Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With .... Famke Janssen
April 15, 2013 4:00 AM
By Patricia Sheridan Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Former Dutch fashion model turned actor and director Famke Janssen recently played the big bad witch Muriel in the film "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters." The 48-year-old has also starred in "X-Men," "Golden Eye," "Taken" and "Taken 2." She often, but not always, portrays the tall dark villainess. Her most recent role is that of Olivia Godfrey in the new Netflix goth horror series "Hemlock Grove," about mysterious goings-on in an old steel town outside Pittsburgh. While acting pays the bills, writing and directing are what she is interested in pursuing now. She wrote, directed and produced the film "Bringing Up Bobby" (2011). "Hemlock Grove" will debut Friday on Netflix.
Do you find typecasting annoying or an easy way to make a living?
Neither. I would say typecasting is very much a part of the industry. It's something I fought against for years and years, but it's a battle you ultimately can't win [laughing]. I found out the hard way. It was still, for me, worth the battle at the time. I ended up working with Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Ted Demme and a lot of incredible directors. But the types of movies I ended up doing didn't have much visibility. The films I get typecasted in, you know -- "X-Men," "Golden Eye" and any of the big studio films of course -- have a much broader audience and higher visibility. Ultimately, in the studio films, it comes down to me being cast as a certain type of character. That I have actually come to terms with. It is perfectly suitable to where I am in my life right now. It serves as a nice way to make a living. It affords me to do the things I really aspire to do. I have written and directed and produced my first feature, "Bringing Up Bobby." It came out last year. I am developing a bunch of other projects at the moment. I am writing and have done "Hemlock Grove" for six months. If we go again for six months it affords me to spend half of the year developing the projects I am going to direct and the other half acting. It is actually quite perfect.
When you are acting, do you make up your own back stories for your evil characters?
Ah, well, in the 20 years I have been in this business I have done almost any kind of role. Yes, I've played my share of a character like Muriel in "Hansel & Gretel" -- a witch -- that is a purely evil character. So for every character that I play, I try to come up with a back story. In the case of "Hemlock Grove" it was based on a novel, but even so in the novel it wasn't very specifically explained so I still ended up making my own decisions about [Olivia].
Was there anything that bothered you about your character in "Hemlock Grove" or did you just embrace it?
I think that when you play a character it is never good to start off with what bothers you. You try to find the things you enjoy or like or cherish or find interesting or fascinating about a person because I have to play her. I have to be OK playing her. Even in the most evil characters there is always something you can find that is interesting or fascinating or lovable or whatever about them. I found Olivia to be a multi-faceted woman. You know, mysterious, which I always like. I am not one to believe that everything should be explained about a person or a story, and that is very much in keeping with who she is.
Did directing "Bringing Up Bobby" make you a better actor?
I am not sure. Initially I felt rusty because I had taken three years off from acting to really focus on getting the movie off the ground. It was an uphill battle during the financial crisis. People didn't want to put any money into or invest in movies, especially independent films, at that time, so it became a full-time job getting the film off the ground. I learned a lot about acting but in different ways. The simple fact that time is money and as an actor you can really stall the filming, especially on these independent films. So I was mostly aware of I don't want people to be waiting for me. I don't want to be the reason for changes or running behind or any of those things.
The Dutch are famous for speaking many languages mostly because of the geographic location. How many languages do you speak?
I spoke four fairly fluently. My German was the first language to become rusty because I never had any use for it anymore. I still speak Dutch fluently, obviously, because it is my first language. I would like to spend more time in France to really brush up on [French]. It just takes practice, otherwise if you stop [laughing] you don't speak them as well as you would like to.
You started as a model and became an actor and a director, so has your career path been everything you thought it would be?
I never ever had any dreams of becoming an actor when I was younger. So I had no expectations going into it. I started out in Amsterdam at the university studying economics. I was discovered on the street as a model. I ended up going in that direction only because economics was not my passion. It was more of a decision that I thought was a smart one to take because of what jobs [would be available]. In Holland we have a very different system. Universities have blocks on them in particular years, like medicine will have no more room for additional students. So my choices were limited in the year that I came out. It was a practical thing. I abandoned it for modeling because I thought in that time I could make some money while I think what I really want to do. Modeling brought me to New York, and at the height of my modeling career I quit to go to Columbia [University] to study writing and literature. During that time I started to think of where I wanted to go with the future. So I started taking acting classes outside of Columbia, and that led me to my first role. Now that is the perfect circle. It's all come together with putting writing and acting and producing and directing together.
So would you do anything differently if you could do it over?
I don't like to think in those terms. I really believe you make the best decisions based on whatever you were given at that time and your knowledge at the moment. Of course in hindsight you can always do better, but it doesn't work like that. You learn from your mistakes and you apply those to your next endeavors. Then you'll make another bunch of mistakes and you'll learn from those again. Hopefully you just keep growing as a human being. That is what I have always been after.