“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” William Shakepeare explained in “Henry IV.”
The same might be said for the hand that wear the blade-equipted glove of Freddy Krueger. It isn’t just that any subsequent Freddy Krueger will invariably stand in the significant shadow cast by Robert Englund’s iconic performance through the original “Nightmare on Elm Street” film series.
No, it’s more than that. Uneasy sit the hands that wear Freddy Krueger’s gloves, because those darned things are heavy. And more than heavy, those darned things are dangerous.
It’s mid-June in Chicago on the set of the upcoming “A Nightmare on Elm Street” reboot and prop master Billy Dambra is passing around one of the four specially designed gloves that Jackie Earle Haley will don for his turn as Freddy Krueger. The gloves are all affixed with five-inch blades on every finger, though some versions are pointier than others and at least one is made of rubber. The one that’s being handed around by the various journalists isn’t the rubber one. The blades, which aren’t of uniform size, are blunted, but they have the potential for being dangerous.
“If I sharpen it up, I could carve you like a turkey,” Dambra cracks.
We’re trying on the glove, seeing what we can do with it. The fingers seem as if they ought to be well-designed for agility and mobility, but if you find yourself slipping your hands into the glove for the first time, trying to tighten it, trying to position your fingers properly, what actually happens is pathetic flopping and ineffective scratching. Any one of us could be disarmed by a Dream Warrior in seconds flat.
That is not the case for Haley. He’s been doing this for a few weeks and when he arrives on set hours later, in full makeup, it’s impossible not to notice that he wields Freddy Krueger’s glove with authority. He stands off to the side opening and closing his hand, fanning his fingers up and down with lethal efficiency. This is not a Freddy Krueger you’d want to meet in your dreams. This Freddy Krueger could gut you, sharpened blades or no.
Haley arrives on set in the wee small hours on a June morning, well over an hour after we first encounter the Oscar nominated actor sitting in the makeup chair undergoing a procedure which originally took six hours to undertake, but is now down to somewhere under four hours.
At that time, nearly six weeks before Comic-Con and long before any trailers were cut together, we’re told that we’re the outsiders to see the new look for Freddy Krueger and even as a work in progress, it’s shocking. Haley’s face is covered in burn tissue. His hands are covered, as are his arms. As we walk into the makeup trailer, Haley’s eyes are closed and he’s breathing rhythmically.
“I’m just in the chair of torture,” he says quietly, barely looking at us.
A reporter asks Haley if he ever feels like wandering through a residential neighborhood like this.
“No…” Haley says, again quite measured. “There’s a strong temptation to just rip it off my face, though.”
This is not a pleasant process.
“I think he is carrying it with him,” producer Brad Fuller tells us. “The first day he came on set as Freddy, he and I had interaction and I think that, I didn’t feel this way, but he did and he said, ‘I feel like I was short with you and I didn’t mean to be’ and I said, ‘I wasn’t really aware of that’ and he said, ‘When I get this makeup on, it just brings out my anger!’ Do you know what I’m saying? It does change him. It’s probably a function or wearing all that makeup and how uncomfortable it is also. When you see the makeup tonight, you will not see Jackie Earle Hailey. You’ll see Freddy Krueger. There will be no evidence of him in there. It’s hard. It’s hard to walk around in that.”
And then, after each day’s work in the torture chair is done, Haley has to do more than just show up on set. He has to go and try to act.
“I’m still kind of trying to figure this stuff out,” Haley tells us. “It’s kind of torturous for me. It’s just a long time in the chair and then wearing this stuff my ears are killing me and it pulls down on the back of my neck. I have to eat Advil, but, at the same time, it’s kind of odd, man. It’s almost like I’m wondering if I can even like play this character if it wasn’t on.”
Haley continues, “[W]hat they do on top of this too is they throw in contact lenses and they’re huge so it’s like scratching your eyes. You can barely see out of one. It’s kind of a trip so it’s oddly encumbering and oddly empowering as the character, but it’s like I’ve got fingertips glued on here and then they put the glove on so I can’t tie my shoes. I can’t pee. It’s just a trip.”
Standing behind the scenes on “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” Haley’s physical limitations are evident. Before Haley arrives on the set, a Fake Freddy, with the same classic sweater and hat, fills in for all of the lighting and prep. Then, when Haley shows up, this doppelganger/stand-in has to help Haley with his kneepads — the scene has him scurrying down a tunnel after a nubile teen in a PJs — and his shoes. As he stands in a corner doing lunges and perforating the air with his razor-fingers, you can see that contrast between encumbering and empowering that Haley mentions.
