Jean-Claude Van Damme in Pittsburgh
Premiere magazine: January, 1995 (UK Issue #24)
Interview by Tom Russo
So what the hell is Jean-Claude Van Damme doing in Pittsburgh anyway? This nondescript Pennsylvania industrial town is a few hours' flight and several worlds away from Hollywood, and farther still from Belgian butt-stomping grounds of his youth. Hint: it isn't some angst-assuaging pilgrimage to the city's new Andy Warhol Museum. With over a dozen largely successful movies to his credit, the former kickboxing champ is well past coming to terms with those famously fleeting 15 minutes. Van Damme is actually here shooting Sudden Death, summed up with his usual hyperbolic flair as Die Hard in a hockey arena - "but better". It's the latest stop in his relentless campaign for respectability. Enough already about the accent - if a Bruce Willis picture like Striking Distance can be set in Pittsburgh without any great suspension of disbelief, why not a Van Damme movie? (This time they don't even try to pass him off as a Québecois or a Cajun. He's just a regular-joe fire inspector cast in the role of hero when terrorists descend on the big game.)
More precisely, Van Damme is here in a downtown health club on his day off, holding forth in a towel about fame and his foibles. Struggling to focus as I enter the club's steam room, I finally locate him sitting with his sparring partner, a young French-speaking guy known to me only as Dida. (But apparently a top-ranked martial artist in his own right). I sidle up next to them on the top bench, the tropical zone. Van Damme politely suggests taking a seat somewhere cool enough that I just might retain consciousness. We promptly move to another bench. Who am I to argue with this internationally worshipped paragon of fitness? Not that he's all that daunting at first glance. Showing up moments earlier in baggy sweats and a pair of gold-rimmed glasses, Van Damme looked, well, unremarkable. (For one thing, he's around five foot ten and a trim 180 pounds.) "I was born small," he says. "So that was me, small, skinny kid from Belgium, dreaming about movies, about superhero. And then that kid became strong physically." He flexes the celebrated Muscles from Brussels to illustrate his point. It's as though he's suddenly unloaded a 12-gauge shotgun into the guts of the word ordinary. "That's a visual image, but the inside," he adds, patting his chest, "is different. So if you can combine both, it's great for movies. You can make comedies, drama... You put on a shirt that shows your biceps to them, and then you can do something else."
We're about to get to that something else when the cough I've been fighting kicks back in. There's little I can do to avoid becoming an even sadder specimen in Van Damme's eyes. He turns and shoots me a look, his brow furrowed. No doubt he's miffed that I've exposed him to my mini-plague. If we were in one of his movies, this would be the part where he growls a snappy one-liner like "Au revoir, bastard". And lays me out with a 360-degree kick to the teeth. But, as he says again and again, the sullen screen image he's established (and hopes to bury) bears little resemblance to who he really is. I ought to be taking more vitamins, he tells me with motherly concern. "Vitamin C. That's the best one."
An oppressive summer afternoon in New York two months earlier. Van Damme hasn't dressed for the weather. His smart plaid double-breasted is going to get a bit whiffy if he doesn't do something about the sunlight laser-sighting his backside through a hotel window. He reaches behind him and closes the curtains. Then, by way of explanation, he makes a mock-panicked dive for the sofa cushions, ducking an imaginary sniper on a neighbouring rooftop. The gag is apropos of absolutely nothing, except for his trouper's determination to be "on" even when he isn't. In town for the Timecop publicity junket, Van Damme is struggling to recharge after the second of three movies he's shooting more or less back-to-back. Still he manages to charm, no matter how B-list the question. Does he think he needs to work on getting the Franglais check? A tired point, but he betrays no sign of irritation. He doesn't take acting lessons, but he has begun working with a dialogue coach. The accent, he says finally, "is not good, it's not bad. But I'm paying attention now, because it doesn't help me. It will not destruct me, I guess. It's neutral."
