Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Lin Shaye has been a working actress for nearly 50 years. In fact, she remembers the role that got her her Equity card: a 1971 stage production of Jean Genet’s The Screens. A lifetime member of The Actors Studio who studied with Uta Hagen, Stella Adler, and Lee Strasberg, Shaye didn’t get into film and television acting until her early 3os. She plugged away on stage and in bit movie roles—many of those produced through New Line Cinema, the studio founded by her brother, Bob Shaye—throughout the ’80s and ’90s, becoming best known for her horror and comedic work. Peter and Bobby Farrelly cast her in small but memorable roles in their films Dumb And Dumber (1994), Kingpin (1996), and There’s Something About Mary (1998)—probably her best-known work until 2010, when Insidious (2010) became a surprise hit. That film made Shaye the face of a wildly successful horror franchise, opening up a new chapter in her career that led to her latest film, Room For Rent, where she stars as a desperately lonely widow who becomes dangerously obsessed with the tenant who rents out her spare room on a B&B rental site.
With 202 credits and counting on her IMDB page, Shaye warned us at the beginning of our interview that she might not remember every role. She needn’t have worried.
Lin Shaye: It’s funny, Mick Garris, who directed Critters 2, [and I] were talking, and someone had sent him a picture from one of his movies. He sent me the picture, and he said, “What movie is this?” I said, “I have no idea.” Eventually we both realized it was something called Quicksilver Highway, or something like that. Neither one of us could remember.
The A.V. Club: I don’t think that’s a bad thing, necessarily. It’s good that you’ve worked so much that you’re not like, “ah, yes, I remember the one film I did, ever.”
LS: You know, I’m really grateful. I’m having the most wonderful time. I can barely believe everything that’s going on and the way things are being received.
AVC: Your character in this film is interesting. She’s a villain, but also a very lonely person, so you feel some sympathy for her.
LS: To be honest, when I first read the script, that wasn’t on the page at all. She was already a killer right away. We changed quite a bit. [Director] Tommy [Stovall] presented me with a script, and I didn’t really like it. I just thought, “you know what, this has been done before. We’ve already seen this, and you know the end of the story at the beginning.”And then it just started to evolve. I said, “what if this woman is controlled by her husband, and pretty much confined to the kitchen?” He controls her life, and she really is disenfranchised. She has no friends. She has no real life other than what he lets her do. And unfortunately, in the real world, there are a lot of women who live that life, you know?
But nevertheless, I thought that was an interesting story. That became the backstory that you meet this woman who has no sense of style or really how to be out in the world. And I tried to make her a little bit OCD—she’s always worried about the door closing three times, and taking that very first step across the curb is very important. That detail in her life is what she holds on to, to stay sane. It was also my idea to have the romance novels, that she has a fantasy world. I thought those elements made it very, in a weird way, universal, with stuff that goes on that we don’t discuss particularly. It wasn’t my goal to make you like her, but it was my goal to provide that back story of this woman who was lonesome.
AVC: You touched on it mentioning her style, and not really knowing how to dress, but in some ways, she’s had a rough life, but in other ways she’s very naive and juvenile, particularly in the way that she dresses.
LS: That was a big discussion we had. When she opens the B&B, I wanted her to put a flower in her hair. That was how she dressed up. There’s actually a progression. because Paula Rogers, who did the wardrobe, really did a fantastic job. We had a catalog of outfits that we picked from, showing the change from first time you see her after her husband has died to mimicking what she sees in romance novels. From Joyce’s perspective, it wasn’t juvenile, it was dressing up. Again, this was backstory, I’m not sure you get the specifics of it as the audience, but I had a little secret box that had lipstick and a ribbon and a picture of my mother and father in it. That was all that was in the box. And it wasn’t until [my character] meets [her tenant] Bob that she has the courage to put lipstick on and start her fantasy life.
AVC: It’s interesting, talking about all these additional layers that you put on your character in Room For Rent that weren’t there when you first got the script. Is that something that you have to do a lot?
That’s really what I love to do. That’s why I’ve never gone very far in television, to be honest, it goes too fast and there’s no room [to develop characters]. That was how I felt about it, always. I’m not dissing TV at all, obviously, but given what I love to do and my training—I mean, I come out of New York theater. I never ever thought about coming to California and being in the movies, ever.
And that was what my training was: What am I going to wear? What is my secret? What do I have in my pocket that the audience doesn’t know about? That gives me life. It was all about finding the life of the character.
So for me, that’s the fun of the work. It’s not just about learning the lines and telling the story, but it’s telling the story with specificity. You have these little tiny moments that people might not pick up on, but it definitely gives me something to hang on to. That’s how I work. That was Uta Hagen and Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg. That’s what they taught me, and I still live within that.
I’ve studied. I really studied. I was at Columbia at their theater arts program for three years, and then as an actress on Broadway, and off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway, which is similar to indie filmmaking, actually. You do your own wardrobe, you know. This is a little bit of a long story, but I’ll tell you anyway.
AVC: Please, go ahead.
