Shock Q&A: Lin Shaye on Insidious: Chapter 3

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If you weren’t a fan, or even familiar with Lin Shaye before she was cast 2010’s Insidious, then you’re likely to be one after seeing her in the upcoming Insidious: Chapter 3, the third film in the series and a prequel to the original movie.

In Chapter 3, Shaye is back as the gifted psychic Elise Rainer, who’s called upon by the teen Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) to help contact her recently-departed mother. Elise uses her power to discover that other demons from within The Further are trying to get to Quinn, and she has to team with two unlicensed paranormal investigators, Tucker and Specs (Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell), to try to save the girl’s life.

When you’re declared as “The Godmother of Horror,” as Shaye was at a special presentation at Wizard World Comic-Con back in May, then you’re really taken quite seriously among fans. Shock Till You Drop sat down with Shaye to talk about the return of Elise, working with Leigh Whannell as director as well as writer/actor, and how she got her first break in Wes Craven’s groundbreaking A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Shock Till You Drop: I saw the first Insidious at the Toronto Film Festival and was pretty blown away. I know what big horror fans Leigh and James are, so I have to assume they must have seen you in some other horror movies to think of you for Elise.

Lin Shaye: Well, I’ll tell you exactly what. James had seen a movie called Dead End that I did some years ago, written and directed by two young Frenchmen–they wrote it in English. They live in Paris. It’s a terrific little horror film that LionsGate Films, they never distributed it theatrically, but it’s been On Demand. It’s become a cult favorite. James loved that movie and he always wanted to meet me, which was so great. This was after Saw and this was after Dead Silence. This was probably about six months, maybe a little longer, before Insidious.

So he came over with a friend to my house and I met him, and we did a little short he did called Doggie Heaven, that was a prequel to an X-Box game, go figure. I don’t even know what. A very funny little nine-minute short that I did with Leigh, where I play this crazy character with a big hat and big boobs and a big butt and a little dog, Miss Marple. It’s actually on YouTube still. It’s very funny. So we did that and it was all very sweet and James was lovely and I didn’t really think much about anything after that. And then, it was a few months after that, he called and he said, “Leigh and I are trying to get this script done and there’s a role I’d like you to look at.” So he brought me over a hard copy of the script, which you rarely get these days. I took it upstairs to bed, like around midnight or whatever. I started reading it and I thought, “Oh, I hope I don’t fall asleep because I’ve got to call.” I got so involved in that story. At the end of it, I was so cold, I took it and I locked it downstairs in a closet, literally. I thought, “Well, I guess that’s a good sign that it was really scary.” I called James and I said, “I think you’ve written a fabulous story and I love the character, of course.” So that was the beginning. That was what brought me into the first movie.

Shock: Did you have any idea that they had other plans for the character, to even show a younger Elise in the second movie?

Shaye: No, because they didn’t even know there was a second movie. We were just trying to get through the first one. It was low budget, $800,000 and shot in three weeks. It’s funny. We had all the little cubicle honey wagons out on the street in LA, and there was always this guy. I actually told security, “There’s some guy walking around outside that’s on a cellphone. He keeps pacing back and forth out in front of all the honey wagons.” It was Jason Blum [laughs

But I didn’t even know who Jason was. I had no idea. All I knew is some guy was stalking our honey wagons. So we did the film and then you just said it, it had a tremendous impact at Midnight Madness. I think it was at that point. I remember James saying, “I’m really sorry we killed you, because if we do a second one, I don’t know how we’re going to,” and then he said, “I remember, it’s a ghost story, I guess we can just bring you in…”

So, in the second one, they brought me in in The Further. I guess the fans love this character, which I’m so proud of. Then, it was at that point, when they knew there’d be a three or thought there’d be a three. What James and Leigh both said is, “If we don’t come up with good stories, we’re not gonna… “ These guys are artists. I mean, they’re commerce, also, but they’re totally artists, so when James said, “I’m going to make Elise the face of the franchise. It probably means we’re going to need to do some origin stories, some prequels.” So, here we are. Insidious 3 is this beautiful story of Elise, and how she and Specs and Tucker meet and start Spectral Sightings, which is all so skillfully done, I mean, these little moments. I know there’s like, two in particular, where there’s that moment of me going, “They’re idiots, but they’re really sweet.” And actually, they’re not bad. They’re pretty talented, too, and we begin our business, so to speak.

