“Good. I’m sick of answering questions about how long my makeup takes,” Robert Englund says upon being told that we’re going to do a different kind of interview. Not that Englund isn’t grateful for the fame that playing Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare On Elm Street series has brought him over the past four decades; quite the contrary. It’s just that Englund has a lot of other things to talk about. With a career than spans everything from the ’70s independent film scene to voice-over work for Cartoon Network and Adult Swim to his status as a horror movie icon, Englund has done one of everything—or three of everything, when it comes to giant alligator movies.
We spoke to Englund just before the release of his newest film, Nightworld, one of those “Van Helsing roles” that he joked about in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly. (It’s out now on demand.) We didn’t talk about vampire hunting, but we did find Englund’s tastes, which lean toward houseboats, fine wine, and the English stage, to be downright erudite. He also told us about how much he likes the phrase “ass wipe” and how tucking an albino python in a sweat sock into his armpit cured him of a childhood fear, though, so it wasn’t all sophisticated cocktail-party chatter.
1. If you could spend the rest of your life inside one movie or TV show, what would it be and why?
Robert Englund: Oh, gosh. I mean, one of the clichés would be It’s A Wonderful Life, that last great moment of American innocence. But if it was a TV show—a long time ago, there was this great TV show called It’s A Man’s World on NBC. It was three bachelors living on a houseboat, and when I was a kid, it just seemed to me to be the coolest thing in the world. That would probably be the TV show, and no one will remember it but old people. But it was just a place I thought looked great and where I wanted to be.
The A.V. Club: Have you ever been on a houseboat?
RE: I have, actually. It was rented by Susan Sarandon, for a party on a movie I did back in the ’70s. She was my leading lady in a film called Last Of The Cowboys. It was one of those trucker movies, but it had a great cast: Henry Fonda, Eileen Brennan, Susan Sarandon—really good cast. Susan was also the associate producer on that movie, and she rented a houseboat up in Northern California, and we had a big party on a lake one weekend. Oh, and my father-in-law used to have a houseboat down in Sausalito.
AVC: Was it everything you dreamed it would be?
RE: It was Sausalito, that’s probably one of the 10 best places in the world. My father-in-law lived up there for years. I think houseboats are cool. They’re probably damp and horrible if you have a hangover, because you’re moving a little bit on the water. Like a waterbed. But I think they’re romantic.
2. Do you have a favorite swear word or phrase, and how often do you use it and in what circumstances?
RE: Swear words do change over time. But my real favorite would be in reference to somebody that is just sort of taking up space, getting in the way. It sounds like you’re making fun of someone who has halitosis from a certain part of their anatomy. I think I heard it when I was very young. It’s very funny to me. It’s like, third person, like “don’t go to that beach, it’s full of…”
AVC: Wait, what is it?
RE: Well, one is “ass wipe,” and the other is “ass breath.” When I was younger, I heard my friends use it—cooler, older guys, you know. They’d say, “Nah, Englund, you don’t want to hang out with that guy. He’s an asswipe.” It just always made me laugh. It’s kind of nasty, but it’s also pretty funny.
3. How did you spend your last birthday?
RE: Oh, it was horrible! I screwed up my foot. I got these fancy summer shoes in the village where I live. I ended up getting a half size larger than I normally wear, and I thought, “They’re summer shoes, no big deal.” But the first day I had them I went out to feed the dog, and I slipped on a step in my backyard, and I broke my fifth metatarsal. I spent from the middle of May to the middle of July in one of those Velcro boot things. Everything sticks to it—it looks filthy. So I was hanging around with my boot on, hobbled and out of commission. Not much to do but drink wine, watch baseball, and pick the burrs out of my Velcro.
AVC: The first two sound pretty fun.
RE: They were. Especially since my Dodgers were doing great then. They still are.
4. What’s the worst professional advice you’ve ever received?
RE: I’ve mostly gotten good professional advice, actually. But you know those 8-by-10 photos all actors are supposed to have?
AVC: Head shots?
RE: Yeah. Everybody does that all the time, and everybody wants to have whatever the new style is. Are they composite? Are they black and white? Is there a frame on it? I stopped using those long ago. I was lucky that I was established and didn’t have to do it. But poor actors spend a fortune doing those every six months [and they don’t really have to].
