Wish you were here

Lin Shaye on The Final Wish, character creation, horror, comedy and The Grudge

by Jennie Kermode

Lin Shaye in The Final Wish
Lin Shaye in The Final Wish

If you’re read much folklore, you’ll be aware that the granting of wishes often comes with a price attached. When Aaron (Michael Welch) returns to his family home after the death of his antique collector father, he discovers an item with a sinister past and is surprised at the sudden improvements that seem to take place in his fortunes, but it’s all too quickly evident to viewers that something sinister is afoot. Central to the film, and responsible for much of its emotional impact, is the presence of Lin Shaye as Kate, the mother he has been out of touch with for some years. Ever since her unforgettable turn in Insidious in 2010, Lin has been adored by horror fans, but her involvement with the genre goes back decades before that and she has a great deal of other impressive work to her name, with a particular love for comedy. Ahead of the opening of The Final Wish, she told me how she came to be involved in it.

Mother and son reunited: Lin Shaye as Kate with Michael Welch as Aaron
Mother and son reunited: Lin Shaye as Kate with Michael Welch as Aaron

“Timothy Woodward Jr, who was our director, was very persistent about it,” she begins, “and Jeffrey Reddick, who is the writer, was someone I was already familiar with; I’d known him for quite a long time. So it was a combination. When we read the material I wasn’t 100% sure, to be honest. My manager and agent are pressing me to be cautious about doing too many genre films. You try to keep your image fresh. So at first reading I wasn’t sure and then Timothy really stayed very persistent. He kept coming back with thoughts and ideas, and he was listening to my thoughts and ideas, which was very appealing, as an actor to feel like your thought process and feeling is also welcome in the process. So we said yes and I’m very glad we did. I’m very pleased with the way the film came out and the way people are receiving it, and I think Kate has been a wonderfully interesting character for me to play.”

One of the things that stands out to me about it is the complexity of the relationship between mother and son, the balance of love and resentment.

“Yes. And I’m proud to say that that was something I brought to the character, because from the beginning it could have been played like ‘Oh, poor me, poor Mom,’ and I thought no, no no.” She laughs. ”Your kid walks out on you and then decides to show up, there’s still that bitterness and anger that underlies even the pain, so I always hope to make the characters I play very dimensional and tell as much of my truth about what I think it’s about as I can within the framework of the story. So that was an element that Timothy and I talked about and that he also embraced, and I think it was a good choice and I do like the way it turns out.”

Did she and Michael have much time to rehearse and develop their chemistry before the shoot began?

“No. You actually don’t have that much, or we didn’t in this. There was no extra rehearsal... I met Michael for the first time on set and he was a wonderful scene partner, very open to my feelings and thoughts and very receptive and responsive to whatever I threw to him. One of my favourite moments – which was also my idea – was the dry cereal. The way t was written originally was she made him breakfast and it was going to cut to him eating breakfast. And, you know, she talks about how she doesn’t have time to get groceries so I thought what if all she’s got in the cabinet is cereal and no milk? And so I love that opening moment between them when he’s chewing dry, crunch, bleaugh! You know, yucky cereal, and that’s sort of their relationship at that moment also.”

You might want to leave this urn unexamined
You might want to leave this urn unexamined

The role of Kate is also interesting because we see her go through different stages of grief, at one point seeming to lose her grip on reality.

“The information was in the script. The way we played it was slightly different. There was this immersion into the past and into sort of a lack of reality, a kind of madness almost. And even when I watch the film now, it’s not 100% clear how much is in her mind and how much is in his mind, which I think is interesting. In other words it could be her real lapse into madness or it could be the djinn, the demon basically steering him into another place in reality, so I thought that was a very interesting conceit. It was a confusion in a good way.

“The wardrobe was pretty much my idea. I thought that since they’re antique dealers that she would have a vintage feel to her and her hair would be kind of dirty and stuff. And her wardrobe would also be a bit antique. So I love trying to create the reality of each person.”

I note that I’ve often been struck by the detail in her costumes and the sets she inhabits, across many different films she’s worked in. Is this because she gets involved in that side of the process herself, or is it just representative of the kind of projects she finds herself attracted to?

“I usually get very involved in that,” she says. “I wanted [Kate] to be as vintage as the things that she collected... A lot of that comes from my thinking about who she is and what she likes. I was very fortunate – in my early days I studied with some wonderful teachers, with Uta Hagen and with Stella Adler – I had a wonderful, rich background in terms of being given tools to use to create a character. So I’m very proud of being able to contribute like that.”

Kate senses that something is wrong
Kate senses that something is wrong

It’s an approach to acting that’s rare in the genre. She’s been appearing in horror films throughout her career, when many actors are nervous about doing so.

