The Career Makeover of Jean-Claude Van Damme
What Does it Take to Transform a Kickboxing Action Star into a 90s-style Leading Man?
Entertainment Weekly: January, 1993
Interview by Jess Cagle
Jean-Claude Van Damme doesn't remember me. And this November morning, on the downtown New Orleans set of Hard Target, an action thriller slated for release this summer, I barely recognize him. It isn't the hair extensions brushing his considerable shoulders. It's not the red gash painted over his right eye. He acts different. The Van Damme I once knew - how to put this delicately? - broke wind to amuse his employees. On the set he used to scream, "All the ladies naked now!" I can only guess that some benign body snatcher - dispatched to make Hollywood a less brutish place - has stuffed that man in a pod somewhere. This Van Damme puts his big arm around a little brown-eyed Belgian boy named Jonathan and gives him a tour of his trailer; the 12-year-old recently underwent a kidney transplant and was flown here to meet the action hero by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants the requests of sick children.
Between takes, this Van Damme dutifully reports to a makeshift studio where an HBO camera crew interviews him on the making of Nowhere to Run, the action movie/love story costarring Rosanna Arquette that opened last week. But he is tired. And his English, it's not so good. "I'm very demented," he tells the interviewer. The Belgian accent is blurry and fetching, as if Sly Stallone and Maurice Chevalier were playing tug-of-war with his vocal cords. Enter Van Damme's publicist, Jay D. Schwartz, a passionate man with big eyes. "It's demanding," he says when the camera stops. Van Damme: "De-mant-ing." Schwartz: "De-mand-ing." Van Damme: "De-mand-ing." Voila. Schwartz: "I just didn't want it to be demented." He needs a good publicist, this Jean-Claude Van Damme.
For years he was known around Hollywood as being a bit, well, demented. They said he was erratic, homophobic, sexist, egomaniacal. Some still call him a liar. For the past year stories have circulated suggesting that he isn't the karate champ he claims to be. The tabloids have said he cheats on his wife. As the HBO crew cranks up for another take, Van Damme gets more vocal coaching. Van Damme: "Focus, right?" Schwartz: "You've been saying it correctly." Van Damme (baiting the teacher): "Not fuh-kus?" That's how he used to pronounce it, and people laughed behind his back. Schwartz: "Not fuh-kus. Fo-cus. Fo-cus."
The saga of Van Damme, so far, has been well chronicled. How in 1981, at the age of 21, he landed in Hollywood broke, leaving behind in his native Brussels one failed marriage and a few titles from karate competitions. In L.A. he drove limousines, learned English on the street, and failed at another marriage. One night by chance, outside a restaurant, he ran into B-movie mogul Menahem Golan. Seizing the moment, he demonstrated his kickboxing skills over Golan's head. Golan agreed to meet with him and gave him the lead in the 1988 action quickie Bloodsport. That $2 million picture pulled in a startling $11.6 million at the box office and has generated another $7 million on video, where most films of this genre make their real money. At 28, Van Damme became an international action hero. Naturally, more of the same followed: Cyborg (1989, $10.2 million), Kickboxer (1989, $14.7 million), and Lionheart (1991, $22.5 million), among others. Most of these opuses are simple revenge fantasies. Boy's friend/brother is killed. Boy kickboxes some butt. Boy gets the (beautiful but expendable) girl. And most of them have worked, surprisingly, because of Van Damme's keen sense of storytelling. "He's got a great story mind," says his veteran ICM agent, Jack Gilardi. "He's a great study, he sees every film." When Bloodsport was released, Van Damme prowled L.A. parking lots himself, putting flyers under windshield wipers. He has had a hand in editing, writing, promoting, and directing every one of his films. And he has always been smart enough to throw in a heinie shot, for those he calls "the ladies."
But that was just Van Damme getting warmed up. Now, armed with a three-movie deal at Columbia Pictures, he is poised for greater things. He could be the next Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal. Attracting an audience far beyond his young, male, karate-loving followers - at least that's the plan. Nowhere to Run, the first installment of his Columbia deal, marks the start of this campaign. Directed by Robert Harmon (The Hitcher) and cowritten by Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct), it's a contemporary twist on the 1953 Western Shane. Van Damme stars as an escaped convict who grows attached to a widow (Arquette) and her two kids (Tiffany Taubman and Kieran Culkin, Macaulay's younger brother). Sid Ganis, Columbia's president of marketing and distribution, says the film is "true to his audience and goes beyond his audience." In other words, Van Damme fights with his fists, not his feet. Plus his love interest has lines.
Behind studio gates, major players are working hard to guide Van Damme's career through its awkward adolescence and into an even more profitable adulthood. The team includes Columbia execs, Gilardi, and lawyer Jake Bloom (who, Van Damme points out, also handles "Arnold"). "I think that Jean-Claude will eventually do the Tom Cruise roles," says Gilardi. With a reported per-picture fee of $3.5 million, Van Damme is ready to play with the big boys. So he has to act like one. That's where Schwartz comes in. As Van Damme's publicist, he gets the actor involved in image-enhancing endeavours like the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He gets him to interviews and photo shoots on time. Van Damme calls him "Master." Can Van Damme's brain trust turn him into a proper movie star? Forgive me if I've had some doubts.
Flashback -- January 1991, 6 a.m. I'm parked outside Van Damme's new 5,000-square-foot French country house north of Los Angeles. Waiting. I have been warned not to knock. "Come to L.A.," he said to me in New York the previous week. "I take you to my house! You come to the set!" But when I showed up on the set of Double Impact, I felt about as welcome as a lap dancer at a church social. He barely remembered me, but grudgingly agreed to answer questions the next day during his 25-minute drive to and from work. So here I sit in my Avis midsize. Waiting. 6:30 a.m. He walks out of the house. I join him in his black Mercedes in the driveway. He drives fast. He takes his hands off the wheel, pounds his chest, talks about how "seensiteeve" he is. He rambles on about the artistic merits of Double Impact, in which he is playing twins - one tough, one seensiteeve. We arrive at the set, and for the next 14 hours Van Damme goes from twin to twin. With each new take he ad-libs his own lines, unburdened by both syntax and logic.