Someone else wonders whether he honestly feels he can compete with Arnold and Sly. "I've got a way to go, but I'm close. Who knows? I'm not trying to compare myself, because the budget is different, and if I look at them, my movie will not do good. I'm trying to do a better movie that the last one I've done. That's the way you build." Driving this point home is Van Damme's other daily regimen. He works at it, deliberately, repetitively, just as he spends hours every day in the gym sculpting his physique. Check him out in his past press and the pattern quickly establishes itself: Double Impact was better than Kickboxer. Universal Soldier was better than Double Impact. Timecop blows away Universal Soldier... and so on, always pressing forward, hyping the new at the expense of the old. Never leaving you time to say, "Hey, I paid six quid to see that movie!" Steadily, shrewdly sculpting the career he ultimately aspires to. Sure, there's bound to be an occasional car-jacking on the road to success - it's hard to imagine him cheering the major magazine coverline that read "Jean-Claude Van Damme Wants To Be Taken Seriously (He's Kidding Right?)" But only the weak get rattled. The disciplined go straight into pre-production on the next Die Hard. But better. It's no accident then, that Van Damme seems perpetually poised on the brink of something bigger. A splashy photo spread for a story on Double Impact a couple of years back even had him trying to kickbox his way out of a straitjacket.
Conditioned by all this, the writers at the junket tend to veer off the subject at hand, looking ahead toward Street Fighter. Which isn't due out for months, and Sudden Death, which is farther off still. Based on the hugely popular video game of the same title, the $38 million Street Fighter will be Van Damme's first movie not to carry an R rating in the US (the equivalent of an 18) - only fitting, since he got the job after winning a fantasy casting poll in a best-selling kid's game magazine. His underage fans tapped him for a role as the commander of a neo-United Nations force dispatched against arch-villain Raul Julia ("neo" because the UN objected to the script's somewhat liberal definition of the term "peace-keeping"). While Street Fighter is too action-oriented to be Van Damme's Twins or Kindergarten Cop, he claims, "I am different in Street Fighter, that's for sure. I don't look like the normal Van Damme. "I think you're gonna see him have a lot of fun with this part, and see his sense of humour and his natural personality break through," Street Fighter writer-director Steven E. de Souza later tells me. "With Timecop, a lot of people are saying, 'Hey, you know, he actually can act.' Every role he's played previously has been a stretch, because they're all so dark. They're not like his personality."
Budgeted at $30 million, Timecop approaches the kind of top-flight production Van Damme says he's now actively seeking. The premise: by the year 2004 time travel is old news, if only slightly less illegal than mass murder. The government, it seems, tends to fret about modern day bad seeds travelling back with Uzis and blowing away hapless buckshot shooters. With the benefit of some arresting digital effects, Van Damme's title character races off in a time pod to prevent his nemesis, Ron Silver, from unravelling history as we know it. And yes, he does flash his widely lusted-after Belgian bum, but this time in a love scene with some actual romance in it. "I think this will be a step up for Jean-Claude," says Ron Silver. "We're not talking about The Remains of the Day here, but the script is more interesting than some of his previous work. It's not totally reliant on just a continual action sequence." "That was why Jean-Claude came to me," echoes director Peter Hyams (Outland, 2010), who has joined Van Damme on Sudden Death as well. "He was very specific and very candid. He said, 'I've gotten to where I am by doing a certain kind of film and I no longer want to do that. I see other people who have reached other levels and the only way I can do that is to make a film based on material that's much more ambitious.'" Now, after a string of chopsocky revenge fantasies that were largely the same movie without being sequels per se, Van Damme may have latched to a legitimate franchise. But what if the industry doesn't embrace Timecop's spin on la formula Van Damme? The actor shifts back into leave-'em-laughing mode and puts on a journalist-eating grin. "The time pod will be in the big Planet Hollywood in Japan. If Premiere magazine will give me a bad review, I can take the pod, go back in time, and I'll come to see you, OK?"
Back in Pittsburgh, Van Damme announces it's time for a shave and heads out of the steam room, directing towards the sinks. I've got my whole face lathered before I realise it might be helpful if I had a razor. If he's not reminded of Macauly Culkin slapping on that Brut in Home Alone, then I certainly am. I ask him a postscript of Timecop, which by this point is topping out at around $45 million in the US - easily his best US gross to date. Not bad for the investment, but Steven Seagal's breakout movie, Under Siege, did $40 million better. Van Damme says he's happy, though he's hard to read; it's questionable whether he could truly be satisfied with anything less than the $100 million brass ring. Not just overseas, but right here in America, home of the original rags-to-riches story. I keep sensing something a little... murky about the signals Van Damme is sending. Maybe it's the language barrier. Maybe it's that he keeps wandering off from the sinks to his locker in his underwear (briefs, not boxers, for the curious), leaving me looking like the towel boy from hell as I dog him around. Or maybe the little communications and all the to-ing and fro-ing are both conveniently calculated to make sure that I'm running his race. Yet catch him on the right subject - or even on the wrong subject at the right moment - and he dishes like virtually no one else in Hollywood.
