The title of the new international thriller “Unknown” refers to the ambiguity surrounding Liam Neeson’s Martin, who awakes from an accident to find himself in Berlin unsure of his own identity and unsure why the people he knows seem not to know him.
Perhaps a greater unknown involves January Jones’ Liz, Martin’s wife and one of several people who express confusion when he returns from the hospital. While Martin’s journey would give Neeson plenty to talk about regarding his role, it’s almost impossible to do anything other than tiptoe when talking to Jones. Perhaps that’s why more than a few of her promotional interviews for the film have read like teasers for “X-Men: First Class.”
Rather than going down the “X-Men” path, I sat down with Jones at a Beverly Hills hotel a couple weeks ago and tried to actually discuss her undiscussable role, or at least to talk about the challenges of playing a role that’s difficult to even casually talk about.
And then we chatted a bit about “Mad Men,” which she also can’t really talk about, because the series remains in AMC/Lionsgate/Weiner limbo.
I think we actually did pretty well, after a slow start. Click through for Jones’ thoughts on playing the undiscussable and also her amusing perspective on what possible love interest might finally make Betty Draper happy..
HitFix: So “Unknown” is going to be described as a Hitchcockian thriller, which means you’re getting to be the Hitchcock Blonde. Was that part of the draw for you?
January Jones: Yeah, I guess so. Hitchcock Blonde… Well, I am blonde. I think that the movie does have a cool vibe and I think Hitchcock would be really pleased to get all of these references and things compared to him. I thought it was really smart in that you didn’t know what was going to happen and that her character was very mysterious and undefinable. You don’t know if she’s a good guy or a bad guy, but there’s something very mysterious and eerie about the character. Also, it was an action movie, which I hadn’t really done before, really a fast-paced Hollywood action movie, which was appealing to me. But I think it would have played just as well if I were a brunette, to be honest. It was a really cool experience, just to shoot in Berlin and to have that be a backdrop and make it so gritty and real.
HitFix: How does being in Berlin and getting to wear those stylized costumes put you into that International Thriller Mode, as it were?
JJ: It was a very Bond-ish spy vibe. My wardrobe was very expensive and stylized. I wore a lot of Burberry and the dresses were either custom-made or like Valentino, and then having your hair and makeup done so perfectly, it was very neat and make it easy to get into the spy character of it all.
HitFix: And what was the impact of being in Berlin?
JJ: Unlike Diane [Kruger] and Liam, I wasn’t outside a lot, so I didn’t feel the physical element of the cold as much and I was lucky in that. But being in the city, I know that a lot of movies are filming in Berlin right now, but being in a movie that shoots in Berlin and takes place in Berlin is very rare and for us to be able to use the city like that and use all of the locations like that, it was really cool and I think it made everything a lot easier for us. We could have shot it… Well, I don’t think we could have shot it anywhere else, but we *could* have. It was neat and I love the city. It was very cold. On our off days it was hard to wander around, which was a bummer. But once it started to warm up, the whole city and the whole energy of the city changed. I loved the experience of it.
HitFix: You have a character who’s VERY difficult to talk about.
JJ: I do! But I’m used to it. I’m always at these press things and I’m never allowed to talk about anything.
HitFix: Does that mean that she’s also hard to play?
JJ: It was hard to play! It was a challenge that when I came to set each day, depending on the scene, I couldn’t have a set idea of what I was going to do. I didn’t want to be pre-medidated in the way of, “Oh, this is how she’s going to be in this character,” because I wasn’t sure what would work exactly. There’s one story that you’re telling and then there’s one story that the audience can see. And then there’s the other story that Liam’s character is supposed to see. So it’s a very odd kind of dichotomy. In one scene in particular, when he comes into the ballroom and says, “Liz. It’s me. Sorry I’ve been gone.” And she’s like, “I don’t know you. Who are you?” And you’ve got to see a look in her eye, like maybe she recognizes him, but maybe she doesn’t. It’s a fine line, because you don’t want to underestimate the audience and what they can see. I think that [director Jaume Collet-Serra] did a really good job of using the takes where you clearly think that she has no idea who he is, which works. I think that for her in that character, if she is [hiding a big secret], she would be an amazing actress, much better than I probably am. So for her to have no recognition of him, even in the eyes, that works, I think.
HitFix: So you were doing takes that were consciously indicating one way or the other?
JJ: Yeah, definitely. It’s a little bit confusing. It might be a bit of a struggle, because you’re leaning towards it, instinctually, one way, but you’ve got to do the other way, too. And it’s not just one or two ways, there are many many different ways of doing it. Just not being set on any one thing is a little bit hard.
