The actor: Jean-Claude Van Damme, one of international film's most popular action heroes from the late '80s to the mid-'90s. He even inspired the Johnny Cage character in the smash hit Mortal Kombat video game, though he starred in the film version of the game's biggest rival, Street Fighter. A champion martial artist in his native Belgium, where his sculpted physique won him the nickname "Muscles From Brussels," Van Damme became famous for his striking good looks and his fighting prowess.
After working his way up the show-biz ladder through supporting roles and low-budget exploitation movies, Van Damme played a crucial, oft-overlooked role in bringing Hong Kong talent to the attention of stateside viewers: In 1993, he starred in Hard Target, the first American film of legendary action maestro John Woo. He went on to star in the first American films of Ringo Lam (1996's Maximum Risk), Tsui Hark (1997's Double Team), and Independence Day director Roland Emmerich (Universal Soldier). By the late '90s, however, Van Damme's films were going direct to DVD, alongside those of many of his action-hero peers. After a series of personal and professional setbacks, Van Damme looks primed to shake up his image with the forthcoming J.C.V.D., a reality-bending comedy/drama where he plays a fictionalized version of himself. He plays a more traditional action-hero role in his latest direct-to-DVD thriller, the recently released The Shepherd: Border Patrol.
Breakin' (1984)—"Spectator In First Dance Sequence"
Jean-Claude Van Damme: That's a funny story. I went with a friend—we traveled together from Belgium. So it was a hard road, you know; for years, I didn't have any money. I came to the U.S., staying in a car, moving from place to place. Kinda hard, but exciting too. When they gave me a chance to be in Breakdance [the international title of Breakin'], I was only an extra. But to me at the time, a movie was a movie. I didn't know the difference between medium, high, and low budget. So I was trying to win the scene: I was behind the lead actor in the group, and I was jumping as high as I could, and doing a flip in the air. But of course they cut that, because I was eating the screen with that fantastic jump.
I was twentysomething years old, right? So when I shot Bloodsport later at [Breakin' distributor] Cannon, I was in the cutting room doing my best to make the best movie possible. I did go and search for all the Breakdance exit scenes—you know, when you cut a movie, you got all the scenes that are pulled out of the film. I saw those jumps, and it looked like a rabbit was trying to take so much attention away from the camera. Jumping behind the people who are standing up. You see a guy going "BOING! BOING! BOING!" in the air. It was so funny. I wish I could have those excerpts.
Monaco Forever (1984)—"Gay Karate Man"
JCVD: They asked me to play a guy driving, I believe it was an MG or a Ferrari, on the road of Mulholland Drive. I took a guy that was doing hitchhiking on the road, and I took a guy in my car, and I play a homosexual, and I was trying to take advantage of him in that car. And then he came off and wanted to fight me. I did some kicks above his head, and blah, blah, blah. It was funny. Very small, low-budget, independent type of movie.
No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)—"Ivan The Russian"
JCVD: That was with a guy that came from Hong Kong, his name was Corey Yuen, who's now doing lots of big movies. That was his first movie. And then I came to talk about this movie, and I came to a casting session in a karate school. I came to show my physical skill, and you were having three Chinese guys sitting at the end of that room, at a table. Almost like a jury. It was American Idol type of stuff. The karate school was full of people, and one guy was showing off to everybody. Was trying to scare people. He was doing some punches near us. He was warming up. Imagine you're standing up, and a guy come next to you and he starts to punch toward your face, stopping maybe two inches from you. So people were scared of him. With my luck, because I was well-built—at the time, I was like 92 kilos, now I'm like 82 kilos—they asked me to spar with him.
And I was so upset. He had such a big mouth, that poor guy, but I knocked him out in front of everybody. And that's when I received the part. They took my picture, they took my phone number. I think it was a phone service, because I did not have money. You know, you call there and leave messages. So six months later, they call me. And I made the film for only, like, $250, the full movie. And I was so happy to be in that film, you know?
