As a child of the 1980s, I was practically raised on Nightmare on Elm Street movies. I saw my first one, Dream Master, at age eight, when my friend’s parents weren’t home. I was hooked. Nancy Thompson was the epitome of the strong, smart teenager, a character which was not portrayed often enough in films (and still isn’t), so it was no surprise that I looked up to Nancy and the actress who portrayed her, Heather Langenkamp. What did surprise me was hearing how she never felt like she was “famous!”
It was my honor to chat with Heather about the epic, four-hour documentary Never Sleep Again, which explores every single entry into the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. In addition to starring in the documentary and doing the voice over, Heather was an executive producer on the project. We spoke about gathering players from the Nightmare universe to participate, reuniting with old friends, and earthquakes. Yes, earthquakes.
How did Never Sleep Again all come about?
Thommy Hutson, who wrote and produced the documentary, he and I have had a long relationship together in Hollywood. He serves as my manager and we have done so much together. We had been talking about doing a documentary for about five years. I decided to do a documentary called I Am Nancy, which is about being Nancy Thompson. At the same time, he found a partner, Dan Farrands, who wanted to do a documentary about all seven Nightmare on Elm Streets. I knew that I could offer them help with making phone calls and getting people to do interviews. I could wrangle Wes Craven. So I served as the person who made all those most-important interviews happen. In exchange I got the executive producer credit for that work. Dan really wrote most of the questions, and Thommy wrote the whole arc of the documentary, and did a lot of the research - you know, finding the players that lived in Mexico and all over the world. They tracked people down using some pretty ingenious techniques.
You guys did a really thorough job.
I know, I was thinking, “Do we need to be this thorough?” But you only get to do something like this once. You can’t really go back - it would never be the same. Dan and Thommy and I figured this was going to be the only one, so we should give everyone a chance to give their insight and share their hilarious stories. We were lucky that so many people were so enthusiastic.
It seemed like everyone had really great memories of the movies and were really excited to talk about it.
Yeah, I think a lot of people - like me - did not think this movie [Nightmare on Elm Street] would amount to a hill of beans. The culture wasn’t primed for it. What me and Robert [Englund] realized was that, with the invention of the VCR and the DVD player, and the mania for horror that happened in the 90s and the 2000s, this movie has really ridden a wave that is part of the whole history of film in America; part of this whole embracing of horror as a legitimate genre. Our movie didn’t necessarily start it, but it really took advantage of it. More people watch horror now than ever before, and it has really helped us. It helps a movie like Never Sleep Again because people are curious. They love the makeup, the incredible props, the glove and the sweater. People are more interested in the wardrobe and props from Elm Street than I can imagine any other movie.
Well yeah, the costume is so distinctive, and Freddy… there wasn’t any villain like him before, and there certainly hasn’t been since. He is so unique.
He is so unique. And I really believe it is all Robert Englund. There is something about him… he isn’t like Freddy; he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was just able to project all of our ideas about what it is to be evil and diabolical and funny and dark. That quality is what Robert brought to a character that he got to play in eight movies. Everyone loves Robert so much, he could do no wrong - they just wanted him to be more and more crazy as the movies went along.
Did you keep any props or costumes from your Nightmare days?
I kept my pajamas because I knew they were very iconic. Even in the first movie, every time I put them on, I told Wes that I would feel like I am suddenly a warrior. Like Amazonians and their belts or Wonder Woman with her bracelets. For Nancy, I really felt like every time she had her pajamas on, she became this really focused warrior against Freddy. She knew she was vulnerable but she was going to do everything she could to fight him to the best of her ability. I still have the pajamas and I just love them. I actually put them back on and took my picture - I wear them on the cover of the I am Nancy documentary. It was really funny because they didn’t really fit - I had to suck in to get back into them.
I also have my original script, which is very precious to me, but other than that I don’t really have any props. I wish I did because the set was filled with really cool things. There was this little lamb in my bedroom that was wearing a headband with those little boingy things. It had so much charm and just represented Nancy. There were a lot of cool things in my bedroom I wish I had taken - not taken. Borrowed.