The other advice that I got that was bad… I wrote a book. I was proud of it. It was a lot of work. I had a good publisher. But this was right when print was starting to take a big hit. Newspapers were folding and publishers were in trouble because everyone was using the internet. So I finished my book in the middle of all that, and I had been promised all this publicity. I got a little bit. I went to New York, and I went to London, and there were huge lines at the few bookstores I did go to.
But I was told not to get my own publicist, because the company—it was a huge company that shall remain nameless—was supposed to provide the publicity. But publishing was taking a huge hit, financially, and the company was just beginning to feel it. I should have hired my own publicist for my book. Then I could have done all the talk shows, and maybe it would have gone into a second printing.
5. If you were a medical doctor, what kind of doctor would you be and why?
RE: Oh, this one’s easy. I’ve thought about this. I’d be a pediatrician, because children are so resilient. It’s just a higher success rate. I know you do lose the occasional child, but you’re not really dealing with cancer. That’s an oncologist. As a pediatrician, you’re mostly curing children and birthing babies, and that’s all positive and hopeful and life, you know? And yes, there’s the occasional baby that dies, and yes there’s an occasional child that gets very sick, but that usually goes on to a specialist. With a pediatrician it’s more about healing and life and babies and the future and hope, and I think if I was a doctor that’s what I’d be.
AVC: You really have thought about this.
RE: Yeah, I’m an old guy, and sometimes these things cross your mind.
6. What’s your perfect Sunday?
RE: I like to play catchup on Sundays. So I’m usually in the flow with whatever my favorite new show is on HBO or Showtime. I like Ray Donovan, and I’m watching The Deuce. Game Of Thrones was my Sunday show for a while. That, or I’m playing catchup on movies, or bingeing on Netflix. I think last Sunday, my wife and I binged the whole third season of Narcos. It was great. I like reading the Sunday paper. I’m still that guy. So that’s what I like to do on Sunday. It’s real relaxed.
AVC: Is there a movie you saw recently that you really loved?
RE: I just saw The Shape Of Water by Guillermo Del Toro at a film festival. It was absolutely phenomenal. And I was really impressed by A Ghost Story, with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. It made me think a lot. There’s a lot I haven’t seen yet that I need to catch up on—my friend Robert Patrick has a violent little thriller out that I need to see, and the director of Bone Tomahawk has a new movie out, with Vince Vaughn.
AVC: Brawl In Cell Block 99.
RE: Yeah, I just missed that one. I had just come out of The Shape Of Water. It was the second movie that night, at the film festival in Barcelona. Everyone was there. I got to tell Vince [Vaughn] that I like it when he’s mean, I got to tweet about Guillermo, I got to meet William Friedkin and tell him how much I love his movie Sorcerer. It was great. We were having lunch together, and I got to tell him my favorite moment in that. I think he felt the love.
7. What do you get snobby about?
RE: Well, I don’t like standing in line. I never have. It has nothing to do with being self-important. It’s just that when I was growing up, you didn’t really have to stand in lines. If you did, they were short. Even at Disneyland, the line was at most 15 to 20 people, and that was on the Matterhorn or something. And when you went to a movie, you just walked up and got a ticket and walked in whenever you felt like it. So now, it drives me crazy. I think part of it is the weekend warrior mentality. So I try to avoid [going out on] weekends and leave them to everyone else.
What else am I snobby about? When I was a college kid, I drank everything. I partied. But then that moment happens where you have a really good glass of wine, and you have to learn about it, and there’s no going back from there with your palate. I’m not snobby about inexpensive wines, but you do start to appreciate things done right. I’m a little bit that way with wine.
8. What book have you read the most?
RE: I don’t re-read a lot. When I was little, I was a precocious reader. I actually skipped a grade because of my reading abilities. Certainly not my math or science abilities. But I was far enough ahead in my reading comprehension that I skipped half of the fourth grade. The point of that isn’t to brag, but to say I read some things too young. So I should probably re-read Catch-22, and I should probably re-read The Sound And The Fury by Faulkner. But I don’t usually re-read. Life’s too short, and there’s too much good stuff out there. I can’t wait to read the new Jennifer Egan book, Manhattan Beach.