HitFix: And as an actress, how do you judge a script if you don’t know which way a character is supposed to be played until well into it?
JJ: I would judge that as a good script. Usually, they’re about 30 pages in and it’s predictable and you know what’s going to happen. You flip to the end and “Yup. OK. Pass.” So for me to be able to get through the entire script and still not know what happens til it happens is a good sign that I should meet with the director and see what his vision is.
HitFix: So it’s a guessing game that you play where when you get to Page 50 you’re guessing where the second half of the script will go?
JJ: Ideally. You should be still guessing at Page 50, to be sure. On this, I thought that by Page 50 I knew what was going to happen and I didn’t. So that’s a good sign for me. Even if do know what’s going to happen by Page 50 in a lot of scripts, they can manipulate it in how they shoot it and how the actor portrays it, but you can’t take that risk always. It was a really good sign that the script was that smart.
HitFix: You’d have guessed wrong if I’d stopped you at Page 50 on this one?
JJ: Yeah. I think so. The script was great. And when I met with Jaume and Joel Silver, they told me, “We’re not set on the ending. There could be alternative endings. We’re not sure what we’re going to do.” But what was in the script was ultimately what was in the movie, so I was really happy with that. If my character had gone another way or something else had happened to her or she wasn’t who she ended up being, I just think it’s more realistic that it happened the way it happened.
HitFix: You mentioned earlier that you hadn’t really done an action piece before, but now this year you have two…
HitFix: Oh right. The Roger Donaldson movie with Nic Cage…
JJ: That’s kinda an action movie. It’s more of a psychological thriller, I guess.
HitFix: Was that something you were looking to get into to this degree, or was this just the way the pieces fell?
JJ: No! That’s the story of my life, or at least my career. I hadn’t actively said, “Oh, I need to do action,” but both “Hungry Rabbit Jumps” and “Unknown” were action, but they’re very different, also very different characters. Those were the two things that I attracted to at the time. Maybe it was just my state of mind or something? I was ready to do something a little bit more fast-paced and I had a lot of fun with it.
And then “X-Men” came along, six months later, and I don’t really see it as much as an action movie. It’s a whole different genre, the big comic book franchise movie. That was very different from anything I’d ever done, with all of the special effects and the stunts. It’s not just running, it’s all of this crazy stuff where you’re looking at a tennis ball and using your imagination. It’s like going to work like you’re a four-year-old and having a lot of fun with it. You’re all dressed up in weird outfits and playing mental mind games with James McAvoy. It was really fun.
HitFix: Do you think that you maybe needed to do a couple things like “Unknown” and “Rabbit” to get you up to speed for “X-Men”?
JJ: Not really. I don’t think so. None of my characters had a ton of action or stunts. It’s not like if I hadn’t done a couple of the movies I did, I couldn’t have done “X-Men.” I think I would have jumped at the opportunity to do “X-Men” even if I hadn’t these other ones.
HitFix: You guys are in a bit of a holding pattern right now with “Mad Men,” right?
JJ: Well, we are every year during the hiatus, but you mean the drama of “Are we going to come back?”
JJ: I don’t pay attention to any of that. If it comes back, it does. It’s always about Matthew Weiner getting what he ultimately deserves, which is everything. So if they can’t meet… give him what he wants, I don’t think we *should* go another year. We certainly shouldn’t make it without him, because he’s everything.
HitFix: Last season, Betty wasn’t so happy, was she?
JJ: Which season has she been happy in?
HitFix: She’s had *moments* of happiness in other seasons…
JJ: I suppoooooose. I mean, she started out a little happy with Henry. I think. She always wants — ultimately we all do, I guess — wants what she can’t have. And now that she has Henry, she finds out maybe he’s not so great and may she wants Don back. It’s just typical.
HitFix: Where do you see the character as being in journey right now?
JJ: I think that she’s unhappy and she puts ideas in her head. But she’s had a lot of s*** luck, too. She marred a guy who said he was someone that he’s not and was horrible to her at times. And she only saw the kindness and the broken-down version of it that was attractive when it was way too late. That’s the tragedy of it.
HitFix: Do you hope for a *few* smiles in the next season?
JJ: Maybe Betty and Glenn can get together or something? You know… He was nice to her, wasn’t he? And she was really jealous of him this season. Yeah. I think could happen. Maybe in like five years.
HitFix: You think five years would be enough?
JJ: Yeah, let’s make it PG. Or at least legal. And on THAT note…
“Unknown” will be in theaters everywhere on Friday, February 18.