Famke Janssen in the Perfect Role, Finally
From brinkzine.com 5/7/08)
"Turn the River" opens at the Village East Cinemas on Friday and I'm hoping it does good business so it will hang around for a few weeks. It's the directorial debut of Chris Eigeman, one of the most recognizable members Whit Stillman's acting company, and it features Famke Janssen in one of the few roles worthy of her talents. The Holland-born former model who is best known for the "X-Men" movies but has a cult following (me included), deservedly won Best Actress at the Hamptons Film Festival for her passionate performance as a pool hustler who decides to take her young son from her miserable ex-husband (a unique, creepy portrayal by Matt Ross) and flee to Canada. Janssen has been giving fine performances for years without due recognition, so fingers are crossed that this is will be her breakthrough role. I interviewed her as part of a roundtable two weeks ago; I note my questions.
Q: What challenged you about this film?
Famke Janssen: I have been acting for fifteen years and can count on one hand the times I have been the lead in a film. And I probably can't even use all my fingers. You offer me the lead in a film, I basically don't even have to open the script; I already want to say yes—because it's a pleasure, and an opportunity and challenge that I happily take on. That said, working with the director Chris Eigeman, who I acted with on "The Treatment," was great. And the part he wrote for me! What a woman! Kailey has all these beautiful qualities—she's pure-hearted and good and loves her son, but for whatever reason, just can't get it together and make good decisions. She makes terrible decisions, from the beginning to the end, and she pays the price.
Danny Peary: Even if she succeeds with her plan to escape with her son to Canada, will she fuck-up eventually?
FJ: Absolutely. The odds are against her that she will ever get to Canada because she goes to see her ex-husband. Why does she do that? To tell him that their son will be okay? She could have called him. She even shows him that her gun is fake and tells him that if he's going to call the cops—that's quite a hint--to wait a little while, as if he'll listen to her. Every decision she makes, you just go, "Oh, why?"
DP: Did you ask Chris if he was aware he was having her make awful decisions?
FJ: Of course, but Chris never would write those things if they weren't intentional. But what I love about her is she's very flawed but the overriding thing, which makes this movie work in my opinion, is the love between mother and son. Not that I believe she should be anything be flawed. That's what life is about. Who's perfect?
DP: Kailey hangs out with men, playing pool and cards. Has she ever had female friends?
FJ: I don't think she's had a lot of friends, period. But probably no female friends. I think she's very comfortable in a male setting. It's a male world.
DP: Is it because she'd be miserable being around females who have kids?
FJ: I don't think that's the reason. Having been separated from her son when he was so young killed something inside her. She moved on, moved forward, and couldn't get involved in any relationship with men or women. She cut off part of her life, as if it were a limb. She had been so terribly injured by that experience.
Q: Kailey doesn't excel in life, but she excels at pool.
FJ: Yeah, she's kind of an idiot savant when it comes to pool. She's really focused and good in those moments, but everything else she does—drinking too much, not sleeping, living out of her pick-up truck—are going to catch up with her and make her not as good a pool player, either. There are times already that she doesn't play as well because she's affected by that. But yeah, she's a good pool player.
Q: How's your pool game?
FJ: I am so petrified about going anywhere near a pool table at this point. But in the film, I made all my own shots, under a great deal of pressure. Because we had no money and no time, I had to make my shots quickly with little preparation. Somehow the camera rolling added an element that worked for me in the same way athletes perform well when they have a big audience and having the pressure to having perform in that moment.
Q: Chris says you learned the game in two months.
FJ: I had no time to really learn to play. The problem is "X-Men" came out just as we started shooting. So I had very focused times with John Juback, my pool instructor, to teach me how to play pool, and how to hold the cue, and how to make some really tricky shots. So it was challenging.
DP: What about coming up with the right "attitude" for a pool player?
FJ: Kailey is a bit different. We tried to find female pool players for me to talk to and observe, but that never happened when we were there in New York. It's possible that they act with a certain degree of sexuality, which might or might not come into play with a hustler. But that's something that doesn't apply to Kailey. It was a very specific choice I made as an actor that she doesn't operate that way. She doesn't go to a pool hall or a club and use her sexuality to get into a game. She is aggressive but it's never about getting her cute self into a game—there's nothing like that. But of course we tread new ground—I've never seen a film about a female pool hustler.
Q: Is this role, you glam down. Was that part of a strategy to make sure your acting is noticed?
FJ: Yes, I try to show it every single movie. I put a lot of time and thought into the characters that I play. But nobody pays attention. It has been my intention to say, "Look, I have some range. I can do different things. Please don't judge a book by its cover." But I've been judged by the cover by every single person for the last fifteen years. Sometimes you have to go the extra step and for this film I've been very involved in everything, including distribution. Still it's difficult to get people to watch these movies. It's hard to battle the big studio films. If we don't make enough money after one week, we're going to be yanked out of the theaters and then we'd have to go to DVDs and hope somebody sees it there. The DVD has become really important for small, independent films. It's tricky.
Q: You give really good, thoughtful performances in "Turn the River," and other films, so why is it that you have so often been overlooked?
