Famke Janssen: Not just a pretty face

Her sexy superheroine role in the X-Men series has won Famke Janssen fans and fortune - but she's still not satisfied. She tells Elaine Lipworth why she sees herself as an arthouse actress
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The Independent Online

Famke Janssen moved from Holland to New York as a model 20 years ago, gave up the catwalk to act and made her name as a Bond Girl. Her role as Xenia Onatopp in the 1995's GoldenEye was memorable chiefly because of the glee with which she played the Russian assassin, who crushed men to death between her thighs. In her other notable role, she has played the telepathic mutant Dr Jean Grey in the X-Men franchise. The three hugely successful films have led to financial security - and a fanatical following for the six-foot tall actress.

Janssen could probably continue to make a decent living playing statuesque superheroes, but the splashy blockbusters are unfulfilling. "I'm in a business where 99 per cent of casting is typecasting and people compartmentalise me into a specific area - maybe as a powerful alien, because they don't know where to put me, but it's up to me to fight against it. I don't want to be typecast, that's my big mission in life and it makes it a harder path in this business for me," she says.

At 41, she continues to be named among "the world's sexiest women", but refer to her as a sex symbol and there is a disdainful grimace. "I don't see myself that way," she says. "I don't look in the mirror and think I'm beautiful. I never have and I never will. You walk into a room and people instantly judge you on the way we look; that's human nature, unfortunately. And the way I look is definitely a double-edged sword. I've been lucky because I've never been out of work since I started acting, and I've been in some big studio films, but that's not actually enough creatively."

But it is impossible to disregard her appearance. Long-limbed and willowy, she is a striking presence, with sculpted, symmetrical features. But she looks serious and rarely smiles. "I grew up in Holland, which is very different from America because we don't pay that much attention to looks," she says. "It's never been something I've put any emphasis on."

Over the years, she has proved that her talents extend beyond villains and superheroes. She played a psychologist opposite Robert De Niro in Hide and Seek, gave a convincing performance as a journalist in the romantic comedy Love and Sex with Jon Favreau and appeared in Woody Allen's Celebrity. Yet despite her obvious talent (and intelligence) she has become identified with a specific kind of sexualised superhero. She's never deliberately fostered that image though; on the contrary, she's done her best to counter it. "I just did three independent films in a row and lost money on all of them, but I don't care," says Janssen. She plays a recently widowed woman with two adopted children in The Treatment, a drama with Ian Holm, directed by Oren Rudovsky. "It's a great Woody Allen type of movie," she says. "We shot it in New York for absolutely no money." She stars opposite Liev Schreiber and Winona Ryder in The Ten and plays a mother fighting for custody of her 10-year-old son in Turn The River. "She finds out her husband's been beating the kid and tries to get him out of the country; she's a mess. I'm attracted to inconsistency and flaws in character. We had a half a million-dollar budget and you really rough it by doing films like that, but it was fantastic."

Janssen is not one of those actresses who spout fake protestations about being more interested in the "work" than fame or success. It is patently obvious that "the work" is the only thing that interests her. While she is happy enough to discuss X-Men and Bond, she prefers talking about filmmakers: "Jane Campion [The Piano] is one of my biggest inspirations," she says, reeling off her other favourites: "Terrence Malick, Stanley Kubrick, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard - I love the whole New Wave of French filmmakers. In America, I loved the film Little Miss Sunshine. It was so funny and different," she says. And there's a childlike enthusiasm about her admiration for Daniel Day Lewis: "He is my favourite actor of all time, and I love the films he's done with Jim Sheridan - The Boxer, In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot. They have so much heart and the combination of the two of them is amazing. I would absolutely love to work with them."

Janssen became a model at 18. "As a child I wanted to be a vet or a pilot. In Europe little girls don't want to be movie stars or models - they have more realistic dreams," she says. When I ask how she ended up on the Paris catwalks, a defensive frown shoots across her face. "I was discovered on the street, while I was in my first year at the University of Amsterdam studying economics. I took the guy's card and thought, 'Whatever'. I didn't think it was genuine because Dutch people are grounded and that kind of thing doesn't happen. But once I realized that economics wasn't something I had any passion for, I checked it out, found out that the modelling agency was legit and started to work. Modelling gave me a whole new freedom to travel, but I always knew it was a temporary job. I retired early, while I was still in my 20s," she says. "It just didn't make me happy." But the work (including a contract with Chanel) was lucrative, enabling her to attend Columbia University in New York, where she completed a degree in writing and literature, before taking up acting.