The studio has been careful not to left clear pictures of Freddy make it out into the media. He’s always obscured in darkness. Sitting at a table with him, you can’t help but stare and jot down notes on the disturbing catalogue of symptoms. For example, Freddy appears not to have ears, an entirely logical victim of a great inferno. He definitely looks Jackie Earle Haley as a burn victim, a diminutive character actor encased within glistening scar tissue, rather than the original Freddy, who looked like Robert Englund with half-a-pound of hamburger distributed evenly over his face. So the effect is simultaneously that Haley is more recognizable within the Freddy mask than Englund ever was, but you don’t want to look too closely. There’s something alien about him, something almost reptilian.
Haley admits he had to give the project serious consideration when the Platinum Dunes team approached him.
“You know I definitely had to think about it. And it just kind of all boiled down to how do you not play Freddy Krueger?” he says. “You know what I mean? It just like such a cool project. Such an iconic character and such a cool challenge. Clearly I wasn’t thinking about all this shit glued to my head, but, yeah, it was like man too cool to not do, man.”
It’s a good thing Haley came to that conclusion, because for producers Fuller and Andrew form, he wasn’t just the top choice, the “Little Children” star was the only choice.
“[H]e was always the guy we wanted to play Freddy and I think that New Line knew it also,” Fuller says. “I think that they wanted him. But, no one wanted to make that decision just out of the box so early. As soon as we got the job we said this is the guy that we want. We probably shouldn’t have done that; we probably should have just kept quiet and looked around and saw what was out there. But, in our mind it’s not like Jackie was in first place and these two other guys in second and third, it was Jackie or there’s no movie in our mind. And New Line ultimately felt the same way.”
The new “A Nightmare on Elm Street” still has plenty of nods to the original film and it’s still recognizably the same Fred Krueger, but Haley is clear on how the approach is also different.
“I think we’re focusing more on the less camp and a little bit more of the scarier side. More of a serious side. And there’s definitely, I think, a little more focus on, you know what makes this guy who he is? And so there’s a little bit of a deeper kind of look at him. But at the same time it’s like in my research I really started to delve into like serial killers an I was looking at all this kind of stuff and I remember I found one on Ed Kemper or I was studying Ed Kemper and looking around. Oh gosh, they did a movie on him. So I went to it and I’m looking at it and it’s like…and it was a total slasher movie. And it kind of pissed me off. And that’s when I realized I’m playing a boogeyman, you know? So that’s what I’m really trying to embrace, but at the same time find out what makes this boogeyman tick. So there is room to kind of look at his past and to see what’s happened and to see what makes him who he is-to see what’s made him the boogeyman that he is.”
But is there a limit to how much viewers want to see Freddy Krueger humanized?
“I just think that when you start to get a sense of what somebody tick and you realize that that clock is kind of ticking out of whack, that’s scary,” Haley says. “That scares me in this world. You know what I mean? Sometimes when you just run across people that seem to be tracking on a different kind of cord and something’s up. To me, that seems more scary. There’s even more uncertainty knowing that whoa, something’s driving this and it’s real and it’s…you know what I mean? But it’s just not making any real sense. You know it makes sense to him though and that’s what’s scary about it.”
Haley is no stranger to facing nearly unfulfillable audience expectations. Although the reaction to “Watchmen” was mixed, you’d have been hard pressed to find a critic with negative words about his performance as Rorschach. And more than a few diehard horror fans are as dedicated to Englund’s Freddy as comic fans were to the pen-and-ink “Watchmen.” Haley knows the pressure he’s under, which is part of why he considers his words so carefully. [Another part of the reason is that it’s evident speaking in this makeup requires effort and it’s also evident, both from long pauses and his antsy mannerisms, that his discomfort is great.]
“[O]ne thing I’ll say and I’ll probably keep saying this forever is that me and Robert aren’t competing with one another,” he says. “[H]e’s played this part just awesomely over the years and I’ve got nothing but respect for the guy and it’s a thrill to be able to get to step up and to be allowed to get to play this character, because it’s such an iconic character, like Rorschach, but the difference is one guy has played this character. It’s not even like Frankenstein where it’s like you’ve got 20 guys playing Frankenstein over the years and so it makes it a little daunting, but it also makes it exciting and scary in its own right, too.”
Viewers will get to see how Haley measures up when “A Nightmare on Elm Street” opens on April 30.