Unbridled: A Conversation With Lin Shaye

Stomping hay and grit from my slouchy buckle leather boots and walking through the stables of an equestrian center in California is not how I expected to spend a sunny morning with legendary actress Lin Shaye, but a few moments later I find myself in a wide stall, stroking the muzzle of a beautiful horse named Maizee while Lin gets ready to saddle up. “Feisty” and “spirited” come close to describing the petite blonde woman in front of me, who on this morning is in fitted jeans, rugged boots and a wide-brimmed straw hat, but they still can’t quite capture the jubilant enthusiasm with which Lin attacks every day of her life. She attended acting school and appeared in plays long before she moved to Los Angeles to further her career, and her older brother Bob Shaye was the founder of New Line Cinema. Lin hit the ground running, with roles in genre classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Critters, Dead End, 2001 Maniacs, and of course the Insidious franchise while also putting her distinctive mark on non-horror titles like Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary and Detroit Rock City. Not only has she become a household name with her unforgettable roles, but Lin has become the rarest of the gems in Hollywood; she is a woman ‘of a certain age’ who is not only respected for her talent and experience but she is still landing one leading role after another, with no sign of slowing down.

Even as a young actress, Lin knew she never was destined to be the blushing ingénue or the sex symbol. “And lucky for me, I didn’t want that,” she laughs. “I couldn’t have done that even if I tried. I’ve never tried to be the sexy girl. For me it’s always been about the story, about telling strong stories. I don’t even think of it as work really, I just want to get inside a new character’s head and figure out their world. Everything down to the wardrobe choices. One of my most recognizable roles is probably Kingpin and to this day, it’s my favorite role I’ve ever done of anything. And they didn’t even want to let me try for it! The producers kept saying, ‘We love you, Lin, we love your work, but you’re not right for this’ because the description of the character was ‘she’s the most mean, hideous, horrible woman to ever walk the earth’, something like that. But I wanted it so badly! I spent weeks at home rehearsing, and I kept asking for an audition and they kept saying no. But finally they agreed to let me come in and I’ll never forget it, I glued eyelashes to my nostrils so that it looked like I had nose hair, and I went shopping for my outfit… I gave myself a skin condition out of egg whites, I just painted them all over my face. And I pulled into the office in Santa Monica and I didn’t think about it at all, I just zipped up in this sporty little red convertible and the parking attendant literally put himself against a wall to avoid me. I walked in and the producers thought I was a homeless person who had wandered in off the streets. I don’t even know if the reading was any good, I’d done it so many times that I couldn’t tell how I performed, but at the end of it one of the producers said ‘I don’t even want to look at you anymore, you’re frightening me!’ and we laughed and the next day they called to offer me the role.”

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And that’s Lin all over, carving her own path with determination and stubbornness. She goes through the scripts that are sent her way with a scrutinizing eye and the last thing on her mind is playing into what anyone wants from her. “You know, I’m in a very interesting place right now in my life as a woman,” Lin says thoughtfully. “I’m not tethered to anything. I don’t have a husband weighing in opinions on what I can or can’t, or should and shouldn’t, do. My son is grown and while I love him very dearly, he’s an adult and I don’t have to be tied down to worrying about that all the time anymore either. If I want to do something, I can just do it. Right now, everything is really free and wonderful.” Her continued success and constantly-evolving stream of roles has enabled Lin to take on many independent parts as well, helping establish her as perhaps one of the most recognizable female faces of any character actor working today. From Jack Nicholson and Jim Carrey to Samuel L Jackson and Ray Wise, Lin has shared screens with seemingly everyone, and whether it’s a blockbuster studio film or a tiny-budget arthouse experimental one, she goes after it with the same gusto. The one trend that seems to run through her characters is the unforgettable personality. Lin likes to sink her teeth into the role, analyzing everything from wardrobe choice to nicknames her character should have, and she truly knows the art of making it her own.