LS: When I got out here, I brought a tape with me that I’d put together and I got a job on a movie of the week. It was my very first job in LA. I was staying at the Chateau Marmont. I came out to meet Jack Nicholson, which is another story unto itself—he’d seen some pictures of me. This was 1977. He was doing this movie called Goin’ South, and had just hired Mary Steenburgen for her very first role.
Anyway, he saw this picture and inquired about me. So I took the bull by the horns and ended up flying out to LA, saying, “oh, I was planing to be in LA for a short visit,” which was total BS. But I came, and I met him, and I got one line in the movie. But it was in that little interim period where I got this job on a movie of the week with F. Murray Abraham. It was a big deal. Everybody’s going, “you’re in a movie of the week!” They called me for it. I didn’t audition, they offered me the job. It was called Sex And The Married Woman.
So I got this job, and I read who the character is. She’s F. Murray Abraham’s wife, and she’s kind of a bossy little thing. She’s in the kitchen doing something, and he keeps calling to her. So I go shopping for my wardrobe, because what do I know? I thought it was like the theater. I bought a little T-shirt that said “hot stuff” on it, and I found a pair of earrings that were little pink palm trees. And I thought, “let’s see. So she’s in the kitchen. What’s she doing in there?” I think, “okay, she’s cooking a turkey.” So I went to [Beverly Hills deli] Nate ‘n Al and I bought a turkey leg. I swear to God. It’s in the movie.
So anyway, I bring it to—NBC, I think it was. So here comes Lynn Lynn with her little outfit and turkey leg in a bag. And I meet the director, Jack Arnold, who was a really famous sitcom director. Everybody backed away. They all kind of just looked at me. And I’m like, “okay, I thought this would be a cute T-shirt to wear. And how about these earrings? And I had this idea that she’s in the kitchen and she’s got a turkey leg...” They were all hysterical, but everybody kept a deadpan. And Jack said, “yeah, that’s a good idea.” And we used all of it. [laughs]
AVC: Oh my god.
LS: But really, that’s the truth of how I work. I still work that way, and I always will. It’s not fun for me to just be moved around like a chess piece, you know? I love the nitty gritty of it. I still shop for myself, and I always pull stuff out of my own closet. I always bring jewelry to set, something that I think is right for the character.
LS: I auditioned for that. I think she was with a punk group; this was 1977, you know. So I came to the audition with a dog collar around my neck and a leash (laughs) and I walked myself around like I was a total stoner with the leash. That’s also in the episode. It was Lorimar, which doesn’t exist anymore, but it was a very tough production company, notoriously so. And they gave me single card billing! I had never been on a show before. I actually saved the screenshot for a long time, but I don’t have it anymore. Actually, Robin Williams was supposed to be in the episode, but he got a gig in Philadelphia. So he has no lines in it, but you see him in the background somewhere. I dressed up in a little outfit—again with the little outfit!—and the leash and collar.
Betty Buckley had just replaced Diana Hyland, who had just passed away. She was the mom on Eight Is Enough, and Betty replaced her. Betty was my friend and teacher in New York, she taught a singing class for actors and we became pretty good friends. And so when I decided to come out here and see Jack Nicholson, I sent this little note to him, because I knew he was not coming back to New York. And he responded by saying, “I’d love to meet Lynn as soon as she’s out here.” So I remember I packed dirty underwear—I thought, “I’ll wash it when I get there”—and I called Betty.
She was staying at the Chateau Marmont, which I didn’t even know what that was. I’d never been out here. I didn’t have any idea what Los Angeles was about. So she said, “come on and I’ll get you a place here. I’ll get you a room.” I think she got me the audition. Anyway, so that was those two shows were my very first outings in LA. It was a lesson also in endurance and energy, because I was meeting anybody I could get on the phone. It was almost weird, but that kind of energy begets energy. So, I thought, “oh man, Hollywood is easy!”
AVC: (laughs) “All you have to do is call!”
LS: That’s what it felt like for a minute! Of course, then, well... But those were the elements that led me to think about moving out here for good and trying my hand at what was going on out here. And we had a theater company for 10 years out here. I did a lot of theater out here years ago as well.
AVC: So, you had never been to LA before, and you were staying at the Chateau Marmont. That must have been kind of a wild place in the late ‘70s.
LS: You want to know what? I actually stayed in the bungalow that John Belushi died in. But I was never a part of any of that stuff. I never did coke, I never did any of it. It just wasn’t on my radar. But I was interested in acting, buying turkey legs and little earrings!
It is very childlike, you know, but that’s because that’s what I did when I was little. That was how I entertained myself. I never really decided to be an actress, it’s just a part of my fabric, and very happy and excited about that. Now it’s 48 years later. I got my equity card in 1971 at the Chelsea Theatre Center with one line in a play called The Screens, which is Jean Genet. It was a five-hour production. I was understudying one of the leads, and the director gave me one line. So that’s how I got my union card.
AVC: When you finally did meet with Jack Nicholson, do you think he knew that you were lying about just happening to be in LA?
LS: Well, yes. Here’s what happened: I got a giant, giant fever blister, like the size of a basketball, on my upper lip coming out, on the plane. I was so freaked out. And I mean, it was horrible. I ended up having to have a gamma globulin shot. It was like, a quadruple blister!
