Idol Talk: The Jean Claude Van Damme Interview

Fitness Plus magazine: July, 1991

Interview by Steve Raimondi and Dorissa Bolinski

Jean Claude Van Damme is best known for his portrayals of brawny heroes in a number of martial arts action films. Since he entered into his acting career, he has acquired a loyal core of fans, but his latest film, Double Impact, has helped him merge into the main-stream. The feature combines fast-paced action with a light, romantic story, and appeals to men who admire Jean Claude's karate expertise, women who appreciate his physique and charisma, and kids who need a living hero.

When watching Jean Claude in action in one of his films, it's difficult to believe that he was "a skinny sensitive kid who loved classical music and painting" while growing up in Belgium. Jean Claude acquired an interest in ballet and karate as a youngster. As diverse as these two disciplines seem, he took instruction in both, and was eventually invited to join the Paris Opera as a dancer. Instead, Jean Claude declined the offer deciding to focus on karate, bodybuilding, and acting.

Jean Claude quit school in order to open a fitness club in Brussels, and found fame as a prized athlete and entrepreneur. Soon, an interest in acting grew in Jean Claude, and he abandoned his business in 1982 in hopes of beginning a film career in America.

The move proved to be beneficial for Jean Claude, and a decade later, he has found a niche in Hollywood. Perhaps, the one trait that separates Jean Claude from other actors in martial arts films is his ability to combine the grace of ballet with the moves of karate, he seems to have elevated the genre of martial arts films. Jean Claude acknowledges the fact that it was karate that helped him focus on and achieve his movie dreams.

Jean Claude's personal life is proof that his rough film characters are not related to his real persona. He is actively involved in many charity organisations such as the Make a Wish Foundation that helps terminally ill children. He is also a vocal supporter of animal rights. Even more touching is the importance Jean Claude places on his family. He is married to former bodybuilding star, Gladys Portugues, and has two children, Kristopher and Bianca. Soon after Jean Claude's film career took off, he moved his parents from Brussels to America. They now live with his family on the West Coast.

Jean Claude's next film project is Universal Soldier which began production this summer. We spoke with Jean Claude on a hot sunny Sunday afternoon this past July. Here's what he had to say...

FP: When and why did you decide to move to the U.S.

JV: Movies! I love movies. I came to Hollywood in 1980 from Brussels in Belgium. I did not speak English, and I was alone. It was very difficult until I met people. My chance to make my first movie, Blood Sport, came in 1986. I got the lead without the help of an agent or manager.

FP: What was your experience in martial arts at that time?

JV: When I was 10-years-old, I began kickboxing, tae kwan do, and free style. I participated in many forms, and adapted a style to my own anatomy. This, I feel was my "edge" in Hollywood.

FP: When you came to Hollywood, did you plan on playing "fighting" roles?

JV: Yes, you have to understand, Steve, that I only spoke French, but I knew my karate experience would help: I wanted to do James Bond-type movies. I spent a lot of time meeting producers, directors, and people in the industry before I got my first part. I spent a lot of time studying and practicing martial arts, and I was confident that my feet could help me get roles -- just like Arnold has his muscles.

FP: I know that there is a sequel to Kickboxer. That movie must have done well for you.

JV: Yes, it did well, but I refused a sequel. I wasn't offered enough money. Instead, we did a new film, Double Impact, rather than just make Kickboxer 2. It had a bigger budget and new people such as your friend, Cory Everson.

FP: Cory Everson is now trying her hand at acting after making it big in bodybuilding. Were you comfortable with her acting in Double Impact?

JV: There are two types of actors: one type is De Niro, the other type is like Stallone. Both are movie stars, but the latter uses a special gift or talent to help his character. Cory has power on the screen. Everybody I know who saw it agrees. I'd love to do something else with her. I'm producing now, too, so I may get the chance.

FP: So, you wouldn't say that Cory is an actress like Julia Roberts.

JV: No, but she has her own unique ability and you're going to see good things from her in the future. In Double Impact, she played a villain, but she's good at other roles. It's not easy to have a successful movie. It depends on the promotion, music, and release time. Arnold wants to know the budget, publicity, and release time before even starting.

FP: Did you study acting?

JV: Never. Like with martial arts, you can train for 50 years, but some people know they were born for it after just two years. You know deep inside you. School is technical; acting is instinct.

FP: How did you support yourself before you began acting?

JV: I drove taxis, limos; I was a bouncer and I was a carpet layer. These were small $4.00 an hour jobs. I met Gladys before I made any money when I was driving cabs. I was a bum. She was so popular as a bodybuilder then. I have so many tapes of Gladys. She was something special; I want to promote her, but she just enjoys staying home with the kids. She's unbelievable. I don't have half the mental power of my wife. I love movies. I'd like her to do it because she has potential. I want her to know how much trust I have in her.

FP: Where is the family now? In Brussels?

JV: No. I brought my family here. We have a big house, and they all live here.

FP: Where do you live?

JV: In Santa Monica on the beach in the first house I ever bought. I live with Gladys, the kids, dogs, mom and dad.

FP: Did you hit it big on your first film?

JV: No. It wasn't until I made Lion Heart. Blood Sport got shelved for two years before being released. I had to complete my contract, but now I can start doing big films. I was called Mr. Bullet Proof because of all the low budget films I did. Now, I work with all new producers and directors. I'm working with Columbia and Warner Brothers after 5 years of hard work.

FP: Are you trying to break away from your past roles?

JV: You see in Double Impact. My character cries and has charm. The character in Kickboxer was a certain type of role. In real life, I'm different -- full of life.

FP: How would you compare yourself to Arnold and Stallone as actors? Who do you really admire?

JV: I have lots of respect for Christopher Walken. Did you see him in the King of New York? Steve McQueen, and Paul Newman are terrific. I feel their movies have quality. Rocky and Rambo were filled with drama and passion. Arnold doesn't move me. I like movies like The Godfather and The Deer Hunter. These are films with real solid acting, real talent.

FP: Before you found your current success, was there ever a time in your life when you just wanted to give up?

JV: Yes. Deep down, I'm a man of feeling. Some days, I'd be so depressed, but I would train and feel better. I always knew I would make it. It's not luck. You have to push like an animal every day and every night. You have to go to all casting calls. You can't go to parties or clubs and talk to producers there. They go there to relax.

FP: What is your diet like when you are training?

JV: When not doing a movie, I'm bad -- well normal. I'll have a beer or two. For breakfast, I'll have oat bran. Around 11:00 am, I'll have protein juice. At noon, white meat, a veggie and rice. At night, I'll have fruit and chicken or fish. I train 4 to 5 hours a day and do stretches. I have a 3,000 square foot gym in my home. It has everything in their like Gold's Gym in Venice, CA.

FP: Does Gladys still train?

JV: Yes, for the most part. We train together and sometimes alone. She's very involved. She's not big, but more athletic. I like her better that way and she agrees.

FP: What does your future hold? Do you plan on producing and directing?

JV: My life is movies. I'm directing a huge, classy 1930's karate movie two years from now which I want to take to Cannes. I'll be acting, writing, and directing. Directing makes less money, but I don't care. I want to do something special. I want my movies to be good. I also plan on doing a book with your martial arts editor, Michael D. Pasquale, Jr.

FP:Success hasn't spoiled you?

JV: No -- not at all. I never treat anybody differently, and my family and friends don't treat me differently. I'm still Jean Claude. I come home and my dad still tells me what to do!

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