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Lin Shaye: The Insidious star on becoming the Godmother of Horror

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Jun 2, 2015, 4:37 PM EDT

Please don't call Lin Shaye an overnight success. While the actress has become famous in recent years in her role as medium Elise Rainier from the Insidious films, she has been consistently making a mark in movies for four decades.

After kicking off her career under the direction of Jack Nicholson, in 1978's comedy Goin' South, she became a recognizable character actor. And though she turned in memorable performances in comedies such as Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There's Something About Mary, it is difficult to ignore a scary trend in Shaye's career. Along with the Insidious franchise -- in which she can be seen again this Friday, June 5, with the third installment Insidious: Chapter 3 -- Shaye has delivered memorable performances in the horror genre. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street, Critters, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, Dead End, Snakes on a Plane, 2001 Maniacs, The Signal, Ouija; these films and others recently led to Shaye being dubbed the Godmother of Horror at Philadelphia Comic Con last month.

And I suppose this is where I come in. Because of my love of the genre, I was approached by the publicity folks behind Insidious: Chapter 3 to present Shaye with a "tribute of flames" statue at our Godmother of Horror talk -- which she tells me is now proudly displayed on her desk. 

Lin Shaye of Insidious Chapter 3 is presented the Godmother of Horror award from Aaron Sagers.

On the panel in the crowded Terrace Ballroom of the Philadelphia Convention Center, Shaye discussed the new Insidious film, which serves as a prequel to 2011's first chapter. In it, we learn how Elise first enters the spectral realm of "The Further" to save a girl plagued by demons. And this time, franchise co-creator Leigh Whannell takes over directing duties for James Wan, while still portraying one-half of the parapsychologist team Specs and Tucker. 

But before we took the stage, I had a chance to join at the Four Seasons hotel in Philadelphia. The woman with whom I sat was a charming, energetic performer clearly getting a kick out of the recent attention she's been receiving. In the following interview, we spoke about the trajectory of her career, as well as how much she knew about her character's backstory, Whannell's directing style ... and her own unexplained experiences.

You're receiving this "Godmother of Horror" award ...

It's crazy!

Talk about that. What does it mean to be a Godmother of Horror, and how do you think you arrived at this particular spot in life?

I have no idea why or how or any of it. I'm sort of giddy with all the attention. It is really emotional. I worked really hard at what I do. I love what I do, but I don't think of myself as part of any particular genre. I just consider myself a communicator and an artist. You hope that what you put forward is received, and it's very thrilling to feel it is. People are really opening their arms to what I'm putting out. So it is really crazy. I have been an actor for almost 44 years; I can't believe it. It is like smoke and mirrors, it really is. I got my Equity card at the Chelsea Theater Center in Brooklyn. I was understudying a Jean Genet play called The Screens -- five hours long with a dinner break -- playing the ugliest girl in the world. For the full five hours, you wore a burlap bag over your head. I auditioned and didn't get it, and if I can think of all the roles I didn't get, my god! So I got to go on as understudy, and that was how I became a professional.

Elise in the Insidious series is this ghost hunter in the paranormal community, and that's something I'm intrigued by ...

Why? Do you believe in it? I'm now throwing the questions back to you!

The unknown fascinates me. I don't say I believe or not. I've always liked the entertainment component of that world. But I've noticed that people like to share their stories about the unexplained. Have you now become the recipient of fan ghost stories?

People ask me often if I believe in the supernatural, and my answer is I believe in everything. There is so much we know so little about. Who is to say no? Whether we project our own needs and desires on what we think we see, or whether we really see something, I don't think we can really answer that. But my manager represents a woman who is a psychic with a TV show, and she wanted me to come on and discuss Ouija (because I was in the film Ouija, also). Apparently, the Ouija board is a very serious tool to people who really do practice being a psychic. I said no. I am an actress, and I didn't go to open doors. I know the doors in myself that I have had opened that I wanted to close up again. I know how to protect myself -- whether it's protecting me from myself or protecting me from something when you're a receiver. I like to consider myself a good receiver. Which is why I think I'm a good actress. I allow things to come in and out, but I also have to be careful what I let in and out. I have to be prudent about where I decide to let them in and out. So I was very clear I had no interest in discussing this for real. As I say, Elise is a character, and I'm an actress. When I'm on set and doing that, it's all for real. It's all for real for me. Once I go home, I lock my door and cuddle up with my doggy.

OK, so then nothing weird has happened while working in this world?

I did, during the course of Insidious 3, have a dead rat in my swimming pool. I thought, do I take the thing and heave it or do I bury it? It was a dilemma, because I was late. I picked up with the pool thing and I flung it. To this day, I think it was the wrong thing to do! I needed to at least give it a good burial. I had a fly infestation. I had a wild animal go running through my house that had been up in a rafter. I don't even know how it got it. So there were a few little weird numbers that I just thought, "Hey, OK!"

This doesn't sound supernatural! It sounds like they could all be connected! The flies came for the rat ...

No, no. That's too logical. This became more symbolic!

Insidious: Chapter 3 is a prequel, so how much of Elise's backstory was laid out for you during the previous movies?

Part of an actor's job is to build your past. Even if the audience never knows what that past is, it does inform your performance. When we started the first one, Leigh Whannell, who wrote all three and directed this one, came over with Angus Sampson. Together, they play my Specs and Tucker cohorts, and we discussed how we know each other, what was our history together, and we came up with some things. When James told me after the first one that people loved my character, he said, "If we go further, I'm going to make Elise the face of the franchise -- and I'm really sorry we killed you in the first one, because we have to find a way to do that!" Then, in the second, they bring me back into The Further. When they knew they were going forward with the franchise, Leigh told me they'd make it an origin story. He said people don't want to see a dead Lin Shaye, they want to see Elise alive. 

How is the tone different with this entry from the previous two?

The movie has a richness to it, and the other two are different. I won't say they're better or worse, but they're different. There's a texture here that's thematically about loss. It is about something everyone in the theater will have some experience with. It is a highly emotional film. As well as having the traditional scares and fun stuff, like the jumps, it has an in insidious quality of getting into your psyche about sadness, fear and loss. There is a serious underbelly that heightens the fear. It scared me when I saw it, and I cried like a baby. The fear factor makes it the scariest of the three. 

Walk me through the differences in style between Leigh's directing and James Wan's.

Leigh's is very different. Leigh is also a performer, and he started out know these characters better than anybody. Now, he says to me, nobody knows her like me. But his tendency is to act it out for you -- which I had to get used to. James is a cinephile. He sees the shots, and we never really discussed character that much. He let me do my thing. I'd ask if I could have a line here or there, and he'd say we need this because he was going to cut to there. Or, "You can't be funny here." I had a hilarious line that he liked, but he said we couldn't have a laugh there because he was trying to build to something. James' vision is very cinematic. Leigh's is very emotional. Being a performer, and being Leigh -- he's very funny, wonderful and the sweetest guy ever, and you just want to squeeze him -- so his style was more emotional.

Now that Leigh is directing as well as acting in the film, is there a noticeable shift when he goes from behind the camera to in front as Specs?

It was hilarious. He has a schlumpy jacket as Specs, and he'd be having this director thing then put the jacket on and diminish. He'd become a little, small person with this jacket on, and a nervous wreck.