The A.V. Club: It did pretty well. They made a bunch of sequels.
JCVD: They made sequels to all my movies, to be honest with you. Bloodsport 2, Cyborg 2, Kickboxer 2, Timecop 2. And all the sequels were so sad, because Bloodsport 2 with me in it would be great.
AVC: Why did you not end up in Bloodsport 2?
JCVD: What happens when you're dealing with all those small, independent companies, they go Chapter 11 [bankruptcy]. They spend money and they don't pay it back. So those movies were sold just on my name, and I was growing up and up in the business. Instead of being smart about it, those guys go for easy money. They're not like those producers in the studio. They have no vision. They just want the cash. It's like a factory, you know. You take Van Damme, you sell him for a price on the market, then you make the movie for less than that, and then you take a big producing fee, and then you send me to Bulgaria, Romania, that type of country where they make [these movies]. Anyway, that was my life for a couple of years.
JCVD: I was in that originally, it was obviously the first one. They did a cast of my body. My feet were in the cast of the alien. My hands were in the forearms, my head was in the neck. I was moving everything with cables. It was a very unsecure, very dangerous type of outfit. It didn't work for nobody. They put air conditioning into my back, because it was very hot in Mexico. So they did another outfit with a bigger guy, taller guy on the inside. So I was hired, then I was cancelled. But that helped for Bloodsport. It's a very funny story, because when I met Menahem Golan from Cannon, he heard about me playing the Predator, and he was very excited to sign me for Bloodsport. That helped me a lot. He didn't know I was an alien. He ain't going to see my face and my body. He thought I was the type of alien with a human face and body, where people would be able to recognize me.
AVC: Which of course wasn't the case.
JCVD: Right. But you know what? The studio gave me good money and helped me to stretch another year in Los Angeles.
Bloodsport (1988)—"Frank Dux"
JCVD: Bloodsport did well for me. It put me on the top. That movie was my trigger to success. But when you think about it, some people are rehearsing for years. Acting school, drama school, blah, blah, blah, in a good way. They are theatrical types of actors. Then they are making movies, and then they become very successful. So, me, I start karate at the age of 11. So suddenly, they are putting a script in front of me called Bloodsport, fighting underground. By the way, Bloodsport started Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, those video games. And I think it was because my physical condition was so good. The movie was sold on my physical abilities. And I was kinda natural in the acting, because I was like a kid without fear. So I did the best I could. It played well. I rehearsed my part for more than 20 years, when you think about it, because I was training karate for 20 years, and that movie was full of karate that fit.
AVC: Did you take acting lessons, or was it a straight shot from being a martial artist to acting in movies?
JCVD: No, I didn't take any acting lessons, but I was playing with guys of my age over in Belgium. We played Inspector Gangster. We met in a room. We were like, "Okay, you're going to come into the living room, okay? You're going to play a guy coming in for a deal. Right? You're going to sit down there and we aren't going to agree about that deal, then we shoot at each other." You know, like game stuff. I was like 13, 14 years old. So, the guy comes in the room, and I'm: "Oh hey. How are you? What's your name?" all that stuff. It was kind of like rehearsing without knowing.
Later in my career, I understood something from a good director named Ringo Lam, who directed me in Maximum Risk, In Hell, all those movies. He said "acting doesn't exist." If we start to act, you'll see the guy "acting." I believe we really have to go into a character. I only understood that now, my last couple of movies. You have to go into something and invest your mind into that specific person. You have to prepare; you came from which family? How did you behave before the events of the film happened? You have to build something into your mind to lose the Jean-Claude Van Damme, and to become, for example, Jack Robideaux [from The Shepherd: Border Patrol]. The problem is, when you don't have very deep scripts, when you play the very simple characters, you know, the revenge and this and that, it's very difficult for a guy like me to believe into my role. So I just play the physical guy, with my kicks and my punches, and I follow the story. If you give me something a little more deep, a better script, and a good cast around me, then we could do a great job. Like my last movie, J.C.V.D. J.C.V.D. will play in Cannes this year, for the first time in my career, because the movie was very good, the script was excellent, and also, I did act in French, so I was speaking very fast and everything.
