Actress Lin Shaye is a horror veteran whose credits include Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street and 2006’s Snakes on a Plane. But even she got the heebie-jeebies after perusing the script for the 2011 supernatural thriller Insidious.
“It scared the daylights out of me,” says Shaye, 71. “I read it in bed and, when I finished, I took it downstairs and locked it in the closet. I really was chilled to the bone by the story.” The actress overcame her fears to play the supporting role of a ghost-battling medium named Elise Rainier in the James Wan-directed Insidious, which cost a mere $1.5 million to make but grossed $54 million, and again in the 2013 sequel, which earned $84 million. Shaye returns to the role of Elise for Insidious: Chapter 3 (out June 5), but for this prequel, directed by franchise scribe Leigh Whannell, the actress has been elevated to co-lead status opposite Stefanie Scott, who plays a haunted teen. “Elise has become this sort of bad ass in this installment,” she says. “I can’t even tell you how much fun that was for me. I’m not taking names!”
The road to summer-movie hero has been a long one for the Detroit-raised Shaye who says she wanted to be an actress “from the egg and the sperm” and who first appeared on the big screen playing a prostitute in the Carol Kane-starring 1975 period drama Hester Street. “It’s a terrific little black-and-white film about the life of Jews in lower Manhattan, in the ’20s,” says Shaye. “I played a prostitute and I’m trying to bring my family over from Poland. I was very excited and I invited my parents to come to New York to the screening. Unfortunately, one of the scenes got cut and you don’t really know too much about her. There’s a point where I lean over, and it was a period piece, and I’m not wearing a bra, and you can sort of see my breasts a little bit—I remember my mother cringing a little bit. And then there was no pay-off about the parents coming from Poland. At the end of the movie, when the credits roll, it said ‘Lin Shaye—whore.’ My mother literally stood up, walked out of the theater, walked into the bathroom, and threw up. My poor Mom. I said, ‘Mom, there was more to the story, I swear!’ It was a little bit sad but she got over it.”
Following Hester Street, Shaye was cast in a small role in the 1978 Jack Nicholson-directed comedy-western Goin’ South. “I was on the moon,” says the actress of working on the film, whose cast included Nicholson, Mary Steenburgen, Christopher Lloyd, and John Belushi. “I got a call saying, ‘Mr Nicholson wants you in Mexico for two weeks for this small role called The Parasol Lady. It was so much fun. And Jack couldn’t have been more hospitable and kind. He fed me information like, ‘Make sure the camera can see you!’ I didn’t even know! It was really a phenomenal experience. The last day I was there, all of a sudden I see this speck in the distance—you talk about a story book!—and I see this horse galloping full speed at me. And it was Jack on this giant bay horse. He kind of leaned over and she said, ‘Thank you for coming ma’am,’ and he gave me a kiss on the cheek, and put his hat back on, and off he went. And that was my experience. I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is easy!’ Little did I know how hard it is…”
While Shaye would appear in an impressive number and array of movies over the next three decades her actual roles continued to be often small enough not to warrant an actual name. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, for example, she essays the part of “Teacher” and in Walter Hill’s 1987 thriller Extreme Prejudice she is once again way down the cast list as “Employment Office Clerk.” On the other hand, Hill clearly enjoys having Shaye on his film sets. He had previously cast her in 1980’s The Long Riders and 1985’s Brewster’s Millions (she plays “Journalist at Rally”) and would also feature her in 1996’s Bruce Willis-starring Last Man Standing as “The Madame.” Indeed, directors who work with Shaye do have a tendency to come back for more. “I’m a real team player, for sure,” says the actress. “I don’t think I have a diva bone in my body.”
Prior to Insidious, Shaye was best known for her appearances in Farrelly brothers comedies, starting with the small role of Mrs. Neugeboren in the siblings’ debut, 1994’s Dumb and Dumber. That film was made by New Line Cinema, the company founded by the actress’ older brother Bob, and Shaye admits the family connection helped her get a foot in the door. “My brother said, ‘Put my sister in your movie!’ ” she explains. “He said that to Wes Craven, too, on Nightmare on Elm Street.” But Shaye argues nepotism only got her so far. “If you f–ked it up, then you’re done,” she says. “I didn’t.” The Farrellys subsequently cast her as Woody Harrelson’s gruesome landlady in Kingpin and, most memorably, as Cameron Diaz’s overly tanned friend Magda in There’s Something About Mary. “The Farrellys said, ‘We want her to look like an old leather bag,’ ” recalls Shaye. “It was four hours every time they put on the makeup.”
In person, Shaye clearly delights in being stylish. Did she mind being repeatedly asked to play such grotesque characters? “No, because, honestly, in terms of my work, I have zero vanity,” she says. “Actresses spend so much time trying to look beautiful in Hollywood, but I don’t approach it like that. If someone is sad or miserable they look sad or miserable. You’re not supposed to look beautiful—that’s not how people look when they’re suffering. [Playing Magda] was heavenly for me, because what I love is the transformation and finding myself within that. The Farrellys are just awesome guys—so kind and smart and loyal. I’m so grateful I had these opportunities and grateful that I was able to turn them into gold.”
Shaye first worked with Insidious franchise overlords Wan and Whannell in 2008 on a short film called Doggie Heaven. “James was a fan of a little film I did called Dead End with Ray Wise,” recalls Shaye. “He said, ‘We’re doing a [short] for an Xbox release.’ I didn’t even know what that meant, to be honest.” Shaye’s befuddlement is understandable, given that she is a few decades older than the average videogame player. Indeed, while EW may be rude to point it out, as a woman who is also of a certain age, Shaye is a double-rarity for a franchise lead. “It’s not rude at all,” says Shaye. “I mean, how cool is that? I joke that most women my age are ordering lime Jell-O for lunch at the home. I love being an older action hero. And I still look good in tights!”
You can see the trailer for Insidious: Chapter 3 below.