“You know, I almost never broke it down into genres in my own head. For me, storytelling and creating the character is always brand new. There is of course an atmosphere if you’re doing a comedy or if you’re doing a horror film or a drama – and atmosphere that’s created by the set design, by the story itself, but I pretty much work the same way no matter what I do. In theatre it’s a bit different because it’s more spatial. Even learning lines is slightly different when you’re onstage because I always found I learned lines in relation to my spatial relationships. So, you know, when you walk over to the table you automatically know which line’s coming out so you have a frame of reference whereas in film it’s much more detail-oriented. And no matter how much I think I know how it’s going to go, once I’m on set and with the other actors all that disappears. Hopefully the elements stick that are important for character creation. But, you know, there’s that famous old expression, you really gotta be in the moment! All of a sudden you’ve got a hot cup of tea in front of you or you’ve got a glass of booze or you think right, I’m doing this, and there’s a bar in the room and you didn’t know there would be, so you have to still create in the moment what it is you want to express.

“I haven’t done theatre now in a long time and I did only theatre years ago. When I was in New York I did off-off-Broadway and off-Broadway and some Broadway for years. I lived there ten years. And I had no intention of doing film and I didn’t even know where the camera was. I have some very funny stories about that.”

I make an enquiring noise and she laughs.

“Do you want to hear one of them? Once I was doing a TV show and I didn’t even know where the camera was, and I went shopping for my wardrobe. I was here in LA – I had just gotten to LA. I got cast in a little movie of the week with F Murray Abraham called Sex And The Married Woman – I think it’s still online somewhere – and I’m a theatre actress so here I am and I was really excited because I didn’t even audition, they just gave me the role based on my audition tape I had brought from New York. So I went shopping. She’s supposed to be this little sort of upstart housewife, F Murray Abraham’s wife, and it was not a sitcom but it was a movie of the week comedy. So I found this little t-shirt that said hot stuff on it, at Target, so I bought that and I had these little pink palm tree earrings, little dangling earrings I go, I though that was good, and à la Uta Hagen, the idea is that you’re supposed to bring into the scene what happened moments before... so I was in the kitchen at the beginning of the scene and the F Murray Abraham character’s calling to me and I’m calling out from the kitchen so I though, I’m eating turkey, so I brought a turkey leg with me onto the set. And Jack Arnold, who was a famous television director – I didn’t know who he was, what did I know? So I’m in the kitchen and I’m giving him instructions on this and that. And now that I think about t they were all sitting there with these smiles on their faces just looking at me, with their arms folded and their jaws dropped.

Be careful what you wish for
Be careful what you wish for

“We used everything I brought and they were so funny because afterwards I realised how ridiculous I must have seemed to them. But it worked, and it’s all on camera. It’s still there!”

Lin’s humour and exuberance are present in almost everything she does. I note that she often seems to bring comedy elements to her roles, even the dark ones. Does she make a priority of looking for roles that are fun?

“Yeah. I love comedy. I mean I live my life like a comedy, basically. Everything seems ridiculous to me on some level.”

So what else attracts her to a role?

“I try and be open when I read something and I have an initial response – I mean, everyone does, of course. I go to, okay, who are the people involved? How much money are they going to pay me? The didn’t used to be an issue ever, I just never thought about that, but now I do because I work hard and I want to make sure I’m compensated. But that’s not the biggest issue for me. It’s usually character. Who is this person? What do they offer to the story? And how good the dialogue is. But it’s mostly character, story and the people I’ll be working with”

She’s also incredibly prolific and has no fewer than eight films currently in post-production. Which of those is she most looking forward to?

“The Grudge,” she says firmly and without hesitation. “It’s coming out in June. I’m so excited about that film. I have a fantastic role and it’s like nothing I’ve ever quite done before. The director’s a young director named Nicolas Pesce, who created a film called The Eyes Of My Mother that was on Netflix for a while.”

Letting go of the past
Letting go of the past

I loved that film, I tell her.

“I thought that was the scariest movie I ever saw. I don’t know why. Oh my God! I was sitting all by myself going ‘Don’t go through the door! Don’t go through the door!’ I wrote him a little note and I said ‘You’re like the Salvador Dali and the Magritte of the film world.’ He juxtaposes images in a way that destroys you. i think he’s genius, I really do... The Grudge is only his third film and I’m very excited about it.”

Thanking her for her time, I says that I hope The Final Wish, which opens in the US on Thursday, does well.

“Thank you. It’s a very different kind of film from The Grudge but I think it’s a wonderful film, it’s got wonderful characters and I think it’s an engagingly scary film.”

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