That afternoon, Van Damme is incensed to hear about a group in L.A. that is protesting the Gulf War. "They are faggots!" he yells. Not very seensiteve. Nor is his habit of proudly passing gas during the dinner break. "Do you know who farts most?" he says to another actor. "Arnold." Two years later, Van Damme is making amends. Over dinner with him and Schwartz at New Orleans' Windsor Court Hotel after a day of shooting, I remind him of our first meeting. "I did that?" he says, sitting there in his Hawaiian shirt. "You're kidding. I'm sorry." He's nicer than he used to be. He doesn't constantly talk about "Arnold." Instead he boasts about tracking down John Woo, the extraordinary Hong Kong action director with a sizeable cult following here, and persuading him to take on Hard Target as his American movie debut. "I'm very happy for me," he says. "Woo always puts some messages in movies that has some artistic message." True, but will he show his butt in it? "No," he says. I suggest that people might miss seeing it. Van Damme: "Yeah, I know, my big Belgian ass." He smiles. He has often spoken fondly of his backside. Van Damme: "You know you have those Belgian horse? You know, the Budweiser commercial?" Schwartz: "Clydesdale?" Van Damme: "They're made in Belgium." Schwartz: "Clydesdale." Van Damme: "Belgium. What's its name?" Schwartz: "Clydesdale." Van Damme: "Belgian Clivesdales horses! Ass horse, you know?"
So Alistair Cooke he's not. Still, says Gilardi, "He's more secure in himself. Rather than being the angry young man, fighting, fighting, fighting to get somebody to listen to him, people are listening to him." "He's a challenge," says Columbia's Ganis. "But you talk to him and make sense and he listens." The studio is looking for another action flick for Van Damme. "It's something with action," says Ganis. "Is it romance with action? Is it comedy with action? I don't know yet." Craig Baumgarten, producer of Universal Soldier (Van Damme's most successful film to date) and Nowhere to Run, wants to put him into a comedy - hoping it will do for him what Twins did for Schwarzenegger. "He has an innate sense of timing," says Baumgarten. "He'll do imitations of people and he's just dead-on. It's hysterical." And the accent? Gilardi has encouraged him to "clean it up." "He can enunciate when he speaks a little bit slower," says Gilardi. But acting lessons are a no-no. "They might take away the natural ability that he has."
And what about those nasty rumours? On Nov. 12 the syndicated tabloid show 'Inside Edition' implied that the star's karate credentials are bogus. One former co-star, Jackson "Rock" Pinckney, is suing Van Damme for a severe eye injury he received filming a fight scene with the star in Cyborg. (The lawsuit is pending; Van Damme denies the charges.) Van Damme's office supplies a list of four European karate trophies that he earned under his real name, Van Varenberg, between 1978 and 1981: the Hope Cup; the Cup of Antwerp; World Championship, WAKO; and the Gala International. George Anderson, president of the Pan-American Union of Karatedo Organizations, says they're all minor awards, but that Van Damme's only crime is hyping them too much. "Nobody has really clearly proven him to be a liar," Anderson says.
Then there's the question of Van Damme's fidelity; his third wife, bodybuilder Gladys Portugues, filed for divorce in September. "The press said you cheated on her," I say timidly. In fact, Van Damme can't wait to talk about it. "That's true," he says. He met Darcy LaPier, wife of Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion mogul Ron Rice, at a benefit dinner in Palm Springs last year. LaPier showed up in the same dress as Van Damme's wife ("Nice start," he says) and sat across from him at dinner. "We look at each other," he says. "It's like, chemistry." Nothing happened; he has two children with Gladys to consider, Bianca, 2, and Kristofer, 6. (LaPier also has a preschool-age daughter.) But later, when Van Damme was in Hong Kong alone on business, he received a phone call in his suite. It was LaPier, summoning him to the penthouse. "I think, she rented the penthouse for me or something?" recalls Van Damme. In his robe, he crept up to the top floor. There she was, waiting for him. The soundtrack from Bugsy provided mood music. "Make love to me," she purred. "It was like, I close the door," he says. "In the morning, wake up, huge breakfast..." Back in L.A., they met at the St. James's Club. "We didn't shtup, like they're saying in America," he says. "We're spending three hours just to look at each other. It's like fatal attraction." Rice filed for divorce from LaPier last summer, and Portugues soon walked as well. (Portugues refuses to comment.) Now LaPier is living with Van Damme in Simi Valley, along with his mother and father. "I just feel like to go home every night," he says. "I've got candles all over the bath." On our way out of the restaurant, Van Damme demands to know how much the Lalique table in the foyer cost. A waiter says it set the hotel back more than $50,000. Van Damme: "You got shtupped."
Even in his new-and-improved packaging, Van Damme is still a gamble. Americans like their action heroes to be just that - heroic defenders of truth and justice and the American way, regardless of where they picked up their accents. Schwarzenegger hangs out with Presidents (or at least he used to) and keeps house with a Kennedy heiress. Van Damme does not. But he has one magnificent advantage over the competition. At 32, he is 8 years younger than Seagal and 13 years Schwarzenegger's junior. He has time to make mistakes. "I'm a young puppy," he says. "I like to talk and to give my feeling away, and it's not so good sometimes." The puppy is a good metaphor. He's hyper but adorable. He's messy but eager to please. And for now, people are happy to clean up after him. If only he can be trained to fo-cus, fo-cus.