Robert Englund exclusive interview: Talks True Terror, his iconic Freddy and coronavirus fears

Englund In Action
Englund is here to scare you straight and give you a history lesson while doing it. Pic credit: Travel Channel

True Terror with Robert Englund is the new hit series on Travel Channel. This scripted “ripped from the headlines of yore” series is where heinous news items have been painstakingly exhumed from the archives of history and then artfully dramatized and expertly narrated with horror and theatrical auteur and icon, Mr. Englund.

There is no question that Robert Englund is vital and at the peak of his career, on point as our guide to the ghoulish and true tales of terror in this capacity on the new Travel Channel series that airs Wednesday nights.

Robert Englund, of course, was cast as Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street, and now he guides us through this six-part historical series that dramatizes actual events from the past.

And those of a certain age who grew up with The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits may get a bit of those macabre vibes watching this creepy look back at unsolved and flat out bizarre happenstance from many years ago. The difference between this and those shows of long ago is that these reenacted vignettes are based on actual news items.

Our esteemed guide has an enviable CV in acting, a classically trained actor who has key moments in his career form 1983’s V to the Nightmare on Elm Street canon; he has over a hundred films under his belt, and numerous TV and theater roles to boot.

And there’s no question that Mr. Englund’s presence and ability to turn in memorable roles over the course of his life have translated well across the oceans, his star shines brightly all over the planet, a place we learn is his oyster that he loves very much.

We spoke with Mr. Englund today about his new Travel Channel work, his iconic role as Freddy, dispelling some rumors and his concerns about coronavirus too.

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Monsters & Critics:  First of all, are you safely home in California or are you traveling?

Robert Englund:   I’m home. I’m social distancing. I had to cancel my trip to Germany and my trip to New York. And oh, I’m in for spring,  I think the spring of 2020 we’re all going to spend it catching up on all the television shows we’ve missed all year.

M&C: Your iconic role that everyone asks you about, Freddy Krueger…You were steampunk, you were punk, you were metal. Your character fit into that whole ’80s energy… 

Robert Englund: I know, people tend to think that… New Line Cinema had never had a hit that big and they merchandised Freddy way too young [audience]. But my original fans were captive dorm rats, heavy metal kids, and punkers.

I remember being in New York up on Madison Avenue and 47th street at that, I can’t remember the name of the hotel there. But it was in the Diamond District, where they filmed Marathon Man. And I remember it was me and William Shatner, and I was there for a science fiction television series that I had that was a huge hit.

And the producer of Nightmare on Elm Street came to take me out to lunch and he thought that all my fans were there for Freddy. And I said, “No, no.” I said, “These are my fans from my TV show, V.”

And then I looked outside. In the rain, outside, there was a line going down Madison Avenue. And they were all these kids in black leather. It was drizzling and the black leather was a little wet and glossy. And they were all Freddy fans that had come to see me and meet me. So that’s when I really knew who my sort of original fans were.

It was that metal crowd. Yeah. I remember getting taken out by SOD, Stormtroopers of Death, the band, some of whom became Metallica and other bands. They went on to form other bands, but those guys were big fans. They were hanging out with us back in the day.

M&C: Hopefully now they’re all grandparents and they’re gathered around watching you as now this generation’s Rod Serling. You have this incredible new role with Travel Channel, first of all, your theater training shows, and your presence as you are the interstitial host in between all these great True Terror tales. Talk about that and talk about how they found you.

Robert Englund: Well, I really like the challenge of not only hosting it and kind of doing an extension of my own persona, Robert Englund, the guy that likes the dark underbelly of American history.

I love [the genre of] True Crime, I love horror, Stephen King, and all of that. I do like that stuff. That’s part of who I am. But the other thing was I got the challenge of I’m the narrator as well of the show. I narrate it.

So I go back and forth between being your on-screen host, Robert Englund, and also being the narrator. And so when I narrate, I’m Robert Englund, but I’m Robert Englund being sometimes conversational. Sometimes I’m just laying out the facts and the background of the story for you. Sometimes I’m doing a recap: ‘Previously on True Terror…’

And then sometimes, I have to make that decision because of what the images will be, so it might be a little more theatrical, and a little darker, and a little more poetic, a little more Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft.

I have to find all of those values and when to do that and then how to blend it back to when they cut back to me actually on-screen talking to the viewer. And it’s a bit of a challenge, but it’s a challenge I enjoy.

So that’s one of the things that attracted me. To me, it’s like what we Americans were fascinated with a hundred years ago or 150 years ago. We were more naive. We were less sophisticated. We were more superstitious. We had less science and less medical knowledge, and so we were more open. We were more open to the source of many, of what we call today, urban legends.