JCVD: J.C.V.D. the film, it's a simple but big story. It's a guy who left the U.S., having enough of all those types of movies he's doing. He's been arrested too many times, he's driving big drunk, child custody, enough! So he's leaving off for Belgium, Brussels, to recoup. Spend some time with my country, my parents. Before leaving, I have an agent who's trying to give me another type of movie, The Purple Amulet, and now I'm in Belgium, and I got no more money, and my lawyer's calling me: "If you don't pay the amount of money you owe me, I will stop the fight for the custody of your child." So I'm calling my agent, trying to get any types of movie. He says: "The movie's cancelled. Steven Seagal took the part and cut off his ponytail." It's kinda funny.
I have to go to a bank to pick up a check, because I'm taking any types of movie. So I go in, it's a heist. And now it's becoming very serious. No more comedy. No more the life of a movie star, and you see me getting scared with the hostages and stuff. One of the gangsters is a fan of mine. And I'm into a very dangerous situation, and they believe it's me. I snapped with doing the hit, the heist. So I'm on TV. My law firm is desisting, [saying] "We're no longer representing Jean-Claude Van Damme. He's crazy." It's seen in all the news: CNN, Belgium, French news, I snapped. And in the bank, you start to know the real Van Damme. I almost do a therapy on the screen where I know I'm going to die, and I'm telling to myself and the audience what happened to my life. The dream of a child going from Belgium to succeed, and here I am. I haven't done anything.
All I wanted to do was to become famous, but then I found out that it was nothing special. We have a special scene where I'm sitting in the hostage room, and my chair is attached to a camera on a crane, and the crane elevates all the way above the studio, all the way up in the dark. And then we have white light coming in. That's what made the movie. It's a very strong story. Very sad, very funny, very everything. And I think that's the movie where J.C.V.D. is shining the most. I'm very happy about that film. But Shepherd, again and again, has a lot of action. It's a different type of movie. My fan base, they will be very happy about this film—new techniques, different forms of fighting. I'm fighting with a young guy, Scott Adkins, who's very good and very fast. I'm 47 years old, and he's something like 20 or 25, which is good for me, because I was having something in front of me that was very challenging. The movie will please some of the audience. The audience that likes that very simple kick-ass type of movie. But J.C.V.D. will show another face, another type of me. So this is great for me.
Double Impact (1991)—"Alex and Chad Wagner"
JCVD: [Playing long-separated identical twins] was not too difficult, since I am bipolar in nature. I really am a guy who can be black and white. I don't understand, too much, the gray. And truly I can go from one type of character to another type of character, and it was very easy for me. I was changing costumes, and I was playing the two twins. I was going back from Chad to Alex two or three times a day. To me, Double Impact was an easy movie, and physically I was fit. I really enjoyed that changing from left to right, it made me feel that I was not lazy. I was excited to go from one guy to another guy with the same face.
AVC: Do you feel you were showing your range by playing two such different characters?
JCVD: No. The only thing different between Alex and Chad was the silk underwear. Mr. California, Mr. Silk Underwear. It was kinda funny.
Universal Soldier (1992)—"Luc Deveraux"
JCVD: That movie was produced by a great producer, Mario Kassar. I had a great co-star in Dolph [Lundgren], at the time, when he was in Rocky. Great script. It was the first movie in the states with Roland Emmerich, who directed Patriot, Stargate, and all those big movies. So this is it. A good script, a good director, a good cast, a studio release, and good distribution behind it. That's the difference between JC doing this and JC doing that. It's a miracle. I believe you have to have enough money to have quality on the screen. Set design is very important. When you're acting as a person, you need to have a great background. Director of photography, good cast, good script, and at the end of the day, good distribution. If you have that—and one of the secrets of our movie was that we were always fighting for distribution before talking about the movie. I learned that very late in my career. I missed out on a lot of experiences, because I was not born in the USA, I didn't have really an agent who was fighting for me the way he should have been, without mentioning any names. In this business, you need a good team of people protecting you, and I was really a loner without wanting to be.