I recall how, when quizzed at the junket about his reported $8 million fee for Street Fighter, Van Damme didn't even hesitate: "7.2". That's still double his going rate, but it's the price to be paid, he says, for squeezing Street Fighter overseas shooting between Timecop and Sudden Death. Bucked up by the memory of this refreshingly open exchange, I allude to John Woo, director on Hard Target, and the tension rumoured to have neutered that project. We've discussed this only briefly, and since Hard Target was the last movie hyped as his breakthrough vehicle, I'm hoping he'll elaborate. "I love to shave," he tells me. Talk about your classic non-sequiters. It's almost a 'Woody Allen at Michael's Pub' moment: when Woody's playing clarinet, he plays clarinet, he doesn't talk about movies. "It's so relaxing. You should have everything cleaned right. You should come to my house - everything is in order. It's impeccable. Everything has to be straight, it has to be perfect. So when I clean and shave, it has to be perfect." No kidding. Before we're through towelling off, he's got Dida giving him a touch-up job on the back of his neck. Van Damme continues shaving and talking and shaving and talking about it until I'm bracing for his cheekbone to do an Alien number right through his skin. "It's good sometimes to talk about simple stuff. People, they like to know about simple stuff. Because they go, 'Oh, I do the same.' 'Oh, I'm different.' 'Oh, that's cool, he's a normal guy.'"
The importance of this simple stuff is something of a recurring theme with Van Damme. "If life is simple," he says at another point, "it's the best way to enjoy it." His voice drops to a confidential hush as he launches into his take on the archetypal ingratiating reporter: "People, they're trying to make life complicated. You go on interviews and they go, 'So what's the message?' What are you talking about? No message. I've got two dogs, a home, I've got a great plate of pasta, I go in my gym and I've got a wife and I do movies. I'm nothing special. I'm not better than you or - all the same shit, you know?' They want to find a special message. Talk to God. I got no message."
Just who these writers are who toil so diligently to deconstruct Van Damme's work is a question that will have to wait. Because his life, like his movies, may not be heavy on subtext, but there's sure a lot of action to cover. Van Damme was born Jean-Claude Van Varenberg in 1960 in a small town west of Brussels, hardly renowned as a breeding ground for American screen icons. But the kid had a thing for karate, signing up for lessons at age ten and bringing home the European Professional Karate Association's middleweight title a few years later. Along the way he branched out into a bodybuilding and ballet, and by 18 was putting his passion as the owner of a thriving Brussels fitness centre. His father, an accountant, supplied the cash; Jean-Claude supplied the concept, a windows-on-the-world setup lifted from the L.A. lifestyle he'd already begun to covet. Naturally, the place was called the California Gym.
In 1981, not yet 21, Van Damme chucked the workout business for Hollywood, heading off with about $7000 in his pocket. And with his new, action-ready moniker (actually a name borrowed from an old friend back in Brussels). With nil command in English, he ended up getting less opportunity to show off his drive than just plain drive - taxis, limos, pizza delivery mobiles. "I was working 15 hours a day, and I was doing casting ten hours a day. I was crazy." He finally landed a gig as the monster in Predator but it quickly went sour when he incurred the legendary wrath of überproducer Joel Silver. By Van Damme's account, Silver fired him because he dared to speak out about a stunt that would have been unsafe in the cumbersome creature suit. True to Van Damme's screen form, he wraps up the episode of revenge-fantasy catharsis: another actor was brought in to do the stunt and busted his ankle, after which the costume was redesigned. ("That's obviously Jean-Claude making up stories," a spokesman for Silver Pictures said bemusedly, insisting there were no injuries, no safety lapses and only mininal "uncomfortableness" with the suit.)