M&C: Is it true that Wes Craven used actual True Terror-like ripped from the headlines news to inform the character of Freddy? Things that he read in the newspaper about children that were dying in their sleep. Is that a true story?

Robert Englund:  First of all, Krueger is the name of a kid who bullied him [Craven]. That’s where the name comes from, Freddy Krueger. And Wes liked it because A, it was the kid that bullied him in school and it was his revenge, and B, it’s Germanic. It’s a German name.

Frederick Krueger…And so he liked that German sound because he wanted there to be that echo of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which they’ve been all Disneyfied here in America, but they’re actually dark and nasty stuff.

Hansel and Gretel, for instance, is, in fact, a tale of famine in Germany. People were starving to death and if you were bad, if you didn’t behave, if you don’t behave, we’ll send you out into the forest to starve. And of course, if you’re starving, what happens? You hallucinate. And if you were a child and you were hallucinating, what would you imagine? A house made of cake, and ice cream, and candy.

So it’s really a dark, dark tale. And of course, Wes echoes it in Nightmare Seven when he has the boy leave the sleeping pill trail, which is like the trail of breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel.

But yeah, so that’s part of it. And then the other thing is that there was an article in the Los Angeles Times, I believe. And there was this very well-intentioned religious, faith-based organization in the Midwest who was putting up the Cambodian refugees from the terrible thing that happened with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the Vietnam War and at the end of the Vietnam War.

And they were taking these refugees, many of them Christians, and they were resettling them in the Midwest and they would be resettled into apartments and the homes of people that would sponsor them. And they would come to this flat, dry, cold, clean, sterile, Midwestern environment from this green, warm, fecund, humid jungle that they had lived in, that was their home.

These were people that, when they had nightmares, [and] much like the Balinese, I think the Balinese do this as well. But part of their culture was that they would wake up from a nightmare in the middle of the night or in the morning and they would write it down as a short story or a poem, or they would paint it in a painting, or they would purge themselves of the nightmare by putting as much of it as they could down into an oral tradition, a folktale, a story, a poem, a song.

And when they were moved to the Midwest, and they were sponsored by this very different culture in the Midwest, and they were reintegrating into American society, one of the problems that befell them was, they were unable to wake up and get these nightmares, these bad dreams out of them. They were unable to do that, which was part of their culture. And what happened was they were literally dying in their sleep.

Like that old adage, if you dream you’re falling and you hit the ground, you’ll die in your sleep. They could not wake themselves up and their dreams or nightmares were so traumatic that some of them actually died.

And this was a newspaper article. I think I even read part of it at one point. And this is completely before I knew Wes. And that had stayed with Wes. So I think that was one of the inspirations, yes.

M&C: Of all the stories that the production team behind True Terrors has dug up and reenacted that you’ve seen, which was the one that stuck with you the most or impressed you?

Robert Englund: Well…There’s Robert Englund, the director, there’s Robert Englund, the actor. Some of them [episodes] are scarier than others. Some of them, the locations are phenomenal. They found these great, sort of George Washington slept here, historical locations with old barns, and old split rail fences, and old buildings down in and around Richmond, Virginia and Maryland.

But it’s weird for me. I am not a Bigfoot fan. I think it’s kind of silly. I remember being in the drive-in movie when I was a teenager and watching that silly, cheesy movie, 16 mm film, The Legend of Boggy Creek and all of that. But we actually have a Sasquatch segment. I think it’s one of our episodes is all about beasts.

But we have a Sasquatch segment that literally is sourced by a president of the United States. Teddy Roosevelt is literally one of the witnesses and sources. And that makes you think, well, that’s right.

Sasquatch is part of Native American lore.  It’s not just some cheesy movie from the 1970s or the late 60s, it’s actually, in fact, an ancient Native American tale, folktale, or lore of Aboriginal people in North America.

So that gives it some history and that gives it a little distance. And then when you realize that at the turn of the century, a president of the United States was on a hunting trip in Montana and he saw a Sasquatch, and he experienced a Sasquatch incident. It’s a hundred years before they made that cheesy movie. So now it makes you think of it a little differently.

So that’s an episode that has that strange kind of sobering source to an urban legend to it that I like. And then the other one was our premiere show, which is about the smallpox epidemic in Louisiana.

And we call it our buried alive segment, but it’s also, with what’s going on today with the coronavirus, it makes it very relevant. But it also tells us that, yeah, we’ve had epidemics before and we made it through them. The Spanish influenza, smallpox, the yellow fever, polio, we’ve been through this before and there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

But the aspect of medical science not being what it is today, people not being able to tell if you were dead or not, or corrupt coroners, and corrupt coffin makers, and corrupt hearse drivers, and corrupt grave diggers getting paid per body. Every body they buried, and every coffin they made, and every ride to the cemetery that they did, they got an extra couple of bucks, so they didn’t care. They didn’t care if they were burying people alive. They just wanted to get those bodies underground, which is a real kind of dark, dark insight into the American psyche of greed and our capacity for darkness.