“Women in this industry are expected to be a certain way, I suppose, but I just never played into it,” Lin says. “I choose to tell stories with memorable characters. I select my roles based on that. I’ve never had vanity when I’m acting; I don’t care about looking beautiful or if my character is seen as ‘sexy’ or whatever. I care about what’s right for the character.” She laughs. “Half the time it’s my input, I’m the one deciding I should have hair like a poodle or wear a dirty shirt or something, because it fits. It just makes sense and clicks. You’re building a world and everything in that world has to work.”

Lin and I spend a few moments bonding over the unrealistic pressure placed on actresses, especially when it comes to things like motherhood. As a young mother and an artist myself, I ask her what her feelings were on joining the mommy group after so many years of acting. “It’s interesting, I was never one of those women who longed for a child,” Lin says. “It was later in my life when I had my son. I had actually thought I’d probably never have kids and I was fine with that. But the first time my husband and I tried, I got pregnant, and I was actually delighted. I never thought about my ‘career’. I was so excited and I was never worried about ‘getting my figure back’ or being seen differently, anything like that. It was amazing watching what happened to my body, I loved every second of it, and I loved being a mother. I have a unique perspective on my life I suppose, in that I consider life to be in chapters. Each role I do, every major experience, is a chapter, and being a mother just started a new chapter for me. There might’ve been a brief moment of panic when I thought, ‘Oh no, what if I can’t go on auditions anymore?’, things like that, but my husband was so wonderful, he’d take the baby so that I could go out to meet with people, anything I needed. He always supported me because he knew how much it meant to me, so I was never truly worried about it.”

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Last year in the indie drama-horror film Jack Goes Home, Lin portrayed a very different kind of mother. In the big-screen directorial debut of actor/artist Thomas Dekker, Lin and Rory Culkin awed audiences and earned critical acclaim as a truly dysfunctional mother and son duo. The psychological thriller follows a grieving young man who is coping with his father’s sudden death as well as his toxic mother’s overbearing manipulations, but as the layers begin to peel away the viewers realize there’s much more to this family than meets the eye. It was a role that called for long, emotional nights filming and serious chemistry between Lin and Rory.  "Lin was the very last actor to be cast in the film, which is ironic because other than Jack, she's the most crucial and pivotal character of the story,” says Thomas Dekker. “Because casting was so down to the wire, Lin had literally two days to prepare and I know she was anxious and frustrated because the role was so complex, detailed and difficult to define.  But Lin took those nerves and fears and hurtled them directly into her portrayal, which I think is truly stunning. What blew me away most about working with Lin is that there are no two takes of any moment that are ever the same.  She plays with her emotions, thoughts and ideas all in the moment.  She listens and responds.  Nothing she does is studied, it's organic.  As much of a control freak I can be as a director, Lin taught me the invaluable lesson of letting an actor play. There were things she would do that I did not realize the brilliance of until I was in editing.  i would sometimes think "that's too big" or ‘that's too small’ but Lin could see the finalized product and arc of her character even better than I could.  She gave what I had written a life that I didn't know was possible." Lin’s performance is nothing short of mesmerizing, toeing the line between disturbing and heartbreaking, and from the first moment when the audience sees her naked and curled on a couch, they are unable to look away.

I mention that there is a lot of pressure in the industry, especially towards women, to stay ‘relevant’, to keep their good looks (often at the expense of extreme measures to fight off the aging process) and to choose roles that are ‘good for their image’ in the long run, turning down projects that might be more fun but less focused. Lin sighs and agrees. “I think so many people try to have a trajectory in mind. They have ideas for their careers, they have these milestones they want to hit, these ‘dream projects’, things like that. I don’t do that kind of thing because all it does is set you up for disappointment. You have to just take it one day at a time, one role at a time, and make the choice that’s right for you right then. You can’t think ‘well I thought I’d be here by now’, because maybe that isn’t the path you were meant to be on right then. But you’ll still end up somewhere great if you just use your head and trust your instincts. That’s what acting is: it’s instinct, it’s your gut. You just trust yourself and do what feels right in that moment. It’s fearless. There’s no room for fear.” She laughs. “That isn’t to say I don’t get scared. Every single time I take a role I’m afraid, and I have that adrenaline rush beforehand, that nervous feeling. But then you get on set and you have a family, your cast and crew, and you trust each other and you’re all in it together, and it’s incredibly supportive, and then the fear goes away and there’s just the story left. A story for you to tell the best you can, the way only you can.”

