How did a classically trained performer go from quirky character actor to slasher icon? New documentary Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story takes the viewer through the life and career of the man who brought Freddy Krueger to terrifying (and sometimes hilarious) life in the Nightmare on Elm Street series.
io9 got a chance to chat with Englund about the doc—which is co-directed by Gary Smart and Christopher Griffiths, and hits Screambox and digital June 6, with a Blu-ray release July 25. We also asked about Stranger Things, Freddy’s snappy one-liners, and how Nightmare creator Wes Craven helped him embrace his place in horror history.
Cheryl Eddy, io9: The documentary digs into something I’ve always wondered, which is what it’s been like for you to be so associated with this one hugely iconic horror character. You mention in the movie that Wes Craven actually helped you put it into perspective. What advice or encouragement did he give you?
Robert Englund: I think what Wes did was to remind me to respect the horror idiom. I had come out of the theater in the early ‘70s, and I was a bit of a snob. I had been doing lots of theater—Shakespeare and the classics—and even though as a child I loved horror films, I’d sort of forgotten that. Wes reminded me how important they are and to respect them. That helped me navigate the success of the franchise, because it was pretty fast and pretty overwhelming. I went from just being a utility actor and playing best friends and sidekicks in the ‘70s, and I had a nice career, but almost overnight I did a science fiction television series [V] and then Nightmare on Elm Street, and because they’re genre, they were both international hits. Fantasy, horror, science fiction—they travel much better than, let’s say, rom-coms, [because rom-coms are] very specific culturally. It was this great boost to my career to be an international actor.
io9: I loved hearing the tidbit in the documentary that you signed on for Elm Street in large part because you had a window open in your schedule.
Englund: Yeah, that was a hiatus.
io9: Did you have any idea at the time that it would be so huge? Was there a specific moment where you were like, “Whoa, this is a phenomenon”?
Englund: I do remember at some point—I’m trying to remember what the scene was or the sequence—but the set decorator and art crew, scenic crew had done some really quick, overnight, kind of surrealistic set in Nightmare one, and I remember thinking, “This is pretty great stuff.” I knew it was low-budget; they kind of protected me from the budget problems, [but] we [were] running out of money on the set and stuff, and I just wanted the people to see the film. I knew we were doing something special and good, but I had no idea, absolutely no idea, that it would become this iconic franchise.
io9: The documentary goes into how your interpretation of Freddy plays up both the horror and more humorous aspects of the character. What approach did you take in getting that tone just right?
Englund: Well, Wes, I believe, thought we took it too far in the ensuing franchise movies. But Wes laid that all out in the original. Freddy has wisecracks. You know, he cuts his finger off and jokes about it; he sticks his tongue out of the phone: “I’m your boyfriend now!” All of that stuff. He was kidding around from the get-go. I don’t know if this is my quote or Wes’, but we thought of him a bit as a cruel clown, which is an element in classic theater and in characters throughout history. I sort of thought of it as Freddy taking whatever he knew from a particular victim’s subconscious and turning it around and exploiting them with it. And that Freddy had fun doing it. So that was sort of my motivation.
io9: Was that a conscious choice to lean more into the comedy as the series went on? Why do you think that ended up happening?
Englund: Well, we probably went outside the box with Nightmare six, [Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare]. But I must confess, it was intentional. [Director] Rachel Talalay and the rest of us [sort of saw it as a] kind of horror Warner Bros cartoon. But the audiences responded to all the humor in Nightmare one and Freddy’s personality, so it was sort of logical for us to exploit that. That was something the fans demanded of us.
io9: Did you ever have any say in coming up with Freddy’s memorable one-liners? And do you have a favorite from over the series?
Englund: You know, I didn’t. I did one which was an improv on the set, which was “Welcome to Prime Time, bitch!” That had been an awkward line; I said the awkward line, and I added that to it. They let me, because I just I couldn’t get my mouth around the original line. It just didn’t seem quite like Freddy. That was Nightmare three, [A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors], and by then I kind of owned the character. I kind of knew what was right and wrong. I was always uncomfortable when I had to do a fight scene because I didn’t think Freddy needed to do that. But that’s my line.
And also in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Nightmare on Elm Street part seven, there’s a moment where I come out of the closet and it’s sort of like my return. That’s a very kind of deconstructed film—this is just before Wes did Scream—and I came out of the closet, literally came out of the closet, and I said, “Miss me?”, because there had been several years since we had done a Nightmare on Elm Street. [It had] been four or five years, and we returned with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. That was an ad lib, and Wes liked that. And Wes is the writer, the auteur of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, so I felt kind of blessed that he approved of that. Those are the only two lines I remember making up. The rest of them were scripted. You know, we had great writers like Wes and Brian Helgeland—just wonderful, wonderful writers over the years on those movies. [Frank Darabont], who wrote Shawshank Redemption, wrote one of those scripts. It’s like a who’s who, the people that worked behind the scenes on those films.
io9: Do you have a personal favorite Nightmare film?
Englund: I do like part seven. Nightmare on Elm Street part seven is my favorite of the films because we made it for the fans and it’s very smart and deconstructed, and you can watch it more than once. It has a lot of Easter eggs in it. But I think the fan favorite is Nightmare on Elm Street, part three—Dream Warriors. I like my performance in Nightmare on Elm Street part four, [A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master]. I’m a little more catlike in that. [Director] Renny Harlin let me kind of wear the scenery a little bit in that one and paint myself into the frame a little bit. I kind of danced with the camera more. I think that was the first time we used video assist. And so I was able to choreograph myself a little more, as I imagined Freddy would be in the sort of landscape of the nightmare.
Englund: I’m a fan of the show, and it was a great opportunity to work with Shawn Levy, because he is the new big deal. He’s the new thing and he’s so brilliant and he works so fast and he’s you know, he’s working on so many levels at once as an old dog like myself. It was really eye-opening and a great learning experience to work with Shawn. And it was terrific working with the girls, too. I was a big fan of Maya Hawke’s from season three, so I was able to share, you know, my fanboy talk with her. [Laughs]
Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story arrives on Screambox and Digital June 6. It comes to Blu-ray July 25.
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