9. Here’s a question I bet you have been asked before: What are you afraid of?
RE: I used to be afraid of snakes, and it was because of a scene in a movie when I was very young. I accidentally saw the grown-up movie one weekend because I went to the matinee too late, and I saw The Naked And The Dead, the Norman Mailer war-novel adaptation. There’s a scene where a GI gets bitten by a snake on a tropical island in the South Pacific and just has a horrible death. It freaked me out for years.
I also remember running down a hill once in Griffith Park, and there was a rattlesnake at the bottom of the hill—you know when you’re a kid, and you get running fast and you can’t stop yourself?—and I leaped over the rattlesnake. He took a swipe at me, but he didn’t get me.
AVC: Oh, my god.
RE: Yeah. But like every good horror actor, I eventually did my giant snake movie [2000’s Python]. Sooner or later, you do your giant alligator movie, and your killer bee movie, and your giant snake movie. I’ve done all three of them—in fact, I’ve done three giant alligator movies! But when I was doing my giant snake movie, I was playing the snake expert, you know, the old scientist in the white suit. And they gave me a baby python in a sweat sock with a shoelace that I would wear under my armpit.
AVC: In a sock?!
RE: Yeah, in a sock. They like the warmth and moisture under your arm. And then I would take it out during scenes and play with it. I knew it looked cool. Ooooh, I knew it looked cool. I’d have it coil around my hand and everything. It was a little baby girl albino python. So I’m over snakes. Now, I guess the thing that’s most unnerving to me is that I still imagine myself as a hot rod kid, so when I see a cop car behind me in the rearview mirror, my heart really does race. I still have that thing.
We were in a taxi that almost rear-ended somebody the other day. The guy went berserk, and there was an undercover cop that just happened to be behind us and he turned on his lights, and I thought, “We’re in trouble,” but he went after the guy that was yelling at us. But my heart… It’s that Alfred Hitchcock thing, the cop in the rearview mirror. It always freaks me out. It always works in movies, too.
10. What are you a big fan of that we wouldn’t necessarily guess that you’re a big fan of?
RE: Here’s what I love, you can pick out what’s strange. I love travel. Italy is my favorite country. I’m a big fan of surfing. I was a surfer. I wish I had something really contrary like ballet or opera, but I’m a huge theater fan. I guess this is about as rare and out there as you can get for Freddy Krueger, for a guy who’s had my career. I’m a huge fan of English theater. I love it. Every time I can get over to London, I see shows on the West End and at the National Theatre and off-London.
11. What advice would you give to your younger self?
RE: Probably not to worry so much, and also to be more free and trust your own instincts more on auditions. I’ve worked a lot—I’m close to 80 movies now, and hundreds of hours of television. But I hate to audition, and I don’t ever like my auditions. My best auditions never got me parts, and I’ve gotten parts with my bad auditions. I don’t understand it. When you audition, it’s never with another actor—it’s with a secretary. They’re not actors, and that’s a very different experience for an actor, in a very vulnerable moment. So yeah, I would be more loose and less worried about auditions and just freer with my instincts.
12. Bonus 12th question from Daniel Radcliffe: Do you like your name?
RE: I do, but my wife’s maiden name sounds even better as my last name.
AVC: What’s that?
RE: Booth. Robert Booth. I just like the way that sounds. But I like Robert Englund. If I had to do it all over again—my name’s Swedish—I might have put an “a” in there instead of a “u.” Because I trained a little bit over in England. But other than that, yeah, I like my name. When I was young, I was “Bobby” and “Bob” and “Robbie” for a long time, though.
AVC: Did you like that?
RE: I did, until My Three Sons came out, and then I couldn’t stand being called “Robbie” anymore. Older directors still call you “Bobby” sometimes, although I’m the old guy on the set now.
AVC: What would you like to ask the next person, not knowing who you’re asking?
RE: Since it’s me, here’s a great one. It’s general, but it’s coming directly from me. Ask them what their nightmares are. Do they have a recurring nightmare, and what is it?