Deep within the Hollywood Hills lies a sprawling ranch house reminiscent of the adobe digs one might find in Santa Fe. The Southwestern-style residence features an open floor plan, highlighted by a tasteful pastel palette. It also features a pair of shriveled latex breasts hanging on an office wall. The wrinkly prosthetic titties, which belonged to Magda, Cameron Diaz’s leathery tanning addict roomie in There’s Something About Mary, aren’t just a piece of strange art, they rep an important moment in the career of Lin Shaye, an actress whose roles have always been quirky, wonderfully odd and even creepy.
Known for her over-the-top roles in Farrelly brothers movies, Shaye has recently evolved into a Hollywood unicorn. At age 76, the veteran actress is a full-fledged leading lady, headlining billion-dollar franchises. From fighting evil spirits to hunting Nazis, Shaye is an unconventional figure who created her own unique Hollywood story.
“Now that I’m 146 years old, I’m in demand,” laughs Shaye. “I love the fact that in a way, I’m defying people’s expectations. It’s great to be my age. I love that I’m 76 years old and I’m proud of it, but that isn’t my focus.”
A product of the New York theater scene, Shaye credits her atypical path as a roadmap to success. It also helped that she had a pushy older brother. “I really have to thank my big brother, Bob, who started New Line Cinema in 1968 in the bedroom of his five-story New York walk-up,” says the actress. “He used to say to everyone who came by, ‘This is Linda, she’s my sister and wants to be an actress.’ I would just cringe.”
After a few years of playing waitresses and teachers, Shaye caught the eye of the Farrelly brothers, who took a shine to her and put her in hits including Kingpin and Dumb and Dumber. Snaring the Woody Harrelson bowling classic took some convincing, though. “I made my way into their hearts because they thought I was funny. But they didn’t want me for Kingpin. They wouldn’t let me audition for it because the character is described as ‘the angriest, ugliest woman God ever let loose on the planet’; they said, ‘we love your work and we think you’re great, but you’re not right for this.’”
So Shaye got to work, developing the character in her bedroom over six weeks. “I bought the outfit…I put Mazola in my hair,” she recalls. “I remembered my mother used to give herself in an egg-white mask, which made her skin all scaly. Then I put some yellow on my teeth and had eyelashes coming out of my nostrils.”
“I drove to Santa Monica, looking exactly as you see in the movie. A parking lot attendant threw himself against the wall when he saw me,” laughs Shaye. “The casting director kept walking by me for a half hour until finally, I said, ‘Rick?’ And he looked down he said, ‘Lin? I thought you were homeless! I was going to call the police.’”
Shaye nabbed the part, traumatizing audiences with her portrayal of Harrelson’s landlady and kicking off a healthy career playing haggard, weird and scary characters for television and film.
“That was a turning point for me because of the proactivity involved,” says Shaye. “You must never let go of that no matter where you get in your profession. Because once you let go of that proactivity and you become passive, you let go of your heart and soul a little bit, which is what makes you an actor. Unless you just want to be an actor to be famous. Then that’s a whole other journey.”
Shaye’s dedication got her where she is today, and it’s led her to a slate of unforgettable roles big and small. Insidious and Ouija movies aside, she’s our most unique scream queen, and a featured role in Showtime’s new sequel, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, should solidify things, bringing her to TV and keeping her within the supernatural realms fans know. Set in 1938 Los Angeles, the characters revolve around deity Santa Muerte and the Devil, with shape-shifting demons battling amidst the construction of L.A.’s Arroyo Seco Parkway.
Clearly, Shaye continues to defy expectations, working more than ever in an industry that doesn’t always honor experience. “I think it comes from how you steer your ship. I feel I have a vitality and a sense of humor that belies age. What is fun about getting older is that I have more confidence in who I am and what I think,” she says. “I love finding my character, no matter what. I never really made a distinction between bit player and a big role. I’ve always just been obsessed with storytelling and feeling like I had an ability and talent to step into other people’s lives and live as that character. And that for me, that was always the fun. I become that other person and Lin sort of disappears in the background.”
The septuagenarian’s late-in-life success is significant and it’s not lost on her.
“It’s a great note for Hollywood. I’ve never played the old shopkeeper or a grandma character,” she reveals. “I don’t want to play those roles…I steer clear of them. And now I don’t really get offered them.”
Instead of elderly neighbors and kindly old aunts, Shaye gets offered the chance to play ghost hunters, psychics, stalker landladies and Nazi hunters. Her next unorthodox role can be found in The Grudge, the scary movie reboot which just came out last week.
“It’s a very current film right now because it is about rage,” Shaye explains. “There is so much bad stuff right now, we are entrenched in rage as a society.”
In terms of future projects and roles, the actress still has “many more mountains to climb,” she insists.“I just gotta keep climbing. But sometimes you gotta remember that it’s good to take a rest and look where you’ve been, then look up and see where you want to go.”
Lin Shaye stars in The Grudge, in theaters now and on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, coming in 2020.