So I checked into the Chateau Marmont, and I called the cab to come pick me up in the morning. I’d never been to Paramount. I’d never been anywhere! And I got all dressed up; I know exactly what I wore. I remember wearing a peasant blouse with jeans and these little platform shoes. And I remember I put on a lot of eye makeup because my lip was really horrible and I was in total denial. I couldn’t even deal with it, it was just “whatever, whatever, whatever.”
So I walked into Paramount, and I go to the office, and I’d never even been in a casting office like that. I mean, it was really just crazy. I walked through the door, and I see my picture is up on his bulletin board along with a bunch of other actors. And he’s got his head down. He’s looking down at my resume and he’s saying, “well, let’s see if there’s anything here we can talk about.” And then he looked up at me with that classic Jack Nicholson look, with a smile and the eyebrows going up. And he said, “what happened to your mouth?”
And I said, “oh my God, I know, I’m really sorry, I wasn’t really pretending, I knew I was coming out here, I was just—I didn’t really come out here just to meet you!” And he said, “I get it, believe me, I’ve lived with the actresses long enough. I get the whole picture.” So he totally knew, and he loved it, because he’s that guy too. He’s a remarkable person, and one of our greatest ever actors in my opinion.
This was 1977, and it was a crazy time. We were all in Durango, Mexico—John Belushi, Christopher Lloyd, Veronica Cartwright, Danny DeVito. It was this whole gang, and me. I had never done a movie. I had one little role in a WGBH film that was done in New York about Margaret Sanger, where I played an immigrant woman who had tried to give herself an abortion. It was actually a wonderful little scene, but that was the only film I’d ever done. And so Jack was really giving me info. I only have one line, but he said, “there’s going to be a section that’s MOS, which means there’s no sound, so you can use your eyes.” He really gave me a little mini lesson in film acting, and was very kind. I was there for two weeks because I was in all these crowd scenes. It’s a really great little film.
My favorite part was that I finished on the second week, I was ready to go back to Los Angeles, and I wanted to say goodbye to Jack, and thank him, obviously. And he had this big bay horse—I think it was a bay horse. But, anyway, he had this big horse that was his for the run of the show. He was off in the distance somewhere, and it was one of those moments where this little speck comes galloping toward me. And it was Jack! And it was like, “whoa,” you know, he stops with dust flying behind him. And he took his hat off and he bent down and gave me a little kiss on the cheek and said, “thank you for coming, ma’am,” and rode away. And that was it.
And I’ve never really seen him since. I am friends with John Herman Shaner, who wrote Goin’ South, and is one of Jack’s closest friends. And I’ve told him, to please tell Mr. Nicholson that he totally changed a woman’s life—a girl’s life, really. Because he did. If he hadn’t been interested in a picture and I hadn’t taken the initiative, I wouldn’t be here.
AVC: This was the first time you worked with Walter Hill, who you went on to do several films with.
LS: That’s also got a story. Everything’s got a story.
AVC: That’s what this interview is for!
LS: Okay. So, James and Stacy Keach, as you know, are brothers. And they lived in New York; I didn’t know Stacy very well, but I did know James pretty well. Actually, I forgot all about this part—we did The Tempest together. Sally Kirkland played Miranda, and Jimmy Keach played Caliban and Ferdinand. And I played Ariel. I was the fairy. It was fun.
So, when I came out to LA, I saw that they were doing this Western—it was Jimmy and Stacy Keach, and the Quaids, and the Carradines, three sets of brothers. So I called Jimmy and I said, “do you think there’s a part for me in this?” That’s what I mean. I just picked up the phone back then. I never really censored myself, just because I had no fear about anything, I really didn’t. So he says, “well, let me, let me check in with Walter.” So he set up this appointment with me to go meet Walter Hill. And I remember I was wearing—I always remember what I had on, because I always but so much thought into it.
AVC: I love it.
LS: So was wearing this little black T-shirt with a tiger on it—a big emblem, not just a little tiger. And I wore Levis cutoffs and cowboy boots.
AVC: Western attire.
LS: Western attire, that’s right. So I go marching over to—MGM, I guess it was? I can’t even remember what studio it was. But Walter was just so sweet, he’s such a nice guy. I mean, just totally great. So he cast me as this prostitute. I don’t even remember if I had lines or not, but I did have a kind of cool little moment with Randy Quaid, dancing with him. Pamela Reed was the madam, Belle Starr. And I was one of—one of her girls, basically.
I got along very well with Walter. He would come over and talk to me about the material. Even though it was a small role, I guess they felt, or they knew, I was interested. You could do feel that it wasn’t just, “oh my god, I’m in a movie!” you know? I really wanted to make a little scene, to figure out how to make it a moment.
AVC: Do you think that your training spoke for itself in that way? Like, they knew that you were a trained actress, and so they could work with you on this level?
