Famke Janssen, the outspoken actress behind Jean Grey of the X-Men films and the leg crushing femme fatale Xenia of Goldeneye, returns to her villainous roots in this week’s Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. It’s good to see Janssen seemingly relish every line as she menaces the brother-sister duo and threatens to bring about a ‘witch-apocalypse’… or something like that. It’s a fun performance and a welcome return for Janssen who’s been absent from cinemas for far too long now (her brief appearances in the Taken franchise withstanding).
In the following interview with Janssen, she talks about her hiatus from acting (she was directing a picture – Bringing Up Bobby – during), the troubles of ‘witch’ prosthetics, and the joy of riding a broomstick. Janssen also touched upon her role in the upcoming Netflix series Hemlock Grove and played coy on whether or not she’s been approached to reprise her role as Jean Grey in any of the upcoming X-Men sequels. For the full interview, hit the jump.
Collider: It’s been a while since you’ve gotten to play a full on villain for a film. Was that part of the initial appeal of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters?
Famke Janssen: Honestly – the initial appeal was that I needed money. I took three years off from acting to get my own directorial debut off the ground. So I didn’t intend to be gone for that long, but it just ended up taking [awhile]. And then just as I was like ‘I guess I should start acting again, go find some work’ – this script came along, fell out of the sky and I read it and I thought ‘Well — that’s interesting. That’s different’ and I Skyped with Tommy. And I liked him right away. Great and energetic and he had good ideas and we discussed the character a little bit. And he told me – ‘You know you’re going to be in prosthetic makeup.’ And I was like ‘Yeah of course’ – not having any understanding of what that was going to entail but I learned that pretty quickly…
Yeah – the makeup in the film is one of the best things about it. What was the process for you to become a ‘witch’?
Famke Janssen: Unless you’ve ever experienced having prosthetic makeup, it’s very hard to describe. It’s all consuming in some way…
Does it enhance the performance?
Famke Janssen: You know – I don’t know. What I had trouble figuring out is: how far do I take it because the makeup was doing so much of the acting for me, that I can’t go over the top in a way that I otherwise would have gone.
How many hours was the makeup?
Famke Janssen: Three. It started out as four hours but they got it down to less. And then an hour at the end of the night to take it all off. It’s definitely daunting. It’s just that it took some of the freedom away that I thought it would give me. You have a circus of people behind you constantly going ‘Oh your nose is falling off, oh my god your mouth is coming undone.’ Sometimes I was just like ‘Blahh – I want to be a witch and crazy’ but I felt somewhat restricted.
So it takes you out of the moment…
Famke Janssen: A little bit. To me it would have felt better had they just done it in the beginning and the end of the night and in between I could do whatever I wanted. But of course, it doesn’t work like that. And they did an amazing job. To me the strong points of the movie are Gemma and Jeremy and their chemistry. [But] mostly I think it’s the witches. The entire look of them. Once all the witches come together. That part – I just feel you haven’t seen that.
How did you go about crafting the accent for the witch voice?
Famke Janssen: You see me both looking like the normal [version of] myself and then as the witch. The voice had to change somewhat because she’s putting on an act as the normal person. The witch is her true self. So I don’t know. Whatever came out, came out… In a normal performance, you have specific things as an actor – I’ve been doing it for twenty years – so I know how to rehearse. I know how to work on things. I know what can work and what doesn’t but by the time I came here to Berlin and we started working, all of the sudden I looked into the mirror with all this prosthetic makeup on and I remember thinking ‘Right that’s not exactly how I imagined I would look when I was [prepping].’ I had no idea what I was going to look like so then it becomes this balancing act and a little bit of a leap of faith. I’m just going to go in there and hopefully Tommy will [tell me] ‘More or less’ or something and keep me in check.
What was the process of riding the broomstick? Was it wirework or green screen?
Famke Janssen: It was all wirework with a little bit of green screen to Tommy’s credit. It reminded me of Bryan Singer when we did the first X-Men, in that both of them focused much more on us[ing] what we have — actual prosthetics, actual props — and us[ing] as little CGI as possible. I know that changed somewhat with Bryan later on but in the beginning it was very much like that. And with Tommy too. I was flying on a broomstick. Had I not been able to fly, I would’ve been really upset. That was my highlight of the performance – being able to fly. Being on wires – it’s just fun.
Do you have a different approach when you’re playing a supernatural character like a witch or an X-Men versus someone more based in reality?
Famke Janssen: Sort-of and not. With the X-Men, Bryan Singer was very clear we need to base this in reality. We’re not going to be making the regular superhero movie everybody else has been making up to now. These are just regular people with regular problems. And that’s how we played it. I think with a fairy tale like Hansel and Gretel there’s a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek element to it. It’s not your usual serious everything-is-grounded-in-reality. But you want to always make everything personal. You want to have an audience member be able to connect in some way to this massive prosthetic makeup.
Your character Muriel’s backstory is left up to interpretation to a certain extent. I’m interested for you – did you create your own backstory for the character?
