Playboy Interview: Jean Claude Van Damme
Playboy magazine: January, 1995
Interview by Lawrence Grobel
A candid conversation with Hollywood's hottest action star about brains versus brawn, infidelity versus romance and kicking his way onto the big screen.
It was like a scene from a movie: Two private jets wait side by side on the tarmac at Burbank Airport. Two identical black limousines pull up within minutes of each other. Each one parks by a different plane. A tall, muscular man with a ponytail, wearing a red-and-black leather jacket, gets out of one limo, while a shorter, equally muscular man in a colorful silk shirt gets out of the other. But these men have more in common than private planes and limos. They are two of Hollywood's biggest names: Steven Seagal is flying to Montana, Jean-Claude Van Damme is on his way to San Diego to appear at a comic-book convention. And while the competition between the two is fierce -- Seagal has even bad-mouthed Van Damme on TV -- there's no confrontation between the two on this hot afternoon. In fact, neither acknowledges the other's presence. They simply get into their respective jets and fly their separate ways.
Of the two, Van Damme is clearly the rising star. While Seagal's latest films have misfired with moviegoers -- and the star has taken hits offscreen for his temperamental behavior -- Van Damme is on a hot streak. His most recent film, "Timecop," opened to good reviews and even better attendance, setting a box office record for the 33-year-old actor. So as he flies south with his fourth wife, Darcy LaPier, and Kristopher, his seven-year-old son from a previous marriage, his mood is relaxed. Throughout the 20-minute flight, Van Damme dotes on his son, touching his face, telling everyone who will listen what a good boy he is. And when Kris tosses his cookies on the planes carpet, it is Van Damme who apologises and cleans up the mess.
Later, as Van Damme enters a banquet hall at the San Diego convention center, 2000 fans give him a standing ovation. No sooner does the crowd quiet down than a woman shouts, "Take off your shirt!"
Van Damme smiles. His wife tries to smile, too, even though she doesn't much like listening to strange women asking her husband to disrobe. It's something she might as well get used to, because the adulation is unlikely to stop any time soon. Van Damme is just now crossing over from the limited world of martial arts films into mainstream movies. Studios that dismissed him only two years ago as a good-looking kickboxer now see him as the action-adventure star of tomorrow -- a franchise that they can build on well into the future, thanks to Van Damme's relative youth. He's 22 years younger than Chuck Norris, ten years younger than Seagal and 14 years younger than the man he's now most often compared to, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
After a half hour of talking to his fans he waves goodbye and is escorted into another room for a press conference to promote his two latest films: "Timecop" and "Street Fighter." A reporter notices his bump on his forehead and asks if it was an accident. "No," Van Damme says, "it's a cyst. My wife says now that I'm a big movie star I should cut it out. What do you think? Should I?"
Van Damme was an unlikely prospect to face such movie-star dilemmas. He was born Jean-Claude Van Varenberg in Berchem-Sainte-Agathe, outside of Brussels, Belgium. A skinny, knock-kneed kid, he didn't care for school, talked with a lisp and got into trouble for mimicking his teachers. His father, who owned a lingerie shop, then a convenience shop and then a flower shop, had him study ballet and put him in a kaarte class when he was 11, where the boy suddenly became focused. He trained every day and was participating in bodybuilding and kickboxing competitions by his mid-teens. He won the Mr. Belgium bodybuilding crown and the European middleweight black-belt karate championship. He married at 18, opened a gym in Brussels and became a trainer to his customers. But he wanted more.
Van Damme was eager to travel and have adventures -- and even more eager to be a movie star. When he visited Paris, a photographer spotted him and offered him a job modeling clothes for Jean-Paul Gaultier. Another time, in Brussels, he was "discovered" and offered a job playing a soldier in a Rutger Hauer film. He decided to leave his first wife to pursue acting. He tried to break into the martial arts film industry in Hong Kong but had no luck, so he went to Los Angeles when he was 20, with little money and even less knowledge of English.
For the next six years he struggled -- placing his picture and résumé on the windshields of movie producers' cars, working as a bodyguard, bouncer, aerobics instructor, taxi and limo driver, pizza deliveryman and carpet cleaner. Someone suggested he change his name and he did, from Van Varenburg to Van Damme. He married and divorced a second time.
