/Answers: Our Favorite Character Actresses


Every week in /Answers, we attempt to answer a new pop culture-related question. In this week’s edition, we celebrate Insidious: The Last Key and the series’ unlikely star, the great Lin Shaye, by asking “Who is your favorite character actress?”

Matt Donato: Lin Shaye

Today’s “answer” was an easy one because even though Lin Shaye’s role in Insidious: The Last Key influenced this week’s column, she is an obvious choice. A 42-year career that started with “Whore” in Hester Street is now a longstanding horror genre legacy. She’s done slashers with Wes Craven and comedy with the Farrelly brothers; played Eleanor Roosevelt (FDR: American Badass!), Helen Keller (Helen Keller vs. Nightwolves), and “Teacher” (A Nightmare On Elm Street). Is there a performance she can’t deliver?

With seriousness, Lin Shaye has made a career out of hunting ghosts, creeping out audiences and acting her way into a brand of cult status reserved for the likes of Danny Trejo or Jennifer Coolidge. She’s notched 197 credits to date, from the smallest bit-parts to leading endeavors like, yes, Insidious: The Last Key. She can flip a switch from comforting granny to psychopathic meltdown at the drop of a sewing needle, unafraid of the madness she might cause. Shaye casts such a warm aura, which explains why she chameleons so well into dark genre projects (and lighter comedies).

Today’s audiences might know her best as Insidious’ Elise Rainier, but my favorite exemplification of Shaye’s talent has been Dead End ever since I watched it this past December (as part of my massive Christmas horror rank-up). In the film, she gets stuck on an unending road with her doomed family and loses her marbles. Highlights include Shaye shoving her face with crumbly snacks at a disgusting pace, wholly desensitized by the death of her son. If you want a masterclass in horror character acting, look no further than this wintery time-loop paradox. Shaye is a wacko mastermind, even besting her on-screen counterpart played by Ray Wise.

I’m “the horror guy,” so of course my favorite character actress has seen her share of death and bloodshed. Lin Shaye is  a mighty powerhouse when it comes to playing the exact part needed. Do yourself a favor. If Insidious is your only knowledge of this Dame of Damnation, burn through her catalog. It might take a while, but you’ll understand why every indie director and their brother wants the name “Lin Shaye” in their credits.

I Tonya - Allison Janney

Ethan Anderton: Allison Janney

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more decorated, hard-working character actress than Allison Janney. Her career really took off with her consistently Emmy-winning supporting role on Aaron Sorkn’s hit political drama The West Wing, and ever since then she’s disappeared into a variety of characters in both film and television. In the past decade alone, she’s appeared in an average of five movies every single year, not to mention guest starring on several TV shows and starring in the CBS comedy series Mom, for which she also earned several Emmy nominations.

Janney’s big screen work has seen her play the romance novel writing principal of Padua High School in 10 Things I Hate About You; Maya Rudolph’s obnoxious, inappropriate former boss in Away We Go; the prim, proper and quirky mother of Amanda Bynes in Hairspray; the Weimaraner-loving Bren MacGuff in Juno; the gossipy, foul-mouthed neighbor Betty in The Way Way Back; Melissa McCarthy’s blunt agency boss in Spy and a sharp detective and the only sensible character in The Girl on the Train.

But this year Janney turned in what just might be her best performance to date as LaVona Golden, the mother of figure skater Tonya Harding in this year’s awards contender I, Tonya. As the tough, rude, cold and abusive coach to her daughter, Janney turns in a relentlessly rough performance leaving room for little to no redemption. While Janney has consistently made characters similar to LaVona Golden at least somewhat likeable, she gives no such leeway here. It’s the kind of role that will likely land her an Oscar nomination.

christine baranski

Vanessa Bogart: Christine Baranski

From the disturbingly peppy Camp Chippewa counselor in The Addams Family Values to the sympathetic reporter Mary Sunshine in Chicago, Christine Baranski has played a part in some of my favorite films. She delights on stage and screen with enough charisma and class for ten leading ladies. She describes her own career as being one of, “great one-liners and great clothes,” and really, what more is there to life than that? Whether she is playing a judgmental mother to a Bad Mom or an ABBA singing cougar in Mamma Mia, she disappears into every character. She is believable every step of the way. Having studied at Julliard, and working on and off Broadway, Christine Baranski floats in and out of roles on stage and screen with an ease that is equal parts professionalism and unquestionable talent.

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