LS: I don’t think they knew I had been trained. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. I never had an agent that did anything, this was all stuff I got on my own. Like Walter, he called me to see if I wanted to be in Brewster’s Millions. It was always tiny little roles, but I was invited in, which was very welcoming. I’m always very excited to be invited in to that kind of scenario and those kinds of films. Then we did another one—
AVC: Last Man Standing.
LS: That one, I think my part was mostly cut out. I was the madam in that one. I was a prostitute in a lot of stuff, so it was a full circle moment.
I ran into Walter a few years ago at the Saturn Awards, he’s been married forever to the same woman. He’s wonderfully talented, and The Long Riders is one of my favorite movies, period. I just thought it was a brilliant film, and his, the violence in his films was so interesting, and so powerful. I haven’t seen him for many years, but he lives in my heart for sure.
AVC: Let’s jump forward a few years. 1984—you know which one I’m going to ask about.
LS: A Nightmare On Elm Street.
AVC: Yeah. You already know.
LS: My big brother, I’m sure you know, is Bob Shaye, who started New Line Cinema in 1968. And Bob and I always had a typical big brother, little sister relationship. He was always mean to me, and would make fun of me, but it was all good. That’s just how it is with siblings.
Actually, I was living with him in his apartment in New York when he started New Line. I was at school at Columbia, and I was living in what we called “the mole hole,” which was a little railroad apartment on Second Avenue and 13th Street. And the “mole hole” had a mattress on the floor. That was my room.
AVC: (laughs) New York, man.
LS: Well, also Bobby and Linda Shaye. (laughs) “Sleep on the floor, it’s good enough for you.” Anyway, so Bob had this idea. He was a Fulbright scholar, a law graduate from Columbia University. Bob is a brilliant man. He’d probably say, “oh, shut up,” if he heard me say that, but he truly is a genius. And he decided to start this company, and in the beginning, they did lecture series that he distributed on university campuses. They didn’t make very much money, but that was the sort of fledgling idea of the company. And it was out of his apartment. He never got out of the apartment, but it was a five story walkup, so it was just as well.
So cut to the company getting bigger, and they expanded their reach in terms of acquisitions. They got more movies, and they became more well known around the country. An, I guess Wes Craven had been shopping his Nightmare On Elm Street script around, and nobody would make it. Nobody wanted it. And he met Bob was also—actually, he was a young filmmaker. He was a photographer when he was like 11, 12 years old. When I think back my parents were great, they made him a little darkroom in our basement in our house. And Bob developed his own photographs and took pictures of all the 11th graders with their pointy bras. He was very popular with the girls.
He actually made two little films in our living room in Detroit. We’re both from Detroit, Michigan. One was in a field in Franklin, Michigan, he did this study of reality and image. It’s actually called The Image, and it’s in the Museum of Modern Art in their permanent collection. Bob is not your everyday guy. And Bob again would always say, “this is my sister. She’s an actress.”
AVC: Like, rolling his eyes as he said it?
LS: Oh my god. Really. And I would want to crawl under a stone. And it was really uncomfortable because he was already a little mini player in the film business. And he told Wes to put me in his movie, and so I got hired to play the teacher. And I met Wes, and he couldn’t have been sweeter. The sweetest man ever, ever, ever. A real true intellect. I think he was a classical guitarist. He was extremely well read and liked music and art. I mean, he was not just a movie man.
AVC: You mentioned earlier that you haven’t done a lot of TV, but there is a TV episode that I have up next on my list here, when you were on The Twilight Zone in 1985.
LS: With Wes Craven.
LS: That’s got a great story. Okay. So, they called me in to audition—the episode’s called “Chameleon.” I remember the name. It’s kind of an odd little episode. The character is sort of fabricated. She’s kind of science fiction. You don’t know if she’s real, or if she’s not real. I can’t remember the actual storyline, but she’s a manipulator, basically. But you don’t know it at first, you think she’s really this fragile, sad woman.
So we did the scene at the audition, and it’s easy. Emotion is gratefully easy for me, because that’s how I live my life. Every day is a wreck. So it’s really easy for me to access everything. Anyway, we did the audition, and the casting director—whose name will not be heard when you hear what I did—I did the scene, and Wes was there. I don’t think they taped stuff back then, that didn’t become popular until a bit later. And he said, “Could you do it again, but a little less sappy?”
LS: And I thought “you...” and I gave him the finger.
AVC: And he was like, “you’re hired!”
LS: Wes was in the back of the room, and I saw him put his head down, and he was laughing so hard he could barely put his head up. And he just looked at me and Wes said, “That’s okay, Lynn. Thank you.” And of course I got the job. So thank you Wes Craven for having a sense of humor and understanding [Puts on pretentious accent.] the truth of the act-tor.
LS: For that one we developed [the character] some. I don’t quite remember the genesis of the idea that Sal would be this woman trapped in the ‘30s, you know, that she loves wearing these outfits. And here she lives in this little hick town with a real twangy accent. And she’s the dispatcher at the police station. She had the Oreo cookies, and the outfit—that was actually my suit, the orange one, I wish I hadn’t given it away, but I did. So. again, it was me bringing ideas to hair and makeup. And we thought, wouldn’t it be fun to give her a henna rise and do a whole, you know, character? So we did. And it worked great, because everybody was like, “who is she? What’s that about?” And she became a little bit popular. (puts on Southern accent) “There’s been a disturbance at the bowl-a-rama.”
