Robert Englund Interview: Horror Icon Guards the Gates of Hell in Nightworld
Robert Englund, the man of our best worst dreams, talks about keeping the daytime safe from the Nightworld.
There are seven gates to Hell on earth and the one in Bulgaria is guarded by the guy who commandeered nightmares on a small street in a small town in America. He’s retired now, but he’s seen things. Not that he’s seeing them anymore. Something on the job blindsided him, and now he has to wear really cool shades to people don’t stare into the eyes that stared into the abyss. In the upcoming film, Nightworld, written by Barry Keating and Milan Konjevic, director Patricio Valladares cast an iconic horror legend to save the night when the security alarms go off.
Robert Englund is best known as the man who disrupted the sleep of every teen within blocks of a school with a dark history, Freddy in Nightmare on Elm Street. But he is also the guy who got his nose broken by two of Hollywood’s biggest names. Before he clawed his way into the collective unconscious in a hat with a jaunty angle, he was cast as the best friend, or the guy who tries to sleep with his girl, though sleeping might not be most important thing on his mind.
Nightworld stars Jason London of Dazed and Confused as an ex-cop with an easy new job, watching security cameras on rooms where nothing ever happens. But when things bump in the middle of the night, he drags the expert out of bed. Robert Englund spoke with Den of Geek about evolving through the genres to wake up as a horror legend with a face of authority.
Den of Geek: In the movie, Brett is plagued by nightmares from the moment the camera rolls. You are of course the legendary Nightmare from Elm Street, so let me ask you. How do you sleep at night?
Robert Englund: You know? I sleep like a baby. A couple of years ago, I had a buddy going through a bad divorce, I was sort of watching that first hand, and that was about the only time my sleep gets affected, aside from crazy jetlag. But when I was a kid I had really vivid recurring nightmares and dreams. Some of which were motivated by movies I accidentally saw when I was too young. I talk about some of that in my book Hollywood Monster. Not so much now, although I had a couple of Game of Thrones dreams. I’ve had a couple of Narcos dreams. I’ve been binging Narcos lately. But they’re not really nightmares. I sleep pretty well. Especially since my wife got this great new mattress. The dog and I can’t get off the bed now.
I know you only did whatever contact lens of CGI effect to make you look blind for the last shot without your glasses, but have you gotten tired of sitting in makeup chairs?
I’ve been out of the makeup now, pretty much since about 2003. Occasionally I have to do a wound. I just did a reality project for Alexander Aja, and I had to have dirt all over me because I was an old hermit in the woods. That was weird because it was outside and that stuff really gets in your skin. I had to do some makeup for Fear Clinic. I don’t really mind. I don’t miss the Freddy makeup, I’ll be honest with you. When you get two-thirds through filming, boy it’s really hard to face that glue in the morning. That cold glue. I wish they had a way of heating it up. But the makeup roles were kind of fun for me for a while. There were one or two of the Nightmares when I was really beat because I was doing a television series or something and I had to get right back into makeup.
It’s weird. When I got out of the makeup I had aged. I was really young when I first did Freddy. I still was getting carded in bars. But when I got out of the makeup in 2003 my face had matured: a little bit of George C. Scott, a little bit of Max von Sydow, a little bit of the old English actor Trevor Howard. So I had this sort of crusty character face now. Sort of Scottish-looking. I have a beard. My beard was brown and red for a while, but now it’s gone pure white.
So I’m getting to play the old Van Helsing character like I did in Nightworld, or I’m getting to play the scientist, like in Fear Clinic. I’m getting to play the old cop getting ready to retire, like I did on Criminal Minds. I’m getting to play a lot of roles, the old poacher, the old doctor, the old scientists. I don’t think, if I hadn’t done horror and I hadn’t established myself as a horror genre star and stuck with it and been loyal to it, I would still be playing roles, at my age, this big and fun, with a lot of good dialogue. I was sort of the best friend or the sidekick back in the seventies and those parts don’t age as well as the old stepfather or the old doctor or old psychiatrist. Those are always parts of scripts and I’ve been doing a lot of those of the last fifteen years.
