Sitting with Robert Englund deep in the bowels of a gilded London hotel, it becomes obvious just what a great storyteller he is. As he reminisces about his early acting career in such films as Five Easy Pieces or Hustle, or goes even further back to his childhood brushes with the horror genre, he talks in a soothing, sonorous voice that is a million miles away from his signature role of Freddy Krueger.
Then again, Englund doesn’t look or sound like the character in his latest movie, either. In The Last Showing, a psychological horror thriller written and directed by the UK’s Phil Hawkins, Englund plays Stuart, a once proud projectionist who, thanks to the advent of digital cinema, finds himself busted down to the lowly position of popcorn vendor and general movie theatre dogsbody.
Disgruntled and frustrated, Stuart decides to make the ultimate movie by trapping a pair of upper-crust, unsuspecting 20-somethings (played by Finn Jones and Emily Berrington) in his theatre, terrorising them over the public address system and gradually coaxing them into doing all kinds of dreadful things. It should come as no surprise that Englund’s performance is great value: sympathetic, blackly humorous and full of mischief.
Unlike the uptight, put-upon Stuart, Robert Englund is relaxed, smartly-dressed and brimming with good cheer, but both character and actor share a clear and broad knowledge of cinema, and it was a pleasure to listen to the horror legend’s opinions on everything from watching movies in IMAX, his youthful love of classic genre cinema, playing Freddy Krueger, and his thoughts on where the A Nightmare On Elm St remake went wrong.
I thought your performance was wonderful in this, first of all.
Well, thank you. You know, it’s so great to work for someone as gifted as Phil [Hawkins, writer and director]. Sometimes jobs are jobs, and when you guest star on television, you’re also working with a guest director. You’re the new kid on the block, because everyone else is already in the ensemble. But I loved the script so much, and I fell in love with Emily [Berrington, co-star] – it’s hard not to fall in love with Emily. Then I fell in love with Phil, after a day and a half of working with him. I was like, “Where’s he been all my life?”
I got very spoiled early on in my career in the early 70s. I worked with three brilliant directors back to back; the great Daniel Petrie, who discovered all the best African American actors. He was the whitest man in the world, but he discovered our best black actors. He did Raisin In The Sun, with Sidney Poitier and Louis Gossett, Jr and Ruby Dee – everyone. And he was marvellous. All his family’s marvellous – they’re still working.
Right after I worked with Bob Rafelson on Five Easy Pieces, which brought us Jack Nicholson and a new kind of cinema. A renaissance in American independent film.
Then I worked with the great Robert Aldrich, also he’d done his own great films, whether it’s The Longest Yard or Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, or any number of others. There’s a great film that he did that I’m in called Hustle. Just a terrific noir thriller.
Yes, with Burt Reynolds.
Yeah. It’s a Burt Reynolds film, but it’s not a Burt Reynolds film. It’s just a great contemporary noir based on a Steve Shagan novel – he’d just written Save The Tiger for Jack Lemmon. So I got spoiled.
Then I ended up working for Phil for literally a day and a half, with him and his great Siamese Twin cameraman [Ed Moore], who he went to film school with in Manchester. They finish each other’s sentences and talk in their own code. Phil doesn’t spend a lot of time with you, but you know where you are in the frame. He cranes a lot so you’re dancing with the camera – it’s wonderful to know that he knows what he wants. There’s a great freedom in surrender with that kind of director.
I was able to lose my vanity, lose my chin, and not worry about my bald spot. I gained some weight and put some padding on, and I had the confidence to use theatre stuff – I used my physicality differently. I just went with it. It’s very liberating when that happens.
There’s a lot of the film where Finn is alone, and that’s what really makes the movie works. It’s the long silences, the plot accumulating. Manifesting itself on Finn’s character. And if Finn doesn’t go there, the plot doesn’t move. He has to carry that burden, and I think he’s just marvellous, with the arc of his character.
I saw bits and pieces of that character as we were making it, these long, silent sequences, and this intricate plotting. It gave me more confidence, again, with Phil.
Are you finding, with your lineage and long career in horror, that people who grew up with you as their horror hero are now directors, and actively seeking you out for their films?
I am. And I think I’m about to have a fourth act! The great, happy accident is, I took the [Freddy] makeup off in 2003, and I now do all kinds of work. I do reality television, I do top 10 TV shows, I do ensemble stuff. But I do one or two genre films per year, and the great thing is, the genre’s been very good to me. As my face has aged and matured, had I not stayed within the genre, I don’t know what I’d be doing now.
