Heather Langenkamp is the queen of horror…with a heart. As the lead character Nancy Thompson in many of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, Heather played a character unlike any other previously seen in horror films: a strong, intelligent female lead. We spoke exclusively with Heather about acting, her family, and why no part will ever compare to Nancy.
Heather, you and your character in Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy Thompson, are synonymous with each other, but let’s talk about life prior to Freddy Krueger.
I grew up in Tulsa, OK and I was the daughter of an artist and lawyer. I went to high school in Washington, DC, which was a totally different experience. I had planned to go to college when I had an opportunity to be an extra in The Outsiders. A friend got me a small part in Rumble Fish, and then I went to L.A. with my SAG card, and I wanted to live in L.A. I got little parts here and there, and then I got Nightmare on Elm Street, which at the time, didn’t seem like a big deal. I didn’t know that I was falling into this incredible thing, like lightning in a bottle. Over the last 30 years, so many millions of people have watched it.
I was 11 when it came out. It messed up my sleep for a long time![laughs] And it’s something so innocent, fearing sleeping. Wes Craven had this brilliant idea of what would it be like to be terrorized not when you were awake, but asleep. The idea hadn’t come around before.
Were you a horror fan growing up?
Ironically, I’ve never been a huge horror fan. And now, I can’t really watch it because I have such a vivid imagination. Like, I’ll roll the garbage can out at night and I’ll hear a noise and think, “Oh, is that Freddy?” [laughs]
It’s so cool to me because you don’t see a ton of female heroines in horror films, and you definitely are one.
Thank you! I would think so, too. The marketing of those films had been around Freddy Krueger. I do love my part, though. I wish everyone could play Nancy, to be so strong, empowered and smart. It’s like Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games. It’s that teenager that we know exists out there somewhere, and that started with Nancy in a certain way as well as Jamie Lee Curtis’ character in Halloween.
And now you have your own documentary, I Am Nancy.
I had been doing the conventions for a few years, and Robert Englund’s line was sometimes 5-6 hours long and mine….wasn’t. I would poke fun at it but then I realized that I had the wrong attitude. I had been working with my sister-in-law and she saw that I was trapped in this little eddy in life with these conventions that I couldn’t get out of. So we decided to make a documentary, I Am Nancy, where it takes me to six conventions around the world. You see five year-old-kids singing the Freddy song, and women who have lived through 9/11, all of whom have this wonderful attachment to Nancy. There were so many interesting people I met along the way, so I tried to make a loving tribute to them.
Through this, I met so many people who had lived through tough times. One of the main characters, Jude, was so inspiring. Ironically, after I made the film, I found out that I had to have my own Be Nancy moment, because my son had a brain tumor, suddenly, out of the blue. That was in October 2011, and every day I would wake up and say, “Be Nancy,” as corny as that might sound. We had to face so much, and I can’t tell you how much it helped me.
How is your son today?
He’s great; he had a full recovery. He had been studying abroad, and he had a seizure. They did an MRI immediately and were able to detect it right away. We brought him home immediately and had the surgery the next day. But going through chemo and radiation is so hard. He graduated from college on time, which was amazing. What I learned is that we don’t have a long life, so as a result, you try a little harder. It’s okay to put extra demands on yourself if you really want something. Sometimes those messages get watered down. I remind myself every day that I might not have as much time as I think, and to focus on my goals. You have to appreciate everything, even if you don’t have everything that you want.
I think that’s amazing, that the character you played so many years ago is now inspiring you as an adult.
She really did. When someone tells you that they identify with someone, it’s a huge message about what they might be going through. After the documentary came out, people started talking about Nancy as a character. She’s quieter, but she’s stronger. More people will tell me how she helped them get through tough times.
Do you think Nancy and Freddy would ever face off again?
You know, for a while, I think that Robert and I thought that we could do it. But now, as we’re getting up there, I am thinking twice about it! [laughs]
What have you been working on lately?
I did a part with Barbara Steele in a movie called The Butterfly Room, and I played her daughter. I hadn’t seen myself on a giant screen in 20 years, so it was really hard! You don’t think of yourself as a moving creature on a big screen, and when you see it, it’s shocking. Your face changes; you have to do other things when you’re acting when you’re older so that you don’t criticize yourself so much. It taught me what it’s like to be an actor at 50, and to not pretend that you’re 20.
Your husband David Anderson is also in the horror business, so to speak.
I met my husband in California; he had been working with Wes Craven doing special effects makeup for movies like Shocker and The Serpent and the Rainbow. We met at a wrap party, and as corny as it sounds, it was love at first sight. We’ve been married now for 25 years!
And now you work with him, too.
When I had my two kids, I slowed down a lot and joined my husband’s firm. I came on to help in the financial side; I love QuickBooks and keeping everything organized, if you can believe that! I love filing! I weigh in on artistic decisions, but in order to do the makeup and props, it requires his artistic skills. I sit in the office, and I love doing the hiring. It’s been a really great partnership. Now that my kids are gone, I would like to keep acting but it’s hard; every time I read a part, it’s honestly not good enough. Nothing compares to Nancy.