Theatrically trained actor Robert Englund had carved out a decent career for himself by the early '80s. Heading out to Los Angeles in the '70s, he won prominent supporting roles in films by directors such as Robert Aldrich, John Milius, and Bob Rafelson, and worked alongside everyone from Barbra Streisand to a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. From 1983 to 1984, he raised his profile even higher by playing Willie, the sympathetic alien in the TV movie V, as well as its sequel and spin-off series. Then, intrigued by the reputation of director Wes Craven and looking to fill his downtime between V-related projects, Englund auditioned for the part of Freddy Krueger in Craven's A Nightmare On Elm Street. Soon, there was no looking back. Through five proper sequels, a TV series, and the superb postmodern epilogue Wes Craven's New Nightmare, Englund played the child-murdering Freddy with gleeful abandon, watching as the character became a part of the pop-culture landscape. Since then, Englund has become a staple of horror films, and more recently become involved in a series of small-budget European productions, but Freddy remains his signature role. New Nightmare seemed to signal a logical end to the character, but when New Line, the studio behind the Elm Street series, acquired the rights to fellow '80s slasher icon Jason of the Friday The 13th series, a match-up seemed inevitable. Now Englund can be seen reprising his role in Freddy Vs. Jason, a team-up directed by Hong Kong fantasist Ronny Yu, who previously revived pint-sized slasher Chucky for Bride Of Chucky. Englund recently discussed Freddy Vs. Jason, his surfing hobby, and his European career with The Onion A.V. Club.
The Onion: Around the time the second Nightmare On Elm Street movie came out in 1985, you said in an interview that it was probably the end of it for you. What happened?
Robert Englund: I have no idea. I think the real key here is that everybody underestimated the universality of the concept of a nightmare or a bad dream. Horror movies travel pretty well anyway. They're like action movies: People overseas can watch them and enjoy them, and they're not so culturally specific in terms of their references, and they can follow a good scary story. The Nightmare On Elm Street movies, on top of that, have this great mythology going with the dreamscape and the nightmares, which is so universal that anybody can identify with it. I think that's really what happened. Then, along with that, you've got a monster with a personality, which certainly contributes to it. And we've had some of the best directors. All of our directors have gone on to be major players in Hollywood: Renny Harlin, Stephen Hopkins, who just created 24, Rachel Talalay, Chuck Russell, who went on to do The Mask. And that's not to mention our special-effects people and our cameramen, whose names I see on every movie made right now. We were working low-budget, but whether it was intentional or New Line just had good taste when they put together a package, we had these great crews every time out.
O: When did you first realize that Freddy was catching on with the public?
RE: I was in New York, dealing with my first stardom and celebrity as a result of starring on V. I was signing autographs at the Hotel Roosevelt, and I had this line of science-fiction fans, and there had been, like, one print of the first Nightmare On Elm Street released on the East Coast by a then-tiny company called New Line Cinema. My line changed from really sympathetic, sweet little science-fiction guys to Ramones, speed-metal, heavy-metal, punk-rock musician types. Girls in black leather with dog collars on, and they all wanted me to sign "Freddy." That was my first inkling that this thing had taken off, and I'm really proud that the first film, and the second film to some degree, really were sort of discovered. They were organically found before the age of MTV–the last thing found by a generation that wasn't force-fed to them. Like when your mom started dressing with safety pins through her nipples. This was not your mother and father's horror movie. That might have been Rosemary's Baby, or it might have been The Exorcist. This was something that you definitely knew your parents weren't going to like, and that you could have for your own.
O: Why Freddy Vs. Jason? Shouldn't those two be working together?
RE: Well, you know, there's a point there. Teens have sex and Jason kills them. Teens have sex and Freddy kills them. That kind of makes sense, but the logic actually comes from the fans themselves. Remember that movie Diner, when they're sitting around the diner and they can't get laid? They've got their milkshakes and their burgers and it's late at night, and what do they do? They try to figure out which brother on Bonanza could kick Hoss' ass. It's that great male adolescent too-much-time-on-their-hands hypothetical, theoretical, what-if? What if Freddy fought Jason? What if Michael Myers threw down with Leatherface? I've heard kids say this since 1984, and it's just a logical inevitability that this would happen, because it hearkens back to the classic popular-culture phenomena of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, with Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and all that stuff. And all the comic books where they would cross-pollinate superheroes, and arch-villains would battle each other, and superheroes would battle each other and team up together. We've had so many comic books made into movies in the last 10 years, and that sort of philosophy derives a lot from comic books. It makes sense that it would bleed into cinema.
O: The idea was floating around for a long time. Why did it take so long to get it done?