FJ: I've given up trying to figure it out. People seem to know me from "X-Men" or one other movie or "Nip/Tuck," but nobody knows the real thing. I've had every obstacle to deal with, not that I'm complaining because I think everybody battles obstacles when they start out. I was a model and had that stigma, and then I opened up in a James Bond movie and added another stigma. So by the time anyone heard by name, it was as a model-turned-Bond-girl, and what chance could that girl have? So then I had to fight and go the opposite direction to be taken seriously, meaning I had to take small, supporting parts to show range. I had to show I wasn't some crazy foreign model who doesn't speak English.
Q: Your height served you well as a model, but has it been a problem in movies?
FJ: I'm taller than most of my co-stars. Has it been a problem? Sure. But there are a lot of tall actresses, but there's a way to work around it—dig big holes for me to stand in, or whatever.
DP: I got to like you playing the female lead in a frivolous horror film, "Deep Rising." I see you rolling your eyes, so you obviously don't like it, but I had no idea who you were at the time and thought you were really funny and a lot of fun in it. "Love and Sex" is the second film I remember you from. It debuted at Sundance and I saw it at the Florida Film Festival in 2000, and I think they were showcasing you.
FJ: That was a great movie, but it was an independent film. And it was a romantic comedy trying to compete with big studio romantic comedies. Jon Favreau and I couldn't compete with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. When you do a low-budget film, you don't have the people behind it to promote and distribute it. A lot of the films I've made were independents, and I learned over time not a lot of people see them. So at the end of the day I'm still battling the same obstacle. People know me from the "X-Men" movies but don't realize I was in fifteen independent films where I played a wide range of characters. They didn't know I worked with Woody Allen on "Celebrity" and Robert Altman in "The Gingerbread Man." I put an acting reel together recently and the people I showed it to were going, "Wow. I had no idea you did all that." They were my friends and didn't know, so can you imagine strangers on the street."
DP: You could have a great retrospective.
FJ: Yes, if anyone would ever put it together, there would be a lot of good movies.
DP: Since your career has been a bit frustrating, do you think "Turn the River" is pivotal to what happens next?
FJ: No, I don't look at one thing as being pivotal anymore. I'm not bitter, but my path, the way I chose to go about my career, is not going to be about one role in one movie. I have a clearly mapped out strategy where I try to show range, try to challenge myself on different levels, and try to create longevity for my career. I don't go for the quick moment of success. Success has never been something I've pursued. Because if anything it would hinder the way I want to live my life. I live in New York and want to be able to walk down the street and have a normal life.
Q: Jane Grey is a phenomenal character in a big-budget widely seen series. Wouldn't you do her again?
FJ: She's great but I've done three "X-Men" movies and I've died in two of them, so that's enough already!
Q: Would you want to be in a superhero movie where you are the lead?
FJ: No, I've never pursued that. I just want to have an interesting career. When I modeled, the focus was on money. Now my focus is on finding fulfillment in a creative field. I don't look at one thing, but I look at everything in the grand scheme of things. Is this a new character that will challenge me? Is this a director I want to work with? Is this an actor I want to work with? In the end, I choose roles for myself, selfishly, and not because of some business aspect. From a business point of view, I've made the worst choices possible--like Kailey, I'm not dissimilar to her. If I wanted to be a commodity, I should have been in many more big-budget films so my name would be recognized. But I do this for me, not for anybody else.
Q: Would you consider doing theater?
FJ: I'd love to be on stage but the reality is that it's just as hard getting a role in the theater as in movies. People ask me why I take a part, and I say, "Because I was offered it. I want to work." It's not that desperate, but there's a misunderstanding about how many choices we have as actors. There are not that many great parts for anybody out there
Q: What about writing a movie role for yourself?
FJ: I'm writing something now, but I don't want to talk about it yet because I don't want to jinx it. You have to do it, then you talk about it. Don't ask me!
DP: What is the Integrity Project you do with the United Nations?
FJ: It's great. I got appointed to it this year in Bali, as a UN ambassador. Every year there is a conference there. It's mostly working on corruption-related topics, which is a wonderful and complicated thing at once because the UN doesn't have a definition for "corruption." It's different in every country. It affects the whole world; sadly it mostly affects poor people and women and children. So we're trying to bring attention to the topics related to corruption. We're going to have to be creative in how we do it because the issue isn't clear.
Q: In this movie you play a mother. Is that something you want to be in real life?
FJ: No. Often when women don't want children, people connect it to their being ambitious and not wanting to take that time out of their lives. I have two sisters and they both have kids. I have four nieces. I clearly remember them always saying, "I want kids," and I'd say, "I don't want kids." I don't know why that is because I love children. It's not something I ever looked for. Would I adopt a kid? Maybe one day. Would I adopt a baby? Maybe not. It might be a child who is a little older.
Q: You're next film, "100 Feet," is about ghosts. Do you believe in ghosts?
FJ: We shot it last summer in Budapest, and it's finished. I don't believe in the ghosts we see in movies, like in "100 Feet." But maybe there's something like in the novels of Gabriel García Márquez. I don't know what I believe. But I assume there's something else, just not here. Here we have a lot of people on cell phones. I would have to leave New York and go somewhere else to find it.