Her big break came with GoldenEye. "Do I have any regrets about Bond? God no," she says. "I couldn't have been in a Woody Allen movie without that film. I've never lived my life by any other standards or rules, so I used it to get what I wanted. At the time it was like: 'Am I going to do absolutely nothing and sit at home and be rejected by yet another casting director? Or am I going to do this movie?' Of course I'm going to take the movie. It's true I've done some trash, but who cares? I had to work and make a living. Julianne Moore started with a soap opera. Maybe Meryl Streep has gone through her life unscathed, but that's rare," says Janssen.

When she was offered the role of Jean Grey in the first X- Men film, the prospect of playing a mutant in a sci-fi studio blockbuster based on a comic book wasn't enticing - until she learned that Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) would be directing. "I wasn't at all interested in comic books," she says. "They've been around for decades and they were drawn by men, so the women were idealised. I don't know any woman that could possibly look like those cartoons - they were these perfect creatures. All the early comic book film adaptations like Batman or Catwoman subscribed to that perfect image. But Bryan wanted to make everyone human - normal people who happened to have special powers. It's like you're in any other movie, just with more special effects."

Brett Ratner directed the third, most recent instalment, The Last Stand, and it is a credit to Janssen's skills that she elevates her telekinetic character way beyond the cartoon level. In fact, her super-powerful Phoenix is far more compelling to watch than Halle Berry's weather-wielding Storm - or most of the other mutants. Having died in X 2, she comes back to life - with ultra-violent schizophrenic tendencies.

"When I return from the dead, nobody is entirely sure whether I am still Jean Grey as they knew her or Phoenix, her alter ego. It becomes an inner struggle, going back and forth between the two personalities. Jean Grey is a reasonable woman. She is smart and would never do anything out of the ordinary and the Phoenix couldn't be more different. She is all passion and rage and instinct. It was actually emotionally challenging to play - for a film like that."

"I would do studio films again," she says. "I have to pay my mortgage, I live here in New York and it's expensive, but I get to do my best work in independents or on TV, where I can play quirky, insecure characters."

One of her favourite recent roles was as a life coach on the TV series Nip/Tuck. "My character was seemingly the most together, manipulative, conniving person you could find, then you realize what a total mess she is. It goes from bad to worse - she starts sleeping with the 16-year-old son of her client, then you think she's been sleeping with her own son and then you find out she's a man. But what I loved about that character was that she was a conflicted, tortured, human being with a very vulnerable side. That's the kind of role I look for. "

Like practically every actress over 40, Janssen says it is tough getting decent parts. "I feel that I'm doing my best work now. It makes sense that at this age I'd be a better actor because I've experienced things and have more to offer than a 20-year-old. It's odd when I think about the Forties, when Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis were the real stars, it wasn't the men; it was the women who were incredibly powerful. They were strong, smart, funny women. They called the shots and they made the movies, then all of a sudden we went downhill - what happened? Hopefully there will be a resurgence and we will get back to that time. Why would we not want to see older women on the screen?"

It all comes back to Janssen's least favourite subject: appearance. "Actresses my age and much younger are obsessed with trying to stay young. It comes from a deeply rooted insecurity. The most insecure people I have ever met are actresses and models. And I would hope that I get out of acting before I start getting involved in plastic surgery, because it seems to me it is a downward spiral. I think it doesn't make people look younger, it makes them look weirder, and I really hope I am strong enough not to do it and can age gracefully like many women before me. I don't know if I'll get the opportunity to keep acting. If not, I'll have to create work myself, or I'll retire."

She shrugs her shoulders. Janssen doesn't appear too concerned about the prospect, though there are no plans to stop working. "I suppose I am a workaholic, I love what I do and I really want to do it well. But I do have a life outside work, of course," says the actress, who is divorced from filmmaker Tod Williams. "I am with someone now. I won't say who because I don't discuss my personal life, but it's hard. It's a case of juggling everything to make sure you spend enough time with the person you love, when you're away on location. I would definitely marry again - it sounds so silly talking about your 'boyfriend' and there's a commitment you make to a person when you're with them, so why not celebrate that?"

For now, the priority is decent roles that will also pay the bills. And if Janssen doesn't get the parts she is looking for, she is also considering moving behind the camera. "I would love to direct," she says, smiling for the first time since we've met. "I have never been a normal person. I've spent my entire life in front of the camera. If I was directing, then I could wake up in the morning and roll out of bed and go to work and not have to worry about how I look and whether I have black circles under my eyes or wrinkles. I could be a normal person. That would be great."

'X-Men: The Last Stand' is out on DVD now from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, £22.99

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