He never trained to be Freddy Kreuger; instead Robert Englund focused on classical theater. Inspired by the Janus mask, he in turn inspired a Halloween mask. It didn’t work out the way he thought, but he sure isn’t complaining. Since the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Englund has had a career that any actor would envy. The face of a seven-film franchise, he’s still in demand at the age of 68, headed to Bulgaria next month to shoot his 80th movie (horror, naturally).
Englund’s close friend, Wes Craven, was in a bit of a rut when he undertook Elm Street, about a dream-haunting demon that terrorizes suburban teenagers. Its success helped pave the way for the Scream franchise, making Craven one of the most prolific horror directors of the past 30 years before he succumbed to brain cancer in August at the age of 76.
Continuing to work in TV and film over the years, Englund tells THR his latest, The Funhouse Massacre (in limited release Nov. 13), is a comedy-horror mashup in which lunatics take over the asylum, kill the stuffy warden and loose a dream team of serial killers on the town’s Halloween festivities. Here, the horror star talks about his later career as well as his early years, working with Craven and Johnny Depp on his first movie and how he alerted Mark Hamill to audition for Star Wars.
We’ve been seeing a lot of you in cameo and supporting parts lately.
You don’t know what you’re going to look like when you get older, and I sort of have this Trevor Howard, George C. Scott face now, with a beard on it. So I’ve kind of segued into this kind of fun Vincent Price role, and Klaus Kinski-type parts.
The movie strikes a tricky tone between comedy and horror.
It’s hard, when you’re in the room, to make the suits understand how that stuff will blend, cause they learned just enough in film school to say, “What is the tone of this thing?” I’ve seen so many hit movies that go beyond that question.
A name like yours must help get the money in place for an indie like this.
I can still fill seats, somebody told me recently. Apparently I can still open a movie in Spain and Italy, two of my favorite countries. It’s always fun to know that you can help with the release, and sometimes I think it helps with financing.
You collaborated with Wes Craven on numerous projects in addition to Elm Street. Where were you when you got the bad news?
I was abroad. I was shocked. I still haven’t dealt with the grief yet. I’m in denial and angry. I’m pissed — hell, I’ll be honest: I thought I was going to be working for Wes again.
What’s your fondest memory of him?
He was this wonderful, erudite gentleman with knowledge across all kinds of worlds. He had this 14-year-old boy inside him. It was actually his sense of humor. They say really smart people can’t resist a good pun. And Wes couldn’t resist a bad pun! Wes always had some bad jokes or bad puns.
Nightmare was Johnny Depp’s first film.
That’s Johnny’s first film. He was very, polite, and I think he was in a rockabilly band. I remember Johnny had the best hair in the world. He had this great Elvis hair back then. I remember he kind of wore these really cool rockabilly shirts. He was very polite. It was yes ma’am, yes sir. I said, “Please don’t call me sir, Johnny. I already feel like I’m the oldest guy on the set.” I was only 31. My girlfriend at the time had a very good eye for talent. And she looked at Johnny for about 30 seconds and turned to me and said, “He’s going to be a movie star.” This was in 1984.
Star Wars is getting ready to dominate the box office. Tell me about the time you auditioned for Han Solo.
I was at the old Warner lot on Santa Monica Boulevard, across from Formosa. I was up for the surfer, the Sam Bottoms role in Apocalypse Now. I’d been begging my agent to go up for the cook, the Frederic Forrest part of the cook. They said, “You’re too old for the surfer.” They said, “Go across the hall.” So I went from a Coppola Zoetrope audition, across the hall to a George Lucas audition, literally 3 feet away. I went in and they looked at me and they took some Polaroids and shot a little film of me for Han. Almost immediately they told me I was too young. Somehow I had some sides for Luke, I may have picked them up in the outside waiting area.
What did you do with them? They must be worth a fortune.
On my couch when I got home was Mark Hamill. He was always at my house, practically a third roommate. I came in and I said, “God, I almost got to meet George Lucas.” And I had the sides with me, the Luke Skywalker sides. I said, “I think you’re right for this, Mark.” Mark had a better agent than I did. And I said, “See if you can get in.” I think Mark got right on the phone and got an interview for Star Wars. I heard Tom Selleck turned down Han Solo. They wanted Han to be much older than Luke, like an uncle. He was originally conceived of as an uncle who comes home for the holiday that’s a little nasty and a little dirty and drinks a little bit and smokes, but someone that’s cool and heroic that you look up to.