Playing Freddy: A Talk with Robert Englund
By William Schoell
Published in The Nightmare Never Ends.
Kinski’s vampire in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of Nosferatu is one of the influences of Robert Englund’s Freddy. “He had very long fingernails, and that is where I got the idea how to act with the glove and the long blades on it.”
With his movements, Englund has tried to avoid comparisons with the usual stereotyped monster. “The stance was just trying to be as far away from any kind of monster or Frankenstein walk; I decided to put in a bit of cockiness, sexuality, and threat. The critics have said it is a little bit like a Jimmy Cagney swagger, and I sort of know what they mean. I wanted to put some personality into the way Freddy moved.”
Two makeup men, David Miller and Kevin Yagher, have worked on Englund’s pleasant face to turn it into a monstrosity of horror, and Englund sees the advantages of both. “The main difference between the two makeups is that Kevin’s was more refined and had some more detail. Consequently, it looks better in a close-up. If I back away from the camera in a master or a long shot, the details of David Miller’s work makeup looks better. It is a toss-up. They are very different makeups.”
Englund doesn’t detest wearing so much heavy makeup like other actors, but it does have its trials. “It is always fun for the first week because it helps me get into character. Once the makeup is dry I really enjoy wearing it. By the end of the shooting schedule, I am sick to death of it. It begins to take a toll on the really delicate skin beneath my eyes. Sometimes we’ve been working until two in the morning. Everyone wants to go out for pizza and beer before the bar closes. Somebody will tell me that I am not needed until four in the afternoon that day, so I tear off my makeup. Then someone will come to the bar and tell me that they need me at eight in the morning. Since I ripped the makeup off, my face is swollen. I’m not real happy.”
Englund wears many pieces that are fused together, formed from molds that are made from his face. “One set of these pieces is made for each time I put the makeup on. Nothing is reused; each time I take the makeup off it’s destroyed.” For the first two movies, eleven to fourteen pieces were used for every day. “The makeup artist would work fifteen hours each day and then go home and bake the new pieces. After that, they learned to make all the pieces two weeks in advance.”
Although the screenplay for Nightmare 1 describes a man in a red and yellow sweater, Englund has always worn one that is red and green. “I have never understood why those colors, unless Wes chose them because they are particularly nauseating. It’s kind of blood red and the green is more of an olive drab. I fought to keep the hat. At one point they wanted to change the hat to something more like a paperboy’s hat. I like the idea of this bald disfigured guy having a hat on as a rather jaunty look and kind of strange sense of vanity.”
England has been quoted, as saying that what Freddy stands for is the idea of killing the future. He elaborates: “This is the first time in the twentieth century that kids will probably not live as well as their parents. You can imagine what it is like to be seventeen or eighteen today and enter a world with a drug culture and hardly any jobs on the horizon, and AIDS and racial unrest. It is very disheartening. When I was kid, if you worked hard and went to college, you might do as well if not better than your parents. My Dad got a new car every couple years, and we had a big swimming pool in the backyard, and we went to Yosemite for holiday. Today you have to be rich to live that way. Freddy represents all of these things that are out of kilter in the world, all the sins of the parents that are being passed on. I don’t think teenagers ever take Freddy as a hero or antihero. I think they enjoy the consistency of this evil character and unapologetic relish that he has for his reign of terror. But no one wants to grow up and be Freddy, for God’s sake. Freddy is this burned guy in smelly sweater.”
Englund believes that Freddy has become a symbol of the fact that evil can never die, only be temporarily defeated. To the teenage audience, the heroines in the Nightmare series who are briefly victorious over Freddy “keep this horrible future they are about to inherit, this future with race riots, and AIDS epidemic, with unemployment, with no sex because it’s dirty, at bay”.
Although Englund doesn’t have one himself, he says there is definitely a “Freddy Bible, like a set of parameters, which were set down by Wes Craven and Bob Shaye. It goes to all the writers who work on the scripts. I sort of own Freddy now, and when I am on the set I know when something feels wrong.”
Englund bristles when people occasionally imply that the Nightmare movies are splatter films. “It was verboten to use the word splatter from day one on Wes’s set. When you compare a Nightmare film with the low production of a Friday the 13th or even a Halloween film, our movies are several rungs up the ladder. They always have been in terms of cinematography and set designs and cast. Our directors go on to become big directors in Hollywood, and our cameramen go on to become major cameramen. There is a big difference between your typical low-budget gore movie and our Nightmare films.”
As the series progressed, Englund says, “I didn’t make any changes in the Freddy character. If we had tried to top the primal horrors and gore in part one, we would have hit a ceiling very early on where we would not have been able to go any further. There is not much more we could have done unless we had Freddy sitting around and drinking blood. The decision was made to exploit the world of special effects. The real hook is the dream sequence; everybody has had a nightmare at one time or another. An argument I would always get into with adult groups or parent groups; I would remind them that Freddy doesn’t go around decapitating babies, instead he turns you into a giant cockroach. There is a sense of humor which is almost Kafkaesque in the Nightmare films.”
Englund had already been a successful veteran character actor before doing A Nightmare on Elm Street, but he concedes that Freddy has opened doors for him. “Freddy has allowed me to travel all around the world, probably ten times now. He has enabled me to star in three movies in Europe, to direct films and television here. He has made me very comfortable. Everybody knows me in Hollywood, and I think they are happy that I have been able to land on my butt into a tub of butter.”
“I can be the Vincent Price of my generation.”