In Which Freddy Krueger Tells Us About Serial Killers and Makeup Removal

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Freddy Krueger is one of those indelible movie monsters – an iconic boogeyman for the ages, instantly recognizable with his black fedora, striped sweater, razor-fingered glove and melted face.

He’s a freaky sight to behold, stalking his victims through their dreams, but in the ninth big screen chapter of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, arriving in theaters Friday as a remake of the 1984 original, Freddy is getting a reboot all his own. For the first time, actor Robert Englund has stepped aside – making room for critically-acclaimed thespian Jackie Earle Haley (Bad News Bears, Little Children, Watchmen, Shutter Island) to step into that familiar hat – and those bloody gloves.

You’ve played some dark characters in the past, but what was it about Freddy Krueger that enticed you to take the plunge into horror?

I actually first heard about this on the Internet – there were fans who were saying, ‘Hey, this guy would be just right for Freddy,’ and I looked at all of this and I didn’t even know they were remaking “Nightmare on Elm Street.” So I called my agent and mentioned this, and he said, ‘You know what, they’ve already been talking to me about this,’ and there was this little voice in my head that said: How can you not play Freddy Krueger? He’s such an iconic, twisted, legendary character – he’s the main character in our collective campfire story. He’s everything we love about those creepy bedtime stories – there’s something we love about monsters like this, and I wanted to be a part of that. (More at Techland: Better than Pandora – the all-time best sci-fi worlds)

But how do you even begin to prepare to do something like this? For most people who love these movies, Krueger is the guy they shield their eyes from. So what is it like to be on the flip-side of that, to be the guy who is stirring all this fear?

I actually first set out to get inside his head. [Director] Samuel Bayer sent me a book on serial killers, and I really keyed in on Edmund Kemper, and I started doing the work that an actor does, of trying to figure out why Freddy’s mind is broken, and what makes him tick. And then I logged on to YouTube and saw this trailer of a movie being made about Kemper, and it had this look of a slasher film, and it just ticked me off, to see that they were kind of sensationalizing this real human being.

It was at that moment where I think I started to realize: Oh, I’m playing the boogeyman. My job isn’t to make Freddy believable, it’s to make him a monster. So thank god, I don’t need to worry about the larger social commentary; I need to connect with the demon, and that was a really freeing moment, where I found a way to embrace the fact that I was playing that mythological bogeyman.

Did that translate to a moment on set – where you had to take a couple steps back and really process the fact that you were playing one of those great movie icons? Were there any out of body moments for you, where you had to pinch yourself?

Oh yeah, there were plenty of moments where you just have to take a moment and say, ‘I can’t believe I’m in the middle of this,’ but my favorite sequence is probably the pharmacy scene. There’s this new concept in this film of micro-naps, where characters are so exhausted that they are dreaming but don’t know they’re dreaming, and that was fun – taking Freddy out of your standard nightmare and putting him instead in this everyday setting. (More at Techland: 10 disaster films better than Titanic)

Did you set up a Freddy Krueger marathon for yourself, to get reacquainted with the character? I’m wondering how much you leaned on all the things that Robert Englund has already done with this character.

I mostly re-watched that first film, I wanted to really get into that tone. Sam wanted to embrace the more serious and darker aspects of that first original story, so I just tried to get in there and own it. One fun part of this remake, however, was that the original is such an amazing classic and it really set the stage for the franchise, but part of the fun comes from how inexpensive it was, and the sensibilities that came along with a movie that was trying to save money. With our film, we could approach the same story with a much bigger budget, and take it to the next level. So I think fans of the original will appreciate this movie that’s thinking a little bigger.

Throughout your career, you’ve created characters that have required you to negotiate such limitations and handicaps. I think of Rorschach, where your face was covered, and even “Shutter Island,” where you’re so confined to the shadows. Even here, as Freddy, you’re acting under a mountain of makeup. How do you approach this as an actor, when you’re so limited and confined? It’s almost like acting with one arm tied behind your back.

You approach it in the same kind of way, even when there’s shadows or when you’re limited, you do the work of an actor to connect with the character internally and then hope that it shows externally. The one that was really challenging was Rorschach, since basically there was a sock covering my face. But in a weird kind of way, you use all those things as tools. The makeup with Freddy is so articulate that it actually becomes an extension of your face.

In “Nightmare on Elm Street,” the challenge wasn’t working with all of that makeup once it was applied, but rather the glue that’s involved in putting it on and taking it off. It would take me 3.5 hours to get the makeup on, and then another hour to take it off, since they try to be meticulous so that the glue didn’t rip my skin. But after a couple weeks, after you’ve spent 50 or 60 hours in the makeup chair, you know it’s getting bad when your skin isn’t just burning at the end, when they apply alcohol, but also when they put the glue on. Your skin gets so sensitive and exposed that it’s just excruciating. But you try to channel some of that pain and use it for those few seconds when the camera’s rolling and there you are as Freddy, waving your razor blades, making people scream.

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