I’m the gangster geek at Den of Geek and you were a featured player in a movie, based on one of my favorite books, Bloodbrothers.
Oh Richard Price is doing The Deuce now, which is terrific. I love Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco’s great on that, although I’ve really fallen in love with the little black prostitute and the little Minnesota prostitute. Those actresses are just terrific. I love Richard Price. Some of those books are sitting five fee from me right now. I’m looking at the shelves.
Bloodbrothers was Richard Gere’s first big starring break. Tony LoBianco was fresh off The French Connection. Paul Sorvino, I think that was his first time in Hollywood. I think he’d done Stardust Ballroom with Maureen O’Sullivan, but I think that was for television. So they had these three crazy New Yorkers working with me in all these scenes. Marilu Henner is wonderful in that movie too as the girl with the missing finger that sort of gets passed around a bit. Every time I run into Marilu I always remind her how much I love her in that movie.
Richard Gere broke my nose in that movie in the fight scene. I also cracked my ankle. I had a fight scene with Sorvino. He had chains, they were real chains. I had disco boots on. I should have learned. I should have put my stunt shoes on for that scene but I was trying to be real. I had my white trash Irish Westie middle 40s Streets disco boots on and I hurt my ankle. Richard broke my nose in a take, by accident. For a small role I had a lot of adventures. But I also got to have lunch with Robert Mulligan. He told me all sorts of stories about his great classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. He also told great stories about a civil war movie he did with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor and Lee Marvin. It was great to get these stories from the horse’s mouth.
When you got hurt, did Mulligan say, “good use that,” like a director on The Simpsons would?
I think they probably used that take. He just barely buzzed it, but he got it and it swelled up later. The same thing happened when I had a fight scene with Kris Kristofferson in the Barbara Streisand A Star Is Born. He was early to movies. He was just starting to work in movies then. We rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed with the best stunt coordinator in the business, Hal Needham, Burt Reynold’s buddy who did all his movies. On the first take he got me, knocked me back off a chair. Then he felt terrible. I had a couple more scenes to shoot and they made me go to his dressing room so he could apologize to me. We had a couple beers. He thought he was allowed to hit stuntmen. I said I’m not a stunt man Kris, I’m an actor, I’m acting here. I’ve had my nose broken by the greats.
When you were doing Bloodbrothers did you spend time in the Bronx?
I was only in New York for one day of shooting. All I remember was: We had the lighting on the fire escapes and they stole the lights and rented them back to the company.
That’s my neighborhood.
It was their fire escape and they said we didn’t have permission to hang lights here. They rented the company’s own lights back to them. Most of that was shot on a sound stage at Warner Brothers. All the interiors were. We did a couple exterior second unit shots in New York. I think I worked there one day, walking down the street or walking into a building.
You talked about how certain roles would age you, and those disco suits would certainly date you. So let me ask you, in the movie Wings of Desire, Peter Falk went on and on about the importance of the hat in building a character. We all know Freddy’s fedora, but that was a very cool homburg you were wearing in Nightworld.
That sort of saved me in a weird way. I was worried too much about the blind aspect of it. I found these glasses I like that had sides on them. I wanted him to be an old man who was retired. Maybe from Europe somewhere. Maybe from Bulgaria or Romania, or even Vienna, Austria. And he’d been called back to help Jason. It is a horror movie and it is a ghost story and there’s a certain timeless to it because these seven doors to purgatory scattered throughout the world have been manned be these people for centuries and centuries. Eons practically. I wanted that aspect of something timeless.
I imagined somebody like the Knights of Templar in a Da Vinci Code type of movie had manned them for a while. I also wanted my character to be contemporary, which is why I wanted the cool glasses, that also facilitated the blind. It told the audience that he was blind. So I didn’t have to act blind all the time because blind people don’t act blind.
