EXCLUSIVE: Lin Shaye Opens Door to Family History in ‘Insidious: The Last Key’

(L to R, foreground) Dr. Elise Rainier (LIN SHAYE) and her brother, Carter (BRUCE DAVIDSON) treat his daughter Melissa (SPENCER LOCKE) while Specs (LEIGH WHANNELL) and Tucker (ANGUS SAMPSON) stand guard in INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY. ©Universal Pictures. CR: Justin M. Lubin.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Lin Shaye defies the Hollywood convention that the hero of a horror film is male actor, and even more extraordinary is the fact that she is more than a few decades older than her core audience.  Yet the journeyman actress has become a fan favorite in the “Insidious” franchise as parapsychologist Elise Rainier, a ghostbuster with compassion and guts. Introduced as a supporting character in the 2010 original where she was killed off, Elise was brought back by popular demand three years later from the Further (a kind of limbo for the deceased) in “Insidious: Chapter 2,” and once again reprised her role in “Insidious: Chapter 3,” where she reluctantly uses her psychic power to reach a menacing spirit haunting a teenage daughter.

In “Insidious: The Last Key,” the fourth chapter in the series, Shaye takes the starring role when she is called to investigate supernatural happenings in a New Mexico home, which turns out to be the place where she spent her unhappy childhood. In flashback, audiences discover that Elise was abused by her cruel father, who refused to accept her psychic abilities. Elise also carries the guilt of having long ago abandoned her beloved kid brother, who still lives in the town (Bruce Davison). As she, and her team of fellow paranormal investigators—goofball sidekicks Tucker and Specs, played by Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell, who also is the film’s writer and executive producer—try to root out the evil lurking within the home. Elise faces off against the immortal Key Face, the demon she accidentally unleashed years earlier, risking her soul in the process.

Born and raised in Detroit, Shaye has been an actress for nearly five decades. After attending drama school in New York, where she studied with famed coaches Uta Hagan, Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, she began her career on stage, appearing as a Polish prostitute in a production of “Hester Street.” Later, she moved to Los Angeles and made her film debut in Jack Nicholson’s 1978 Western comedy “Goin’ South.” Other supporting roles followed in films including “Dumb and Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary” and “Detroit Rock City.” Somewhere along the way, she fell into the horror genre, starring in “Critters” and Wes Craven’s “Nightmare on Elm Street.” She worked on a trio of horror films with director Tim Sullivan, including “2001 Maniacs,” which also starred Freddie Krueger star Robert Englund, and its sequel. As a working actress, Shaye has taken supporting roles in the occasional B movie like “My Demon Lover” and “Surf School,” but the actress has no regrets.

“I’m one of these actors where if I love the story and the people, even if the money isn’t great, I like working,” she says, during an interview at the (supposedly) haunted Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

The divorced mother of one spoke about reprising her Elise role in “Insidious: The Last Key,” and getting a chance to explore the character’s backstory. Working with the “Insidious” team—writer/executive producer/co-star Whannell, producers Jason Blum and James Wan, along with incoming director Adam Robitel (“The Taking of Deborah Logan”), and the rest of the production team, has been a joy, she says. Though “The Last Key” is the fourth chapter in the popular franchise, Shaye says newcomers to the series will be as thrilled as die-hard fans of the films.

Q: Had you imagined Elise’s backstory before Leigh Whannell came up with this?

Shaye: I did, and it was not at all his backstory. When we did the first one, I imagined Elise as an only child, a loner who spent a lot of time by herself. Through her vulnerability and aloneness, she attracted these friends, these demons so that’s how she recognized her ability.

I didn’t study psychics and how psychics work. I do yoga so I understand quiet enough to be able to express correctly what that might be like. A few people have told me I was right on, so I have no desire to be psychic. But I’m glad I got it right for the professional world.

For the first one, one thing I really enjoyed was that opening scene—this was my idea, Leigh hadn’t written it—when I come to the door, I knock on it and ring the doorbell. When Patrick (Wilson) opens the door, and I say to him, “Sorry, but I’m not sure the doorbell worked.” Here I am, this woman who is supposed to have this (psychic) ability, but still doesn’t know if the doorbell works. It kind of set her up as being a regular person who has the ability and the spirit to try and help other people.

Leigh, waiting until this number four (film) to give me the full backstory amplifies, and actually makes stronger, who (Elise) is in the first one because, to come out of that kind of abuse, mire, danger and terrible family life, she was still able to regain herself, which we also find in the third (film), you see her closed off and which the other two bookend. The first and fourth film bookend the third one. She’s gone through a very emotional time in her life. She’s a bit of an agoraphobic but comes out because this girl has come to ask for help. What we have drawn is this woman who has had this very tough beginning, but is able, and realizes she has an ability, and was able to pull herself to a place of helping other people and looking outside herself. I think that’s part of the appeal of the character—she’s a “you” person, not a “me” person.

Q: Could part of that be because of how she feels about her brother, whether she is aware of it or not?

Shaye: That’s very possible. And yet, bad things were still able to generate a good person. People give up sometimes and there’s a lot of abuse that goes on that’s not acknowledged. I think this film is going to make some people talk about stuff they haven’t talked about in a long time.

