Robert Englund calls himself a ”poor man’s Lon Chaney or Vincent Price for my generation,” but most of us know him by another name: Freddy Krueger. And he’s okay with that. The actor, who rose to stardom as the sharp-witted, razor-fingered killer in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, now appears in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, which opens Friday.
Filled with winks and cameos from fright-flick veterans like Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist) and Kane Hodder (who played Jason in some of the Friday the 13th movies), the film is a Blair Witch-esque mockumentary that sends up the slasher genre. ”I’m sort of like Donald Pleasence in Halloween,” Englund says of his surprisingly psychosis-free character, ”I am in pursuit of evil.” Here, the horror master waxes on about spoofing his famous persona, his three-decade career in the movies, and the continuing popularity of what he likes to call, simply, ”the genre.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was getting to do this spoof and playing the hunter of the killer cathartic?
ROBERT ENGLUND: You know, it’s fun to be on the other side. I was in the makeup, not only for Freddy for 20 years, but I had to milk that. So I would do things like [1989’s] Phantom of the Opera in makeup, and it was very lucrative…. But by the time I was on the other side, I was 20 years older — I went into makeup as an aging juvenile and I came out with this kind of dramatic looking face of a guy in his late 50s. It’s novel and kind of interesting to see what roles come my way now: A lot of professors, doctors, scientists, fathers, both in and out of the genre. It’s fun and it’s new for me. And when it’s in the genre, it’s nice to lend my name to a project and hope that that sells some tickets — as well as not having to go through the ordeal of the makeup and the special effects quite as much, which can really start wearing on one after a while.
Do you roll your eyes now when you receive horror scripts?
I’ll tell you, it’s strange for me, there’s some I’ve turned down and I kind of regret it. I do have an element of regret when I flip the channel and see Robert De Niro skulking around after Dakota Fanning [in 2005’s Hide and Seek]. But I’ve always had this respect in Europe and I’ve been getting it stateside I think since [2003’s] Freddy vs. Jason, a kind of new respect. The genre also gets a new respect now in town, which is fun. [Then again], I think it’s hurt me sometimes on some comedy stuff, mostly as a director — that’s really my strong suit, and I have to twist an arm to convince people of that.
How do you feel about the fact that the horror genre is getting more respect these days, propping up many studios and generating big bucks that the box office?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen A-list actors on talk shows apologizing for being in a horror movie. And then it comes out and it’s dreadful because they didn’t really embrace the genre. They become apologetic for it, which is something that Wes Craven taught me years ago not to do.
Why do people do that?
I think it’s because for so long it was a sort of sub-genre, like the B Western that sort of supported Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s. I mean, now the go-to film is the horror film, but for a long time we got the lousy table in the commissary. [Laughs]… I had this great happy accident in my life. I started off doing stuff I wanted to do, working with people like Henry Fonda and Susan Sarandon [both in 1977’s The Last of the Cowboys], and in the theater. And then the Nightmare movies gave me an international audience, and that’s a great gift for an actor. I mean, when things get slow for me, I go over and do a movie in Europe and that’s just plain fun, that’s sort of what you’ve always dreamed of anyway…. So it’s interesting what global means to me: As opposed to comedy, the genre travels internationally.
Why is that?
I think that most of the directors who do horror are stylists, first of all. Second of all, it’s such a basic storyline in horror and it’s so classic. I mean, in this movie, where I’m sort of channeling Donald Pleasence, that character, that ingredient, that part of the menu goes back to Van Helsing and Dracula — the guy who’s in pursuit of evil. And so audiences everywhere, they can understand it without understanding the language, they know exactly what’s going on.
You’ve talked before about being a classically trained actor — but then you spent 20 years ”in the makeup.” Is there stuff you still want to do that you haven’t gotten the chance to do yet?
I wouldn’t mind doing some exploitation for Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez or something, because I know what they’ve done for David Carradine and Michael Parks and those guys. I always wanted to be Strother Martin or L.Q. Jones or Warren Oates when I was a young character actor, they were my idols. You know, the ”classically trained” thing is a great line because, of course, I wound up playing Freddy Krueger. But I did do an awful lot of Shakespeare and classics professionally as a young stage actor, so I sort of got that out of my system. Doing Shakespeare in revolving repertory is pretty grueling stuff, and there comes a point when one play starts to sound like another, to be quite honest with you. I mean, most actors, we have a little bit of a snob thing going for us, so we don’t want to admit that…. But if really left to my own devices, I would probably be making movies like Tender Mercies. That’s really where my heart lies.