“I know, I know, I know, I know. I wish I didn’t have to.”
– Famke Janssen, on ripping out hearts on Hemlock Grove
There is nothing being made for TV quite like Hemlock Grove. In a television landscape engorged with horror genre shows, the Toronto-shot Netflix Original Series stands apart from the crowd with its strange tone and surprisingly fresh subject matter. Hemlock Grove is a horror story about monsters that wish they weren’t monsters – a conflict shared by Famke Janssen, one of the show’s stars.
Janssen is a writer, director, and actor and has no stomach for gore, which is something of an issue on a show produced by splatter-flick auteur Eli Roth. Known popularly for her turns in genre mega-hits Goldeneye and the X-Men franchise, Janssen plays the matriarch of a modern day upir (a kind of vampire) clan in Hemlock Grove.
“I never see the finished product,” she says. “I have to fast forward – I honestly do. I can’t watch it. It’s too brutal to me. All this blood and stuff.”
At the Los Angeles premiere, during a scene in which a character transforms into a werewolf and then back into a human in order to con drug dealers into buying psychedelic snake oil, she had to close her eyes and ask the person next to her to tell her when it was over. “It’s just too creepy.”
“Ironically, actually,” she says, “The Shining is one of my favourite movies. I mean talk about blood. That elevator scene, with all that blood coming out is so beautiful and so daunting, but that entire movie felt like a dream sequence or something. It’s a kind of a hyper-reality… it had this very strange feel to it.”
She’s not against horror, it’s just not something she likes for its own sake. “I just like it when it becomes an artistic endeavor,” she says. “And then you can use it as a tool.”
The entire second season of Hemlock Grove is about characters coming to terms with exactly what Janssen just described. Everyone on the show falls into a familiar monster novel trope – werewolf, vampire/upir, psychic baby, mad scientist, homunculus – and hates what they are. This leads the cast on a journey of self-acceptance that provides the friction which gives Hemlock Grove its strange signature tone.
In one episode, Janssen’s character will sing karaoke to embrace the idea of mortality, later she will literally rip the heart out of a co-star’s chest. Understandable human emotions are fighting the monster within.
The central conflict of Hemlock Grove’s second season, between monstrous nature and the desire to be normal, is also echoed in changes behind the camera. Chic Eglee (a former Dexter and The Walking Dead producer) came on as showrunner this past year and has guided the show through a transformative ten episode run.
“Chic is a strongly opinionated person with really great artistic ideas all the time anyway,” says Janssen. “He decided to watch the first season, read what people had written about the show and their thoughts on it, and opted out of reading the book, so that he could have a real perspective on where to take this second season.”
She talks about the main change in focus that Eglee brought to the show. “Last year we were werewolves or upirs or whatever. This year we’re just onions,” she says. “He’s just really peeling back layers and you can really see that with Olivia. Obviously, we think we know who she is. She is introduced as this highly manipulative character who has control over everything and everybody and then we strip her of all that and then what do you see? What is left of her. What is underneath all this veneer. These white outfits: turns out there were different colour outfits underneath that.”
Janssen knows a thing or two about peeling back layers and changing metaphorical outfits too. Having a mind for writing, directing and producing has gotten in the way of her acting thought processes. She tells me about an independent film shoot in which she declined another take in scenes that she was anxious were going over schedule.
“I constantly feel this ticking clock,” she says. “As an actor I should say “Yes. I need another take. I was really not in it because I was worried about your timetable and how you’re doing in the day.” I’m just thinking, sometimes, a little bit too much as a producer or writer or director.”
This aspect of Janssen doesn’t conflict with shooting Hemlock Grove for the same reason that she can’t watch the more indulgent horror scenes. The monster takes over.
“I think it’s because the subject matter was much more foreign to me,” she says. “Genre, horror stuff is so foreign to me. I don’t operate in that world, I don’t write for that. It’s not really what I live in. So I kind of went, ‘You want to do that? that sounds great.’”
This isn’t to say that her alienation from the material removes her from the role. Again, in the spirit of opposing internal forces that gives Hemlock Grove it’s uniqueness, this dissonance is what makes the show attractive to Janssen.
“I like anything new or different,” she tells me, saying that she thinks her life might be made more difficult in her personal quest to express herself in ways that have never been tried. “Trying to do something that’s ambitious that nobody else has done before, trying to set a new tone, trying to find a new audience for it, describing it to new people: I think it’s admirable when people try to do it.”
That appreciation for new and unique expression is the heart of what Hemlock Grove has become in its second season. It is unapologetic in its absolute strangeness: a show that can trade in buckets of blood and gore before landing an emotional beat with a vampire that has been diagnosed with leukemia by having her sing karaoke for the first time.