When we did the second one, which was with Mick Garris, actually it was a really hard shoot because it was all night shoots, and it was freezing. On film sets, they have heaters—or. should I say, they’re supposed to have heaters. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But it’s bone chilling when you’re in really cold weather at night. No matter what kind of socks you have on, it takes a toll. It was also middle of the night freezing, so it was in that way a difficult shoot. But, you know, that’s not what takes over at all. Once you’re doing the work, for me, I couldn’t give a care what the temperature is. I’m trying to find the scene, and what works and what doesn’t work. And it was like everything else. It was totally fun.
AVC: I suppose it takes your mind off the cold, to have something else to think about.
LS: Also, adrenaline takes over. You really aren’t cold, but then all of a sudden when the scene is over and the director yells, “cut,” you’ll realize, “I’m freaking freezing and my teeth are chattering”. But when you’re in the scene, it doesn’t even faze you. At least, that’s how it is for me. Adrenaline is your friend.
AVC: You had eight roles in 1987, and I want to mention two of them. There was a movie called My Demon Lover where your character has a really great name, which is “anemic counter girl.” What was that about?
LS: My friend Leslie Ray, who I still keep trying to get to write, she’s a terrific writer of movies. She wrote that one, starring Scott Valentine. So Leslie—we were in theater together in New York and everything else—she wrote this script, and Bob’s company said they would do it. So it was a New Line movie.
It was just this little scene, I played a health food counter woman that we decided would have a cold and would be sneezing in the food. Bud Melman was in it—do you remember Bud Melman? He was this personality that used to be on all the talk shows, he was kind of a fixture. I think he falls asleep at the counter or something. But Leslie loved the idea that this health food woman has a terrible cold and is sneezing all over everything. And, you know, that was it. It was just one day. But yeah, always, always fun.
AVC: How about playing a propaganda officer in The Running Man?
LS: Actually, that’s a wonderful movie. I don’t think I even had any lines, or if I did, they got cut. But I had this great, futuristic hairdo. I remember there was the hairdo that was so cool. And it was, you know, learning. The thing about those kinds of roles for me is that it’s never boring. Every actor should hang out on set. it’s not just about you. There’s so much to learn about—well, everything! From the way you behave on set to where your light is. I still don’t ever know where my light is. It’s terrible. 48 years in the business, and still I have no idea.
And Dermot Mulroney, who was in one of the Insidious movies with me, I mention him because he is an actor who knows every aspect of the business. When we worked together in our scenes, he was the one that said, “move over two inches.” I said “what?” “Move over two inches.” “Oh, okay.” “Now do you feel that?”
AVC: You’re like, “oh, it’s warm.”
LS: It’s warm, and look, it’s bright, I can see! But, I mean, I am so self involved in terms of the reality of the emotion and the story that I often forget the technical stuff. But the technical stuff is very important, and the more you hang out on set, the more you learn, and the more you should keep your eyes open.
So those early movies, they were my learning grounds. I’d listen to the director talk to other people. I didn’t go hang out in my dressing room. I’d sit on set.
And I remember, actually, Paul Michael Glaser, who directed that movie—he was a really nice guy. And he also kind of fed me information a little bit. I guess, now that I’m thinking of it, I must have projected that I was interested, because people would teach me or give me information. And it was always something, a little tidbit of something to remember. So for those kinds of roles, especially in those early parts of my career, that was what I got out of them.
AVC: That was my first real movie. That was three weeks in Portland. I had a little boy at that point who was, I think, two or three. And Timothy [Hutton] also had a son who was my son’s age. And I played a secretary. It’s actually a pretty good little movie. It’s kind of a whodunnit.
And Tom Holland was also just wonderful, he’s still a friend. I don’t see him frequently, but he was also very helpful in terms of giving me information. I remember he gave me direction at the audition—I take direction, if I do say so myself, extremely well. Now, at this point in my life, if I don’t agree with it, I’ll say, “I’m not doing it.” (laughs) But not really. I’m never difficult, but I will argue for what I think is right if I think something’s really off. I’m not an argumentative person, but I’ve gotten more courage and more faith in my own judgment as I’ve gotten older and more experienced.
But I remember he gave me some really nice direction at the audition, and I got the job. And it was scary because it was really my first real role in a movie where I had a real character and an a real part. And then I remember Timothy was very sweet. He actually became very good friends with my brother. They’re still good friends now, I think. Lara was exquisite, really a movie star. She looked like Ava Gardner. She’s still a lovely woman, but she was really beautiful then. Those were her Twin Peaks days, and so she was pretty hot, in terms of her career. She was a movie star, you know, so I tried to pay attention and stay out of her way.
Dumb And Dumber (1994)— “Mrs. Neugeboren”/ Kingpin (1996)—”Landlady”/ There’s Something About Mary (1998)— “Magda”
AVC: I wanted to get into a trio of films that you did in the’90s that I think a lot of people remember you for. When I told people I was doing this interview, they were like, “Kingpin!” How did this happen in your life?