That hat gave me that kind of sense of timelessness. I found the jacket, a really expensive jacket that was like 30 years old. Old people, they buy nice things, but then they wear them forever. I remember when I was first in Hollywood, in the early seventies, I would see old movie stars who had made their fortune in like 1959. And if you ever went to a party at their house or you saw them in a restaurant, they had the best car made in 1959, the nicest cars from 1960. They were still in a little bit of a time warp, which I really liked, especially old people. I wanted that to be part of the character. In Nightworld, you get the sense that he probably lives in a little tiny elegant apartment somewhere. He’s retired and he doesn’t go out a lot, so he has his old clothes still.
The scarf really tied it together. So let me ask, as a blind man, how important was it that you looked dapper?
I think old people are like that in Europe. They’re not like that in America. They wear cargo shorts and stupid t-shirts. In Europe old men still dress up and they are quite dapper. I hang out on a street in Rome that I love. Fellini used to live on it. My wife and I always go there for lunch because it’s such a beautiful little street. One of my favorite apartments in the world. We’d sit outside and there’s always an old man walking up the street with a cane and a white Armani tuxedo jacket. He’s like 80 years old, with the perfect hair and the perfect cologne and the perfect shave and shine on his shoes. There’s a certain aspect to that, I guess the best way to describe it is to call it old world.
Why do they have a blind man manning the video feed?
Well, I think the idea is that he wasn’t blind then. I think there’s a hint that something happened. He knows more than a lot of people. That’s why the owners called me in. I know things can go wrong. I know that things can go bad there. I’m not saying that the seal broke under my watch but I think something may have happened that made him go blind. Or he went blind after he retired. Or he started to go blind on the job and that’s why he was retired, or as they say in England, “remaindered.”
He wasn’t blind manning the video feeds. I’m sure when he worked there, he had full sight. There’s a line in the beginning where he says I know my way around here. It’s kind of a throwaway but I think what it means is he was sighted when he worked there and he’s gone blind subsequently. Or that was the reason for his retirement or firing.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
You know, I certainly believe that a component of our physiology is electrical. That harkens back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and all of that trendy research that was going on in the 18th century all the way up to now. There is a certain electrical energy to the human body. There is a bit of that in there. So I think that, I don’t know if this is ghosts or spirits, but if someone was ill in a bedroom, in a house, for forty years of pain and cancer, polio or a lingering illness, AIDS. In a room with her things and her family, I think if she dies, some of that energy, the physiological energy, whether it’s her smell or her tears, her sweat or her bowel movements or her fear or apprehension of death, I think some of that energy remains. I think that’s what we feel sometimes. When the hairs feel like they are going up on the back of your neck. You just sense something. I think it’s just an energy field.
I think that exists, so if you want to call that an afterlife, yeah. When I was a young hippie actor, we would sit around and get stoned and talk about the meaning of life and great movies and plays. I remember somebody saying, and I thought it was so drunk, though I was probably drunk or stoned, what if after you die you just get to remember your whole life over and over again? There’s just an energy of your memory left in the cosmos. And none of the bad parts scare you because you know you made it through them. You can kind of watch them, detached. I thought that was a beautiful way of looking at death.
I’ve always gone with George Carlin’s, that your soul goes to a garage in Buffalo.
I like George Carlin’s line about cocaine. You know you’re doing cocaine wrong and when you’re stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway and you’re doing it on the glove compartment door.
In a bare-knuckled thumb wrestling match, who would win, Freddy or Edward Scissorhands?
This is a kind of pat answer, but I really believe it. All the other guys can kick my ass, and Edward’s faster than I am, but if Edward falls asleep, I’ve got him. Once anybody meets me, or hears about me, or if they’re told a story about Freddy, and they manifest in their imagination what they think Freddy might be like. I’ve gotcha. If you go to sleep and think of me. I gotcha.
Nightworld opens in select theaters and on demand October 20.