I grew up about a mile from the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake, which featured prominently in New Nightmare. I actually saw you guys filming but didn’t realize it was a Nightmare film until the movie was released! What I didn’t know, but learned from the documentary, was that you guys shot the earthquake scene in the film a few days before the actual earthquake hit! Can we blame you guys for the quake?
That was so surreal. I think we can blame Wes Craven. I’m not going to take any blame for that!
Wes presented this script where this earthquake happens, where Freddy coming back into our world actually makes big waves and we just don’t know it yet - he’s that powerful. When the earthquake really happened… that one was so bad. So many people were killed. I wanted to stop filming - I couldn’t bear thinking that we were going to be taking advantage of such a horrible event. I hate it when movie crews do that - it’s just not respectful. But that’s me. The producers were like, “We have real broken-down freeways. We have real buildings that have fallen in. This is free set dressing!” That’s how they look at it. And it is a really effective part of the film, especially if you live in California. You know that was a real day.
That’s Wes Craven for you! He’s just that resourceful!
I personally know that I found that footage especially effective because I knew it was real. I saw all those buildings pancaked; I knew what they were before they collapsed. Did a lot of fans not realize those buildings were real?
I don’t know… that movie wasn’t very well-marketed in some ways. On one hand, they wanted us to pretend we were really the real people we were playing in the movie - that all those things are really happening to us, which is a hard thing to do as an actor, to carry that “joke” or idea into your real life. We had a press meeting where we were all pretending like we were still in New Nightmare. I just thought it was too gimmicky. It was a stretch to ask the audience to play along with us like that. As a result, I think the movie wasn’t very well-received because people didn’t really get it. They didn’t get that I was the actress who played the original Nancy - I wasn’t that famous. It wasn’t like Being John Malkovich, where your lead character is a household name. Making the lead character myself took a lot of explanation for the audience.
I think that, as far as horror fans go, you are famous. You are one of the original Final Girls.
It’s interesting because now I’m much more known as that. I think that reputation has been solidified. It took 30 years to happen. I don’t think anyone really talked about Final Girls until 10 or 15 years ago. Those terms were like literary terms. Now, I think people like Nightmare 7 a lot more. My reputation is more solidified in that role. It wasn’t quite as classic and it wasn’t as much a part of film history as it is now. People seem to talk about Nightmare 7 a lot more.
Do you like being known as “the Nightmare on Elm Street girl” or do you wish that was something you could move past?
I feel both ways about it. If it meant that I could have a little bit more of a well-rounded career… I feel like very few actresses get the chance to make their mark in a character that is well-known and maybe goes down in history. Robert Englund is a good example of that. I’m getting a feel for what that feel likes. Maybe my obituary will read “Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy Thompson…” Maybe that is the one thing I will be known for, and I would be super-honored by that. I feel it is a huge accomplishment. But there are other things I am very proud of in my life, and who knows what I will be doing for the next 30 years. If that is the only role I am known for, I think I might be the luckiest person in the world. She is such a good character.
It seems now you are working more behind-the-scenes, doing special effects with your husband, David Anderson. How did that all come about?
What basically happened, to be totally honest, after I did New Nightmare, I couldn’t get a job anywhere. It was so hard for me to find work. I really wanted to work, and contribute to our family, so I told him that I wanted to join AFX Studio, his FX company, and told him I wanted to be the CFO. I wanted to manage it and do all the work he found difficult to do. So we joined up and became a partnership. He is the makeup artist. He designs and applies all the effects. I do all the hiring, the firing, the scheduling, the meetings with producers and agents. I think we have a really good partnership, especially in this kind of business. We did Cabin in the Woods together, and we did Star Trek last year. We figured out a good system, and it meant I got to spend a lot more time with my kids. Now that my kids are in college, I just really want to go back to acting! I am really tired of doing Quickbooks and schedules. I am dying to do that wonderful artform again. I’m trying to strategize - how the hell do you get back after 20 years of not doing it? It’s tough. Being a middle-aged woman - I will be 50 this year - gives you a lot of patience and a lot of perspective.