LS: They changed my life, those three movies. Lo and behold, Dumb And Dumber was a New Line movie. But this is the interesting part. So I get a call; I remember I was sitting on my couch, I remember exactly where I was. It was from Rick Montgomery’s office. And he said, “I’m casting this film called Dumb And Dumber with these two directors, and there’s a role we’d like you to do. It’s shooting”—I can’t remember where it was shooting. Pittsburgh was Kingpin. Anyway, I don’t know where this was shot, but it was not in LA.
And he says “there’s traveling, and it’s just a day or so, but we were wondering if you’d be interested.” And oh my god, interested? I almost jumped through his tonsils on the phone, I was so excited. And I said to myself, “I bet this was from Bob.” So I called him and I said, “Bob, thank you so much. Did this job come from you?” And he said, “no, get your own god damn job.” I mean, he was very rude! He hung up the phone! And I thought, “geez, if it wasn’t from Bob...” I thought maybe someone had seen me in Corrina, Corrina, which was also a New Line film. Or maybe Rick had seen me in one of these other movies, like Nightmare On Elm Street or something, and decided to hire me. So I was all excited.
Again, I did my actor’s work. This character’s name was Mrs. Neugeboren, and she owns dogs. It was at a dog show. And the scene was basically Jeff Daniels in his dogmobile—which was hilarious—and he’s taken my dogs to the fast food place to get them hamburgers, and they come back and they’re all covered in ketchup and mustard and ruined for the show. And I’m this and very prim and proper woman. And so the end of the scene was supposed to be, I throw open the back of the van, see the dogs, and I scream.
So I said to Peter when I met him— they were newbies, too, they had never done anything substantial—I said, “what if they’re like dogs?” I wanted to give myself a little poodle pom pom at the top of my hair, and at the end, instead of screaming, I wanted to whimper, like, (makes dog noise). And all of a sudden he looked at me, and he said, “that’s a great idea. Yeah, I really liked that.” And then Jeff Daniels chimed in, and all of a sudden everybody looked at me a little differently because was thinking. I was an actress. Jeff said, “that’s a great idea. I love that too.”
So we shot the scene, and I went home, and Pete was very happy. He seemed really happy with what I did. And when he saw me later with my hair down—I had long hair—he said, “is that you, Lin?” He didn’t recognize me. He said, “I can’t believe that’s the same person.” So, you know, I had achieved my goal of really acting. Really doing the thing.
And then a few months later, I get a note in the mail that was from my brother. I opened it up, and it’s just a little card that says, “for your scrapbook.” I didn’t know what it would be. So I opened it up and there’s a piece of paper with a little note to Bob from Charles Wessler, who is one of the producers on Dumb And Dumber. And what it said is, “dear Bob, usually when the head of a studio recommends a family member, we all run the other way. But in this case, thank you for sending us your sister. She did a terrific job for us and we were thrilled to meet her and work with her.” So it was Bob. I still have it on my desk.
Fom there we move into several months later—probably about a year at that point—and I see in the trades that they’re doing this other movie called Kingpin. So I call up their offices and get this guy on the phone. He said, “oh yeah, I remember you from Dumb And Dumber. Everybody was really happy and I thought you were funny and blah, blah, blah.” And I said, “I would like to know if there’s possibly anything in Kingpin for me.” And he said, “well, why don’t I send you the script?,” which he never should have done. I mean, that’s taboo. He knew me, it wasn’t like sending it to a stranger, but still.
LS: So he sent me this script and I read this character description that says, “this is Mrs. DuMars, the angriest, ugliest woman God ever let loose on the planet.” And I thought, I have to do this role.
And so I started working on it. Actually, there was a wonderful woman named Geraldine Baron who I knew from The Actors Studio, who was an acting coach. She wasn’t my coach, she was just a friend. But I remember going over to her house—we started talking about it and I said, “what do you think?” And we started throwing around ideas. She kind of pulled ideas out of me, so I started working on this character. I went shopping for the wardrobe. I found that famous jumpsuit—he called it my clown suit—at Aardvark’s Odd Ark on Melrose Avenue, which was a vintage clothing store.
I walked into the store and there was a rack a block long of vintage clothes. All this crap. And I saw this jumpsuit. I literally walked right over to it. It was like, sticking out, and I thought, “oh my God.” And it fit and it was from the right period—it’s from the 70s. So I bought that and I started working on greasing my hair with oil and I put stuff all over my face. My mom used to give herself egg white masks, which would then crumble and give you scaly skin. So I did the egg white on my face and I put fake eyelashes coming out of my nostrils as nose hairs and started running my brow together. And I did the yellow nails and teeth and I started working with a cigarette.
Literally six weeks I worked on character, and I couldn’t get an audition scheduled. I wrote notes to people. I called, they didn’t return the call. I sent a note to Pete. I sent a note to this other producer. And finally, it’s like five days before they’re supposed to start shooting, okay? My agent had died. And I’m sitting at my dining room table and my ex-husband—who I have to thank for many things in my life and who I still adore in many ways—said, “what’s the matter with you?” And I said, “my agent is dead, and I can’t get an audition, and I have nothing going on!”
