Thanks to the Insidious franchise, Lin Shaye has commandeered the role of her career and become a horror icon. As brave spiritual medium Elise Rainier, she battles demonic forces that threaten the lives and souls of besieged families, and she continues her crusade after she dies and enters the spirit world. To me, Shaye is the ultimate scream queen because she can unnerve you with her performances, whether as Rainier confronting an evil entity or portraying creepy characters in movies like Ouija and Abattoir. It is also fantastic that at 74 years old she spearheads a horror franchise. Her nearly 45-year film and TV career has included appearances in films like A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Hidden, Critters, 2001 Maniacs, and other genre fare, and she has also displayed a knack for comedy, particularly in films directed by the Farrelly Brothers.
While the first two Insidious movies directed by James Wan focused on the plight of the Lambert family, the two prequels helmed by series writer Leigh Whannell have traced her character’s origins and her first collaborations with her fellow demon hunters, Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), who also provide comic relief. While the two prequels are less over-the-top scary than the first two series installments, they go deeper into the characters, which is a refreshing change of pace from cookie cutter horror flicks. Shaye definitely anchors the Insidious series because of her commitment to the role. She gives 100 percent to what she is doing and makes you believe every frame she is in.
With Insidious: The Last Key available on video now, Shaye spoke with me about her unforgettable alter ego and her approach to inciting fear on screen.
Elise Rainier is an unusual character in the world of horror. She’s not the “final girl” who survives all these movies. She’s an older, more worldly character who’s not a victim. That must be a lot of fun to play.
It totally is. We had no idea where this character was going to go, and I certainly never envisioned there would be prequels. What was fascinating for me was when I tried to build her past. A little like Lin, I [as Elise] was a bit of a loner and didn’t have a lot of friends that were real. [Laughs] My friends were more in my bedroom with my dolls and my stuffed animals. Because that kind of solitude breeds an open area for things to come in, it’s a very vulnerable place as a child. I actually saw her as that person who recognized her ability because of that kind of a life as a child.
Instead, as you witness in this last one, Leigh Whannell built me this chaotic, frenzied, miserable childhood, which I totally appreciated. It was nothing I ever thought of, but in terms of the strength of the character, the fact that she came from that and becomes who she does in the first one — and who we hope will go on, whether she’s dead or alive — it made her a much more powerful and interesting character. I’m really excited — there may be more, who knows. My son, who’s in his late twenties, said, “They should just have you in The Further battling demons, end of story.” Or beginning of the story, depending how you look at it.
Anyway, I’m filled with gratitude for the people I’ve worked with on the series. James [Wan] is the most delicious, delightful, wonderful, smart person ever — between him and Leigh, I just can’t say enough — and James is a cinephile. He’s already editing the film as he’s doing it. Leigh Whannell is a real genius. He’s one of the funniest and smartest people I know. He doesn’t write typical scary stuff. It’s really grounded in family and real fear. I think fear is such a fascinating emotion because we all have it. And that he deals with it in such a creative and exciting way has made a dream come true for me as a character.
You’ve talked about how when you’re portraying fear that your body doesn’t always know you’re faking it. Has there ever been a moment on any set where you generally became scared?
There have been a couple times where…it’s kind of a hard experience to describe, where you know something of depth is happening — it gives me chills to even talk about it — and you have to stay inside and outside at the same time. I have an awareness that there’s an emotionality that’s exposing itself that I didn’t necessarily plan on, where you’ve taken yourself to a place where something else takes over. But my job as a professional and then hopefully as a sane human being is to look at that, stand back, and let it happen. Expose yourself or expose what the feeling is.
As an actor, that’s the most exciting time of all because we are gifted with this ability to tell the truth in a safe environment. Most people in real life have to be careful. You can’t just let it go and be out there because there are repercussions. But as an actor, you’re in a safe environment where you’re allowed to go as deep and as weird and crazy as you feel inside, and then you’re allowed to be protected. You’re in a safe zone, and you can come out of it and people generally congratulate you for going there rather than reprimanding you for being too emotional or too this or too that. It’s a fabulous profession.
I am a really highly emotional person, which I didn’t really know until now, until I recognized that people are appreciating the fact that I expose parts of myself that they are afraid to in real life. I think that’s part of the appeal of this character, that she really exposes herself.
During Insidious: The Last Key, we learn that Elise was abused as a child because her father did not want to acknowledge she could communicate with ghosts. I just saw Saint Joan on Broadway — of course, Joan of Arc heard heavenly voices. I would imagine that for an actor portraying somebody who’s schizophrenic and hearing voices must be akin to a medium who’s seeing things. You don’t know what’s real. There’s an element of insanity in that.
I totally agree. And the label insanity is thrown around pretty loosely. Listen, I feel we know so little about anything. We think we’re so smart and we don’t know anything. We guess at what’s going on. Science is able to diagnose and to label things and put things in categories so they’re more understandable, but in terms of that other part of energy — and we all know energy is a real thing and that you can’t destroy it — there are people that are receivers. I honestly do feel I’m a very good receiver when I really allow stuff in. You’ve got to be a little bit careful what you let in because it’s all around, like people who want to do you harm.