Van Damme let his karate do the talking in his next mini-mogul encounter, a run-in with Cannon Pictures honcho Menahem Golan at a Beverly Hills restaurant in 1986. Unleashing a kick directly above Golan's head, he dazzled his way into the Cannon offices and the lead of the Hong Kong action quickie Bloodsport. Van Damme took home all of $25,000 for the movie, which made $11.6 million in the US cinemas and another $7 million on video. As he continued to score with the string of low-budget profit-spewers that followed - Cyborg, Kickboxer, Death Warrant, Lionheart - he took to calling himself Mr. Bulletproof. "It's a miracle I became famous from movies like Bloodsport and Kickboxer," he says. "Without a strong story, without cast and with lots of gore and blood, I became Timecop."
He also became a hot property at the studios, inking production deals with Columbia and Universal. But as keen as they were to sign him, both studios have floundered in making Van Damme's star go supernova. Columbia's Nowhere to Run teamed him with a singularly unsensational Joe Estherzas script. Universal, meanwhile, backed Van Damme's campaign to import John Woo for Hard Target, a financial disappointment given the Hong Kong director's rabid cult following. What Van Damme will say on the strained subject of Hard Target is this: "I was very happy with John... but he likes to shoot for six months and to take a rest for like a month to refix the story. You can do that in Hong Kong but in America, you have to be ready. He was badly surrounded. I mean, this was his first time in America, you know?" Timecop, he anticipates, "will be a nice comeback for me in Europe, because Hard Target, the story was not there. And the action was too much emotion, too much John Woo stuff."
Woo responded by fax for this story, his reply taking two full pages. There's little trace of a rancour. "In Hard Target we did our best. But you just can't beat the system." Would he work with Van Damme again? "I never close any doors."
Van Damme, for his part, looks like he'll be sticking around for a while. At 34, he's finally wrapping up - or buying out - all the small-time commitments he signed in "like, my past life", freeing him to match the career acts of the big boys. (Stallone was 30 when he made Rocky; Schwarzenegger broke out with The Terminator when he was 37.) And unlike his cartoonishly bulked-up competition, Van Damme doesn't draw a dreaded "unconventionally handsome" label. "He's just drop-dead gorgeous," says Peter Hyams. "You know, Schwarzenegger was this phenomenal thing, and then he made Twins and brilliantly poked fun at and deflated this whole balloon of who he was. And suddenly everybody went 'This is a real man.' Well Jean-Claude doesn't even have to do that, because physically he's kind of normal looking. He's not six foot nine, he's not 450 pounds and he doesn't have one of those distorted necks. He's beautiful. Plus, he's sweet and funny and very accessible. I figure if I can get who this guy is at the table up on the screen, it will be something really, really appealing." But Van Damme's hot-and-bothersome looks also made him tabloid fodder in the worst way. There's no denying the guy's fantasy appeal; when it's Jean-Claude's heart on the line, gossips are sure to rubberneck even more than they did at the grisly wreck that was Sly and Brigitte. Van Damme alternately feeds and diffuses such scandal with his famous displays of candour.
In the wake of his messy 1992 split from his third wife, former bodybuilder Gladys Portugues, it seemed he couldn't say enough about his affair with Darcy LaPier, former wife of Hawaiian Tropic suntan-lotion king Ron Rice. Recently he even took a major American magazine's reporter into LaPier's Hong Kong hotel suite for a replay of their first night together. Van Damme married LaPier last February, surprising her with a Buddhist ceremony in Bangkok that was so romantic, she latter cooed, "I went into deep shock. Then I cried." The father of two kids with Portugues, seven year-old Kristopher and four-year-old Bianca, Jean-Claude considers himself "a very family man". As soon as his movie career took off, he brought his parents over from Belgium to live with him at his spread in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. One wonders what effects his blunt confessionals must have back home. "Why should I give people the joy to go inside my soul? Life is too short," he bristles. "The only thing that will happen to my kids is that they will be better than lots of kids I know. Lots of respect. I talk to them a lot. And my family isn't over."
