Robert Englund is truly a national treasure, a fantastically versatile actor who is so much more than just Freddy Krueger. In the ’70s he was a character actor, appearing in smaller roles in dozens of famous films, like A Star is Born. And then, in the ’80s, he became a household name with the hit sci-fi series V, and of course, A Nightmare on Elm Street. His incredible life and career has now been chronicled in a new documentary, Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story. And we got the chance to chat with the iconic actor ahead of its release.
Nerdist: So a few years back you wrote a memoir called Hollywood Monster. Was that book the impetus for the documentary? Or was that book even being the subject of a documentary something you never considered when you wrote it?
Robert Englund: No, the book was my kind of summing up my life until 2010. I had been really busy till then, almost nonstop. And I was approached by Simon & Schuster and we did that and it was really hard. My wife and I worked with a co-writer to kind of find that voice. So that sort of summed up my life. But 2010, that’s almost 15 years ago. Since then, I’d been approached by a lot of people, but everybody wanted to do a real Freddy-centric kind of documentary with me. And I just felt there’s been so much by journalists and academics and by critics and genre magazines written about Freddy. I just didn’t think we could improve on that. It wouldn’t be something that could be done quickly, certainly.
And when the gentleman from Cult Screenings UK approached me, I was a little apprehensive because, with a name like Cult, I thought, “Oh, they want to do just Freddy.” And within a day, I realized hanging out with [co-directors] Chris Griffin and Gary Smart is like walking around with your own IMDB on your headphones. That’s when I said, “Look it, let’s not make this about talent, and let’s not make this about Freddy. It’s about an actor, a character actor. I’m a character actor, I’m a utility actor. Let’s make it about a guy who survived for 50 years in Hollywood and who’s still working.” I think that’s more interesting. Ups and downs, hills and valleys. Happy accidents.
Who knew that I would get to sit in the captain’s chair of this franchise for 20 years? I mean, no one sets out to be a burned serial killer as a career move, but it’s probably the smartest thing I ever did. It made me international, and I’ve done over a dozen movies in Europe now, and it’s just this great happy accident of a career. And now I’m on the other side of that and still doing genre work, but doing other stuff as well. Lots and lots of voice work. And I don’t think I’d be here if I hadn’t let them glue me up back in 1984.
Right before Elm Street, just one year prior, the big real breakout for you was the epic sci-fi mini-series V. Now V just turned 40. If you weren’t around for it back then, that was a huge show. Massive ratings. Looking back, how do you feel about the fact that it was so prescient, with its allegory about fascism?
Englund: Well, [V creator] Ken Johnson, I think originally wanted to do a serious thing about the occupation of Europe in World War II. But maybe he wanted to make it contemporary. But then they said, “Well, can you make it science fiction?” Because that’s his bailiwick. And Ken did. But the metaphor in V, of course, is the occupation of Europe by the Nazis. And yeah, I was really proud to be on board. That also was the project that made that first made me international. But because almost immediately thereafter in my hiatus between the miniseries and the series, I did the first Nightmare on Elm Street for Wes Craven. So I had this just fortunate one-two punch of an international science fiction hit and an international horror picture.
Suddenly, I went from being a face that people knew, but not a name. Overnight, people recognize me and I was an international actor. They don’t share this with you in acting class. A lot of agents don’t know this because not everybody translates internationally, especially comedians. Romcoms, things like that, they aren’t as effective internationally as opposed to fantasy, science fiction, action, and especially horror. Those movies seem to cross the Atlantic and the Pacific a little better. I’ve been on board for two huge projects, one sci-fi, and one horror, that traveled very well. And I was able to travel with them.
In the documentary, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 star Tuesday Knight tells a story about you filming a scene at the peak of Freddy mania. You were in your trailer, and she said dozens of fans were shaking it, trying to get you to come out and interact with them. Do you remember anything about that day?
Englund: Well, there’s a dreadful reservoir out in the San Fernando Valley that once upon a time was quite bucolic and wonderful, but a lot of it’s been paved over now with a parking lot. And we were out there trying to sell it as a location as the beach for a nightmare sequence, where we did a takeoff on Jaws with the Freddy claws. And of course, I had never been outside in the Freddy makeup in my life. I’d only worn it on a soundstage, which is mostly side lighting, not direct overhead sun, and certainly not summer sun in LA.
So they were hiding me a lot in the air-conditioned trailer. And we got the shots, and it was just too hot for me to sign any autographs. And the crowd outside had been building all day. The word had got out. So I went in, and it takes an hour to take off the makeup. And I went in the trailer and took off my shirt and sat down and began to take off my makeup, and the whole makeup trailer began to rock back and forth. And the crowd had grown and grown and grown. They were mad because someone had told them that I would be signing autographs or something. Then I think I signed a little bit outside to calm them down.
I mean, I had foam latex boogers still glued to various parts of my body and torso. And we finished taking the makeup off and then I just ran for my car. Because instead of the crowd diminishing, it had kept growing. And I said, “Thank you for all coming,” or something. So then I booked it and I had just bought a new fully bored-out Ford Mustang convertible. And I jumped in it like the Dukes of Hazzard and I tore off. And I think that day, one autograph I signed was on a girl’s cleavage.
And now it’s like 20 minutes later and I’m heading for my off-ramp off the freeway to go home. I look, and these cars pull up next to me and it’s people from the crowd. And I recognize on the back of a motorcycle, there’s the girl whose cleavage I signed, and I’m going, “Whoa.” So I shot past my own off-ramp on the freeway and went to the next one and went up to Mulholland Drive, and kind of worked my way back to my house. Because I didn’t want all the fans following me home. That was a real eye-opener. So that was making Nightmare 4. The beast has been unleashed.
Next year is the 40th Anniversary of Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street. Can you give the fans a tease about any special events celebrating Nightmare hitting such a big milestone?
Englund: Well, I’m going to be out on the road with the cast because I think that’s a big anniversary and we’re proud of the movie and it’s a chance for all of us to get together again. But it’s also a real opportunity for the serious fans of the franchise to get a picture taken with all of us, or me and Heather Langenkamp, or me “strangling” Heather. They can watch and laugh or something. And the fans love that. It’s wonderful when we have the whole cast because we can all spur our own memories of incidents that happened on the set, which the fans love to hear. And so I’ll be on the road probably doing a couple of Comic-Cons for Freddy’s fortieth.
Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story will be arriving exclusively to SCREAMBOX and Digital on June 6.