Famke Janssen interview: Bringing Up Bobby, Bond, X-Men

With her directorial debut Bringing Up Bobby out on DVD now, Famke Janssen chats to us about her acting career, her love of film and more...

Ever since her major breakthrough as infamous Bond villain Xenia Onatopp, Famke Janssen has remained a constant presence in the world of geekdom. Yet despite roles in such high profile blockbusters as the superb GoldenEye and the mostly great X-Men franchise, she’s managed to avoid typecasting and continues to mix mainstream movie hits with both TV and independent features.

While GoldenEye may rank among the best Bond movies of all time, it’s one of my absolute favourites. It put the great Famke Janssen firmly on my radar and I’ve remained a fan of her work ever since, through the underappreciated fun of schlock-fest Deep Rising, the duality of her Miss Burke in The Faculty, to the jaw-dropping brilliance and incredibly brave choice of Ava Moore in Nip/Tuck. More’s the pity that she wasn’t given a stronger role in both Taken movies, as she’s proved to be one of the best female leads when it comes to action movies over the years.

2013 alone has already seen her back to fine evil form and joyously exploding heads in the B-movie treat Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, as well as maintaining her link to horror in new TV series Hemlock Grove and returning to the character of Jean Grey once more in The Wolverine, though she remained tight lipped about its capacity, despite my efforts to find out more.

The phone interview found her on fine form, as she proved to be incredibly chatty, full of humour, candidness and passion for her directorial debut Bringing Up Bobby, which sees its home release in the UK this week. The film stars Milla Jovovich as anti-heroine Olive, whose view on the world is twisted by American movies, in a refreshing turn that breaks from her usual Resident Evil kick assery and plays well on her ability to simultaneously portray the manipulative charms of a femme fatale, mixed with a crushing innocence.

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So without further ado, I’ll let the rather fantastic Famke Janssen tell you more…

What was it about this particular story that made you choose it for your directorial debut?

Well, I’m a foreigner in the United States. I was born and raised in Holland and emigrated into the States more than 20 years ago, and when I did I remember how much my impressions about the US were really formed by the media and by film in particular. So my first time in New York I remember being really scared to leave my hotel, and in retrospect it turned out I was staying in the fanciest area of Manhattan, but I had no idea – I’d just seen many movies with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and they were violent and there were guns. I was maybe naïve and innocent, but it really over the years struck me how much my ideas about the US are really formed by film and the media.

So when I visited Oklahoma for the first time that whole idea, or that whole notion was kind of renewed again in my mind, because I’d been in New York so long and it’s almost a different country, it’s not like the rest of the United States, and so it struck me how much I still felt like a foreigner in that setting and how much it to me was reminiscent of movies like Bonnie And Clyde and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and Thelma & Louise and all those kinds of movies that I watched over and over again.

So from all of those ideas together came out this story of Olive, a foreigner in the US, somebody who misunderstands the US just based on her experiences from growing up in another country and having seen America mostly on film. But she really takes advantage of what she thinks it is, and to her it’s perfectly acceptable that she can walk around through the United States and steal and con her way in the way that Bonnie did in Bonnie And Clyde. And of course life catches up with her and the reality of what America is, is a much more complex and complicated thing than her simplistic version of what she thought it was, based on movies.

So that’s kind of the background of it, then I’m such a film lover; many of my influences for Bringing Up Bobby came from a lot of the movies from the 1930s and the 1970s, which is a very odd coupling of two different eras, of course, in film, because one is very realistic and gritty – the 70s movies were – and then the 30s is the golden era of film, also for women in films with female protagonists, really strong, beautiful, glamorous women, so I was always drawn to that era in film just because for women, since then, I feel that it’s really gone downhill. And so out of all those things came Bringing Up Bobby, so I hope that makes it all a little bit more clear! [laughs] 

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And it’s interesting that you mention women in film, as both you and Milla Jovovich have both played a lot of strong female roles over the years, but that doesn’t happen in Hollywood nearly as much as it should do…

Yeah, women’s parts have just, over the decades they’ve really gone through different phases, and of course, all of a sudden in the 80s and mostly the 90s, I think, when people thought that women should be tough too and put them in tank tops with machine guns and all that kind of stuff and I thought that that’s really not… men and women are so different, and let’s celebrate that, we don’t have to try to be equals and that all of a sudden on film we need to be portrayed as tough, but if that’s supposed to be emancipation, I really don’t believe that it is in any way.