Shock: They’ve left it so there’s a big gap between number three and number one where you can do as many movies as you want. Which is funny, because I thought they were setting it up for a third movie where you’re a ghost.

Shaye: That’s what I thought, too. But you know, what Leigh said, which was really sweet and very uplifting for me to hear, he said, “People don’t want to see the dead Lin Shaye, the ghost Lin Shaye. They want to see the live Lin Shaye, so that’s kind of the plan. Let’s first hope that people love this movie as much as I do.” I’ve got to tell you, when I saw it, I was really thrilled. I think it’s a beautiful story, beautifully directed, acted and shot, Brian Pearson, who took over for John Leonetti basically, who is to me a master cinematographer. I mean, he [Leonett] did The Conjuring with James, which is just gorgeous, and the first two Insidious are gorgeous. But, Brian did a fantastic job. I think the film looks like a bazillion bucks and the story is beautiful. I think Stefanie and Dermot are both fabulous.

Shock: What about having Leigh direct it? Obviously, you guys have a very different dynamic with him as a writer and co-star in the other movies you’ve done. Now, he has to also direct and still play “Specs” as well.

Shaye: It was probably harder for him than for me, because I knew he’d be great. I mean, his communication skills are different than James’, because he’s a performer and also wrote all the material. So his understanding of each character is so expansive. I mean, there’d be times he would be telling me back story, and I would be going, “Wait.” Because we’d have to do the scene at hand, but he would be so excited and animated. I kinda learned to finally pick from what he would be saying. I’d kind of tune out the stuff that wasn’t working for me, because I was trying to focus on a specific moment of beginning the scene or whatever.

So, we learned to communicate really, really beautifully with each other. And Leigh learned, too, that that skill of a director, of each actor needs a little something different, you know? I mean, you can have one style of directing and the actor has to catch up with you and end of story. But that was something James kind of learned as a director and he talked about that. He said, “You need something different than Patrick Wilson needed. So, I give it to you. I give you your space to do blah, blah.” With Patrick, Patrick was a detective and a million questions because that’s how he works and he’s an exquisite actor. James knew he has all this talent, but it’s a very vulnerable place you’re in, when you’re getting ready to start a scene, when you’re discussing the scene. I think that Leigh 100 percent caught up with that. The funny thing for me was, the first day he came back on set as Specs, it was hilarious, because here was Leigh, you know, you could hear that voice. He’s got that Australian voice, which just cuts through everything. All of a sudden, I look, and there’s this little nebbish guy in his little jacket. I thought, “There’s Specs.” He totally made the transition. He’s a tremendously gifted, gifted man, and so is James. The two of them are going to eat up Hollywood.

Shock: They already have been. Are you kidding me? James has one of the biggest hits in the world right now.

Shaye: In the world, what was it, $800 billion in the first two weeks?

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Shock: What about Stefanie, because also, she’s a very young actor. I think she’s 18 and she’s your main co-star in the movie.

Shaye: She was 17 when we shot, but she’s totally great. She’s totally professional, totally focused, tireless, also, I mean, zero attitude, except to do the scene the best she can, totally prepared. I’m really impressed with her, and the sweetest girl ever on the planet, and the most beautiful little thing you ever saw. So, a bit tall, she’s tall, actually, and a little thing, and the cutest little thing you ever—well, I don’t know about the cutest, but the littlest on set, anyway.

Shock: Do you get creeped out what is being thrown at you?

Shaye: You know, my favorite expression is, “Your body doesn’t know you’re pretending.” When you’re putting yourself through emotional gymnastics, which we were all the time in this story, it’s hard, it’s exhausting and it’s adrenal. Your whole adrenaline is in overdrive. I’m sure there are different people that are able to turn that on and off better than I can, in a way. I used to go home totally exhausted at the end of the day, because we had long days. The character is such an emotional character, as is Stefanie’s, as is Dermot’s. I mean, the three of us are like basket cases on some level. 

Shock: That’s one of the joys of these movies, that they do give the characters such dramatic and emotional moments.

Shaye: Well and that’s all to provoke, hopefully, your audience. I think people are going to be scared in a whole different way in this movie than they are in the first two.

Shock: I don’t think I was ready for how much scarier it really was.

