Jean-Claude Van Damme was one of the iconic action stars of the late-eighties, early nineties. In early entries like Bloodsport and Kickboxer he showed off his skills in full-contact karate, becoming the heir apparent to Bruce Lee in terms of style and charisma. Later films such as Universal Soldier and Timecop continued to utilize his martial arts skills but attempted to fit him into a more conventional hero-mold, to great success. In the mid-nineties Van-Damme’s formula films began to look interchangeable, and like fellow icons Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger his power in Hollywood began to wane. By the beginning of the decade, the “muscles from Brussels” found himself struggling with personal problems and doing time in direct-to-DVD fare.
In his new movie JCVD (yes, it stands for Jean-Claude Van Damme), the star plays himself in an almost Charlie Kaufman-esque scenario as being a down-and-out actor who’s struggling with child custody and working on low-budget films for no-talent directors. While attempting to get a money order at a post office in Belgium, he inadvertently becomes involved in a robbery. We see different perspectives of the event, Rashomon-style, as the police outside the post-office misperceive Van Damme as the perpetrator while inside the real criminals use the situation to their advantage, framing Van Damme. It is an insane scenario played straight, and the film provides a surprising showcase for Van Damme to show sides of his personality we have yet to see.
Van Damme gave us an exclusive interview where he discusses JCVD in the signature Euro-English that has made him endearing to a generation of fans.
ComingSoon.net: So how did all the elements for “JCVD” come together?
Jean-Claude Van Damme: Oh, many elements. It came together because of my past history as an actor and those event, the good one, the bad one, to talk about it, and since I am in the business for over 20-years now, sooner or later a guy will come out and will propose me something like crazy “JCVD.” The guy who did it was a fan. He fought for me and he’s well respected at Gaumont because he’s making movies with Depardieu and those types of wonderful actors. They told him “no, he doesn’t belong there,” and he said “If I don’t do Jean-Claude Van Damme movie I’m out of Gaumont, I’ll go to Pathé if I have to.” So he was insisting with big cojones to do my movie. He wrote the script in less than ten-days, not joking. Came to my hotel room in Belgium, read me the script at the speed of a Scud missile, and the story was fantastic. He was able to describe all the scenes, dialogue, everything, and I saw lots of love and respect and he gave me lots of confidence. This made me feel so good to go from a studio, was great, to independent company, and those guys are selling movies by the poster, not the script. Then going from those factories in Lithuania to shooting in Brussels and France with people who were very nice to me. They did more than one take, two, three, five takes, and didn’t get upset. In some companies you have the right to have two takes and then you move on. You know, you have bad set design behind you, you talk about America and then you see one of those Lada cars from the eastern block passing by behind you! You look like a total liar! You’re pretending to be in Miami and you see a Russian car! It’s kind of funny, you know? We should do comedies about those kinds of movies.
CS: Well this movie definitely does have fun playing with that blurred line between fantasy and reality. How did it feel to play yourself and let real aspects of your life blend with the make-believe?
Van Damme: I was playing, in a way, me because for several years I was promised a theatrical movie, which was possible because I had been there before. It’s not a dream anymore. I left the states to try to rebuild myself in a different way, and that’s the first step of it, and its good for me and good for my fans. Me, personally, I did believe in every word I was saying in that post office my money to pay my lawyer it felt real to me. I was well-prepared by the film and by the director.
CS: This is the first time a lot of your audience will see you speaking your native language. Was there a comfort factor in being back in Belgium and speaking French for the film?
Van Damme: Yes, of course. You saw me while I was talking, right? Non-stop, good elocution, not being afraid of putting a wrong word, because when I speak English I first have to think in French and then translate into your language. I love because I came there to succeed so you love what’s around that.
CS: The thing everyone is going to talk about coming out of this movie is the eight-minute monologue you have talking to the camera, breaking the fourth wall. It’s very raw. You go through all the trials and tribulations of fame, you’re frank about your wives and the drug abuse and stress. What do you want people to ultimately take away from that scene?
Van Damme: It’s not really about the people, it’s about facing a camera. Since it’s a lens, I knew that lens and behind that lens the film was going to talk to lots of people, more than one shrink. Lots of people listening. In hearing, my life was great. I don’t regret anything. I go from a simple country to training in martial arts to competing to a dream to everything! A rollercoaster ride, and thank God for that because if not “JCVD” would not be existing, so you never know about life.
CS: So the scene was very therapeutic for you?
Van Damme: Yeah! (laughs) That movie was my best therapy ever! Yeah, it’s true.
CS: You obviously can’t play yourself in every movie, but is there an aspect of “JCVD” that you’d like to carry over into your future work?
Van Damme: In a way, the director told me, which is true, it’s really impossible for me to make a bad movie any more. When you see what I saw and when I saw what I see it’s difficult to go backwards and do three flips through in the air, landing on the table and saying “I’m Jean-Claude Van Damme.” It’s difficult. I’m 48, I’ve got to do more “I’m 48”-type of action stories, relationship stories. It’s not the movies that feel bad coming home except for the paycheck. This is not anymore an issue. Life goes so fast, my friend, that you have to do what you want to do before it’s too late.
CS: The tone of the film struck me as ironically serious, even though there are many blatant jokes poking fun at your action-star image. You play the part very seriously. What sort of discussions did you and the director have about tone?
Van Damme: Reality, reality, reality. The best way to go is to say how can we maintain a real feel? By killing the film, killing the words and acting and becoming the story to the point that the story will follow you. It’s good to be as real as possible that way you believe in what you’re doing and it comes out okay.
CS: So what do you consider the high point of your career at this point?
Van Damme: You know, you have those mountains that you’re claiming is it claiming or climbing? (talks to someone else) Mountain you claiming or climbing? Climbing. My son is correcting me. He was born in the states. It’s like climbing a mountain. Then of course you like skiing, you like to go down the mountains. Then I can’t believe I’m gonna walk and climb on the pick (peak), I’m not afraid to say its not there yet. The high point of my career will be the day before I’m dying. You’ve got to hope always for the best until the day you’re dying. I’ve got no high point in my career, ’cause it’s a mix of emotion and family and disappointment. You can make the best movie ever and be unhappy. Sometimes its not easy to answer. Especially a guy like me, you know? I’m not a guy who did lots of different types of movies, lots of variation.
CS: You’re in the director’s chair again for your next movie “Full Love” in Thailand. Can you tell us about that?
Van Damme: Yeah, I’m in the cutting room now, I’m cutting the movie. That’s why it’s so difficult for me but I’m trying my best. It will be unfair, but I have to tell you the truth. When I’m cutting I’m talking to you and three-quarters of my thinking is in that next shot I’ve got to smooth out. That is no good for me to tell you that, but if I did not tell you that I would be lying to you. So sometimes my answers are kind of cloudy, and I am sorry about that.
CS: No, it’s good to be dedicated to your work! Thank you for your time.
Van Damme: No, I thank you to promote the film because I believe it’s a good film and I need it! (laughs) It’s good for people to see a guy like me, who was on top and stuff like that, that I’m just a normal guy who came at the right time, right place, right situation. Lots of people are like me
NOTE- At this very end point of the interview Jean-Claude said something very profound, but the author could not discern whether he said “We’re all on the same path,” or “We’re all in the same bath.” Somehow, both seem appropriate.
Special thanks to Mr. Van Damme and the folks at Special Ops Media for providing us the interview.
JCVD opens in limited release Friday.