Q: At the core of this is a strong female character—you.

Shaye: I swear to God, I don’t know how that happened. I never really focused on that part of it but I kind of feel age-less and gender-less. It doesn’t matter if Elise is a woman or a man, or how old she is, what matters is she’s human. She’s an organism that’s grown out of ****, pardon the expression, and yet has still been able to flower into something that helps others. It’s an iPhone, not a wePhone, a YouPhone or an UsPhone. It’s an iPhone; it’s all about me. We live in a very “me” world right now. Not just culture, but a very “me” world. Elise represents the opposite in a really positive way. It’s about you; how can I help you? Without being corny or anything, it’s just in her behavior. It’s not about proselytizing anything. You see her in action, standing up for what she believes in and helping you in where you’re trying to go. Those are great qualities in anybody.

Q: When “Insidious” came out in 2010, did you have any idea it would be so successful? What were your expectations?

Shaye: I had none. I met James Wan, coincidentally, through a mutual friend, a director named Tim Sullivan. We did two movies together called “2001 Maniacs.” Tim is a wonderful guy and a good friend of James. James had seen this movie I did called “Dead End,” that I did some years ago. It’s a Christmas movie. It’s a great movie with Ray Wise and a few other actors. We shot it all at night in Franklin Canyon (in Los Angeles). It’s one of my favorite things that I ever did. It’s become a cult film over the years. James loved that movie and he asked if he could meet me, so Tim brought him over. About a week or two later, he was making a YouTube video for Xbox, a prequel to an Xbox game called “Doggie Heaven,” starring Leigh Whannell playing a doofus guy trying to pick up a girl, ends up in a car accident and, by mistake, he is sent to doggie heaven. (She laughs.)  I worked for two days with James and Leigh on that. Not long after that James called and said he and Leigh were working on a film together and there’s a role he thought I’d be great for and he asked if I’d like to read it. So, he sent the script over. I read it in bed. It was so scary that I got up and locked it in the downstairs closet. I don’t usually get scared but that one did it. He even changed the font (of the script) when it was in the Further. It was like the paper got cold. It was really scary.

Q: And you’re not a novice to the horror genre.

Shaye: Totally. It was very well-written and Elise talked a lot.  So, I called James, and said, “I’d love to join you if you guys can get it done.” He told me he had an offer out to Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne. They both accepted and we started shooting right away. It was a three-week shoot with an $800,000 budget.

After we finished the movie, they put it on the festival circuit. We went to the Toronto International Film Festival and they showed it in a 2,000-seat theater and we got a standing ovation, and Sony Pictures bought it that night after a bidding war. That was the beginning. I was just happy to be working and I really enjoyed working with James. He’s a real cinephile. He doesn’t over-direct the actor, which I prefer. I’m a good listener, but sometimes I say “no,” before I say “yes.” I have to learn to open up a little more too, sometimes.

When it became a box office success worldwide, lo and behold, we made the second one. James was kind of upset that they killed me in the first one, so he decided to make me a ghost in the second one. I’m in the Further, but on this side of the door. I guess the character popped, and they wanted to see more of Elise. Then they decided to do three, and now here we are with four. So, I’m in heaven; not the Further, I’m in heaven.

Q: Is there more Elise in your future?

Shaye: There’s always a way, I suppose. Maybe they could set it in the ‘90s. We’ll see how this is received but wherever those guys take it is fine with me. I love this team and the storytelling. I love the integrity that these guys have and what they’re projecting with their work. It’s really powerful.

Q: What’s next for you?

Shaye: Just a couple of smaller things. I’m going to New Orleans next week to do a film called “Gothic Harvest.” It’s a curse that’s put on this family because this woman wants to abort her baby in the early 1800s. So, a curse is put on her where she and the baby are connected throughout eternity. I play the grandmother. They kidnap a host (body) once a year at Mardi Gras to feed the baby. It’s like the draining of life into this baby. So, it’s about betrayal and being stuck in this loop of repetition. I look for those big ideas in stuff. Chris Kobin, who wrote it, was one of the producers on “2001 Maniacs.” Bill Moseley’s going to do it, who was in the “2001 Maniacs” sequel, after Robert Englund did the first one. So, it’ll be a fun group of people. It’s only for five days. Then, I’m going to do a comedy with Greg Grunberg. I was in a movie with him before called “Big *** Spider.” I play his mom and we’re supposed to shoot that in January. I’m playing a man in another movie that hasn’t gotten all of its funding yet. It’s a pretty good story.

Q: You have range, Lin.

Shaye: (laughing) I play a dead uncle.

Q: Lots of makeup for that one?

Shaye: I don’t know. I do a pretty good transformation. And there’s a movie I co-produced, which I think is the best work I’ve ever done. It’s called “Room for Rent.” It’s still in post (production). Blumhouse (Jason Blum’s production company) may be looking at it. Fingers crossed. I’m really excited about what could happen with that because it’s a fantastic story. They’re all small projects; nobody big is in them. In a way, I’m more comfortable in that milieu than a big, big thing. I just hope I get to keep working, that’s all.