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Love and X: The Summer of
Famke Janssen

Famke Janssen as Kate Wells in Love & Sex

Famke Janssen's name may sound unfamiliar, but once you've seen her, you never forget her. And how could you ever, given some of the indelibly strong images of femininity the actress has brought to life on the silver screen: taking orgasmic delight in attempting to literally squeeze the life out of Pierce Brosnan in the 1995 James Bond adventure GoldenEye; having her disembodied head atop a mop of slithery tentacles in Robert Rodriguez's underappreciated 1998 creature feature The Faculty; sporting kick-ass black leather as the telekinetic telepath Jean Grey in this summer's big-budget hit X-Men. So playing someone who isn't larger than life, as she does in Valerie Breiman's romantic comedy Love & Sex, is something quite different for Janssen--or, rather, it just seems that way. "Neither was I [playing that type of character] in Celebrity or City of Industry or Rounders or Monument Ave. But I know what you mean--the biggest movies I've been in have been films where people have seen me as a more unapproachable type."

Despite her statuesque height and stunning beauty, "approachable" would be the word to describe the affable Janssen--which is probably why she is such a perfect fit for the role of Love & Sex's decidedly down-to-earth heroine, the perpetual romantic screw-up Kate Wells. But did she find any common ground with the character? "Nothing. I'm so together, and Kate is such a mess; it was very hard to play this part," she jokes. "No, almost everything. It's all the same things I deal with--relationships, how to make them work, the failure that you feel when you can't make them work; all of it. [But] I've never been in any of the particular situations. The scenes that I sometimes have with [primary co-star] Jon Favreau--I had been in a long relationship myself, and those I could relate to very much because I think certain things just happen between two people when they're together for a long time. But," she adds with a laugh, "I've never been with my French teacher, or any teacher, for that matter."

Neither, for that matter, has Breiman, though the character of Kate is modeled closely on the writer-director and her real-life experiences--a fact that did not intimidate Janssen at all. "She cast me because she thought I could bring something to the role that she liked. Obviously, we're very physically different people, and we're different people altogether. I just tried to play the character in the most honest way that I could imagine; I really brought everything I could to it. I know I'm very different from Val, and she never put the pressure on make me act the way she acts or anything like that. But it's fun to live through somebody else for a while; that's the fun thing about my job."

Since receiving her first major notice five years ago as the sadomasochistic villainess Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye, Janssen appears to have had nothing but fun with a healthy and varied career--a sharp deviation from the fast track to obscurity usually preordained for former "Bond Girls." "I got that thing a lot at the time about 'Bond Girls' and how they didn't have any chance. I thought that's really not fair because you don't know where [the other actresses] came from and what their aspirations were. Maybe they were just people who were never interested in acting. I always wanted to act. By the time that part came along, I'd been struggling for a couple of years, hadn't gotten anywhere, so went it came along, I thought, 'I have nothing to lose. I'll do the best I can, and hopefully from that, I will get some more chances.' "

And indeed Janssen received more chances--in films large and small, a couple in the latter category with such luminaries as Robert Altman and Woody Allen, who cast her in The Gingerbread Man and Celebrity, respectively. While her directors' styles wildly vary ("Every director I've worked with is different from the next," she admits), one common thread is the general freedom they have allowed her performances. "I have my own understanding of every character that I play. Whether or not a director gives me the freedom to explore or gives me room to do it, that differs. But I always know what I want to do. And some directors can help you come up with things you hadn't thought of yourself. But more often than not, I find in my experiences that you just do your own thing, and if they like it, they don't say anything. Rarely ever do you really get "directed"; I certainly haven't been directed that much--not by Robert Altman, not by Woody Allen--not by anybody I've worked with."