It’s wonderful to be playing the odd mad scientist, or the professor, or the doctor, or the father, or the old priest. I don’t think I’d be playing those if I hadn’t embraced my career within the genre.
It’s also made me international, because horror, science fiction, fantasy and action speak the language of cinema. The international language of cinema. Brit comedy and American comedy go across the pond, but no one in America can name five Spanish comics. They can barely name five Spanish actors. They can’t name five Spanish romantic comedy actors. And no one in Spain gives a shit about American comedians, or Italy, or France. That part of the culture doesn’t translate.
But everybody can watch an action film or a horror film. It’s the language of cinema. That’s something I’ve learned, and it’s made me international. I’ve done a few movies on the continent now, as well as all the movies I’ve done in LA and Canada or Mexico. So it’s this great gift that’s happened to me as a result of respecting the genre – learning to respect it from Wes [Craven].
Eight years ago or so I had this bizarre repressed memory, of little Robbie Englund at his godfather’s house. His Jewish godfather at his house in San Fernando Valley. He was one of the top salesmen for Simon & Schuster, the big publishing house. They were a childless couple, and in their bedroom, floor to ceiling, were coffee table books, stacked.
Now little Robbie Englund, while his mom and dad and aunt and uncle were having Martinis and cigarettes in the other room, and I was done swimming in their lovely big pool, I would go in there. There was a book called Life Magazine Goes To The Movies, and I would open it up [mimics holding something incredibly heavy] – it was massive, I was only small.
I would go to the horror section, and there was a picture of Frankenstein and the little girl beside the lake, moments before he breaks her neck and throws her in. “She loves me, she loves me not…”
Then there was a picture with nipples pressed against a nightgown in the pre-Hayes Code Daughters Of Dracula. Ooh, that sent little tingles down Robbie Englund’s leg. Then in the silent section, postage stamp-sized images, on a two-page spread, of Man Of A Thousand Faces – all of the makeup’s done by Lon Chaney. Including one from Prisoner Of Zanzibar or something like that, where he took the placenta from a hardboiled egg and put it over his eye to create the look of blindness – the first contact lens!
Well, all those memories came back to me, my obsession with all those makeups, the horror. I realised that I probably said yes [to playing Freddy Krueger] – I said yes to Wes, back then, was because I wanted to play with makeup and make believe that way. But I’d suppressed that, under all my Royal Academy snobbery, my desire to do Chekhov and Shakespeare, and anti-war plays. Underneath all that, I think there was a fanboy still alive in me. I realised that must have fed into my decision to respect the genre, and learn from Wes to respect it again, and stick it out. The great happy accident is the longevity of my career.
You can print this if you like – I’m going to be 68 soon, coming up to 70. I’ve got three movies coming out, and a TV show and a couple of reality shows. Several projects in the works. I don’t think I’d have this longevity without the genre. I started my career in 1973, and I can’t believe I’m still here. It keeps changing and growing, and I feel like I’m on cruise control now – I can go where I want. It’s turning out, especially with this experience with Phil and The Philm Company… there’s a project I might be doing now in the States, down the line, and I hope I get the call. I’d love to go work with them in Louisiana.
It was a great experience in Manchester last year. Rain notwithstanding!
Well, that’s the UK for you! It’s interesting that your character in the film is a bit like yourself – he’s actually really passionate about film. He knows an awful lot about cinema, and makes a few cutting remarks about modern horror, some of which I happened to agree with. I wondered what your personal take is on modern horror.
I feel like I should be obligated to always defend practical effects, and to say, “No remakes.” But I’ve been in remakes myself – A Star Is Born and Phantom Of The Opera. I’m a Hollywood kid, and I know that there are only so many stories. Only so many tales around the campfire that we have to tell. Then we have to regurgitate them. Our grandparents’ movies were all remakes of silent films – we forget that, but it’s true.
So I understand that. I understand that the technology of today prohibits a young person from seeing a black and white movie. You have to drag them kicking and screaming, but they like it once they’ve seen it.
I understand the frustration of sitting next to some asshole on a plane watching Avatar on a plane on his cell phone [Laughs]. That drives me fuckin’ crazy! [Laughs]
I certainly think there’s a place to watch great cable. I just binge-watched a lot of Penny Dreadful, and it was wonderful. I was in the world of that writing, really magically. I think that’s a good thing. It’s stretching our attention spans again to the long form of storytelling on cable.
