We chat with the actor about Freddy Krueger and the genuine angry emotion he continually used throughout the franchise to connect with the monster.

Robert Englund Freddy Krueger

New Line Cinema

By Brad Gullickson · Published on August 4th, 2023

Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with Robert Englund and directors Christopher Griffiths and Gary Smart about the new documentary Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares.

The horror genre is splattered with icons. Michael Myers, Leatherface, Jason Voorhees, Norman Bates, Freddy Krueger. What separates those last two from the rest is that the same performer primarily plays them. In Freddy’s case, that’s Robert Englund. As the decades have passed since A Nightmare on Elm Street premiered, it’s impossible to determine who’s more iconic, the character or the actor. You wouldn’t have one without the other.

Fans and filmmakers Christopher Griffiths and Gary Smart began their Robert Englund obsession with Freddy Krueger but quickly developed a passion for the actor’s filmography. They transformed their enthusiasm into the exhaustively dense documentary Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story. Undoubtedly, they wanted to champion his most famous dream killer, but they also wanted every fan who walked away from their watch to transfer their Freddy infatuation toward other roles like Willie from V or Bill Gartley from The Mangler.

“Robert is a raconteur,” says Smart. “He’s a storyteller, and he’s got lots of experience in telling stories. He can talk a lot, but I like that he remembers every detail. We’ve interviewed people over the years on projects where it’s been hard to get information out of them on their films. It’d be a big film, yet they can’t remember much about it. We know more than they do, and we’re having to feed them lines about, ‘You remember on day four of the set, you had that cucumber sandwich,’ and then they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that.’ Whereas Robert just knows his characters intimately.”

Englund has always been a geek. After spending nearly his whole life within the industry, he lost his way a little bit, but he reconnected with his fandom shortly before working on the doc. In revisiting these childhood memories and wonders, he reclaimed a passion for the genre and its various associated materials.

“I can remember building the Frankenstein model,” says Englund. “The Revell authentic kind and painting him green. I can remember saving my money from mowing lawns and all of us kids on a Saturday morning trying to talk somebody’s mother into driving us to the movie theater so we could watch Forbidden Planet with our Chico’s bonbons and our hot buttered popcorn.”

The actor spends significant chunks of his year attending conventions and communing with his fanbase. He’s discovered that these meetings are grand opportunities to nerd out with others. Obviously, the fans are there to connect with him and touch some of that magic they find on the screen, but Englund is just as excited to reach back and grab hold of them. As they’ve been obsessing over movies, so has he.

“That is just the culture,” he says. “I’m using this as an example, but let’s say a film like Silence of the Lambs has just come out. While I’m at conventions, I want to talk about that. I want to talk about it with people that love it, that are the fans of that movie. I’ve learned that there’s always something I missed, and sooner or later, some fan will mention it at a con, and they’ll tell me something that I didn’t realize. And I love that part of it, to share it.”

The excitement Englund holds for cinema and every one of his characters is Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares‘ ultimate appeal. The documentary plows through Englund’s filmography, and in doing so, the actor unloads his creative philosophy. He’s dishing lessons for those willing to listen, preaching where he’d like the movies to go from this point forward.

“The guy can talk,” says Griffiths. “It’s not all about him; it’s about everyone else. His love for this, his love for that. Past filmmakers, present filmmakers, and future filmmakers. That’s what I find really endearing about him. And he really is, it be honest, the last horror icon.”

Robert Englund worries about Hollywood’s current state. The blockbusters consuming multiplexes cause contemplation and spark suggestions born from decades in the field. He’s not necessarily against the wave of comic book movies flooding the market, but he does wish they’d change their approach to the material.

“Some superhero films are just so unrelenting,” says Englund. “It’s the same thing when you’re really going hardcore in horror. One of the reasons Sam Raimi and Wes Craven, and others introduced humor into horror is because you need to have that break. You need to let the audience relieve itself from the unrelenting horror, or they will start laughing at you instead of with you. It’s a trick of screenwriting structure and storytelling.”

Englund is quick to namecheck the movies operating with this philosophy in mind. He makes time to watch as much as he can, and with that comes recommendations and celebrations. He’s had the pleasure of working within at least one of these picks.

“That’s why we needed Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool,” he continues. “Obviously, Evil Dead is sort of the original of that. It’s a balance to the other. You have to be able to tease yourself a little bit. And there’s that wink. There’s that constant wink in shows like Stranger Things, because it’s an eighties homage filled with Easter eggs. I think you can do that with a lot of stuff.”

In regards to his delight in balancing horror and humor, Englund found no better vessel than Freddy Krueger. We tend to appraise the sequels as lighter fare, but comedy and that wink to the audience were always present. Yet nothing was funny about the demonic mind Englund entered whenever he put on Freddy’s skin. And he could adopt Freddy’s darkness whenever he summoned a specific moment during the first film’s production, when his co-stars enjoyed creature comforts while he baked in the makeup chair for hours on end.

“With me,” says Englund, “it was a combination of things. It was a pissed-off exasperation with the fact that Johnny Depp and Heather Langenkamp were being spoiled by the makeup department. They were both unknowns. They were both phenomenally beautiful young actors. They were both very, very young, and they had their whole careers ahead of them. I wasn’t a kid anymore. I was an established actor with a hit TV show, and yet, I was there in eighty-degree heat being poked and basted with K-Y jelly. No one offered me a little pink plastic fan with a battery in it to keep me cool.”

Seeing the stars get pampered brought a beast out of Englund. In an instant, his blood boiled, and his rage broke through. The hot emotion put him in the perfect place for filming. The magic resulted from holding onto it.

“I really had second thoughts about even playing Freddy,” he continues. “I did have envy and jealousy of their youth and their beauty. And that’s when I said, ‘Robert, this is silly of you.’ And I went, ‘Wait a minute, I can use this.’ That little synapse, that little memory of that moment in time in the old Desilu barber chair in the makeup room, you can recall that. Just like you can recall how sad you were when your dog died. I was able to just use that as my shortcut to Freddy.”

From that moment on, whenever Robert Englund needed to become Freddy Krueger, he’d reach into his memory and watch those damn kids with their cherubic faces and pink little fans. The ancient hate would return, and so would the psycho killer.

“I can remember using it with Lisa Wilcox [on Nightmare on Elm Street 4],” says Englund. “I used it with others too, but I’d see Lisa stealing a little cigarette puff between takes with her hair greased down and all disheveled with no makeup on. She was so beautiful and talented. And I would just, ‘God, here I am playing Freddy again. I don’t know. Am I going to get trapped in this?’ And then, I would remember. That was my foundation for that moment of attack; I could get to it through that. And it’s simply, ‘Goddammit, I wish I was young and beautiful like you, bitch!’”

Robert Englund will never shake Freddy Krueger. He’s as much part of him as the other way around. They found each other in 1984, and the relationship has had its ups, downs, explosions, and implosions. Englund is more than happy to have made this demon baby with Wes Craven, and he’s in as much awe of it as he is in the appreciation that others have for their love child.

His hope is that Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares will take advantage of this mutual admiration society and propel Freddy fans to find those other roles he adores. They may not all have knives on their fingers, but many contain that hot emotion shared with Freddy Krueger.

Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story is now streaming on Screambox.

Related Topics: Robert Englund, World Builders

Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he’s rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)