Grippingly showcasing an unwavering conservative character, who initially appears to be the punishing villain through the eyes of the innocent, young protagonist, can be a challenge for a beloved performer previously known for her well-meaning characters. But actress Lin Shaye, who in recent years has garnered fame for her role of paranormal investigators Elise Reiner in the ‘Insidious’ film series, enthrallingly proved her versatility as the religiously traditional Helen in the new horror film, ‘Grace: The Possession.’ In the horror thriller, which is told through the point-of-view of Helen’s granddaughter, Grace, Shaye’s character is chillingly presented as the main antagonist, until they realize a more sinister force is overtaking the teen.
‘Grace: The Possession,’ which marks the feature film writing and directorial debuts of Jeff Chan, follows the young and naïve title character (Alexia Fast), as she finally breaks free from the protective influence of her grandmother. Intent on living in the dorm as she begins her freshman year, as she’s trying to get away from her grandmother’s domineering influence, Grace tries to form a friendship with her new roommate, despite the stark differences in their lives. After spending only a short period of time on campus and frantically trying to fit into her shocking new surroundings, Grace is persuaded to attend a frat party by a classmate she begins to like, Brad (Brett Dier). But after drinking for the first time pushes her to the verge of a nervous breakdown, Helen picks her up from the hospital and brings her home.
While Grace is determined to return to school once she feels better, Helen refuses to let her go back. She instead makes her granddaughter stay home so she can talk to her local priest (Daniel Arnold), who she later discovers she has a shocking connection to, and the church’s deacon, Luke (Joel David Moore). After she begins to experience unexplainable black outs and nightmares, particularly after finding more information about her mother, who died during childbirth, the two religious leaders realize Grace is possessed. Although Grace refuses to believe a demon has taken control of her body, the priest and deacon perform an exorcism on her, in an effort to drive out the force that has taken control of her life.
Shaye generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Grace: The Possession’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the actress discussed how she drawn to the role of Helen in part because she was interested in showing how the character is a complicated woman who was sometimes mean towards her granddaughter, but also felt it was important in showing her true motives behind her actions; how Chan had a lot of information about what he wrote, and how he wanted to bring the characters and story to the screen as the director, while also encouraging the actors to contribute their ideas on their roles; and how she formed a natural bond and relationship with Fast on the set as they were filming their scenes together.
Shockya (SY): You play Helen, the strict, religious grandmother of the title character, in the new horror thriller, ‘Grace: The Possession.’ What was it about the character and the script that drew you to the project, and how did you become involved in the film?
Lin Shaye (LS): Well, I really thought the script was very interesting because of the point-of-view it was taking. I always take characters that have a challenge, and are also interesting to me. Helen is a complicated woman. Even Jeff Chan, the writer and director, admitted this.
Helen can be this really mean grandmother who’s kind of a witch. I think she has some of those qualities, but as an actor, you can never play mean or evil without bringing the character’s true motives forward. That’s what interests me in a character, and appealed to me about Helen.
I was interested in her loss of her own child, and how Grace is almost a replacement, in a way. Helen wants her granddaughter to live the life she was hoping her own daughter would have lived. I think in terms of character development, it had a really interesting curve to it.
I also loved working with Jeff. I actually went in to meet him before I got the role. His enthusiasm and understanding of the material was really exciting to me. All those elements made me say, “Sure, I would love to (play Helen).”
SY: Speaking of Jeff, he made his feature film directorial debut with ‘Grace: The Possession, after helming several short films, and also contributed to the thriller’s story. What was the process like of working with Jeff on the movie, particularly since he was a first time feature director, and also worked on the script?
LS: Like I said, Jeff was very enthusiastic and smart. He’s a real listener, and sometimes I would tease him a little bit because he talks really fast. I think it’s because his mind is going faster than his mouth. (laughs) He seriously has so much information about what he has written, and his ideas about the film in general and the characters. That was very enriching.
He also doesn’t just have his agenda; he’s very much a team player, and wants you to be on the team, and contribute your ideas and thoughts. He was very open to my suggestions and perspective on the character. That, of course, makes it very fun as an actor. From the first time I met him, those were elements I was very aware of. He made those traits even bigger and broader when we started filming together. So he’s a wonderful and smart director, because he sees what the wants to make. But he’s also opens his mind to other ideas from the actors about the characters and story.
SY: Alexia Fast plays both Grace and her mother Mary, who died during childbirth. Since Alexia was the main actress who you starred with in your scenes, what was the experience like of working with her while you were filming?
LS: Alexia was great. She had a great role to play, and it was a complicated shoot. Again, with the point-of-view of the film, and how it was constructed, she played the role well. I can’t talk too much about the film’s point-of-view, but it has a unique style. So for Alexia, while we were filming, it was not only complex, in terms of playing the character, but also in the way the film was shot. She’s also very open and smart about her art. She asked a lot of important questions about her character and the storyline, and I loved working with her. We totally bonded, and had a wonderful experience.
SY: Did you collaborate and rehearse with Jeff and Alexia before you began filming to develop the characters’ backstories and relationship?
LS: No, we didn’t have any rehearsal time beforehand. I don’t love doing that, even though our characters do have a history together. It’s a different situation if your character doesn’t really know the other character before the story starts, but we pretty much developed the way our characters interacted on the set. We did talk a little bit; Jeff, Alexia and I certainly had conversations about the characters. But we didn’t do much work beforehand.
SY: ‘Grace: The Possession’ is available on DVD and Digital HD. Are you familiar with the VOD platform, and do you think it’s beneficial for smaller, independent films like this one?
