Interview: Jackie Earle Haley Makes All Our Nightmares Come True

By  · Published on May 1st, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street is every bit a horror classic. It not only made us afraid to fall asleep, but introduced us to a boogeyman who would not only become a horror icon, but a pop culture mainstay. Freddy Krueger, with his tattered sweater and razor-sharp finger extensions, slashed his way into our collective consciousness and scared the living daylights out of us for a decade. On April 30th, Platinum Dunes launched a remake of this landmark horror film with the ever-amazing Jackie Earle Haley stepping into Robert Englund’s…glove. As if Watchmen didn’t cement Haley as a geek culture god, he dons the dirty hat and inappropriately-used gardening tool this weekend to bring the terror back to Elm Street.

I had the extremely fortunate opportunity recently to talk with Haley about taking on the mantle of Freddy. We then took a nap and he tried to kill me. I may have made that last part up, but the chat really took place.

My first question was possibly the most obligatory: “were you a fan of the originals?”

“I was never like a huge horror fan. However, at that time, I saw a couple of films and they were kind of fun…once. You know like the Fridays and the Halloweens where it’s like you stick the kids in a cabin, and that was cool at a certain age. But then my interest started to wane on that. A Nightmare on Elm Street comes out, I saw the trailer…and I had to go see the movie. They got me. And they got me with the supernatural aspect of it. Ok, now that sounds cool: you die in your dreams, you die in real life. So I went and checked that out and I got a big kick out of it. I think part of what was so fun about that movie at the time too was knowing that Wes did it for like a buck twelve, you know what I mean? It looks so cool for a buck tweleve. I think my favorite horror film is Alien, because of the fully realized characters. You get completely vested, you’re trapped in that ship with them and here comes the monster. Of this subgroup in the horror genre, one of my favorites is Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead stuff. I think the hook there is Sam Raimi’s clever-as-shit filmmaking. That was a ride. The thing that was so amazing there was the camera work, and the sound, and the way he ratcheted the tension. That was just phenomenal.”

I asked Jackie how he felt about stepping into such a big set of shoes and being only the second person to portray the horror icon. I elaborated by questioning whether there was anything he wanted to bring to Freddy that he though was missing. His answer intrigued me.

“First off it was very daunting. Like you said, Robert is not only Freddy Krueger in the minds of horror fans, but in culture itself as this character. So its already just an uphill thing from there in terms of what I’m trying to do. I had to accept early on that acting is not a competition sport. It’s a real honor to just get to play Freddy too. To step in and take a stab at it…as it were.”

I had to chuckle at the unintentional pun.

“I had to be ok with being the second Freddy because I wouldn’t have gotten the honor or the opportunity to play Freddy if Robert hadn’t been Freddy. So it really wasn’t about trying to go in there and do it differently or change it up. It was about embracing Sam [Bayer]’s vision; going back to the origins of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Going back to when it was a bit more scary, when it was more serious. But all still living totally within the exact same genre. I don’t care if it’s got camp in it, if it’s got sardonic humor, or if it’s just dark and sinister. It’s still the same campfire genre where we love Freddy, we love Freddy to chase us down so that we can scream bloody murder and then giggle. That to me is what A Nightmare on Elm Street represents is the campfire story.”

The chat naturally turned to the intensive makeup effects employed for the new Freddy Krueger. I asked him if he felt the makeup was more of a benefit or hindrance to his performance.

“In this case I think it was completely put to use. I think what it did was it hindered my life and my experience, but it aided Freddy. It was so arduous and cumbersome. First off it was like a three and half hour torture session. By the end of the week, the glue is burning as they’re laying it down. Then it’s so uncomfortable. It was tough because I had fake fingertips over here [indicating one hand] so I can’t put things in my pockets and then I’ve got knives over here [indicating other hand in a comical set of gestures]. But the thing the stunt guys didn’t have, the thing that really put it over the edge for me, was the contact lenses. All this work and then the last two seconds it’s blind this eye and I can barely see out of this one. I found myself just kind of cocooning and withdrawing; everybody’s almost in an echoy state. I can only describe the feeling as otherworldly, but man I gave that to Freddy between action and cut. I think it informed [the performance], I can’t really tell you how.”

I asked Jackie, simply, if he was happy with the end product of all his hard work. He gushed:

“I dig the movie. Of course I’m a little close to Freddy so I don’t know how other people are going to receive it. But I sure do like the movie, I think Sam made a real good movie. We’ve got some wonderful actors in this. I found myself watching the movie and getting invested in these characters and the journey they’re on!”

As we were wrapping up, I had a chance to briefly broach the topic of Human Target; the Fox action show featuring Jackie as a dangerous secret agent. I am a huge fan of the show and I wanted to know what he thought of it. He raved about how it was the perfect, “popcorn” entertainment and how he really became a fan when he saw the completed episodes. He talked about how each episode almost seemed like its own movie and agreed that it was totally a throwback to the action series of the 80's.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is in theaters now.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.