Elm Street Actress
Art imitates life for Heather Langenkamp
By Dale Kutzera
Published in Imagi-Movies, Volume 2 Number 1.
Making a movie about making a movie is not a completely new idea. A STAR IS BORN set the classic example with such varied works as SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and THE PLAYER providing variations on the theme. Never before, however, has a film gone to the extremes of having an actress portray herself in a film populated with the actors, directors, and studio executives with whom she works, most of them playing themselves.
WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE does all this and more, using elements of actress Heather Langenkamp’s real life to create a surreal vision where the lines are blurred between actress and character, film and reality, dream and nightmare. Even the set of Langenkamp’s house is so close to the original that her friends may think those scenes were shot on location. The result may be as much a portrait of an actress’s life in Hollywood as it is a horror film. It’s a role Langenkamp has been living for the past ten years and one she has been waiting a long time to play. Since the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the actress worked steadily (most notably in the moderately successful sit-com JUST THE TEN OF US), without ever regaining widespread notoriety of her debut. “It’s sad when your first job is so wonderful and the rest of the way down the line you have to struggle to find that again,” she says.
“I’d made one feature before A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, but it was a low-budget thing that was never released. So I knew going in that the first NIGHTMARE would be my real debut. I was pretty nervous, but Wes put me at ease. He was an easy person to get along with, and I was completely convinced of his sincerity at all times. I can’t really say that about the third film.”
Craven had initially contacted her about reprising her role in DREAM WARRIORS, which he was writing at the time, but a disagreement with New Line caused him to be replaced by Chuck Russell, who toned down the Nancy character from an independent fighter to a nearly emotionless woman. “Chuck wanted to present my character as a cool, strong personality,” she says. “I can relate to the idea, but on film it came across too dispassionate. One critic referred to my performance as callow, and I agree. Her emotional depth wasn’t as great as I would have liked. Every time I tried to make her bolder, Chuck would rein me in. That was his choice, and I had to respect his wishes, as much as I didn’t want to at times.”
After getting married and becoming a mother, Langenkamp tired of limited roles and took a break from her career. “After ten years of acting, you start yearning for a part that expresses yourself more as you are and not something that harkens back to when you were in high school,” she explains. “The ‘chaste teen’ or the ‘coy girlfriend’ are all contrived roles anyway, created by men who have probably never sat down with an 18-year-old girl. Most young women I know are really together and working hard to be taken seriously. “I have to say it’s been kind of a dry period,” she admits. “When I went back looking for work, it was hard to get parts. It’s hard for actresses to make the transition to adult [roles]. You go through this really awkward four or five years when no one sees you as an adult, and you can’t play a teenager.”
The dry spell ended, oddly enough, with an invitation to lunch from Wes Craven, the man responsible for her initial success ten years earlier. For Langenkamp, the meeting would result in a role with the kind of mature range of emotions chaste teens and coy girlfriends can only dream of. In NEW NIGHTMARE, Langenkamp plays herself, a working mom dedicated to both her craft and her family. She is in almost every scene, running the gamut from glamorous starlet to bloodied and bruised super-mom, literally battling the forces of evil to save her child.
“It’s such a great part. I can’t tell you how nice it is to play adults,” says Langenkamp. “I have a face that looks very young, so I’m often going up for parts that are much younger than I am. And as much as I enjoy trying, I know there is probably a girl out there who is really 22 who is going to be much more genuine than me trying to be 22. There are so many more mature feelings that you have as you get older that it’s hard to express them when you ‘re playing an 18-year-old.”
“More than anything I’m grateful that Wes wrote this character. There is nothing frivolous about her, and that is such a relief. She is on a very precarious edge of madness. Sometimes she isn’t quite sure whether her own paranoia and fear for her life and her child is affecting her mental state. When people walk that edge of insanity, they are not quite sure what is real or not real. That’s the concept we used in this film. We’re not quite sure where Heather is losing it and where she is right on, and no one else is seeing the truth. The things that happen to this character are so frightening that we are really on the cutting edge of sanity for her.”
Craven believes Langenkamp’s latest portrayal of Heather/Nancy is important for several reasons, among them her willingness to deal openly with a particularly troubling incident in her own life. Shortly after the end of her television series, Langenkamp received numerous threatening letters from an obsessed fan. Although the letters have stopped, the episode was quite disturbing for Langenkamp and her family and is dealt with in the film. “The things we talked about were important for her to literally work out and [the role] does show her as an adult and young mother in a beautiful way,” says Craven. “It was something of a gamble in that she hadn’t worked a lot in several years and she just came through with aces all the way. She did a superb job.”
“I was really nervous,” Langenkamp admits. “I hadn’t done this in three years. ‘Will I be able to do this? Am I going to be rusty? Will I be able to cry?’ And yet it was easier than I have ever felt acting. Every scene was very available to me, and being a mother I identified so much with my screen son, Miko Hughes. I could feel all the feelings a mother would have toward a boy like him, and I think that our relationship is really great on screen. A lot of it has to do with having experience being a mom.”
Langenkamp hopes the film will mark her graduation into more adult roles and shortly after filming wrapped , she starred in the NBC movie THE NANCY AND TONYA STORY, playing skater Nancy Kerrigan.
Considering the two milestones Wes Craven and the NIGHTMARE films have played in her career, it was little wonder that the final day of shooting was filled with nostalgia. “The night we wrapped was extremely emotional. There was not a dry eye on the set. This was a kind of ten-year reunion with a lot of the same people. And to see people grow and change—some people had kids, some had gotten married—was really nice.”
“I never cry at the end of films,” says Craven, “but she had me crying. There was an immense amount of trust involved in this project, because from the first conversation we were asking her to deal not with something that I cooked up but something that was very much a part of her own life. On her last shot, she just thanked everybody so beautifully and spoke so warmly about how vulnerable she had been and yet how it was never violated, and how she had done something very important for herself.”