Gavin Schmitt Interviews Actress Lin Shaye
Lin Shaye’s career dates back to the 1970s, appearing in such films as the Jack Nicholson-directed “Goin’ South”. Shaye has also appeared in four films by director Walter Hill: “The Long Riders” (1980), “Brewster’s Millions” (1985), “Extreme Prejudice” (1987) and “Last Man Standing” (1996).
Although an icon of cinema in general, horror fans have claimed her as their own ever since her role in “Nightmare on Elm Street”. She followed that up with the remake “2001 Maniacs”, “Snakes on a Plane”, and more recently with the “Insidious” trilogy.
Non-horror fans will best recognize her as the well-tanned Magda in “There’s Something About Mary”. Lin was kind enough to chat with me about her role in the 2014 film “Grace” (affiliate link) and her career in general. It was an honor and a pleasure.
GS: Very early on in your career, you appeared in “Goin’ South”, one of Jack Nicholson’s directorial endeavors. At this time in his career, he had quite the motley crew of an entourage…
LS: This was 1977. He was awesome. (laughs) Whatever the press was regarding Jack on who he was, what he was doing, or who he was hanging with at that time in his life… he was one of the most generous, awesome actors or directors that I’ve ever come across. And it was really my beginning. It’s a great story, actually…
I was living in New York at the time and was doing all theater. He was going to do “Goin’ South”, a cowboy movie, which I guess he had been wanting to make for a really long time and he finally got everyone together to do it. A great cast: Danny DeVito, Chris Lloyd, John Belushi, Veronica Cartwright. Just a brilliant bunch of people, Tracy Walter. He had seen my picture somewhere — I have no idea where. They were in LA and I was in New York, but they inquired about me for a small role in the film. I got all excited. I mean thin of it, Jack Nicholson asking about me. (laughs) I thought I was going to collapse and never be able to stand up again! I was very naive and sent him a note with some pictures. One of me with curly hair, and just every picture I could find in my apartment I sent to him. Long story short, he said he wanted to meet me and I put a little note on the bottom of the pictures saying I was planning to be in Los Angeles for a short visit. That was completely not true. When he said he was interested, I literally got on a plane… even packing dirty laundry. I met him at his office at Paramount, complete with a fever blister. He was somewhat charmed by the fact I showed up like that. He said it was a small role, but one that was very important to him. So I got the job of “the parasol lady”, went to Durango, Mexico for two weeks and got to speak my one line. It totally changed my life. I ended up moving out to LA and will be forever grateful to Jack Nicholson.
GS: That was a story worth telling.
LS: There’s a lot more to it, but it would take another half hour. We won’t go there. But to get back to your question, he was a total professional. He knew I was new, he gave me the information I needed while filming and he was a joy to be around. I could never say anything less than phenomenal about him. Jack’s a total force of nature.
GS: Having worked with Walter Hill a number of times, were you able to see something of an evolution in his directing?
LS: I don’t know. Walter is a wonderful, totally approachable person. I wish he would do more than he’s been doing lately, because his early films are spectacular. It was actually the same sort of thing as with Jack. I wrote him a little note; at the time Stacy Keach was playing one of the brothers in “The Long Riders”, and I knew Stacy. I wrote a note to Mr. Hill, and again it was a small role, but he gave me the opportunity to play a prostitute in “The Long Riders”. Again just one or two lines. But he went on to hire me three more times. He’s an extraordinary director. I don’t know if you can see an evolution through the four films I did with him… probably, but I don’t know. These are people who changed my life and gave me a lot of courage. They showed me it paid to be the sort of person who writes that letter, makes that phone call and then shows up being courteous and polite. I had faith in myself and they said “okay”. It’s a message to pass along to young actors. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want in a courteous way.
GS: Let’s talk about “Grace”. I believe you got connected to the film because you previously worked with the producer, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones.