So this film was sort of my nostalgic – I wouldn’t fully say because of course I’ve never lived in the 30s at all – but because I’ve watched so many of those movies and I thought that women were allowed to be everything in that time: they were funny, goofy, smart, glamorous, silly – they could be everything, and I don’t remember a time since then that they have been able to be all that.

The casting of Milla Jovovich was fantastic, as she gave a great performance, but were you not tempted having written, produced and directed it, to star as well?

Never! Never, never, never ever! I know that a lot of men of course, there are a lot of examples starting with say Clint Eastwood, of actors who direct themselves in their movies, but for men I think it’s very different because a man you know [laughs] – I mean you’re a guy, you show up, you go to work I’m sure! It takes you about three minutes, two minutes to get ready, if that much! Whereas for women it’s a little bit more complex, especially the way I saw Olive and how in the way that I just mentioned that in 30s movies where women were really much more put together, what it would require from Milla to keep that up, especially in the temperatures in Oklahoma that we shot in were about 40 degrees Celsius, a hundred and five degrees Fahrenheit average.

So there’s a lot of upkeep in keeping a woman looking that well put together throughout 20 days of filming and those monstrous temperatures! [laughs] For me I would’ve spent too much time in the make-up trailer and I would’ve just been frustrated the entire time, and the film couldn’t have been made because it took me getting on the set from the mo…  I never stepped in the make-up trailer, I had all these dreams of, like, I’d come there first thing in the morning and say hello to everybody in the make-up trailer, but I just didn’t have the time, it was just a marathon I ran, for 20 days, along with the rest of the crew.

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So no, I knew that when I was going to direct this movie for the first time that every second I wanted to be on set, directing the film, not standing in front of the camera having to worry about my lines, or my hair, or my make-up, or any of those things.

How long had it been in your mind that you wanted to direct?

Oh a long time. It’s been long in the making because I wrote, directed, produced and starred in a short film about I want to say 15, or 18 years ago and the beginning of my career, as I think is the case for the beginning of many actors and actresses in the business, was really slow to come about. I had auditioned and auditioned and they didn’t know what to do with me and I was so tall and I had a strange name and an accent and they just couldn’t place me anywhere, really, I don’t think. And I had done a few bits and pieces here and there, but I was actually ready to give up after years of struggling in the business.

I remember having a conversation with Bob Rafelson, one of the great directors, and I auditioned for him and he wrote me this really lovely letter that said why he couldn’t cast me, and at that point I felt I want to give up and maybe see if I can get a job with him on his next movie or something, as an assistant director or whatever, so he was kind enough to take the time to sit down with me and talk about it. He mentioned as an example that Jack Nicholson had, at the beginning of his career, wanted to abandon [acting] and write and direct and all those things. So I took that advice but at the same time I was thinking, ‘Yeah well that’s great for Jack Nicholson, but it’s never going to work for me.’

So I applied to film school, I wrote a screenplay, I got accepted into the AFI film programme, but right at that time I started auditioning for GoldenEye and then when I finally got the part it was juggling that decision of do I take GoldenEye, or do I go to film school, and I thought that I struggled so long and for so many years that I should take this opportunity and then, you know, the rest is history. From that moment on I had a chance to really work on my acting craft for years. 

GoldenEye was really what you put you on the radar for me and for most people I imagine. Sean Bean has spoken about the pressure on himself and Pierce Brosnan about carrying the re-launch of Bond, did you feel any of that weight?

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Oh I know, but for me it was the opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it, so the pressures I’m sure were really felt by the filmmakers, by the Broccolis, by Michael Wilson and all the people involved on the other end of it, the studio and all of that, but for me the pressure was really to be as good as I possibly could and having grown up with Bond – my Dad was a big lover of the Bond films – so seeing how the women had been and how they’d been portrayed, I also saw that it’s tongue in cheek that entire franchise. It’s serious and funny and kind of silly and goofy all at the same time, so from all that history of what I had learned over the time of watching those movies that kind of came up a bit with Xenia Onatopp and who she was and that she should be a stronger kind of Bond woman, but that it needed to be in a tongue in cheek way.

