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Famke Janssen Offers A Peek Inside Her New Film The Vault - Exclusive Interview

With an impressive 70-plus roles to her credit in film and television, Famke Janssen has had an enormously successful career in Hollywood, and with several projects in the offing, fans can look forward to seeing her for many years to come.

Hailing from Amstelveen, the Netherlands, Janssen moved to New York in the 1980s, where she embarked on a successful modeling career. She made a transition into acting in 1992 with a role the dramatic thriller Fathers & Sons opposite Jeff Goldblum. After a string of high-profile guest roles on such TV series as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Melrose Place, and The Untouchables, Janssen landed her first blockbuster role, playing 007 villain Xenia Onatopp opposite Pierce Brosnan in his James Bond debut, GoldenEye.

Five years later, Janssen's career rocketed to superstardom in the key role of Jean Grey opposite Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, and Patrick Stewart in 2000's X-Men. Eventually emerging as the Dark Phoenix in the saga, Janssen appeared in five X-Men films in all, and in the interim, landed another franchise opposite Liam Neeson in the Taken trilogy. Janssen has been equally busy in the television realm over the past 20 years, with recurring roles in such acclaimed series as Nip/Tuck and How to Get Away with Murder, and a starring role opposite Bill Skarsgård in the horror series Hemlock Grove.

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Janssen shared her involvement in the new heist thriller The Vault. She plays a small but key supporting role as Margaret, a British official who tries to ward off a deep-sea salvager, Walter (Liam Cunningham), from breaking into a seemingly impenetrable vault underneath the Bank of Spain to recover a treasure trove seized by the Spanish government after he pulled it from the depths of the Atlantic. With few options left, Walter's only shot to outsmart the deadly trappings of the vault rests on the shoulder of a college-aged engineering genius, Thom (Freddie Highmore); that is, if he'll sign up after warning him of the risks of going to prison if they are caught — or worse.

Also starring Astrid Bergès-Frisbey and Sam Riley, The Vault is playing in theaters, and is available on digital as well as video on demand.

Famke Janssen loved the European flavor of The Vault

Hi, Famke! We actually talked for the first time for X-Men: The Last Stand 15 years ago.

I was going to ask you, why do you look so familiar? But now, there we have it.

Yeah, and then we talked again for Taken 2 and Taken 3. So this is the fourth time.

So we go way back is what you're saying. [Laughs]

We do, and I'm so glad that we keep having these opportunities! Congratulations on The Vault. To me, it's such an incredibly smart script and so well thought out and so well executed on the screen. You don't always get that with heist films. Not that heist films can't be entertaining, but this one had to have jumped off the script at you when you read the screenplay.

Yeah. The filmmaker is wonderful. It's an old set in Spain, [and the film is] directed by a Spanish director [Jaume Balagueró], the cast is from Europe, including myself, being from the Netherlands. It's well-written and to me, personally, what I loved about it so much was setting it against the backdrop of this big soccer game — or we call it football in Europe — but these big finals that are going on. That makes it so [interesting]. It adds to the drama and it adds to the ticking time clock element of it, and it also makes it ultimately so European, which is fun.

Sure. Well, the only thing I would have changed about it is, I wanted more of your character, Margaret, but —

Hey, I always say it's better to want more of me than less!

But it's great that Margaret is pivotal to the endgame of the movie and she has that great two-word line, "Clever f***er!" I previously told this to a couple members of your X-Men family, both Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry after seeing them deliver F-words in movies: You use those words with authority. It must be fun to deliver that kind of line every now and again.

Of course. To be honest with you, filming is fun and now, especially with the pandemic and everybody's lives being affected so much, and the fact that none of us have been able to work and now finally just starting to go back to work — I feel so privileged that I've been able to do a job that provides humor or joy or excitement in people's homes. We need these things right now.

The Vault ventures into a gray area of right and wrong

What I love about this particular film is that it really kind of presents this dilemma. Liam Cunningham's character, Walter, puts his time and resources into pulling this treasure up from the sea, and then all of a sudden, the Spanish government is there and despite all of the work Walter puts into finding it, the government says, "This belongs to us." So, as a result, you next see him and this heist coming together and you find yourself rooting for him, even if he's a thief. It makes you wonder, "Is this right or wrong I'm rooting for the thief?" How do you feel about that dilemma?

Of course. And I think that in a heist movie you want to root for the thieves because if you don't, you're going to have a problem because they're the ones who are driving the story forward. So yes, of course. [The story] was well-crafted, and the reason why in the end you hope that something is going to happen on the side of the thieves because you've been rooting for them all along. And Margaret, of course, is a bit, you don't know where you stand with her for the longest time. And does she make the right decision or not?

But yes, Liam Cunningham was just wonderful to work with. Unfortunately, I didn't get to work with Freddie Highmore. We worked on the same days, but we didn't actually have scenes together. But Sam Riley and I worked together and he's lovely. I was filming in London already when [the film started production], so I was just a quick flight over to Madrid, which is one of the most beautiful cities. [We filmed the movie] pre-COVID when we had freedoms, and it was good.

Outside of what you do as an actor, are you fascinated at all with this notion of buried treasure or sunken treasure? I think there's a little bit of Jack Sparrow, maybe, in all of us to all of a sudden unearth something that is so incredibly beyond value. Has that concept ever fascinated you?