Hard Target (1993)—"Chance Boudreaux"
JCVD: Earlier in my career, I was always in Asia. There was a DP from Hong Kong. His name was Peter Pau—he won an Oscar for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. So I knew lots of Chinese talent. So when I met with [Universal Pictures chairman] Tom Pollock—I did have a great relationship with him—and I said to him, "I know a guy, his name is John Woo. He made a movie called The Killer." And he said "What's that?" I told him that he was a Chinese director, and I would like to fly to Hong Kong to try to get that guy on the movie. So Tom Pollock gave me a date of release. And we wrote that script in less than three months. I chased John in Hong Kong, and I was able to convince him to make a movie in the States. To him, it was a brand new experience. So he came to America. I'm proud to say I started the Chinese flavor, when all these Chinese directors came to the States, because I really opened the gate for them. Then of course I fuck up in some of my personal life, but I'm coming back slowly but strongly.
AVC: What was it like working with John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark?
JCVD: It's very difficult, because John Woo knows how to make people look like heroes. Tsui is like the Steven Spielberg of Asia. He's a very good shooter, and he's very out there. Crazy, crazy, but he's fantastic. And Ringo Lam is like the Martin Scorsese of Asia. Very dark type of movie. Very into the story. Super, super realistic. All these guys, they were accustomed to making movies for $2 million. Very low budget, and they shot movies in Malaysia and China. So for them, for Ringo for example, it was difficult for them to spend more than $2 million. They're all good. They're all different. So when I compare them to the Spielberg and Scorsese, it's not to compare them to the same level. We're all different in life. But more to give you a flavor. Tsui is more into the fantasy, the [Robert] Zemeckis, Spielberg type of movies. So, they're all good to me, and they're all very friendly. I was in Hong Kong when I was 20 years old. I'm 47 now. I saw Hong Kong growing up. I saw Hong Kong become what it is today. And I understand the philosophy of Asia more than some other people.
Double Team (1997)—"Jack Quinn"
JCVD: Let me tell you, on Double Team, I made a huge mistake. Not Tsui. Not the studio, which was Columbia. But I wasn't really Jean-Claude Van Damme. I was not me. The movie did well, by the way. They spent money on that film, and if I was what I am today or 15 years ago, that movie had the chance to be a super hit. Tsui was ready. Everything was good, all the tools were there. The casting was there. Then Van Damme fucked up.
AVC: What do you mean you weren't being yourself?
JCVD: I was not the guy of today. I was less responsible. I was into a divorce. You know, stuff like that. I'm very sensitive, and sometimes when you have those obstacles in your life, it can derange the way we are normally.
AVC: Looking over all your movies, which would you say are your favorites?
JCVD: Bloodsport's a great movie. Timecop, [Universal] Soldier. J.C.V.D. I like Shepherd because the action is cool. Isaac [Florentine], the director, he's a good director for an action film. Legionnaire was a great film. It should have gone studio, it should have had a different type of ending. All my films were okay, because they were a different type of experience of going from one direction to another one. One thing that's difficult, I'm lucky, because I started action movies at the age of 25. Now I'm 47, and I'm still kicking like a mule, and I'm as flexible as before. And I'm very lucky for those companies, and for me to still be making those types of movies. Very international. Everybody understands a slap in the face. In Japan, Belgium, or America, a punch is a punch. Comedy will be different in Europe or America or Japan, so my movies are very international. And I'm not a movie star. I'm a brand name. Van Damme is like Levi's. I go on vacation, and everywhere I go, people love me for my name, not for my movies.