and I’m not a big guy, I’m only 5’10”. So I used that a little bit. There’s even bit of Bob Fosse asymmetry in some of my choices.”
Englund credits his depth of understanding of character construction to his time on stage, saying “I felt very liberated physically and obviously I was liberated vocally. And I had to move my face more to get the makeup to register. So those were all things that I had to do with Freddy. But I would not have had the confidence to do half of that had I not been a stage actor, so I was able to kind of bring those. But you know they’re really different beasts, theatre and film.” He also credits the need to rise to the level of the production values on A Nightmare on Elm Street, noting, “because once you put that makeup on and you stand in front of the exaggerated scenery or the surrealistic scenery of the Nightmare on Elm Street stuff, some of them at least, or the exaggerated camera angles, you kind of have to live up to that as an actor. So I was able to use some of my tricks for the first time in the theatre in my performance on film.”
Being associated with one of the biggest names in horror for the last 30 years can’t have been easy, and it leads one to wonder what Englund’s personal relationship with Freddy is. When asked, he laughs. “I made peace with Freddy a long time ago. I made peace with the fact that it was going to be the first thing mentioned in my obituary no matter what. At some point I realized that it was hugely international. You know when you hear Johnny Carson doing Freddy Krueger jokes and Tom Hanks doing Freddy Krueger jokes and The Simpsons doing Freddy Krueger jokes you know you’re part of the zeitgeist. You know you’re in the universal vernacular. I’ve seen huge Freddy billboards in Europe and I’ve seen Freddy on the sides of double-decker busses in London. And I’ve seen Freddy on giant Sony neon displays in downtown Tokyo. So I understand that he’s not part of the vernacular. It’s like saying Frankenstein. Or Dracula. Freddy Krueger. He’s kind of entered the vocabulary of the world now, so I’ve made peace with that.”
He also knows he’s in the minority of actors who embrace an iconic character in this way, but he credits his own “fanboy” origins for his ability to roll with it. “As a result of working with Wes and being reminded of my own fanboy origins as a child and having old Mark Hamill as a buddy of mine in the ‘70s and knowing Mark’s fanboy origins and how Mark respected Luke Skywalker so much, I also allowed myself to surrender to the phenomenon that is A Nightmare on Elm Street worldwide. And I embraced it. And that was very smart because what it was for me, I had a kind of double dose of international success with the television series V and then Nightmare on Elm Street, so I’m able to work all around the world now. It’s like this great adventure that’s happened as a result of Freddy and I’m really glad now that I made that decision to surrender and embrace the genre.”
Englund has 143 acting credits to his name, which is proof of a long career for a talented man. He also believes he escaped some of the typecasting stigma of such an internationally recognized character simply by having proven his ability in the years leading up to his fateful casting in Nightmare. “I was fortunate. I’d done probably 12-15 movies before I did Nightmare on Elm Street and one successful television series as well as some guest star roles on TV, and the industry knew me. They knew Robert Englund, albeit it was a young Robert Englund. They knew Robert Englund was a trustworthy character actor. So when the Freddy phenomenon really took off I was already established in Hollywood. They’d already seen me do other things. They’d seen me play a best friend and sidekick and surrogate son to Henry Fonda, one of the greatest film actors in the history of movies. They’d seen me starring with Jeff Bridges and Sally Field. They’d seen me have two little innocent love scenes with Susan Sarandon who was an unknown ingénue back then. So they knew that I was a trustworthy talent and so I was able to relax a little bit and embrace the phenomenon, whereas had it been 10 years earlier, or 11 years earlier, I might have not wanted to do that. I might have fought it. I might have bridled at the aspect of being typed. For me it was okay, and I’m glad I did it. You can’t really control a career, I’ve watched too many actors that are better than I am try to, to no avail.”
Perhaps this is what makes Freddy such an irresistible character, that the man behind him is such a character himself. Multi-faceted, always looking for a new role to challenge himself or just have some fun, Robert Englund is not a one-note actor, so he couldn’t have produced a one-note character. Perhaps this is why he couldn’t be replaced with a stuntman in the 2010 remake of the film, instead having to hire another acclaimed character actor, Jackie Earle Haley. And perhaps that’s why we all love it when Freddy Krueger haunts our dreams.