“The truth is I’m just an old veteran character actor” says Robert Englund as we sit down to discuss The Last Showing, his latest foray into genre cinema. To find one standing opposite the genial and softly-spoken man who devoured so many hours of sleep by searing to the mind the menacing image of claws piercing first the mattress and then the torso, can only be described as ‘surreal.’ As these words flow onto the page there is a realisation that the reason horror cinema earns our affection was so eloquently phrased by Emily
In a broad discussion that started with writer-director Phil Hawkin’s victimisation of the T-Rex (correction: “Bloody T-Rex) after which he got back on topic to discuss working within genre and the long road to creating suspense, to producer Alexandra Baranska’s thoughtful discussion of the tragic joys of cinema, and Finn Jones and Emily Berrington’s perspectives on the craft of acting, performance and identity, the discussion with Robert Englund was inherently not centred on Englund the icon or any one of his onscreen identities.
Rather in keeping with Hawkins’ observation of the complexity of human beings, and the thread of the discussion with Jones and Berrington of the intrigue of the actor being that their true identity is hidden behind a multitude of identities, this conversation peered behind the celluloid dream to the man who has left an indelible mark on narrative fiction, to reveal not only Englund the cineaste, but Englund the connoisseur of storytelling and performance.
All your roles offset one another to create your onscreen identity, and it’s not just the performances but also your forays into writing and the directing that contribute. So all are intertwined and are in a sense inseparable.
At one point I was an Anglophile, and I wanted to be Alan Bates, Peter O’ Toole, Tom Courtney and Albert Finney. Then at one point I wanted to be in that great tradition of American actors… the Peckinpah ensemble of Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones, who steals a scene from De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s Casino. I wanted to be Strother Martin. I loved those guys, and so that’s what I set out to be.
But lo and behold you wind up acting how Hollywood sees you, and for years I was best friends and side-kicks. Then for years I was Red Necks – American Southerners, before I played bad guys a little on television. Then I had a hit television series where I played a nerdy, sweet character – a kind of benign doctor Spock and alien, and I thought this is what I am going to be the rest of my life, because I had a huge response. Older women wanted to mother me, and they were giving me these strange girlfriends who were older than I was on the show; trying to figure out that demographic, though I’m not sure what that meant either.
It would be lovely to reinvent yourself with every performance, but that may be more of the way that I worked in the theatre. In film you behave a lot for the camera, and you are trying to find some kind of essence. The great stars, the personality actors – the Paul Newman’s, the Henry Fonda’s, and the Jimmy Stewarts found some element of themselves, and they adapted it to every character.
I’m at that stage now where I go where I am wanted. Now I am ensconced as a B movie star, and I don’t mean B as in terms of value; I mean B as in budget, because a lot of the films I work on are low budget. Most genre films are low budget, so that’s sort of what I am, but I go where I am wanted, and that might mean reality television one week, a movie in Europe the next, and then guest starring on a top ten American television show the following week. So I am not really thinking about making everything different from the last one, although that does happen.
What happened for me with Last Showing was I worked with a terrific little script that was meticulously plotted, and a gifted director who trusted me, and perhaps even wrote the part for me. I’ve had a couple of movie roles written for me, but this one is not the typical one. Phil somehow knew I could do this, and I channelled a little bit of Richard Attenborough from the great English film Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Also a little bit of the banality of evil was influential for me in this. But otherwise it was just a question of shrugging off all vanity and not worrying about my bald spot, putting on an extra couple of pounds, wearing a really ratty moustache, shaving my beard and go chinless and surrender to the plot; to the character that I created, whilst trusting that Phil knew what my best moments were. That’s a great freedom, and you do your best work when you find that freedom.
In theatre once it is set then the director’s job is complete, and the actors are left to take over, whereas in film you are required to place your performance and your trust in the hands of the director and the editor to deliver your performance to the screen.
Film is the editor’s art – the buck stops with the editor. I have had scenes where I divulge amazing truths about my character or another character, and I don’t get the close-up. They’ll give me a close-up because I look good when I’m saying, “Please pass the pepper” or “Can I have the salt?” and you wonder where the editor was on that day. On the other hand I’ve guest starred on episodic television where I have had tons of dialogue thrown at me at the last second, and I’ve had to improvise around it, and I’ve had to try to tell the story as best as I can while working with two very different kinds of actors. I’ll drive home after that day’s work and think it’s all rubbish, and then a month later I’ll see it on network television and that editor saved my performance, and made me look great.
Coming from the theatre there is that love of rehearsal and love of routine with your props. But then there is that accident when you knock over a glass of Coca-Cola like we are drinking here. I pick it up while I’m still talking to you, but it angers me, and I just strike you with the coke bottle, and it becomes the best moment. It is just a happy accident of filmmaking.
