For the last seven years, audiences have ventured into the further with the Insidious films, created by James Wan and Leigh WhannelI with a clear love for the campy William Castle-esque creep shows of yore. But it’s not the frightful visions or stylistic flourishes that have endured through the sequels and prequels, it’s the intrepid psychic Elise Rainer who has guided the audience through the Further in all four films. Played with utmost warmth and goodnatured affability by “character actress” extraordinaire Lin Shaye, Elise has become the unlikely through-line of the Insidious franchise and with Insidious: The Last Key, she takes the lead in a film that dives deep on her backstory and what makes the lovable empath tick, traveling to her childhood home and her early encounters with the otherworldly.
With The Last Key arriving in theaters this weekend, I recently hopped on the phone for a chat with Shaye to talk about coming back to Elise and why the fearless medium has become the most valuable role of her wide-ranging career. We also talked about digging deep into the character’s backstory four movies in, how Whannell’s vision of Elise was different than the backstory she made up for herself, what franchise newcomer Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan) brings to the equation as director, and why she’s pickier about the roles she takes now.
It’s so cool to see you get to take the lead role. How did you learn that this one was really going to be your show?
LIN SHAYE: Leigh told me. Leigh Whannell, who is the key to the kingdom. I mean, this whole thing has been so unexpected and I have so much gratitude, really, for Leigh Whannell and for creating the character to start with, and also for expanding it like he has. After the third one, which also was more about my early problems, basically, and when they agreed to do the fourth, Leigh just said to me, “It’s going to be your story. We’re going to do your sort of final backstory.” I had an idea of what he had in mind in terms of theme or in terms of focus. I didn’t know what the story would be at all.
I’m thrilled. I mean, it was hard to do because it’s such an emotional piece, but it really was gratifying to discover who he thought Elise was. Because as an actress, I come up with my own backstory usually. Even if the audience never sees what that is, it sort of informs the presence of the character throughout the film anyway. My idea of who she was was quite different, actually. I sort of always saw her as an only child. Again, that was kind of how I … That helped me create the emotional life that I had for her as an adult. But it’s fascinating now to realize I’ve got a whole family. It sort of came with the territory.
I think the story is fantastic, and I think it touches on a lot of very important things as well as being an exciting thriller and horror film. The Insidious franchise deals a lot with family, which I think touches everybody in a certain kind of way. I think this film in particular has aspects that are going to make people think about their own relationships with mothers and fathers and children, etc. So without giving too much away, I hope everyone loves it. I do.
It’s so fantastic to see a full-grown woman playing the lead role in a horror film and really becoming the heart of a franchise. That is so unusual.
SHAYE: Well, it is, and I’m glad. I’m not sure I’m full grown yet. I think I’m still cooking, I hope/ But you’re right. I mean, this was a very … It’s actually, it’s probably the most exciting time in my career right now. This is the most valuable character that I’ve ever played, in all kinds of ways. I’m so happy so many people are embracing the stories and Elise’s presence and her vulnerability and her ethics, for which I have a sense of responsibility. Even when you play a bad guy, and she’s not, but there’s some message in there that people take away. I’m serious about my work as an actor and as an artist, and it’s important for me to feel like I’m saying something that makes people think about their own lives in maybe a possibly new way.
Elise is a giver, and we’re in such a world right now… it’s all about me, me, me. I thought, it’s not the We Phone or the You Phone. It’s the iPhone. That says a lot. I mean, that really kind of encapsulates where we’re at right now. It’s all about me. Elise is not about me. It’s about you. I find that very refreshing, and I think again sort of a little bit of a subliminal thought that maybe people will think of, that it’s good to do things for other people, not just yourself.
How does playing a character and then returning to her over a series of years like this affect your process as an actor?
SHAYE: That’s a really good question, because I’ve never really been part of a franchise before, and especially since we started at the end instead of the beginning. You know, the first Insidious, we never knew there would be any prequels of any kind. So in terms of actual process, it’s sort of making sure you support the character and what you see of Elise in the first Insidious. I felt a responsibility to support with other elements of her cast to create the woman you see in the first one. It’s kind of using … It’s like a puzzle a little bit. You have the picture at the end, and you have to make sure you put all the pieces together so you create that picture.
The first two films were directed by James, and then you had Leigh on the third, who was also there from the beginning. How was it working with a new director on this world and this character?
SHAYE: Adam Robitel, who is our illustrious director on this one, I think he did a fantastic job. I’ve known Adam for quite a while. We were not real close, close friends, but we were definitely friends. I met him when he was an actor on a film called 2001 Maniacs, where he played a Confederate redneck who had a sheep as a partner [laughs]. So that was how I met Adam. We became friends at that point, and I don’t think he had, of course, any idea, none of us did, what was going to be coming in the future.
He’s a really, really smart man, really generous of spirit, very upbeat, very eager to fulfill his job both as a director and as a continuator of the franchise. It was kind of a hard job in a way for him, I think, because he was the new kid on the block when we started shooting the film. So much had been laid down before him, and he needed to fulfill the aspects of the franchise while still creating something new and different from his vision. I really think he successfully did that. I think the film definitely has his mark on it, and yet I think he will give the viewers all the excitement that they look for in this franchise.