If there’s one femme fatale that deserves the epithet, the pleasure-hungry Soviet spy Xenia Onatopp from GoldenEye would certainly be among the most eligible candidates. This electric performance not only catapulted Ontatopp into the ranks of legendary Bond Girls such as Ursula Andress, the role was even more iconic for introducing the beautiful and talented Dutch actress and model Famke Janssen to the world.
As we’ve come to know and love Janssen for her roles in both mainstream and independent pictures, including such notable characters as Jean Grey in the X-Men series, Janssen has proven her versatility and breadth as an actor time and time again. Before the release of the sequel to 2008’s kidnapping thriller Taken, in which she stars alongside Liam Neeson, Janssen sat down with us to discuss getting into the action, the legacy of James Bond and her directorial debut with the release next week of her first film, Bringing Up Bobby.
Playboy.com: Taken 2 is being released next month; how is the sequel going to kick it up a notch?
Janssen: We shot the movie last October, last Christmas in Istanbul and then the beginning of this year in Los Angeles and Paris.
The story takes off basically where we left off last time except for some changes in the family structure in the life of my character, Lenore. We end up, all three of us — Liam [Neeson]’s character, Maggie [Grace]’s character and my character — in Istanbul, and somebody else gets taken: me. It was really fun to come back; I really enjoyed working with Liam and Maggie.
It’s a French movie, but it seems like it is the ultimate American movie. It’s Luc Besson’s film, the crew was French, the director was French and everybody speaks French. It was fantastic to be in Paris. It was a little daunting to shoot in Istanbul, but it is such a fascinating place. Filming there was challenging because it was so noisy and there is a lot of stuff going on. You’re not allowed to block off the streets, so you never know when the set begins or ends and who is part of it and who is just joining you for lunch.
It was nice for them to bring Lenore back a little softer. In the first film they made her very hard, and I was never a big fan of it. There weren’t very many scenes [in the first] to do anything interesting with her, so I thought if you make someone that unlikable — of course, it has certain part in the story, but it was nice to give her a bit of a softer side.
Playboy.com: You wrote the screenplay and directed Bringing Up Bobby, which premiered at last year’s Cannes and is coming out next week; what was your inspiration for the film? What was it like directing for the first time?
Janssen: A lot of the ideas about the U.S. are inspired by movies. I remember growing up, when I first came to the U.S. I thought it was the most scary place, where people would run around with guns. We think the world is the way we see it in cinema. I wanted to play around with that with Milla [Jovovitch]’s character Olive. What happens when you put somebody in the U.S., living out her very skewed perspective of the American Dream, one that is very much influenced by film? She’s in a movie of her own, because reality hits and she realizes she’s not in a movie. It’s all told through her eyes and those of her son. She tries to give him experiences she never had. [Bringing Up Bobby] was five years of my life so I’m very excited about it.
Playboy.com: The James Bond films turn 50 this year. As a Bond Girl from GoldenEye, why do you think the series is still so popular?
Janssen: I think you have to give credit to all the cast on the Bond series, and especially Ian Fleming, who created the character. There’s something about that character that keeps appealing to people. He drives fast cars and has beautiful women, so yes, I can completely understand why men find this the most appealing franchise in the world. For women, it’s always been a little puzzling. Of course he’s hot and fun to look at. I think it’s a testament to the people keeping it alive and with the times. The beginning of Bond, he was very much fighting the Russians, so with the end of the Cold War, that could have been the end of Bond. Yet our Bond movies, and my Bond movie GoldenEye, which was the first Bond movie after the Cold War — I think they were very clever in how they incorporated that into the film. I think all of these objects of the Cold War — the opening sequence [of the hammer and sickle] being broken and tossed down — it is tongue-in-cheek in a way, and I think that could be one of the reasons. And they’ve been clever in recasting Bond himself for so many years.
Playboy.com: Do you have a favorite Bond? I know that’s hard to ask of a Bond Girl.
Janssen: I don’t have a favorite Bond…Politically that’s a really hard question for me to answer! But I loved working with Pierce [Brosnan], and every single one of them were great for the specific time they were in. That’s one of the reasons why the franchise has gone on.
Playboy.com: What makes an ideal Bond Girl? What attributes should she have?
Janssen: You had to be really clear in what kind of genre this universe is — the history of the place, the legacy of the franchise. I thought it was important to be a little tongue-in-cheek because there’s something about those films — they’re a fantasy world. I always really loved the way all the men played the Bond character. I wasn’t always keen on how the women played the various Bond women. Sometimes I thought they did it a little too seriously. It probably wasn’t their fault — it was probably just how it was written and directed at the time. I wanted to add that element of silly — it’s a silly world that [Bond] inhabits. You have to be real and not real about it; go over the top a little and have fun with it.
Playboy.com: The X-Men universe is full of character resurrections. Producer Lauren Shuler Donner has reportedly pitched a further two films in the main series; would you be part of them?
Janssen: I like that idea! It’s hard to know when you die as Jean Grey and then die as the Phoenix. I’m not sure what they would do to bring me back, but be my guest! I’d happily come back.
Playboy.com: After toeing the line between good and evil in a number of your films, do you have a personal preference for playing the villain or the hero? Is one more fun?
Janssen: It really depends on the story and the type of character. Some heroes are fantastic while others are a little boring. [laughs] I’ve been privileged to play a lot of different types of characters in my career. I’ve fought very hard not to be typecast too much — everything from independent films with Robert Oldman and Woody Allen to big studio films to genre pieces and everything in between, and now writer and director; it has come full circle.
Playboy.com: You were previously a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations. Are you still involved in that field?
Janssen: I now work as a Water Ambassador for Gorbachev’s Green Cross International. People say water is the new oil and that’s what is going to change in the future and whether or not this is private property — who is going to control it and how is it going to be used. There’s already conflict over it and it’s just going to increase over time. There are millions of people in the world without fresh water, and as an actor you can use that platform to reach more people.
Playboy.com: You’re playing an evil sorceress in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters; tell us about the film.
Janssen: It’s a fairy tale, but it’s interesting to me because we’ve seen so many in the past couple of years.. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton are the grown-up versions of Hansel and Gretel — 20 years after the story. Now they hunt witches, and I’m the main witch! From the trailer you can’t really see what I look like yet, but it’s a tedious process of prosthetic makeup and contact lenses.
Playboy.com: What else do you have in the works?
Janssen: I’m shooting Hemlock Grove in Toronto right now, which is one of Netflix’s original content series. It feels a little Twin Peaks-esque, the universe we inhabit in the show; I’m very much looking forward to the release of it.
Playboy.com: What was your first Playboy?
Janssen: [Laughs] You mean my first encounter with an individual or the magazine? I’m kidding, of course! I just remember seeing them when growing up. They were interesting but taboo when we’re 17 in Holland; the Bunny symbol was really popular so we all wanted t-shirts and sweaters. For Dutch people it was a big deal!