Famke Janssen and the Horror of "Hemlock Grove"

"X-Men" actress plays a manipulative, mysterious mom in the new Netflix streaming series

By Scott Huver
|  Thursday, Apr 18, 2013  |  Updated 4:36 PM CDT
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Famke Janssen (r.) stars in the Netflix series "Hemlock Grove"

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She’s been a Bond villain with (literally) killer thighs and a mutant X-Man with a brain even more powerful than her beauty, and now Famke Janssen is a monstrously manipulative mother reigning over small town terrors in "Hemlock Grove."

After taking a lengthy hiatus from acting to step behind the camera as a writer-director (her debut feature “Bringing Up Bobby” was released in 2011), the former model, 48, recently made a return to the big-screen with roles in “Taken 2” and “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.”

Her latest project, the Gothic thriller “Hemlock Grove” (debuting on Netflix on Friday, Apr. 19) brings Janssen both back to her TV roots (she had early gigs on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Melrose Place,” and a well-received stint on “Nip/Tuck”) and to the forefront of a new entertainment format: the series – executive produced by horror film gore-meister Eli Roth (who directed the pilot) and adapted from the supernatural novel by Brian McGreevy – is the second high-profile Netflix original series after the Beltway drama “House of Cards.”

Portraying the powerful matriarch and head of a bio-medical empire in a mysterious Pennsylvania town that may or may not be home to werewolves and vampires, Janssen reveals why she’s back in front of the cameras and her new-found perspective on the memorable genre roles that helped put her on the Hollywood map.

What drew you to this new series?

It was actually a bunch of different things. I took a couple of years off from acting to write and direct my own movie. Then, when I came back to ‘I now want to start acting again,’ I did ‘Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters’ and ‘Taken 2’ and sort of starting to look around, like, ‘How do I want to design my life now when I've really gotten the bug of writing and directing, and I want to find more time to do that?’

So when ['Hemlock Grove'] came around, I thought 13 episodes means about half of the year. It's not traditional television. Me and traditional don’t generally go very well together! I'm very nontraditional and unconventional. So I thought, ‘This could actually be really good.’ And then it was the character that finally [sold me] – because ultimately I have to live with her. When you look at something like that, you have to think, 'Can I live with a character like this for potentially years?' And there was something to her that I thought, 'Yes, I can. I might.'

What was it about Olivia that attracted you?

There was a scene in the pilot where she asks her son if he wants to go shopping. And she's sitting there, smoking, still lying in bed, and he says no, he'd rather not. [I respond] ‘Of course not, you don't have to do anything. You're basically old enough to do whatever you want to do.’ and I take a drag on my cigarette, I put it out in his jacket, and I leave the room. And that to me is a character that I'm excited to play because she gets her way, but in kind of a creative way. It's completely obnoxious – but fun.

The horror genre on television has developed a really rich field lately. Do you have an affinity for horror?

I really don't – other than ‘The Shining’ and another few movies that I think redefined that genre. But what I think has sort of been happening is that genres keep being redefined all the time at this point because audiences are so sophisticated now. They have access to more movies and television shows than they ever had in the history of film and television. So that everybody in their own right is kind of a critic, and every genre has kind of been explored to the nth degree. Something that I just did like ‘Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters’ is redefining a specific genre – it's a traditional fairy tale that everybody grew up with, and then it turns it on its head because Hansel and Gretel are grown‑ups and they're hunting witches. I think ‘Hemlock Grove’ does the same thing. It works within – it takes something from a genre we all know, and then it spins it on its head and it becomes its own thing. And that's what you hope to be part of is something that redefines a genre, rather than being a typical genre that we've all seen many times before.

Was the Netflix element – in which all the episodes will be released simultaneously for potential binge viewing – something that was especially intriguing to you?

I've been on Netflix for a long time, and it's actually something that's perfectly designed for my life because I've never been a traditional television watcher. I grew up in Holland. I didn’t watch TV at all, came to America, and the only thing I ever watched on TV was ‘Twin Peaks.’ And then generally my lifestyle has been just not one to be able to follow anything on TV before any of those Netflix outlets existed. I find to do something where you can be in control of when and how you watch something is designed for people like me who travel all the time, who are constantly on planes and constantly traveling to different time zones or whatever. So to me, that was actually very exciting to be part of the future, and this is the way – and I'm not alone, I know. A lot of people are using this model now to watch things.

You've done so many different types of movies, is there something that you haven't gotten to yet?

I've done comedy, but never enough. I love ‘Love and Sex.’ I thought it was such a great movie, and I wish I could have done more of that. That's the only thing, and I haven't done any period movies that would have been really fun to explore. Being a writer, having written and directed my own movie, I learned so much about casting and realized how much everybody gets typecast. And you can try, I fought so hard for all those years to go against type, but it's kind of like a useless struggle. So much of what I or anybody looks like defines what they're going to play. So that's just the way it is.

One of your breakout roles was the Bond villain Xenia Onatopp in “GoldenEye,” which tweaked typecasting. One of the “Skyfall” Bond girls, Berenice Marlohe, told me that you were her very favorite Bond temptress.

I know, and I thought that that was so wonderful! I was so flattered by that. I presented at the National Board of Review in New York, the award to Barbara Broccoli and Daniel Craig for 50 years of Bond Films. I mean it's just incredible that the franchise has lasted. So it's an incredible accomplishment with actually the latest movie being the highest grossing movie they've ever had. So I'm proud to be part of it, very, very proud, and I also think it's nice to see in the same way that I said before with redefining genres and all that, people have boxed in Bond women for a long time. And here I am, somebody who can sit here and say that as a result of a Bond movie, I've now been able to write and direct my own movie. I've gotten an entire career out of it playing all different kinds of people, worked with Woody Allen and Robert Altman in different genres – all as a result of a James Bond movie.

Did the superhero genre – working in the ‘X-Men’ films – do a similar thing for you?

No, I don’t think so, but it was also very much an ensemble. They were very much ensemble casts. I think they did a lot for most probably Hugh Jackman. None of us quite enjoyed the same kind of success out of that because he really was undiscovered until that moment, and it was his breakout thing. But for all of us, I don't think it did quite that same thing. I don't know that anything has done that same thing to me.

You’ve got a cameo as Jean Grey in the upcoming spin-off film “The Wolverine.” Would you go back to an expanded version of the role if the offer came? Bryan Singer’s gotten a lot of the old band back together for ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past…”

Right now, I'll go back to anything because I feel like I’m in a work mode, but I've also understood more than ever now that it's a business, and you need to be out there. You need to stay in people's eyes – and I have a new appreciation for money that I've never had before after taking off three years not working. I really had to go back to work and try to make money, and now I have what I want to call a hobby for now, but hopefully something that really can be a vocation in the future which is writing and directing. For that, I need to make money doing something else.

About the passionate fan bases that have come out of a lot of the projects that you've done, have you gained a different perspective on them as years have gone by?

Yeah. Although I have very little contact with my fans, I don't know who my fan base is or who they are. And I live in New York, and I live a very kind of private life. So I'm not much in touch with them, but, yeah, it's just lovely that people actually care.


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