The legendary character actress and horror icon presents a woman trying to navigate her new life with unexpected circumstances.
Lin Shaye is a horror icon, but her performance in Room for Rent is something entirely different. At the beginning of the film, Shaye’s Joyce loses her husband after an accident, but she doesn’t know how to pick up the pieces since she’s been sheltered from the world by her abusive spouse. We are used to seeing Shaye dance with demons or ghouls, but here she must battle her own psyche. It’s a great performance that takes you on a real ride.
Room for Rent could have been a Single White Female rip-off, but it’s Shaye’s portrayal of a lonely woman’s inexperience of life that helps elevate the film to a place we’re not expecting. Joyce opens her own bed and breakfast, and she takes an intense liking to an attractive guest, played by Oliver Rayon. What Joyce ends up doing is ghastly, but society has abandoned her, so she almost never understands what kind of real-life consequences her actions hold.
Shaye’s warmth was evident when I spoke to her about her performance. She can recognize how dangerous Joyce is, but she also understands how being a broken person can lead to violence and a lack of real-life knowledge. There are a million Joyces out in the world, and we need to ensure that their loneliness is acknowledged.
Awards Daily: What was your first reaction to Joyce? She makes quite the impression on us by the end of the film.
Lin Shaye: That’s a great question to start. Tommy sent me the script and, at first, I didn’t like it. I don’t know what didn’t spark with me. I was in the middle of shooting something else, and maybe that’s why I responded to the material. About a year or so later, he asked if I’d take another look at it. When I read it this time, I didn’t know what I didn’t like. In the original script, Joyce was right away a psychotic killer, and she had killed her husband—she was going on a rampage. It was very predictable to me, so I called Tommy and we started chatting about the idea of a woman whose husband is dead and has been controlled by the man of the house.
The backstory I made for her was that they met when she was very young—they had been married for over 30 years—and she was very shy and had no experience with dating or men. He scooped her up and turned her into his slave. She stays in the kitchen and he is busy living the life he wants to live. Now that he’s dead, why not? She has no skills to navigate life, and that started to interest me. In our real lives, there are many, many women who live in the shadows like that and are still controlled.
AD: In those earlier scenes, Joyce is so quiet, and I kept thinking that I have seen so many Joyces in my life.
LS: Yeah, she’s scared and clueless but determined on some level to figure it out. With the B&B, she doesn’t even know what that is. She has never been to a bank or knows how to get money or has any living skills. That started to unfold to me as fascinating. I am really proud of what we’ve created, and I’ve never gotten the response with anything I’ve done. Some of the reviews they mention how some women have gone through this disenfranchisement, and it comes across as very real. It’s not a little horror film but a psychological study of this woman who has never had love.
AD: It took me by surprise, to be honest. My heart really went out to your character throughout the movie even when the crazy stuff starts to go down.
AD: But it feels like Joyce doesn’t know better? Or that she doesn’t know how to behave?
LS: She was going one step at a time to survive. In our world, there are a lot of people that do horrible things—not that we excuse what they do totally—but it becomes more understandable that the human being is a very fragile and a very powerful animal. We are survivors, and we do what we have to do. It’s nasty out there.
AD: Is that why you feel like you can’t judge a character like that?
LS: Yes, that’s a good way to put it. You can experience and try to understand, but, unfortunately, humans are judgmental creatures. Animals are not. They say, ‘If you hurt me, I’m not coming towards you.’ But we are too analytical for that. That’s why Joyce is such a complicated character, and I tried to infuse her with an empathy. At the same time, she’s horrifying. My favorite scene is when she’s looking through Bob’s cosmetic bag in his room by herself. She doesn’t even know what anything is.
AD: Even when you find the ‘nose candy’ in the trunk, I thought that she had to have the context of what that was. And I had to tell myself that Joyce probably doesn’t have that.
LS: She probably thought it was something to eat.
AD: That hard edge that comes out throughout the movie—like when Joyce snaps at the cashier in the pet store or when she has to defend herself from those boys that constantly tease her—do you think that was always living dormant inside of Joyce, or do you just think that was building throughout her marriage?
LS: That’s a great question. I think rage lives in all of us, and when you’re not allowed to express it, it just sits there. When she finally has the ability to have some power and there’s no one controlling her, it starts to come through. That’s a great observation, because I never thought about that. You see this new side of her that she doesn’t know she had. Joyce felt humiliated by the girl in the pet store and she empties her pennies onto the counter. It’s this limp way of exerting herself. When people hide rage, it comes out somewhere. Your being explodes with it. As women, we are beaten down and pounded down, and if that leaf can poke up through that shit, it will explode out. If you expel that anger, you’ll die. You’ll implode.
AD: You have to get out somehow.
LS: Yes, you do.
AD: I’m sure people tell you this all the time, but you’re such a horror icon. Why do you think women gravitate towards the genre? Are the stories more empowering since you’re dealing with a physical evil?
LS: I don’t think about it like that personally. I always look for good story and good character. It needs to have an arc and a beginning, middle, and end. Even a tiny character. It has to have curve within the scenes. Often women characters in horror becoming the heroine is very attractive, though. I like to play people that are beaten down, because I’m interested in humanity. That’s the corny way of putting it.
AD: I don’t think so.
LS: All the aspects of trying to survive. We’re all trying to make it through, you know? Good storytelling is about the difficulty of survival in many different ways that people have to express themselves. In horror films, it’s this encapsulation of that and you have to fight your way out and make it to the end. It’s good storytelling that gives you hope.
AD: You’ve worked several times with Tommy [Stovall]. What is it about your working relationship that you respond to?
LS: Tommy is one of the best listeners I’ve ever met. He’s a very interesting man, because you don’t know if he hears you. You’ll ask him a question, and his face is just blank. But he’s not blank. He’s thinking. We are so used to people immediately responding to you or we think they must not have heard us or they’re not interested or they don’t know they’re listening. Especially with all this technology, we’re done. People are impatient and don’t know how to listen. The shorthand has made people stop thinking, and Tommy is a thinker. It’s a pleasure because his thought process is quite beautiful. You can see in his answer how he’s been thinking. I adore working with him. He’s a said and done guy. My dad is Jewish and he had a Yiddish expression—“gezagt aun getan” which means ‘Said and done.’ There are very few people who work like that, and Tommy is one of them.
AD: Looking forward, I didn’t know you were going to be on Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. What can you tell me about that?
LS: We started shooting and it’s set in the late 1930’s. It’s so exciting. It’s 10 episodes, and I’ve only read the first six. I don’t know where my character goes, and that’s a first for me. I assume that’s classic television in some respects. It’s just how John Logan operates, and he gives you the story line with his exquisite writing. It’s like learning Shakespeare for the first time. I’ve never done television really and working with Showtime is like working with the machinery of TV. I play a Nazi hunter with Nathan Lane.
AD: That’s literally the greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Truly.
Room for Rent is streaming now on Amazon Prime.