When Famke Janssen slips into the hotel room of the Four Season in Beverly Hills, she doesn’t look like she has aged a day since I first met her over 15 years ago at the Lord of Illusions premiere party in New York City.
At the time, I was just some film student who had snuck into a Hollywood bash. Janssen, on the other hand, was poised to become kind of a big deal. Although the Clive Barker film she starred in, alongside Scott Bakula, didn’t quite take off, Goldeneye – which opened a few months later in ’95 – certainly did. Now, here she is, promoting Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and she still looks incredible – one of those actresses you suspect bathes in the blood of virgins to look so damn good.
Since The Lord of Illusions, Janssen has been no stranger to genre fare having starred in Deep Rising, The Faculty, House on Haunted Hill and 100 Feet. Then there were the X-Men films that solidified her household recognition as Jean Grey.
Janssen and I are given the usual 15 minutes to chat, so we jump right in. Our discussion is honest and funny as she explains why she took on her role as Muriel the witch in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters – starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton – discusses the challenges of prosthetic FX, typecasting and Hemlock Grove, the supernatural Netflix series spearheaded by Eli Roth.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: Was it director Tommy Wirkola’s energy that drew you to this project?
Famke Janssen: There are a lot of factors that go into a decision about what to do. But, the main factor [laughs] at the time was money because I took three years off from acting. In the end, it wasn’t meant to be three years, but I needed that time to write and direct my own movie and it ended up having so many false starts. It wound up being a five year window, but three of those years I couldn’t go back to acting. That time was up and I was like, ‘What do I do?’ This came along and I thought it was pretty cool. It was a young European filmmaker with his own take on a fairy tale that people are familiar with and has a specific meaning to children and adults. And he gave it a different spin and the cast was another big factor. Jeremy couldn’t have been more hot coming straight off of Kathryn Bigelow’s movie. It was a interesting scenario. But what I thought was ironic was going back, after being in charge as a writer-director and calling the shots, to being on a set and in a make-up trailer for three hours every morning and going through this transformation. I thought, ‘Right, that’s what it’s like being an actor!’ [laughs]
Shock: With that writer-director mindset, did that stick with you during the shooting process, too? Did you ever offer advice?
Janssen: I would never do that. But I was so overwhelmed by what this prosthetic business was all about. I’ve been part of movies where other people have been in that and have rightfully complained, but I’ve never actually been under prosthetics before. And it’s difficult to describe unless you’ve been in that process…
Shock: I have, actually.
Janssen: What did you think?
Shock: I got a tad impatient by the end, but the reward of seeing the final make-up is cool. Also, I tend to fall asleep in the chair, but that doesn’t help the make-up artist.
Janssen: You’re lucky. I tried everything because my hands were being done at the same time as my face and I just had to give up and breathe my way through it. It was challenging. Acting has been so specific for me and what I’ve learned – eyes, facial expressions, all of that stuff – and with something like this, you’re robbed of all of this. Or I could no rely on things I’ve done in the past. It was different and frustrating at times because I had this circus of people around me in case something became unglued. The other aspect is the make-up and the contacts were so strong, looking in the mirror I thought just that alone looked scary, so if I over did it, it would be too much. It becomes laughable.
Shock: Tommy told me earlier that each which had an animalistic quality and that you’re represented the wolf. Did that help inform you at all?
Janssen: I can’t remember if he did. [laughs] Maybe he forgot to relay that one little part, I would have played it completely differently! [laughs]
Shock: You’re not afraid of genre roles…
Janssen: No, the thing is is everyone gets typecast. It’s part of the game. You walk into a room and 99% you bring as a package is how you’re going to be cast. The 1% of you can go against that and fight against type. But I’ve learned early on that clearly people saw me as this alien, exotic, weirdo breed and I could fight against it or pay my rent or mortgage off. And then I could go and fight for the roles in independent films that I want to play that no one in the studios wanted to cast me as, so that’s what I’ve done. Over the last 20 years I’ve gone back and forth playing various roles in independent films, but the problem is is that the general public is not going to see those small films. They’ll think, ‘Right, she always plays the villain.’ What’s interesting about my career is that it has been so diverse in playing a little pool hustler in Turn the River or working with Woody Allen in Celebrity or Robert Altman. It crosses the board, but it’s not ultimately what you’re remembered for or how people see you. I’m almost six feet tall [laugh] and shrinking hopefully and I have a specific look – I may as well go with it.
Shock: Well, with the landscape of distribution changing, exposure is opening up so smaller films can be recognized on VOD or outlets like Netflix.
Janssen: Right, I just wrapped Hemlock Grove for Netflix.
Janssen: The Netflix set up and the reason for me taking it is if it continues on, it would be 13 episodes every year which is kind of the perfect model because I can spend one half of the year focusing on writing and directing projects I want to do myself. You constantly have to readjust what you want to do with your life. A couple of years ago, I would never have imagined doing the Netflix series like that. I think it came out really well and it has a certain Twin Peaks feel to it which was the only time I ever watched television in America.
Shock: Who do you play in Hemlock?
Janssen: Olivia, and she’s sort of the matriarch and runs a biomedical institute. She’s got a deformed daughter and troubled teenage son. It’s real family drama with elements of the supernatural. When I was shooting, that was all a very little part of what I had to be part of. It felt, to me, like a character-driven drama.
Shock: There have been rumblings of a return to Twin Peaks, by the way.
Janssen: There have? I’ve been rewatching all of the old episodes…
Shock: Thanks to Netflix?
Janssen: Yes, it’s so much fun because you press the button and then you finish the episode and it goes ‘one minute left until the next episode’ and the little thing circles around and it starts the next one. It’s like, ‘Okay, we’re watching the whole season right now.’
Shock: You said you’ve got other projects you want to write and direct, so which one is next?
Janssen: I wrote a bunch of scripts while I was trying to get Bringing Up Bobby going, because of so many false starts, I kept writing. Some of the scripts, at the moment, are not ready at the moment. But one I like is complex and takes place on the U.S.-Mexico border, I wrote it in English, but I think I need to learn some Spanish first. I’m debating looking at other scripts I didn’t write to direct. I literally just wrapped Hemlock Grove and going straight into this stuff.