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As she prepares to embark on a whirlwind international press junket to promote the premiere of her newest film, the fourth installment of the wildly successful Insidious franchise titled The Last Key, Lin is a giddy, girlish figure bubbling over with excitement. “I can’t even wrap my head around it, it’s so much,” she gushes. “I can’t imagine that when I go overseas, there are so many people who are going to recognize me. That’s never happened before, really. Not to this magnitude.” While she’s aware of her widespread and celebrated career, it still seems to genuinely surprise Lin when a pair of young men begin eyeing her from across the café where we sit having lunch. One of them works up his nerve to come up and immediately says in a quiet, embarrassed tone, “I’m so sorry to bother you while you’re eating but I just have to tell you I love your work so much. You’re amazing. I’m such a fan.” Lin immediately lights up and grasps his hand in both of hers, warmly thanking him. His friend, seeing the reception, comes over to join. “We love Insidious,” he says, and Lin grins. “Well, just you wait until this new one,” she said brightly. “It’s really amazing, I hope you both love it.” Even in LA, where it’s the ultimate faux-pas to approach a celebrity during a meal and where sightings are a dime a dozen, people can’t resist Lin. It’s in her radiant smile and the kindness in her eyes, and the men depart beaming from their encounter as we go back to our food.

Insidious is such a big deal,” I remark with a grin. “I mean, you guys had a haunted house at Universal Studios for a couple years. You were a character in a maze. I think that’s how you know you’ve made it.”

“This Insidious thing really is something,” she says with a nod. “I don’t think anyone’s expected it to go the way it has. This new one, The Last Key, is much more of a murder mystery mixed with a ghost story, you know, the audience will really be following some twists and turns. When Leigh [Whannel] was writing it, he went out of the country and rented a historic stone house and just holed up there, very isolated, to get inspired. He wanted that cold, bleak feeling to really motivate the script, and it definitely does. And they were so smart to bring in Adam Robitel. That’s one of the things about franchises like this, you have to have fresh blood to keep them going or they get kind of stale or the audience loses interest. But Adam has this incredibly refreshing, almost naïve look at the world, a very unique perspective. He isn’t jaded at all. It really shows in his work.” And while Lin may have worked with a much-younger Robitel on the set of Tim Sullivan’s cult flick 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams alongside Bill Moseley and Ohgr, it seems he’s come light years from those days. “He had one line, I think, and he played a redneck who has sexual relations with a sheep named Jezebel,” Lin laughs at the memory. “Now he’s directing things like The Taking of Deborah Logan, which was incredible. It’s really what made them want him for Insidious. It’s so brilliant, I couldn’t really get through it because it was so creepy. Jill Larson’s performance was unbelievable.”  Adam also worked on Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, showing that he’s no stranger to breathing new life and fresh blood into an established franchise. “He’s done something really special with this one,” Lin glows, “and The Last Key is really more Elise’s story, it’s all about her background, where she comes from, why she does what she does.”

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Considering that Elise was only a supporting character in the first Insidious who was never meant to really be in the sequels, it’s quite a feat that the series has shifted until she’s the main focus. “I don’t think I could’ve really done this role when I was younger,” Lin muses. “I need the experiences I’ve had, the years of other stories I’ve told, to really be able to tell this one the way it needs to be told. Elise is such a wonderful character and what they’ve done with her story is amazing. I really hope the fans love it; it means the world to me that they’ve responded to her the way they have, that they’re so loyal to the franchise and committed to her as a character. They’ve really invested themselves, which is so inspiring and rewarding to see.”

But Lin has never taken the conventional or ‘easy’ route in her life, and that cool sunny morning as I watch her guide her horse to the edge of a fence, she hooks her booted foot into the stirrup. “They give us these blocks to help you get up if you need it,” she says, gesturing to a wooden platform beside the fence, “but I say that the day I can’t haul myself onto this horse is the day I oughta quit riding while I’m ahead.” And with that she is perched in the saddle, nudging Maizee into motion, and I am shaking my head in amused admiration, following, as we all are, in Lin’s cloud of dust.