Famke Janssen: I always do. To whatever extent you can in a script. Some stories make that harder than others. Some things ended up changing a bit throughout the story. The backstory about what happened to the parents, how I was part of all that during filming there was some interpretations of that. Just like anything in life, you can come up with something but then you have to be willing to let it go and go with whatever…
I understand the film went through a significant editing process – were there any scenes with you that got cut?
Famke Janssen: Yeah there always is… My favorite scene to shoot was the scene where I was with all the witches and originally it was longer. It was one of my really all-time favorite scenes to shoot because it was finally where I felt I hit my stride with the character. What I felt she had been borne and bred to do – which is to be this larger than life figure that was in charge of that many people. To actually stand on that plateau where we were filming, with all these witches and all this stuff and getting into it and going crazy or whatever – that was just [great]. Like everything, things get trimmed. That’s probably the only part I go I wish there was more of in there. Because that’s where I really understood the character.
You mentioned your directorial debut Bringing Up Bobby – what was the transition from acting to being a filmmaker for you?
Famke Janssen: Very hard. I wish I could tell you differently. I’ve never encountered so many hurdles in my life than during those five years where literally everything that could go wrong [did]. I should have had a camera on my back or in my face the entire time. It would have been one of those documentaries, which would have put Heart of Darkness to shame. I mean really. The ultimate thing though is I did it; it’s done; it’s finished. I got it shot in twenty days on time and in budget with the help of a big group of people. I learned so incredibly much that I really felt like I took a ten-year leap in a really short amount of time. And I can’t wait to do it again even though it was hard. I really have a lot of respect for Woody Allen. I’ve worked with him. He cranks a movie out a year. Whereas I’m going ‘Oh my god. I need to recuperate. I need to come back to my sense a bit before I get butchered again.’ The entire process just feels like everybody’s against you. Somehow it’s just ‘No, no, no, no’ with everything and then you have to be creative. Either you don’t have the money and you have the actor or the other way around. It’s like this Catch-22 situation. All of the sudden you thought you had the actor, now you don’t have the actor. Now you have the money but the money will go if you don’t have the same actor. It’s just one of those things that’s just madness. Total pure madness. But I think that’s why most of us are in the film business because we like that aspect of it.
You’ve worked with a number of noted filmmakers – You’ve mentioned Woody Allen – and also Robert Altman and Clive Barker… What have you learned from working with them?
Famke Janssen: So much with every single one of them. I think the best part of being an actor is that to me it feels like I’ve been in the best film school for the last twenty years because not only do I see the director work on set, I see how the producers work, I see how the DPs work, I see how the gaffers work, I see how the costume department works, I see how the production office works. If you pay attention, you can get a much better – dare-I-say – education than any film school could ever offer. Just because there’s so much practical stuff to learn. Of course you still make mistakes. The reality of you actually being in charge or all the hurdles that get thrown in your way are different than the hurdles you’ve seen being thrown in the way of other filmmakers. Trying to become good at something is a process that takes time.
You’ve worked in both indie films and mainstream fare – Do you see that as a conscious choice divvying up between the two?
Famke Janssen: Oh very – Other than the main objective, which has always been challenge for me. The other one is you try to go against type the best you can. But 99% of casting is typecasting and I realize that with the way I look and how tall I am and athletic or whatever, I’m going to be cast as some kind of alien weird creature. I’m not going to be cast as the girl next door. I just don’t look like that. So my goal has always been that in the independent world I can be cast against type. And I’ve gone along with that in films like Celebrity or Turn the River or Love and Sex or any of those. I had my opportunities there to do something very different. Sadly people don’t get to see those films because they don’t have the same money behind them for publicity and all that kind of stuff. So it’s something you try to figure out and do the best that you can and ultimately I think it’s important that you do it for yourself, not so much for the recognition you get from other people.
You have a new TV show coming out – Hemlock Grove…
Famke Janssen: Yeah – I’m not even sure we can call it television…
Because it’s on Netflix…
Famke Janssen: Exactly. It’s like a whole new way. It’s first time I’ve ever felt in my life that I’m a part of the future as opposed to the past. When it comes to my taste in film and all that I always look back. It’s fun to be part of something new and innovative. I play someone named Olivia and it’s all set in this steel town in Pennsylvania. There’s this family – the Godfrey family – and they were formerly in the steel business and they change over to buy a medical institute where they do all sorts of mysterious things, which my character’s very much a part of. And then it’s this whole family dynamic. It has some supernatural – whatever you want to call it properties: werewolves and vampires… But in what I filmed I didn’t feel like that was very prevalent. To me it was very much like a Twin Peaks-esque drama but the rest is there too.
Lastly – Have they asked you to return as Jean Grey for the new X-Men: Days of Future Past?
Famke Janssen: If you run into Bryan Singer, just tell him I’ve been sitting by the phone, I’ve been hearing rumors of all these people getting cast; what about me? I’m waiting…
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters opens everywhere tomorrow.