RE: I think the fans made it sound like this was a greenlight a long time ago. I've actually only been under contract to do this since '99. Before that, they didn't have a script or a director. I think they went through Rob Bottin, the genius special-effects guy, who did one of my favorite movies, John Carpenter's The Thing. Every effect in that is real. It's not CGI or animated. And then Rob left the project to do something else. Then I heard [Devil's Backbone director] Guillermo del Toro's name bandied about a little bit, but he went on to do Blade II. Then they got Ronny Yu, which is great. He's got the perfect sensibility. I was in France on a film jury, and we gave an award to Ronny for Bride Of Chucky. He's a Hong Kong director, but he respects the genre, and he's not afraid to get blood on his hands. A lot of these guys don't want to make a horror movie. [Adopts British accent.] "Well, I'm not really making a horror movie. I'm making a psychological thriller." Well, you have to get your hands dirty. You've got to really deliver the goods, and when you do, you can get something really special. I just saw this movie in Edinburgh called May, starring Angela Bettis and Jeremy Sisto. It's a great movie: It's sexy, it's smart, it's nasty, it's gruesome, it's gory, it's scary. It's all those good things. And it was made for nothing. The tragedy is that it's one of the best horror movies of the last three or four years, and no one's going to see it.
O: It's getting kind of a second life on video, thanks to some good reviews.
RE: It got some really good reviews, but that and $1.95… That's the thing with independent cinema: They all get good reviews, and they don't make money. Some of them are good. Some are great. And some are terrible. I hate these actresses-pretending-to-be-lesbians movies. To me, that's just as prurient as a bad violent movie. May did get good reviews, and it's got a little bit of an audience in Europe. But it's just… I love the fans, and I respect the fans, and I want them to go out and support movies like that. Or Devil's Backbone. Or this English movie they should discover called Dog Soldiers.
O: You seem pretty on top of the horror genre.
RE: I was a fan as a kid. Loved it. I can remember seeing Horrors Of The Black Museum, sneaking out to see that in a matinee. I loved Forbidden Planet. I watched that 10 times as a kid. And Frankenstein. But I was a stage actor. I did musicals. I did Godspell. I did lots of Shakespeare and classics, and I just kind of became that person. I was a bit of a snob. I kind of got into it again with Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. What happened after Nightmare On Elm Street was that Wes taught me to respect the genre. And I wanted to familiarize myself with the stuff that was around, whether it was a Jamie Lee Curtis movie like Terror Train, or George Romero films, or early Wes Craven movies, or Sam Raimi films. I don't rush out the first day to see every horror movie, but I do keep up on them, because I want to talk intelligently with the fans about them.
O: Do you still sing?
RE: I actually sing horribly, but I used to dance pretty good. I was a gymnast, and you can usually use those gymnastic tricks with dance. Plus, they're so much fun to do. That wasn't really a big part of my career. It was just a phase.
O: There's still some gymnastics influence in some of the parts you've played, though.
RE: When I was younger, I used them a lot. You could see me in fight scenes in A Star Is Born. I have a fight scene with Richard Gere and Paul Sorvino in Blood Brothers, and I have a really good fight scene in a movie called Stay Hungry. In the dark. Some people say it's the best groin injury in the history of movies, next to Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. You could see me using that stuff a lot then. I still use it in the Freddy movies, but when you see a guy flying into the air on fire, that's not me, obviously. I do all the water tricks, though.
O: You also surf. Does that play into your acting at all?
RE: No, surfing is real private. It's a solo, loner sport. A lot of guys like to go to the beach and bring a crowd, but not me. I like to be alone and out there with a couple of pelicans. I'm getting older now, and though I still surf well, it's hard for me to paddle in big surf. I'm not surfing every day, so I'm not in that good of a shape, and when I paddle, I might get caught in the impact zone and get my world rocked pretty good. So I'm doing a lot of boogie-boarding now. It's actually better exercise, I get a lot more waves, and if I'm out in big surf, I can duck under the waves much easier. I was out on the water a couple of days ago. I had just the perfect day: Fifty-foot visibility, three- to four-foot surf. It was really fun.
O: Did you think that Wes Craven's New Nightmare was going to be the end of Freddy?
RE: Well, it sure makes sense. It's such a clean, nice bookend. It's doing really well now on video and DVD, but at the time, it was just a modest success. We were ahead of the curve with his deconstruction of horror movies and Hollywood, and a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie. I just saw a trailer I'd never seen for it when we screened Freddy Vs. Jason in Texas. I'm really glad it's finding an audience after Scream. It's a perfect bookend: Wes started it, and Wes ended it. But this isn't a Nightmare On Elm Street movie. This is a hybrid.
O: After 10 years, how did you get back into practice?
RE: You start putting that glue on, and it comes back pretty quick. It's four hours in that chair. It's nasty, and in this one I had extra glue, because I did a lot of water stuff. All the work that I did finding Freddy and knowing his parameters… And I violated it a couple of times. Maybe in part 2 and maybe in part 6… All that work, it just comes back. It's like a computer chip. By the time I'm out of makeup, I'm ready to act. I'm in a little bit of a bad mood, and I use that.
O: Were you familiar with the Friday The 13th movies before doing this one?