LS: Yes, I did three films with Brian. He was involved with “Insidious” and “Sinister”. We were aware of each other through that. But I went in and auditioned for Jeff (Chan), it wasn’t just handed to me. I went in to audition because I was interested in the project. I love Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, and you can put that on the record. He has been a mentor to me, and he’s one of the most amazing producers I’ve worked with. But he was not at the audition. I hit it off with Jeff, who has tremendous energy and great ideas. It was wonderful to audition for, and believe me, it’s rare you can say that. (laughs) Auditioning is its own beast. But we worked the scenes and we talked, and I really wanted the job, so I was excited to get it.
GS: Although your character plays a supporting role, it is a very important and very emotional role. Where did you get the inspiration from?
LS: She is a woman who has experienced great loss and disappointment in her life. For that reason she has grabbed on to the Church, and to people who think religion is the answer to their problems. Personally, I don’t believe that. I think our problems are ours and we have to answer them on our own. We have to have the faith and the stamina to be able to work through things, that’s my point of view. But I thought (the character of) Helen had a very interesting storyline to her. For me as an actress, I draw on an imaginary story as part of my gift. And I say gift rather than talent because I feel it is that. But the gift is to take that story, stop pretending, and then make it real. If you can imagine something happening, it becomes part of your fabric for those minutes and hours that you’re on set. It’s also helped along by the other actors, bouncing off of them and their emotionality. The depth comes from being a human being and experiencing the emotions we all have. It’s not a magic trick, we are all composed of the same stuff, in my opinion, and the gift is being able to tap into that. That’s what acting is all about, taking what’s in all of us and being able to draw it forth.
GS: In order to create this particular sort of POV film, you had to interact with a very unusual body-harness camera.
LS: It was crazy. And that was one of the issues to deal with in the film. There are two people. The actress, Alexia Fast, and the camera operator, Anna MacDonald. Both were tall, beautiful young women. The way it was worked out, the camera operator would wear a bicycle helmet fitted with a Sony Nano. Don’t quote me on the device name, but I think that’s what it’s called. It’s a small, lightweight device strapped on to the bike helmet on the head of the camera operator. The camera operator filmed the bulk of the POV, and Alexia would be behind her doing the dialogue. So the hard part was not looking at Alexia, but looking down the eye of the camera strapped to someone else’s head. I screwed up some scenes because Alexia would say a line and my impulse is to answer her and look at her. Sometimes Alexia wore the camera herself. It’s only ten or fifteen pounds, but that’s heavy for the head, so they both had to do weeks of neck exercises. It was quite a physical feat for both of them.
GS: Did you come to sympathize somewhat with Helen? To outsiders, she might come across as a villain.
LS: She is somewhat of a villain, but she doesn’t think she is. She thinks she’s doing the right thing. She’s drowning, struggling to maintain her sanity, basically. Whether you feel sorry for her or see her as a villain, I think both are options. What she does is villainous, but her reasons are not villainous. Her reasons are her loss of control, and she acts out of anger, frustration and fear. We’ve all experienced some level of that in our own life. You say things you don’t mean, you say sorry, but sorry doesn’t cut it. People will see her differently. She’s the devilish, hostile force in the film, but she’s got her own personal agenda to live her life. However you see her as the audience is not my job. She could have been played a lot of different ways, and we talked about that. Jeff made the final decision on which scenes would be angry, sad or whatever. Your final performance is always made in the editing room, no question about it. To be honest, I haven’t seen the final version, so I’m not even sure how it all came together. If she comes out as the villain, that’s okay, but I didn’t think she was when I played her. I thought she was a sad person just latching on to things to make her happy, but nothing could ever make that woman happy.
GS: You made another film with your “Grace” co-star, Joel David Moore, where you play alongside Richard Dreyfus.
LS: Yes, “Killing Winston Jones”. I hope that film finds a home eventually, it’s a brilliant piece. Joel directed it and it’s a fabulous story. You have Danny Glover, Richard Dreyfus, and myself. I’m hoping with all my heart it finds a home because it was totally awesome and Joel is a gifted director. He led us into some fabulous places. I was thrilled to work with him.
GS: Thanks for taking the time to chat today, Lin.
LS: Not a problem. Thanks for some great questions.