Wind can blow on you; a sound editor can put in a mournful train whistle under your performance that underlies some metaphor, symbolism or mood in the scene. Once as an actor you know the buck stops with the editor, you just hope you’re on top of your performance, and they see your best stuff and they like it. Sometimes there will be some weak dialogue that doesn’t fit in your characters mouth and you’ll improvise a bit. You may be improvising better than what was written or it may just be more right for the character, especially when you have been playing a role for a long time. An actor will get an innate instinct, and will own a character after a certain point more than anyone else will.
I know that sometimes editors will go back to the original script because they are so married to it as a source; so married to it out of their training to respect it. I’ve had some good stuff lost because of that – where they thought they needed to push the plot or exposition with such rigidity, and in fact that rigidity makes it look too forced when you finally see it in the end product.
So you are always contending with that, but you do have to surrender. You also have to learn to love the process of filmmaking, and sometimes the process is about the friends you make, and sometimes it is about the place that you are. It can be that simple. I’ve done bad movies that were great experiences, and I have done great work on jobs that were miserable. It may have just been miserably cold; it may have been miserable people, but I’ve been very lucky with other actors. As an actor I hear horror stories from other actors about working with divas or temperamental actors and such. So you hear those stories, but again they are all part of the process.
Your performance in The Last Showing recalls the importance to understand silent cinema, because sometimes it is not about what is said, rather it is about a glance or a gesture – action through inaction. Do you think we can still learn a great deal from silent cinema?
Yes, and especially when they are perfected correctly. The jumpy and speeded up look – that is not how they were seen at the turn of the century and on into the twenties. They looked very different, and you saw them with full orchestras. I saw Abel Gance’s Napoleon with a full philharmonic orchestra conducted by Francis Ford Coppola’s father, and it was just amazing. It’s actually three streams at one point going at the same time, and it is just an amazing silent film. If you ever get a chance to, then you have to see it.
The Last Showing has these great sequences in it like the films of Hitchcock and De Palma, of just pure visual moving pictures – storytelling through moving pictures. Finn Jones our star has a whole reel of silence in this film as the plot unfolds visually, as it accumulates and as he deteriorates. It’s just a remarkable De Palma/Hitchcock sequence.
I was telling someone earlier I was at home a couple of weeks ago watching the old Hitchcock Cold War film Torn Curtain. There is a sequence where Paul Newman goes out to a home to get a message from an East German or a West German spy who is played by Liv Ullmann. He’s followed by Gromek, the East German Stasi guy. There’s a kill in the kitchen of this farmhouse that goes on forever. Its twenty minutes of a non-violent man fighting a violent man with the help of a woman, and the storytelling, the storyboarding, the visual motion pictures just go on and on.
I was halfway towelled off from the shower, and I was stood transfixed, because I had literally flicked on to it at the commencement of this sequence that begins way back in Berlin with Paul Newman being followed in an art museum, where it’s just feet and leather heels on marble. Then it’s cars; then it’s the farmhouse, and then it’s this kill. It’s a genius sequence that now I come to think of it may be greater than the sequence from North by Northwest, though it is not nearly has heralded or praised.
I realised I was dripping wet, and beneath me there was wet carpet as I stood there in my bedroom in front of my little flat screen up on the wall transfixed. It must have been eight or nine minutes that I was in that surrendered movie land. I was hypnotized… I was hypnotized by the moving pictures, and that’s why I think that the storytelling of that sort can be done without only the frantic editing or even the unnecessary expositional dialogue. This is a gift that we don’t want to lose in cinema.
Peter Bogdanovich’s Stalker and Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Dead End Drive-In both take the space in which we watch films, and turn it into a nightmarish hell. It is the intention of both of these to take away any sense of security – the safety of space from us the audience. The Last Showing pursues a similar intention.
One of the great things Spielberg did was give a soul to soulless American suburbia with Close Encounters and E.T. But the great thing I think Phil has done with The Last Showing is that there is a moment, and my wife said this out loud when she was watching the film. There is a moment when the benign mall cinema becomes a character in the film. It becomes its own living breathing character – an electronic programmed menace of a character. It locks down and it devours everyone in it, and I love that.
We think of the cinema as a place to go and surrender to the celluloid dream, but the celluloid dream comes back to attack everybody in the film. I’m sure in years to come there will be papers written about that element of The Last Showing.
Only having seen it once I’m still watching the kind of metronome tick-tock of the plot, and when Finn succumbs to the machinations of the plot we as the viewer must succumb to the plot as well. I love that, although it is only one level of the film. But I’m still having fun watching that, and in particular how Phil has manipulated it.