And he says to me, “why don’t you call Steve Stabler?” who was one of the producers from NPCA who was producing Kingpin. He had produced Dumb And Dumber. Steve was a really sweet guy, wonderful guy, and we became sort of friends. And my ex said, “hey, you never know, maybe it’ll get you an audition.” So I did. And Steve answered the phone, and he said, “you know, Lin, we love your work and we know you wanted to come in, but we really don’t think you’re right for this role.” And I said, “I’ve been working on this for about six weeks and I have a whole presentation.” And so he said, “okay, I’ll bring you in.”
Two days later I dress up—I’m looking at the picture of this character as we speak, it’s is still on my desk, with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth—I dressed up with the nose hairs and the egg on my face and that oil in my hair and the outfit. And I drove to Santa Monica in my little Saab convertible. And I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror and I thought, “I’m out of my fucking mind.” I thought, “what am I doing?” And I thought, “well, too late now.” And when I got out of the car, because I was running late, the parking lot attendant literally flung himself against a brick wall. I was just like, “no, no, no, I’m okay.” I said, “I’m really okay. I’m acting. This is pretend.”
And I go into the office and there were no seats, because they were seeing kids that day. So I sit down on the floor, and a half hour goes by, and [casting director] Rick Montgomery just keeps walking by me. And I thought, “maybe Charlie didn’t tell him I was coming.” So finally I have the courage and I said, “Rick?” And he looks down at me. He said, “Lynn?” I said, “yeah.” He said, “oh my god, I thought you were homeless off the street and I was just going to call the cops.” “No, it’s me.” So he says, “well, come on.” Then I went in and they all lost it. I mean, Pete was on the floor. And I did the audition. I didn’t even know how it went. I was so exhausted, you know, from the whole ordeal. I said “thank you,” and I walked out, and I went and washed my face. The next day I called Steve to thank him, and he said, “I’m not supposed to tell you, but we could not stop laughing for 20 minutes.” And he said, “you definitely got the job.” For Magda, they made me come in and audition.
LS: Yeah. They were tough on me. And I didn’t know about that one right away, either. I remember I was sleeping with the script under my pillow. I actually had marks in my face from the script because it kept coming out from under my pillow. Anyway, I ended up getting to do Magda as well. And they were magic roles. The dog kissing scene just happened, the dog just went for me and I, I just kept thinking, “don’t crack up, don’t laugh, hang on.” And it’s, you know, it’s a funny scene that will live on in film history.
And the Farrelys have stayed very true to me. I had a little part in Stuck On You, I played the “makeup babe” in that one. And they were very faithful to me all the way up to The Three Stooges, which was not particularly successful. But they’ve remained part of my family. I’m friends with their mom. They’re very familial, and they’ll always be part of my family forever. I mean, it goes without saying. And they put me on the map. That really changed my career in some respects.
AVC: Another thing I noticed about your resume is there are a lot of parts that say “Mrs. So-and-so.” A lot of mom parts.
LS: I love that movie. Adam Rifkin is also a wonderful supporter of mine, and a fantastic director. That one’s also become very popular in its way, sort of a famous film. So everybody knows Mrs. Bruce. I came up with the last line for the character, where I say “they grow up fast, don’t they?” I was really proud of that, because we didn’t know how to finish the scene. Adam really loved that, and people quote that line a lot.
So I feel very grateful to really be a contributor in everything I’ve done. Same thing with There’s Something About Mary—I keep going back to Magda—but yeah. We had a lot to do with detail and little moments in that film that really make the character pop. That’s always very important to me.
AVC: So, next I wanted to ask about a couple of small roles that you did in the mid-2000s. You were in a movie called Pledge This! with Paris Hilton. What was that like?
LS: Oh, Jesus. You know what? I barely remember. There were two directors, who were very weird. I don’t even know what their names were. And she was always on her phone. That was the only thing I really remember about that whole experience. And there was something about the bathrooms, smearing poop all over a mirror. That’s my memories of that movie, Paris on the phone and shit all over a mirror. Okay, there you go. What’s next? (laughs)
AVC: Did you work with Snoop Dogg?
LS: I did, yeah. I mean, when he was there. Snoop Dogg’s Hood Of Horror was also directed by Stacy Title, a fantastic director who is quite ill at the moment, unfortunately. We were just talking about this. It was three different storylines, and they were all sort of narrated by Snoop, who’s actually a really great guy. He’s really smart, and really sweet, and you can smell him coming a mile away. This was before pot was legal. But he’s really that guy. I mean, he’s just a terrific guy.
I can’t remember the storyline exactly—I’m like an FBI officer or something. Tim Sullivan was involved with it. It was three different episodes. I guess my memory of it mostly is it was fun. And Snoop was amazing. I mean, he was just a really good guy. Not at all like the mythology in his music.
Insidious (2010)/ Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)/ Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015)/ Insidious: The Last Key (2018)—Elise Ranier
AVC: You did 12 roles in 2010, but I imagine that Insidious was by far the biggest one.