While similarities between filmmakers are hard to pin down for Janssen, she knows exactly the type of director she enjoys working with--a type personified by her most recent collaborators. "Valerie Breiman is confident and knows what she wants, and that's to me the only thing that's important. At the end, however they choose to make that come across and whatever they ask of you to do is irrelevant as long as they know what they want. [X-Men director Bryan Singer] is another person who knows exactly what he wants; he surrounds himself with good people. And the strong opinions are very important to me because, as an actor, the director's in control of everything at the end of the day. So you put your life and your performance and everything in their hands, and you hope they do a good job with editing it and whatever they choose to do with you. So it's always been really important to me to surround myself with good directors."

Breiman certainly qualifies as "good" to Janssen, who admired her efforts as a writer as well. "This happened to be a script I fell in love with because I thought it was a different look at relationships in a romantic comedy genre than I'd seen so far. I thought Valerie Breiman had a very honest approach and a very funny approach to the material. I thought it was original."

One of Breiman's more original and honest touches is the character of Adam Levy, Kate's principal paramour, played by Jon Favreau. A bespectacled, often paint-stained artist, Adam is a far cry from the traditionally dashing romantic lead. Janssen believes audiences will have no trouble accepting the unconventional pairing. "Hopefully they'll see what I felt: that we had great chemistry, that we liked each other, and that we could be a couple. That was our goal, and that is what it felt like to me while we were working. I think it's completely irrelevant what people look like. I think you very often see people who seem oddly coupled in terms of their appearances but connect on different levels. I think that's completely normal. Movies are completely unrealistic most of the time."

Movies don't usually get much more fanciful than Janssen's other film this summer, the comic book-based sci-fi extravaganza (er, x-travaganza) X-Men. While Fox has already announced plans for a sequel, all Janssen knows about the project is that it won't arrive right away. "I just came back from a tour two days ago, and I travelled the whole world for it; I think everybody's been doing that. I'm assuming people are going for rest a little bit before they get involved in sequels."

Janssen didn't wait too long, however, before getting involved again with Favreau. He wrote a role especially for her in Made, his directorial debut, which will be released next year. "He asked me what I wanted to play, and I just said, 'something different,' and he wrote the part of a stripper, which was different from anything I'd done before," she says with a smile. What wasn't so different to her, on the other hand, was his approach as a director. "He wrote the part for me, and we discussed it a little bit, but he didn't say, 'This is how I want you to play it.' He just trusted that I would do the right thing with it, whatever that would be for me. And I'm assuming if he hadn't like it, he would've said something about it."

But what he and Janssen certainly have a lot to say about is Love & Sex, an experience that she more favorably compares to the ones she's had as an X-Man and a 007 nemesis. "It was more exciting to be in Love & Sex, to be honest with you, because it showcases a lot of different sides of myself that I don't think have been seen by a lot of people yet. And I'm just very proud of it."

Which is why Janssen is concerned about the film's commercial fate. "A lot of things I've done haven't gotten their day in the sun. One of my favorite films I've worked on is a film called Monument Ave. [directed by Ted Demme] that barely anybody ever saw. It was so different for me; I had to do a dialect from Boston and stuff like that. It's a tough business for films to succeed in. There's a lot of competition at all times. In my experience, what I do is I just try to make the best out of every opportunity I get and use it as a learning experience no matter what the outcome is, whether people see it or not. It would be great if everybody saw everything you did, but it's something that's all out of your control."

Even so, Janssen remains hopeful that Love & Sex will connect with the masses, despite the cutthroat marketplace. "Clearly, when you make an X-Men, it's like a $75-million budget, with I don't know how many millions for publicity. And when you do a film like Love & Sex, you have a tiny budget; the budget for publicity is nowhere near the size of it; and the amount of theatres it plays in is very limited. But I think it's a very commercial movie; I think a lot of people can relate to [Kate and Adam] because they're like many, many people that I know. I just think that they're fun to watch; I've always liked how flawed both of the characters were. They're not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and they don't pretend to know any answers; they just live their lives and screw up like anybody else, take it one step at a time, and try to figure out what it's all about. So I'm just hoping that word-of-mouth is going to help this film."

(written August 26, 2000)

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