Famke Janssen is best known these days for starring in such major film franchises as X-Men, Taken and James Bond, and for her nuanced work in many indie features, including City of Industry, Made, The Wackness and Bringing Up Bobby (which she also produced, directed and wrote). She’s also recurred on the television series Nip/Tuck and How to Get Away with Murder, and for three seasons played Olivia Godfrey on Hemlock Grove. Given the breadth and depth of her credits, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Janssen – who hails from the Netherlands -- started out as a model-turned-actress whose turn as Kamala in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Perfect Mate” marked one of her very first on-screen appearances.
Jack of the Red Hearts will open in limited theatrical release on Friday. Go to www.jackoftheredhearts.com to find a theater near you. In the meantime, StarTrek.com caught up with Janssen the other day for an interview in which she talked about her Star Trek experience, why she loves indie films, the joys of shooting Jack of the Red Hearts and more.
Let’s start with Star Trek. What do you remember of the process of landing your role as Kamala, the title character in “The Perfect Mate”? You did it not long after your very first job, which was the film Fathers and Sons, right?
Right. Fathers and Sons was my first job and then there were many moments of auditioning and being rejected. You know, the usual actor’s story. And then Star Trek came along, and I grabbed it. I remember being very nervous about it all because it was my first experience with television. And now, to this day, I’m not comfortable with how fast television and the writing of it changes. So every night or morning before we’d start shooting they’d have new pages for me. And my English wasn’t that good at the time… and I had all these strange things to say (laughs). It was strange for me, and very difficult for me to memorize, but it was probably normal in the world of Star Trek. So I was very nervous about the entire experience, but it was good.
No, no, he calmed my nerves. He gave me good advice, too, because I was so green. He said, “Just look in one of my eyes, and not both, because your eyes keep darting back and forth.” And that was great advice.
What intrigued you about Kamala as a character?
I wasn’t familiar with Star Trek at all, so I didn’t know until much later how unusual a character she was. It was just a really fun character to play. It was iconic in the end only because I ended up working with Patrick years later on the X-Men movies. So we had this whole history before we started working together on X-Men, and that, of course, made it so much easier. Coming in on a big action film like that, it’s always a little nerve-wracking, so it was great to have had that previous experience with Star Trek and to not have been a stranger to him.
I don’t know. I never really watch something unless I have to do press for it. I’m doing press for Jack of the Red Hearts, so I’ve seen the film. But, it’s not generally what I like to do because it’s the experience that counts. Whatever happens afterwards, as an actor, it’s so out of your control. Things happen in the editing room. The director, the producers, the studios, they all have their two cents. How it’s cut together could potentially have nothing to do with what I set up. So most of the time I don’t see what I’m in. I’m assuming that over the years I must have seen my Star Trek at least once, but I don’t even remember.
The story is that you passed on the role of Dax on Deep Space Nine. First, is that true? And, if so... why, and have you ever regretted the decision?
That is true. I’ve not regretted it at all. I think it was one of those things where, at the time, I just wasn’t ready to sign a seven-year contract for something. It seems over the years that I’m still really reluctant to do that. For some reason, it really scares me. Most actors, of course, they want a steady job, but I’ve never been that good with it and I’ve always wanted the freedom to do things and take it wherever it goes. I did do Hemlock Grove, but that ultimately only went three years. But at the time, with Star Trek, I just wasn’t ready to make that commitment.
You have always shifted back and forth between big studio films and TV shows and smaller indie films. What compels you to keep supporting films?
Many different reasons. I love independent film. It’s my passion. I wrote and directed one myself. At this point, it’s really where you get to take chances, where actors get to explore different kinds of characters outside of the typecasting that generally is done, and outside of the way they’re usually seen in the bigger studio films. Also, let’s face it, the studio films are mostly, at this point, big event movies. So, there’s only so much you can do in those as an actor. You’re very much part of a bigger picture and it’s not very much about acting chops. So, the smaller films let you take risks and explore characters and play roles you probably wouldn’t otherwise get to try. You also get to work with up-and-coming directors. It’s all of that.
I just thought it was a very sweet and heartfelt story. I find myself these days turning to films that have something to say, or I feel that they’re honest or truthful, because they’re so rare at this point. I realized when I watched Brooklyn just how rare it is to see a film like that. It’s about human behavior, with no guns or violence of any of that kind of stuff. It’s the same with Jack of the Red Hearts. It’s a sweet story, no guns, no violence. I thought Kay as a character was very complex. She’s going through a lot of different things… guilt, and trying to do the best for her child, and trying to maintain her marriage, and returning to work. There’s a lot going on for her. I also liked the entire team involved with this film and our director, Janet (Grillo), is a wonderful woman. So is our writer, Jennifer (Deaton). And we even had a woman DP.
Kay, as you say, has a lot of plates spinning and when we meet her they're all in danger of crashing down. What kind of research did you do to better understand what the mom, what the family of an autistic child goes through?
I have some people among my friends who have children with autism. And, so, I’ve seen it firsthand what that’s like. I also live right by a school for children with autism and we had the privilege of going to a school where we filmed and also got to learn a lot from the teachers and the director of that school. I watched documentaries. But, ultimately, I think it’s just about connecting with the character, because this is a story about love and parenting and trying to connect, and not being able to connect. That’s the hardest part about it for Kay. There’s a scene in a car where Kay says, “She’ll never be able to say, ‘I love you, Mommy.’” Those are just such deep, human emotions … not being able to connect, of wanting and needing love and not being able to receive it. Those are emotions, feelings, that, whatever is making someone feel them, anyone can relate to. So, you have to make it personal, I find. It can’t be just about research. Research is interesting and helpful, but then it becomes about making it real as an actor.
Oh, just incredibly amazed. They’re both wonderfully talented. Taylor, of course, her role was especially challenging to play because you really have to get into a character like that and make it realistic, and not one where we just feel like somebody is trying to portray a person with autism. You want to feel like the actor embodied the character, and Taylor did that.
Again, visit www.jackoftheredhearts.com for details about Jack of the Red Hearts.