I sometimes fantasize how many times in the grocery store I have stood next to somebody that just killed somebody — and you know it’s happened. We have to put a cap on the way we operate daily, and we have to act like we’re normal enough in the real world because otherwise people do put a label on you. I honestly feel saddened by many people who are literally geniuses and are put away in an institution. In the old days, it was shock treatments, and now it’s still not so good. You get labeled as crazy and they put you somewhere or they put you on meds. Don’t even get me started on pharmaceuticals.
I was a hyper child.
So you know, they try to shut you up. And ADD is probably a goldmine for creativity. That’s how kids function. That’s how they receive, with that kind of frenetic energy. And it’s not a negative. It might be hard to deal with for other people, and I think that’s why they’ll put you on Ritalin, which now they realize is also an addictive, crazy drug.
That would have been me as a kid. I’m totally hyper and a fidgety drummer. But that’s who I am.
That’s your gold. Your mind and energy and your tactility, if there’s such a word, is so heightened that everything hurts a little bit more and is a little bit happier and a little bit sadder and a little bit deeper than most people allow themselves to feel.
Yeah, I believe it is. Listen, you still have to operate in society, and that’s sometimes good and sometimes not. We’ve got a really fucked up world. What’s considered normal, and what’s considered this and what’s considered that – who made these rules is what I get confused about.
Another actor who’s played some wild characters is Robert Englund, and you’ve done a couple of movies with him. What have you learned from working with him?
Robert is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and not just as an actor. He is extraordinarily well read. He’s this elegant guy, always has great shoes, either English and Italian, handmade. He’s very into beautiful clothes and workmanship. It’s not like he likes big, rich stuff, but he’s very appreciative of great workmanship and art, and he knows a lot about music and about art. He’s a great reader. So he’s a non-stop talker. I talk a lot, but he shuts me up.
But to answer the question, he really is one of those people who is a fountain of information about so many things. When you work with him, he’s a consummate professional. He knows his lines. He works on the scene, he works on the material, he’s a great scene partner, and he gives a tremendous amount. Everything he’s doing is very specific, and I think he’s a fantastic actor — and not just a horror actor.
We did a movie recently called The Midnight Man, and we unfortunately only had a few scenes together, but there’s one scene we have together that’s our favorite scene in the film. It’s just this really great moment where I see him — we knew each other as youngsters, and there’s only this one moment where the audience is allowed to recognize that – and he talks about it often to people. It’s because of who he is and what he is as a person and as an artist. I love Robert. I think he’s really special, special, and I love that he’s gotten the fame he deserves as an individual.
You have a diverse body of work. You have done a lot of comedy and drama. I’m curious, for people who have come to know you through the Insidious series, do you have one or two under underappreciated roles that you feel that people should see?
There’s a movie called Dead End [from 2003] that I did with Ray Wise. It was a small film. We shot it all nights for three weeks. It was low, low, low, low, low budget. The directors were two French guys who wrote the script originally in English, and then they had somebody fix it because their English was not good enough. That’s one of my favorite characters I’ve ever played. It’s a great story too. It’s a wonderful, wonderful little horror film. That’s one of my favorite smaller films that I had the good luck to do.
I almost can’t remember all of them because I’m a yes person. I’m the first one with my hand up in the back before they even ask the question. I’m ready to go. So consequently I’ve done probably done stuff where it’s definitely faded into the woodwork. The 2001 Maniacs films are favorites of mine, but those are pretty popular at this point. People really have enjoyed them. But Dead End is still one of my favorite [underrated films]. It doesn’t run on Netflix. I don’t even know where you can find it anymore.
I think it’s still available on DVD. How does Dead End‘s Laura Harrington compare with Elise?
She’s totally different. She’s just this uptight mom. They’re on their way to grandmother’s house for Christmas, and Ray Wise is hilarious. He’s also one of my favorite actors to work with. I think he’s just fantastic, and I’ve done a lot of stuff with him too. We did a little short called The Election. There was just the two of us — he plays a Senator and I play his wife. I would vote for people to check that out if they can find it. It’s just a very interesting 20-minute short that says a lot about politics and deception in a very short period of time. Ray is really one of my favorite people to work with.
I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never really played a character like Elise before. I haven’t been chained into playing the same thing over and over, which a lot of actors are, and we’re trying to be very careful now because I am getting offered a lot of horror films. My agent and manager are a little bit skeptical. It’s got to be classy. I’m in the top of the top. I’m going off to do a reboot of The Grudge, and it’s a fantastic character and a fantastic script.
They’re not just redoing The Grudge, are they? Hopefully it will be a different story?
No, no. It’s what they’re calling a reboot. It’s the same idea, it’s a house where a horrible murder happened, so everyone who lives there is touched by these ghosts, these horrible people who lived there. Without giving anything away, there are several different storylines, and I have a wonderful, wonderful role in that. I’m doing another smaller film just because it’s a character I haven’t really played before, but I decided to say yes to it. I’m trying to be cautious too. I don’t want to be overexposed either.
I want people to always love to watch me and watch my work. I don’t want people to go, “Oh, it’s her again.” I want them to say, “Oh, it’s her again!” I’m going to try and do my best for variety and to make strong choices, and I’m grateful that I do get offered lawyers, teachers, mothers, psychos. That’s why I’m an actress. I’m really full of gratitude for where I’m at, and I’m having the best time ever with the Insidious franchise. It’s given me a boost and a profile that I never thought I’d have.