You seem to have been very good at avoiding typecasting; you’ve had Bond, horror, drama, comedy, superheroes, the big movies and the small, was that an intentional move?

Oh, very intentional, as a move after GoldenEye I realised there’s so much press associated with those Bond films, and especially ours, of course, because of the six or seven year hiatus. And so all eyes were on that film to see how we did, and it did very well and was very well received and brought the whole franchise back, but at that moment I thought, okay,  well now for the first time in my life I actually have film options, that I’ve never enjoyed before!

So I really knew that I just wanted to use it as a stepping stone to a varied career, hopefully with longevity, so the first thing I did after that was a small independent film called City Of Industry, it was Harvey Keitel and it was not easy to get the part, because obviously coming from a Bond movie where I had a Russian accent and a strange name still, and all of those things, that people weren’t so sure that I could be doing something as gritty as that movie was. And so after that came the Woody Allen film Celebrity and Robert Altman’s film I was in, Gingerbread Man, so all different independent films, I really worked independently for quite some time.

Then you learn pretty quickly the business, and it’s really essential that you’re part of bigger studio films, because you need to keep your status in that industry up and you really need to be sellable as your name, and if you only do independent films, nobody’s going to care very quickly and you run out of roles to play – that’s the way it is. In the studio films I get typecast a lot, but that’s okay, they allow me to do other more interesting work in independent films, so it’s a little bit of a juggling thing back and forth constantly. 

I think that’s the beauty of that kind of variety, as for someone like me, my primary focus when I’m writing is action movies, but because I’ve been of fan of your work for so long it forces not just myself, but a lot of other people to look at other movies that they might not necessarily consider…

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Yeah, and I think that enough people of course rely on that, so with Bringing Up Bobby too – independent films have such a hard time being seen at this point because they really do compete, sadly, on the same level as the studio films do, and there’s so many of them and they’re kind of thrown out there in the world. I remember when Bringing Up Bobby came out I coupled it to Taken 2 because I thought that there’s no way that on my own, with a little distributor that I had in the United States, that I could get anybody to even see, or know about this movie, you just need a studio of sorts behind your press.

Then it seems if you get the kind of press, or talk shows, or whatever you can to just bring some attention to it, if a film doesn’t perform in the first week in the theatres, you get pulled out. Now, what independent film can perform on the first week, because they don’t have the money to do the press and bring attention to the film. So it’s this little Catch 22 and it’s tough for independent film, so most of the films I’ve done nobody’s even heard of, or seen, because they all dealt with that exact same sort of journey.

It seems as though Hollywood also doesn’t seem to give female directors the recognition they deserve (there were 82 Academy Awards before Kathryn Bigalow’s win and only three other female nominees – Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Linda Wertmuller) did that extra obstacle deter you from directing?

No, I think it’s… obstacles, maybe I just like obstacles, they make me work harder. I think that it’s interesting as a female because you don’t have as many role models, there are the Kathryn Bigalows obviously and women in the 30s that directed already, or wrote, but they’re definitely not as recognised, they’re not in the studio system as much, and really independently you can find them and more so in other countries than in the United States for some reason, too. But to me, I’ve always created my own path, I’ve never followed anybody, I’m not modelling myself anyway after anybody else, I just go about it every single day and I’m here to try to grow as a human being.

If that means I’m female, or male, to me I don’t look at that as much, but I do know that I have a few handicaps in that area, but I’ve had them as an actress too over the years. I mean you start out and right away you’re being typecast, or put in a box, and then of course you add the whole Bond girl stigma to that and then you add the whole superhero stigma to that, so they just keep on coming, the hurdles, and I guess on some strange level I enjoy them and they just make me work even harder!

And finally, talking of superheroes, can you tell me anything about your return as Jean Grey in The Wolverine?

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Well it’s been shot already and I… well you can see in the trailer I’m in it, that’s all really I can say, because you’re gonna have to wait and see, I really can’t discuss it!

[she laughed and then seemed to say something else, but the line went crackly and came back just in time for me to say thank you…]

Famke Janssen thank you very much!

Bring Up Bobby is out on DVD now in the UK.

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