M&C: Okay. I’m going to switch the gears just a slight bit. From what I’ve read, love looks lovelier for you the second time around. Has your wife Nancy influenced your own career? Has it been a creative partnership for you?

Robert Englund: Well, the great thing about Nancy is she loves movies. She loves movies. Last night, we binged Narcos last night, the new Narcos. We’re both in love with the new season of Westworld. We love to go out to the movies and I’m getting old now so I can get in a senior matinee ticket and save some money, and spend a little more money on a cocktail at the Chinese restaurant before or after.

So we have that mutual interest. We also both love travel and the combination of the success of the television series V and my first Nightmare on Elm Street movie being an international hit, they were both international hits.

I became, almost overnight, an international actor and I was known all over the world. I can still open a movie in Italy and Spain. And so we travel a lot. I’ve done movies, 14 movies in Europe. I’ve done several movies in Spain and Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, done movies in Russia, I’ve done movies in England, I’ve done movies in, geez, I’ve done movies in Israel, Africa, Mexico, all over the world.

And it’s just this great thing that you never get taught in drama school or acting class. No one ever tells you about when that happens to your career. And because Nancy and I both love to travel, she’s really supported me on all those jobs overseas.

And what happens is when you’re working in a foreign country, you’re not really a tourist. You’re like them. So the people you work with on a movie in Italy, or on a movie in Spain, or down in Mexico, they show you their favorite beaches, or their favorite lake resort, or their favorite river, or their favorite hotel or restaurant.

So when I go back to Rome, or I go back to Milan, or I go back to Naples, or Madrid, or Barcelona, or Munich, or London, I have all these little places I’ve worked all over there and I know great little B&Bs to stay in.

I know little secret beaches that only the Italians know about. And I know great little castle towns in Spain that nobody goes to but the Spanish, because I’ve been doing this for so long. And Nancy loves and shares that with me and she’s really good at traveling with me, and that’s just been this great happy accident of my career.

I think it comes down to the fact that science fiction and horror movies and fantasy movies, they all speak the international language of cinema. Whereas a comedian in America, no one knows who they are over in Europe because our comedy doesn’t travel. Our comedy is very American and very topical, and their comedy is very Spanish, or very German, or very Italian. So that’s why we can’t name 10 famous Italian comics or 10 famous Spanish comics.

We know who Penelope Cruz is, she’s a beautiful movie star. Javier Bardem, a fabulous Spanish actor. Antonio Banderas, the famous Italian stars. We know them or the English stars, but we don’t know their comics.

So the action stars and the horror stars and the science fiction stars, they translate all around the world. And this is just this great happy accident that happened to me because of starring in V and A Nightmare on Elm Street, back to back.

M&C:  You mentioned Italy and Spain and both of them, especially Italy is really getting leveled by coronavirus, and I wanted to know if you had anything you wanted to say?

Robert Englund: Well they’ve peaked, they’ve finally peaked. Our beautiful Italy has finally peaked and they’re in decline now. The number of cases is in decline. So we have to look for the silver lining wherever it is. And that’s about the only good news I’ve heard in the last 48 hours.

We knew that China had peaked, we knew that South Korea had peaked and were leveling out. And finally, my beloved Italy has peaked and they’re starting to decline the number of cases. So we have to look at the good news too.

M&C:  Season two of True Terror with Robert Englund, yes or no?

Robert Englund: I’m waiting and I’m literally on pins and needles because I just read a great book called The Devil in the White City about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and a serial killer that was taking advantage of it at the Columbian Exposition there, H. H. Holmes. And I can’t wait to tell my producers because that’s public domain, that’s actual history.

I know there’s lots and lots of stories there that we could perhaps integrate into True Terror. And also I want to integrate my character if I can with my hosting character, Robert Englund, the sort of host persona. I would like to maybe have him on the set of one or two of the segments in True Terror.

Like the old Twilight Zones with Rod Serling, where the camera sees the crushed spectacles of Burgess Meredith who can never read again, and the camera hinges and pans over, and there in the corner you see Rod Serling, and he kind of wraps up that episode.

I’d like to maybe be tied to a couple, when they have a really spectacular location, maybe an old covered bridge that they find somewhere on the East coast, and they could have me walk out of the darkness of the old covered bridge and talk to the audience. I’d like to be kind of connected to it like that. That’s one of my ideas if we do get picked up.

True Terror with Robert Englund airs Wednesday at 10/9c on Travel Channel.

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