Not so much on a level of a treasure in the Jack Sparrow kind of sense, but I have it more that I find that I operate as a detective, so I always want to try to get to the truth of things. So I see all of it not as a treasure of I have to dig deep, I have to find, I have to try to lift up out of the earth or ether or whatever it is, [but to find] some kind of truth. Being alive in today's world actually provides so much of that for me. You know what I mean? It's more figuratively speaking than it actually being a treasure, so I can connect to it on that level.

You mentioned the World Cup angle to it. That, to me, is genius to set it amid that sort of thing. Again, like I say, this thing is so incredibly well-written, and I also love the fact that it's rooted in the real-life adventures of Sir Francis Drake... what I find fascinating is that when you root the story in real life, maybe The Vault isn't a movie that is meant to inform, but it is a story you can glean stuff from. It's cool that it can interest you historically as well. Not many movies have that sort of extra value.

That's very true, and we all have to give kudos to our director to come up with that wonderful story and make a smart heist movie out of it with interesting characters.

Passion is everything to Famke Janssen on-screen and off

There's an interesting line that Liam's character, Walter, says to Freddie Highmore's character about passion, and Freddie reiterates that line later in the film. I can't help but think what you do, Famke, is also driven by passion. Otherwise we wouldn't be part of this conversation today.

Yep. Passion is what drives every part of my being. And I guess being, for anybody who believes in it, I don't know what I believe about astrology, but I always sort of say if you're a Scorpio and a dragon — which I'm both — how can you not be passionate? These are pretty intense signs, but yes, passion is what it's all about to me. I don't know how I would live without it. It makes me get out of bed in the morning, it makes me excited about going to work, it makes me interested in learning about people and projects, it makes me paint — painting, that's one of my big hobbies. And so yeah, I'm passionate about film, passionate about my relationships, my friendships — everything.

You mentioned Freddie Highmore before. You didn't have an opportunity to work with him, not even on a producer level? Because I think what's interesting is, with the roles that he takes on, these cerebral roles like he has in The Vault, it's like you can almost see something turning upstairs. I was just wondering if you had encountered that personally?

No. I don't know enough about him, but he's very, very good at that. And it's wonderful to see a young actor with so much that seems to be going on in his head while he's acting. It makes you really tune in on him and want to watch more.

In one of our previous conversations, we discussed your feature film that you directed, Bringing up Bobby. How has that changed your perspective on acting?

It's so interesting. Yeah. It probably made me, I don't know that it's made me a better actor, it just made me a more conscious actor because as the writer and co-producer, too, of Bringing up Bobby, I was acutely aware of money, time — how much time an actor spends in the makeup trailer can really dictate how your day goes and whether or not you're going to have to cut scenes or cut dialogue or whatever. And so now I constantly keep choosing, like, "Oh, don't worry about it. My hair is fine," even though it's going every which direction because I'm like, "I don't want to take more time away from set. Are they ready on set? I don't want them to wait."

So, time is a money element of filmmaking or a TV series, whatever we all do. It's especially so much a part of independent filmmaking that I've never been the same as an actor without having this thing in my consciousness all the time. It's like, "Oh, nobody should be waiting for me."

Famke Janssen would entertain a return to her X-Men character in the MCU

Now, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, WandaVision is huge, and the filmmakers have shown that they're willing to bring in folks from the X-Men films from Fox — like they did with Evan Peters. If the opportunity were presented to you to bring back Jean Grey and the Dark Phoenix, it's got to be in a heartbeat that you would do it, right?

Yeah. It was such a wonderful character to play. Sophie [Turner] is doing such an amazing job [now], so I can't imagine anybody [like me] coming back. But we've seen it obviously, with the Magneto and [Professor X], with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, that we've seen in both incarnations younger and older or more mature, or whatever the politically correct term for that is. But yeah, so it'd be great [to come back], but let's just see how life goes. In the meanwhile, I'm very busy filming, thankfully. Thank God, again, I'm going back to work [after the COVID shutdown]. So that's wonderful.

Taken was another genre-defining film that you got to be a big part of, and it's not that often that you have an opportunity to be in a franchise like that, and with Liam Neeson to boot. It must present a situation where you sit back and you say, "Wow. That was a wonderful opportunity I had there!"

Wonderful opportunity. When I look back at my career now, I go, "I was born in a small town in the Netherlands and here I am living in New York City and having worked with this incredible list of actors from Robert De Niro and Liam Neeson, Harvey Keitel, and Michael Douglas." And I can go on and on and it's just, it's incredible; the James Bond franchise, the X-Men franchise, the Taken franchise. I just, I feel super blessed. Super blessed.

How to Get Away With Murder, and what's ahead for Famke Janssen

Another person we have to mention — since you've been on the TV series How to Get Away with Murder with her — is Viola Davis.

Oh, my God. What an incredible power magnet.

You must've formed a bond with her there.

I loved coming on that show for the obvious reason of working with Viola because she's just so talented as an actress. It was such a great character to play with her. And I thought incredibly important to have a same-sex and interracial relationship on network television, but also the entire set and the showrunner Pete [Nowalk] and the cast. It was a really good experience — very happy I got to do that.

Again, Famke, thank you so much. It's been far too long. I don't want to go another five years or so before we talk again!

No, no, no. I have a movie coming out called Redeeming Love that David Caruso directed.

Oh, wow, great!

Yeah. It's based on a novel by the same name and it's period. It's set in the 1800s. Just beautiful costumes and everything, so it would be wonderful. And then I'm starting Long Slow Exhale right now for Spectrum and Paramount Plus and a bunch of others... And I'm doing an indie film in Canada. So yeah, we'll be talking more, hopefully, and it won't take five years.