LS: Of course I’m familiar with it, but I’m old-school about the way I watch films. I know in this day and age, it’s a whole different deal, in terms of format and availability. But I still love the experience of going to a theater, and sitting with a lot of strangers in a dark place. (laughs)
I think having the big screen is a much different, and more exciting, experience than watching films on your television. I don’t care how big your TV is; there’s something about the community of watching a film with an audience is extremely powerful. To me, it’s part of the film experience. So I’m actually disappointed that we didn’t open this film in theaters. I think it would play extremely well if it did, even though it has an unusual format.
It becomes a different experience when you’re watching it on your TV with your dinner on your lap, or whatever else you do when you watch films at home. (laughs) To me, watching films at home always has interruptions. No matter how involved you are in the movie, your phone or refrigerator can go off. (laughs) Or someone comes to the door, so you have to put the movie on hold to go do what you need to do, and then come back. To me, that completely fractures the experience of watching films in the end.
But I think people will still enjoy watching this film at home, especially since it has a video format, in a way. People are familiar with the format, especially if they play video games. So that probably informs the film in a good way when you’re watching it at home. But I don’t think there’s any replacement to seeing films in a big theater.
SY: Besides ‘Grace: The Possession,’ in recent years you have also appeared in another independent supernatural horror franchise, the ‘Insidious’ films. What it is about the supernatural and possession subgenres that you enjoy acting so much?
LS: I don’t ever think about it like that, personally. For me, it’s always about the story and character. I do enjoy certain genres, but it really depends on how good the story is.
The ‘Insidious’ filmmakers, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, are totally masters at what they’re creating. I think they’re both just beginning (to do great things in their careers.) When I first met James, we immediately just appreciated each other. He was a fan of a small film I had done, (the 2003 horror movie) ‘Dead End.’ He wanted to meet me because of that movie. When we met, it was a nice meeting of energies. This is a person I feel I can be open with, as he’s open to my ideas.
So when he invited me to do the first ‘Insidious’ and James sent me the script, I was totally excited. I thought the screenplay was really powerful, and a throwback to old suspense. It wasn’t so much of the supernatural, but the suspense that I thought was extremely well-written. The fact that I have been invited into these films is a pleasure to me, primarily because of who I’m working with, and the quality they’re bringing to that genre. So I’m in with whatever they want me to do. (laughs) I’m available and interested, because I think they’re amazing guys. They’ve elevated the genre, in my opinion.
SY: Helen is more of an antagonist in ‘Grace: The Possession,’ while Elise is a protagonist in the ‘Insidious’ films. So how did portraying Helen compare and contrast to playing Elise, particularly since she has a more caring nature in wanting to help the Lambert family?
LS: I always ask the same kinds of questions whenever I’m creating a character. It’s a little bit of a mysterious process to a certain level, but it’s also a bit of an organized process on another level. When I first read a script, something washes over me. I have studied with some wonderful teachers, and schooled by the finest coaches. There are elements of their teaching that have become a part of my fabric.
It really is about asking questions. When I first read a piece of material, I always take a pencil (to mark certain passages in the script). That’s why I can’t stand reading things online-I need to have paper and a pencil in my hand. There’s something different that translates for me. I write down ideas in the margin, like a pair of shoes you think would look good (in the scene).
I jot down things that are completely intuitive to me. Those are really precious moments for an actor, in my opinion. They don’t come back-I don’t remember them. (Those initial thoughts) come from a stimulation during that first read. So I always try to start taking notes there.
Again, it was nothing to do with genre-it has to do with story, where the character fits into the story and how the character informs the story. Whether it’s Helen in ‘Grace,’ or Elise (in the ‘Insidious’ films), there’s always a feeling that you get that’s magical. You get a sense of something, and then sometimes I’ll take notes, or I’ll change lines. I’ll discuss things with the director if something doesn’t feel right. I’ve got confidence in myself now to follow those impulses.
So I’ll say my preparation is the same, but also different in some ways, as the characters are different. So they bring up different questions, and you have to come up with different answers for each of them. The idea that you’re playing a kind person, or an “evil” person or someone who has a real problem, can’t really be played.
You have to show what the character wants and needs in each scene. You also have to think, what’s missing in her life that I have to find? They’re big questions, and that’s something I learned from (acting coach) Stella Adler. I learned that it’s never just a story; it’s about a big idea, whether it’s about loss, fear, love, a social change and the way people treat each other. There’s always a big idea, whether a film’s a comedy, drama or horror. As an actor, I feel a real responsibility to find what that is, and that’s what informs my performance.
I think that’s what made me successful, I really do. You ask, what is it that makes people attracted to what you put on screen or on stage. I think it’s a universality in that discovery of answers that you hope to give other people.
SY: Besides films, you’ve also starred in guest roles on several television shows throughout your career, including ‘Frasier,’ ‘Crossing Jordan’ and ‘ER.’ What is it about TV that you’ve enjoyed working on so much throughout your career, and are you interested in appearing on more series in the future?
LS: Television is a different medium from films. Even though you’re still an actor, and are following some of the same rules, there are some elements that make it harder, and not as much fun, for me. It’s all about time and money. Sponsorship, especially in commercial television, has gotten much richer now, because of such things as the effects, such as those on ‘American Horror Story.’
But (networks like) HBO have shaped the face of drama and comedy, in terms of what’s allowed on television. So I’m very interested in those formats. But even those formats are different than shooting a film, as there’s a strict time restraint (on television). But there’s no longer a censorship on these shows, and you’re pretty much allowed to do whatever you want to on those channels, so they definitely interest me. But network television isn’t as much of an interest to me right now.
Written by: Karen Benardello