Jackie Earle Haley became a child star by playing Kelly Leak “Cool it, runt!” the scariest kid on the ball field in the Bad News Bears. Since then, he’s only gotten more terrifying, staging a creepy late-career comeback as Rorschach in The Watchmen, the nasty pedophile Ronnie in Little Children, and skeazy George Noyce in Shutter Island. Now he’s donning the razor gloves as Freddy Krueger in Sam Bayer’s new Nightmare on Elm Street. He spoke to Vulture about the rumor of him losing a part in the original to Johnny Depp, making Freddy dark again, and how many child-molester roles is too many.
Hi, Jackie, how are you doing?
I’m doing awesome.
You sound excited.
Yeah, it’s exciting; I’m pumped. The thing’s beautiful and pretty at the same time; it’s eerie and creepy — the kids are phenomenal. Hopefully people dig it.
What did you and Sam Bayer first talk about in terms of Freddy?
When I first met with Sam, he was saying that the movies really went to this campy place — they were practically comedies with some blood flying. He wanted a darker tone, to get back to the origins of what Wes had started with the first Nightmare. Sam just sent me the movie Nosferatu and a book on serial killers. He was describing the character as kind of a cross between Ed Gein and Nosferatu.
So what did you do with that?
Nosferatu is just an interesting take on a mythological boogie man, a Dracula-type character. I was digging that, but then I really started getting into the serial-killer book. I kept landing on Edmund Kemper, and I’m starting to do the actor’s work of figuring out what this sick fuck is all about. So then I notice they did a movie on him. I go to YouTube and watch the trailer, and it’s a slasher movie. You know, it really pissed me off because this is a real human being and it was at that moment that I realized: Dude, you’re not playing a real human being, you’re playing a boogie man. That was a cool turning point. That was somehow freeing.
You’d just played a very realistic child molester in Little Children. Was that on your mind?
Going in, I did have to pause for thoughts because I had played that other character. The movie delves more into Fred’s past and what makes him tick, but whatever Freddy’s sicknesses were, again they were just two such different beings. One is this molesting serial killer ground in a kind of campfire-story culture, and the other one, Ronnie, was a true exercise in trying to flesh out a human being. Some films are examinations of the human condition; some are just meant to blow up so you can go have fun while the killer runs after the kids. I get a kick out of all of them.
There’s such a push now to make franchises darker. At some point, doesn’t it just seem to make movies less fun?
Well I think there’s a little room for everything. And I think part of the genre is its over-the-top-ness anyways. This Nightmare on Elm Street is darker than the ones that preceded it, but it’s probably a great date movie, too.
There’s this story floating around online that you auditioned for the first Nightmare with Johnny Depp — and they gave the role to him. To be honest, it sounds like one of those junket stories that are too good to be true. Did someone just make that up?
Well, this is how I’ve been answering that: I don’t remember. That rumor could somehow have been designed out of nothingness. Or it’s possible that I auditioned for Nightmare and don’t remember. And it’s also possible I was sitting next to Johnny Depp in the waiting room, we sat across or came in together — I don’t know. That’s all I could think of …
You’ve really made your comeback playing scary guys. Do you see yourself playing more bad guys?
You know, that’s really tough. It’s kind of like you’ve got to look at everything as it comes because one has to be a realist. I’d love to hold out for the most incredibly diverse palette of characters, but you can pass your way out of a career. And, yeah, you can also just play the same characters to a point where that’s all you can get. Hopefully there’s some middle ground. But I hope that if I do bring some preexisting notion to parts, perhaps one day a director would use that to his advantage — and use me for a red herring and turn me into a good guy.