By now the relentless scrutiny is all too familiar, even to a largely media-made hero like Van Damme. Some have charged that his karate credentials, for instance, aren't what he makes them out to be. But that's just talking trash, says sidekick Dida, who argues that his sensei buddy is too humble for such bogus self-promotion. "I never in my life find someone like him, with this leg. If I'm training with him, I'm not just screwing around or anything, huh? I'm training with the best champion in the world." Then there's the lawsuit over Cyborg, in which co-star Jackson "Rock" Pinckney claimed he was partially blinded in one eye after Van Damme stabbed him with a rubber prop during filming. Despite Van Damme's vehement denials, an appeals court ordered him to pay Pinckney $487,000 last September.
Van Damme's most recent headache was a New Orleans woman's accusation that he forced her to give him oral sex while he was shooting Hard Target. In the woman's suit, which his publicist says was just settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, this was painted as the raunchy lowlight of an evening of debauchery. The woman reportedly claimed that Van Damme also sauntered naked into her hotel room, LaPier at his side, and demanded an impromptu orgy. Refuting the allegation and exasperated by the ordeal, Van Damme says he'd like nothing more than to fight back. "But what am I supposed to sue," he complains, "a woman that's got nothing and wants to have her name somewhere? In Europe, if you sue and you lose, if I'm right and you're wrong, then you have to pay me back. But here in this country, you have to pay back nothing. So any idiot in the street can take a lawyer, go in court and start to cry, and people feel sorry because he's a schmuck - 'Oh poor thing.' And what can you do? It's the system."
Van Damme's outrage at the injustice of it all even sends him rallying to Bill Clinton's defence over the real-estate investment inquiry that has hounded the Clinton administration for months. His voice now beginning to carry across the health-club locker room, he says, "I'm a small case. A guy like Clinton, they're trying to sue him over something he done in the past. They should stop that shit. The guy's going to talk in Iraq, protecting this country - America, it's a great country - and the system makes him look so fucking weak. It's sad. Everyone's done stuff in their lives", the star finally offers with a shrug. "But it's amazing - when you become famous, everything you're doing, you multiply by ten. Like if you go in a restaurant and you touch your nose, they're going to think you're taking coke, you know? On the radio this morning, they said I took some girls to my room. A guy just told me in the shower. I said, 'What? On the radio?' I don't know what's going on here! It's like I've got my wife in L.A., so she's going to hear the news on the radio, and she's going to call me probably tonight saying, 'What the fuck?', 'Darcy, you know the news...' But that's what it is. In this business you need a very strong wife who you trust, because if you talk to a lady, you become a white Mike Tyson." (Less then three weeks after I saw Van Damme in Pittsburgh, LaPier abruptly filed for divorce citing "irreconcilable differences".) "I'm not saying he's guilty or not guilty. All these lawsuits going on, with nothing you make a lawsuit."
He proceeds to dredge up the strange-but-true case of a New Mexico woman who won $3 million judgment against McDonald's after scalding herself with a cup of coffee. The verdict had just hit the papers when I saw Van Damme in New York, and even though he vented at length about the absurdity of it all, and how the advent of the Java Police wasn't far off, the story obviously still rankles him. I tactfully try to remind him this is ground we've already covered. "But it worked," he insists, disconsolate. "It worked." As quickly as it came, the cloud passes.
We make our way out of the club, with Van Damme heaping praise on my killer double-flip technique for the benefit of any hardcore jocks hanging around the lobby. He flashes a conspirational grin and moves on to one of his favourite topics: The Quest, a big-budget adventure epic he's been eyeing for years as his directing debut. Van Damme is said to have had a hand in all phases of production on films like Bloodsport and Double Impact, so he's pumped to take his turn behind the camera. With any luck, he says, this will be his next project after Sudden Death. Set in the 1920's, the film won't cast him as a fighter, but rather as a hard-bitten "Oliver Twist-type" who learns to get in touch with his sensitive side. Van Damme plans to shoot on location in China and other parts of the Far East, on a scale that he boasts will be comparable to a $100 million production in the US. Surely a voice inside his head is whispering that this is his chance to realise the impossible dream he has harboured since Timecop. The one where he can walk into any Hollywood studio and say, "'What about Spartacus, guys? With a French accent.'" "It's going to take two years of my life," he says of The Quest. " But the story is fantastic. It's full of passion, love, lots of heart, lots of scope." And perhaps just a little bit of subtext.