I think there’s a time and place to watch an independent film, or catch up on a French action film on your laptop, or Netflix it, or download it, or watch it on-demand. But I think we also have to maintain the sacredness of the movie theatre as church – especially with event screenings.
I took some children to see, in IMAX 3D, The Life Of Pi, and they were absolutely awestruck by it. I would not only have thought that it would look so great in 3D, I never imagined it would even translate to the screen at all. But Ang Lee, my God – that’s a really underrated film, a seriously underrated film.
Even more recently, the wife and I, we’ll go and see films. Now it’s always got to be IMAX 3D films, you know, because that screen curves and that stuff’s literally in your peripheral. But only with films that are intentionally made in 3D, not these things that have been converted into 3D.
Did you see Gravity?
Gravity, in 3D, IMAX, with the wife, at the Spectrum in Irvine, California, where they bring you drinks if you wish, and little cheesecakes, and a nice chair. We go to the matinee so I save a little money… Literally, as I looked over at my wife, shrapnel was coming from the spacecraft. It felt like it was in the theatre with us. It was just an extraordinary, extraordinary experience. And hyperreal. I always knew I was watching a film. The movie’s a love story, pure and simple. But it took me somewhere I’d never gone before.
I’ll tell you another film that’s wonderful with children in the cinema: Maleficent in IMAX 3D. She’s great [Angelina Jolie], the film is thrilling, and there’s a whole slew of characters who are like the ones out of books I read when I was a child. It’s like a 1930s illustration style, which I love, and it’s for grown-ups, you know?
So I think there’s a time and a place for the sacred event screening. I know films are getting more and more expensive to make, but if we save those for that, then maybe we can justify the downloads and the Netflixes and stuff like that, like cable viewing. I think that’s fine, I think there can be a balance, and I think that’s the way to do it.
There’ll always be movies that are meant for the big screen, and they should be seen that way.
I know you’re probably sick to death of talking about Freddy Krueger…
Oh no, no.
…but I have to ask, when that character suddenly became a cultural icon in the late 80s, where he had a rap record and all this kind of thing, yet he’s also a child murderer. How did you feel about that?
Well, for me it was somewhere between somewhere seeing him referenced on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and then seeing him in the Sunday funnies in the newspaper. Then Tom Hanks quotes him in some movie. Now it’s all the time – it’s a turn of phrase.
So yes, he becomes a bit diluted. And we pushed the envelope, especially in part six – we did that intentionally. It was almost like a Warner Bros cartoon. But he was always was a cruel clown, he always had that dark sense of humour. And, you know, it’s not a docu-drama. This is the mistake in the remake. Freddy doesn’t walk around in reality; he never walked around in reality. He was a pathetic little man, and a child killer, and the parents burned him alive. Well, two wrongs don’t make a right. He never went all the way to hell. He kind of stopped in some kind of revenge purgatory.
And he is now whispered about – in the locker room at school, at a sleep over, a slumber party. He’s whispered about – something our parents did. The sins of the fathers. He haunts those who whisper about him, who talk about this myth. Freddy has some portal into their subconscious, and he lives in that dreamscape, that subconscious imagination. He’s not walking around an alley somewhere, actually – he’s in your subconscious exaggerated dreamscape.
So I think that gives us leave to play big, or to play broad. He’s sort of throwing youth culture back on itself: he knows what’s in your diary, he knows what you’re listening to, he knows what you’re afraid of, he knows what you’ve hidden in your underwear drawer. He violates that sacred place – that’s what he’s all about.
I always thought that, in a perfect world, with an unlimited budget, Freddy should look different for every single person that experiences him. But he’s certainly larger than life for all of them, because he exists in that world.
That’s why, in the remake, I was so disappointed. There’s that great effect they use in Inception, the architectural effect, you know? And there’s a great effect they used in the Robin Williams film What Dreams May Come. Well, that’s an old movie – I thought, that effect done now would be fabulous. That should be the effect in the new [Nightmare On Elm Street]. That’s what should happen: walls should melt and alter and change, and MC Escher architectural things should occur. But they didn’t do any of that. They just did our effects again with more money. It’s like, wait a minute: that’s the reason to remake A Nightmare On Elm St – to exploit that. Exploit the nightmare!
Robert Englund, thank you very much.
The Last Showing is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.
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