LS: What were the other ones? I don’t even remember!
AVC: Let’s see. The Penthouse, Pickin & Grinnin, Small Town Saturday Night, The Accidental Death Of Joey By Sue...
LS: Ah, yeah, those were all small little indies. You know, Insidious was a huge experience, and really changed my life. I mean, that’s where I’m at right now. I met James Wan through my friend Tim Sullivan, who directed 2001 Maniacs, which became very popular and were very innovative and really good films, I thought. It’s me and Robert Englund in one, and me and Bill Moseley in the other. But James is a friend of Tim’s. And I did a movie called Dead End some years ago—it was like 2003—with Ray Wise that became a cult favorite. It still is. And James loves that movie.
So when Tim told them he was coming over to my house, James said, can I come with you and meet Lin? And he had already done Saw some years before. So anyway, he came over and we met and I gave him a copy of Dead End and we just chit-chatted for a couple of minutes and that was about it. And then a few weeks later, he asked me if I wanted to be part of a video he and Leigh [Whannell] were doing called Doggie Heaven that was going to be a prequel to an Xbox release, which was kind of weird. But it’s hilarious. I play a real character in that, this woman with glasses and a big hat. I mean, a real caricature character, with a little dog. And we shot it for a couple of days. That was where I met Leigh. And James was really sweet, just very low key. Very clear about what he was asking you to do, it was clear he totally knew what he was doing. But we didn’t really spend time with each other or anything.
And then it was not long after that that James asked me if I would read a script that they were working on. He said, “we’ve got offers out to Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne.” And he said, “it’s a low budget film. We’re going to make it here in LA. There’s a role I thought you’d be good in.” So he sent it over. And it was really scary, just the way it was written. Leigh is a fantastic writer. It was so scary, I literally put it downstairs in the closet when I went to sleep.
AVC: Oh, wow.
LS: And I called him back the next day. The only thing I remembered about Elise was that she talked a lot. That’s what she does in the first one, she sets up the universe, the Further.
AVC: Sure, she’s the through line through the whole thing.
LS: Yeah. So I said, “it looks really interesting and scary, and if you get it done, of course I would be interested.” And he said, “we just got both Patrick and Rose. They want to do the movie.” So I said, “I’m in.” And we shot it. It was three weeks, here in LA. I think I had eight days on the film And we hoped it would be good. That was an $800,000 movie, with good actors and a good story. And it wasn’t until it got into Toronto that everybody got excited. There was a big bidding war with Sony and some other companies, and then Sony put in—I think they put in about another $300,000 for extra shots. And the rest is history, you know? It became huge, and they didn’t know that [was going to happen]. James was concerned about killing me in the first one, because he said, “what if there’s a sequel?” And I said, “I don’t think we have to worry about that.”
AVC: One of the very first films I reviewed professionally as a critic was Insidious: Chapter 3, and I remember writing a review of that film and thinking how cool it was to have a horror franchise led by, you know—
LS: An older woman.
LS: There’s was whole thing where I got compared to Helen Mirren, who did that other horrible movie, and it was all about how terrible she was and how great I was. It was in some big magazine—not Forbes, but something like that. My sister-in-law sent that to me, and at the end it said, “sorry, Helen, Lin Shaye does it better.” (laughs) I’ll take it.
AVC: Did you keep that?
LS: It’s somewhere in the ozone. I think actually my manager has it somewhere. I’ve been very lucky with the press that I’ve gotten. Even with Room For Rent, we just got this incredible review from The Hollywood Reporter. I mean, it made me cry. I got so excited, I scared my dog. I’m really excited about this little film. It’s the best part I’ve ever gotten to do.
AVC: Are you worried about being typecast as a creepy psychic lady at this point in your career, or do you not mind?
LS: No, I don’t worry about that at all. The genre I love is acting, and it doesn’t matter to me if it’s comedy, drama, horror. None of it matters. The people in the horror community are a really wonderful group, and they’re always there to support each other. I mean, it’s wonderful. But I’m sort of on the fringe of that in my heart. I mean, I adore every single person I know in that community, and I honestly feel that they’re friends. I don’t see them, but they see each other all the time. It’s a family, a real family.
Age never comes into it to me. Maybe it should, but it doesn’t. I don’t care how old I am, or how old they are, or how old anybody is, to be honest. To me the journey is what’s important, and the joy you find in what you’re doing in life and in each other is what’s important. Those are the elements I care about. So for me, I’m as much a part of their family, in a way, as any of them are, having nothing to do with it except we have a history together. So I don’t worry about it at all. I love working. I love collaborating. I love people. I love storytelling. Those are the elements that drive me into a community.
There are a lot of different places that I’ve been. And I’ve got a new one coming up, which I can’t talk about, but I’m really excited about. Totally different group. Totally different scenario. I mean, it’s got an edge to it. There’s an edgy aspect to the stories, but it’s a whole new gang. I know I have to be very careful [about what I can say], but that’s exciting to me because that’s going to open up a whole new world to me of people and energy. I’m not scared of nothing, baby!