Shaye: But it’s also because it opens you up vulnerably. The sort of dark places that we all start, which is about loss and grief, which all three of us have experienced in our lives, which bring me into their family, basically; that’s powerful stuff. Everybody who’s going to see this movie has had loss, everybody, whether you’re 13 or 90, you’ve had loss in your life.

Shock: I was wondering on set, do they ever not tell you what’s going to happen just to kind of create that same kind of confusion so you can walk in a room and give a natural response of being shocked or surprised?

Shaye: Well, Leigh did that with Stefanie, I guess, on some levels. I actually wasn’t there when he did that kind of thing. Maybe he didn’t want to pull that on me. But I mean, he also knew Stefanie was new and young and wanted to make sure he got what he needed from her and to help her get there every way he could. I think from what I read in the production notes, there were a few surprises he pulled on her, also even with Dermot. But pretty much with me, whatever we created was kind of out of my own imagination. Of course, then, when the Woman in Black is there, that’s very physical and totally scary and upsetting. I mean, I went home and I was a wreck. 

And he’s a wonderful actor, actually, and a sweetheart of a guy, who is always so worried, whether he was hurting me. It’s awful to be choked over and over and over. Even with Patrick Wilson in the first one. Patrick, who is a seasoned Broadway, skilled, phenomenal, in control person and actor, I had a wring of black and blue thumbprints all over my neck and my shoulders, after we shot that scene in the first one. He was in control, but there’s still stuff that happens. Your adrenaline takes over and that’s why those kind of scenes have to be choreographed, to all my fellow actors out there who think, “Oh, just do it. It’ll be great.” Don’t just do it because you’ll get your teeth knocked out. End of story, okay?

Shock: Do other horror filmmakers see you in those movies and want to cast you in their own movie or are you drawn to the genre yourself? 

Shaye: I am drawn to wonderful story, wonderful character, wonderful people. That’s what I’m drawn to. I love all genres. I mean, I obviously started out in comedy or at least to be known in comedy. But, again, there were a couple of things I was just offered and I turned them both down, partly because I’m in the top horror genre deal right now, and to do another movie with lesser people and not as good of a story. I don’t want to do it. I used to be a “yes” person to everything, like, “Whatever, I’ll do it.”

Shock: Your IMDb page is pretty bizarre.

Shaye: It’s pretty packed, and that’s all real. There’s nothing on there that’s added or fake, and it’s because I love working. But it’s changing a little bit now with the success of these films, because I feel like I have the luxury to be able to say “no” if I don’t really want to do it. Usually, financially, these are all smaller budget films. It’s not like you’re being offered a half a million bucks to do… and money is not my main driving force at all. It’s fun to get paid well for what you do because it does have some relationship in our commerce society of, “You do a good job, you get more money.” So you feel if you get more money, you’re doing a good job. It doesn’t necessarily mean that, but there is some corollary there.

Shock: Of course, the award you received should help with that…

Shaye: No, it was so great. I mean, the sizzle reel they did before, because I didn’t know really what was going to happen. The sizzle reel was extraordinary. I mean, I want to get it because it’s a great sales tool. It was beautifully done. The little statue they gave me was fabulous. It’s blown glass planes. It’s a beautiful piece of glass, so I have it on my desk, proudly, and I couldn’t be prouder to be acknowledged and to be loved by the fans. There’s nothing better.

Shock: My editor Sam Zimmerman also wanted me to ask about Alone in the Dark, which I haven’t seen personally, but like James and Leigh, he’s really into obscure horror movies.

Shaye: Alone in the Dark is great. I need also to tell you, I really got my big brother to thank for opportunity because Bob Shaye started New Line Cinema in 1968. He was my big brother.

Shock: I didn’t know you were one of those Shayes.

Shaye: He’s my big bro from my same mom and dad. We both knew Pepe Le Moco, our dog, together. But anyway, Bob, he literally said to Wes Craven, “Put my sister in your movie.”

Shock: For Nightmare on Elm Street? Amazing.

Shaye: Yeah, so I hope I turned straw into… it wasn’t straw, but I hoped I turned gold into gold.

Shock: Have you seen Wes Craven since then or do you ever see him?

Shaye: I haven’t seen him for a long time, but we’re totally friends. 

Insidious Chapter 3 opens on Friday, June 5 with previews on Thursday night. For our talk with writer-director Leigh Whannell, see here.