RE: Oh, yeah. My friend had a girlfriend in one of them. I think I saw opening day of the first one. I've seen them over the years, and I know Kane Hodder [Jason Voorhees in four of the Friday The 13th films, but not featured in Freddy Vs. Jason], and I'm a fan of Jason Goes To Hell.
O: Were you more involved in shaping Freddy's personality as Wes Craven grew less involved with the series?
RE: No, what we did was exploit the Freddy personality, because the fans loved the jokes so much. We got a little more Dirty Harry/James Bond with the quips. And we probably went overboard with the cartooning of it in part 6.
O: Well, that's just kind of an odd movie all around.
RE: It's odd, but that was intentional. There's no one to blame. That was the movie we wanted to make. We were pushing the envelope, and that's how you learn sometimes. Some people really love that movie. But that was the lesson about how far we could push it, because with that movie, we really wanted to do a William Castle event film. And we sort of pushed Freddy almost into Warner Bros. cartoon stuff, like we were commenting on that. That's how you learn. You learn that you went a little too far.
O: Is Freddy Vs. Jason really the end?
RE: It makes sense… This is a hybrid, and I don't know if it bears repeating. I don't want to wrestle with Chucky in the mud, and I don't want to tag-team with Michael Myers and Leatherface. The only rumor I know is of a prequel script floating around. A nasty little film called Elm Street: The First Kills, which would sort of be like a serial-killer film of what happened before Freddy was torched by the parents.
O: Was Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive the first horror movie you did?
RE: Yeah, it was, and I walked on that set with a little bit of trepidation, although I liked Tobe and loved Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But I walked on that set, and there was an old black Cadillac, monkeys in cages, armadillos, and Gila monsters. And it was this old Victorian house with forced perspective like an Edward Hopper painting, but with tumbleweeds and Neville Brand, Stuart Whitman, and Carolyn Jones. And one of my favorite actors, William Finley, who was so great in Brian De Palma's Sisters, who separated one Siamese twin from the other to fuck her. I thought it was going to be a great experience, and then these guys fired Tobe, and we still had a quarter of the movie to finish. Somebody told me that in Tokyo, there's a version of this movie where they brought porno actors in for the sex scenes, so there's like really monster shots. You can tell my fans that that's not really me, unless the guy is really well-endowed. My first impression was that it was going to be a good little nasty movie, because if anyone could deliver the sex and violence, it's Tobe Hooper.
O: Before Freddy, you were typecast as a redneck for a long time. What made you a good redneck?
RE: I don't know. I did one Tennessee Williams play in the theater, Summer And Smoke, but that was more of a nerd part than a Southerner. It might be the way I look. I have a little of that Deliverance look to me. I guess that had something to do with it. My first three movies in Hollywood were all starring roles, and they were all Southerners. I played an albino best friend in Buster And Billie. I played a guy that runs a gym with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jeff Bridges in Stay Hungry. Then I did The Last Of The Cowboys with Henry Fonda and Susan Sarandon, and I played kind of a Carson McCullers, Southern-gothic character, sort of like the character Brad Dourif played in Wise Blood, only I did it first.
O: Now you kind of alternate between genre films and smaller productions.
RE: I do genre films because I like them, or because I need the money. I make a star's salary when I do horror, because I can still open a movie in Italy or Spain or Germany. The great thing that's happened to me recently… I've done about eight or nine movies in Europe, and at the end of this month, I'm going off to Venice, Italy. I have a film in the festival directed by these two genius Sicilians [Il Ritorno Di Cagliostro, directed by Daniele Ciprì and Franco Maresco]. Arguably, the Venice Film Festival is the second best film festival in the world, after Cannes. It's nice to blend that with the opening of Freddy Vs. Jason and the pop-culture phenomenon that surrounds that. Then I go off to Montreal. I have a movie in the Montreal festival, a serious film about the war in Bosnia/Herzegovina [As A Bad Dream]. Both of those movies, which are serious and wonderful… They're not high-budget movies, but they're quality movies. Both of those are a direct result of me being on juries in Europe, having lunch with publicists in Rome. Doing a movie in Tel Aviv or London or South Africa or Mexico. It's this great second act to my career, and it's a real good time.
O: How do you choose your roles?
RE: I don't choose them. I go where I'm wanted. I've said no to stuff before, but mostly because I can't do two things at once. I'm of the opinion that you go where you're wanted. Who would know that by playing a nerdy alien and a child killer, I would have a 30-year career in Hollywood? I've outlasted so many people. I've watched people who were better actors than me disappear, and they're selling insurance now. I'm an actor. Actors are supposed to act. I have friends in New York that won't leave New York, and they're really talented people, but they'd rather take an acting class in New York than do a play in Florida or Boston. That's just weird to me, but they get into that I've-got-to-be-in-the-center-of-the-universe mentality. I'm not that way. I may be a B-movie star, but I work. I'm an actor. I like it that way. That's what I do. I don't know if we're artists. I think we're more like craftsmen, and I approach it that way.