He appeared briefly as a gay biker in a film called "Monaco Forever," and Chuck Norris hired him as an extra in "Missing in Action." In 1986 he landed a role as a Russian bad guy in "No Retreat, No Surrender." But his big break happened when he ran into Cannon Films' co-owner Menahem Golan outside a restaurant. Figuring he had nothing to lose, he got Golan's attention and then shot his leg straight out and over the producer's head. Golan was sufficiently impressed and offered to make him a star. The vehicle was "Bloodsport," a kickboxing movie, and Van Damme felt the long wait was over.
But the movies created new frustrations. Cannon didn't release "Bloodsport" for 19 months. In the meantime, Van Damme (who was now promoting himself as Van Dammage, the Muscles from Brussels and Wham, Bam, Thank You, Van Damme) signed contracts with independent film companies to do other low-budget films. By the time "Bloodsport" was released and became a cult success, Van Damme was tied to low-paying companies for the next five years, making such action films as "Cyborg," "Kickboxer," "Death Warrant," "Lionheart" and "Double Impact," which all made money. When he was finally released from contractual obligations, he made "Universal Soldier" for Carolco, "Hard Target" with Chinese director John Woo and "Nowhere to Run" with Rosanna Arquette.
With "Timecop," Universal Studios was confident that a big budget and an expensive publicity campaign could break Van Damme out of martial arts films and into mainstream movies. The gamble paid off. Now Matsushila, Universal's parent company, is thinking even bigger, paying Van Damme $6 million (twice what he got for "Timecop") to star as Colonel Guile, the hero of Street Fighter, a wildly successful video game that Matsushila is turning into a movie.
Van Damme's rise has not been without controversy. He lost a recent lawsuit brought by an actor injured during a fight scene n "Cyborg" -- Van Damme will pay close to a half million dollars in damages. Another lawsuit, by a woman who claimed the actor forced her to perform oral sex on him and then demand a foursome, was settled.
There was also a divorce from his third wife, bodybuilder Gladys Portugues, who is the mother of his two children, Kristopher and four-year-old Bianca. Wife number four, Darcy, was married to Ron Rice, the Hawaiian Tropic suntan-oil mogul. An affair between Van Damme and Darcy led to the breakup of both marriages and has resulted in Van Damme's greatest anguish: he is separated from his children, who live with their mother in Belgium.
Contributing Editor Lawrence Grobel (whose last interview for us was with Christian Slater) met with the man who might be Arnold in San Diego, the San Fernando Valley and Pittsburgh. He reports:
"Our first meeting took place in Van Damme's private jet; the second was at his home in the San Fernando Valley. We met the third time in Pittsburgh, where he was getting ready to make a movie called "Sudden Death." But the schedule was arduous. Our talks would begin two hours before midnight and continue until nearly dawn -- that's when Van Damme felt most comfortable. Part of Van Damme's charm is his mangled English and heavy accent. Still, he was quick with his answers and candid with his thoughts. His moods changed each evening: The first night he showed me his muscles. 'Look at how much better shape I'm in than when we saw each other last week,' he said. The second night he was more subdued, the third, contemplative. At one point he shouted to me, 'I'm only 33, too young for a "Playboy Interview," I'm a baby, I have so much to learn.' But when I challenged his prowess as a martial artist he went from baby to professional, asking me to stand so he could demonstrate how, in two lightning-swift kicks to my shoulder, he could easily disarm someone like Steven Seagal, who comes from another discipline, aikido, which is all arms and finesse, Van Damme merely tapped my arm, but I felt it the next day.
"Earlier, I had visited Van Damme at his house in the San Fernando Valley. It was one of the hottest days of the year -- more than 110 degrees -- and Van Damme was on an inflated raft in his swimming pool. He invited me to join him and I did. 'Do people think you have a tough job?' he asked. 'You don't think this is tough?' I answered, trying to balance my tape recorder on my chest so it wouldn't fall into the water."
PLAYBOY: Here we are, on the hottest day of the year, and you are floating in your swimming pool at high noon without an ounce of sunscreen. Are you brave or foolish?
VAN DAMME: I never use those creams. I don't need them. It's the genes. My mother never used creams. I sit in the sun, I get red, then I get dark.
PLAYBOY: The red part means you burn like the rest of us. That's not too smart these days, Jean-Claude.
VAN DAMME: I do not worry. It doesn't harm me.
PLAYBOY: Do you really think that you're Superman?
VAN DAMME: I've got news for you -- I'm nothing special. You are talking to a guy who was not raised on the street, who didn't do drugs or crazy stuff, who comes from a simple country with simple people. I'm not deep, not super smart, not stupid, just a normal guy. I have two dogs, a house. I like to train, I love life.
PLAYBOY: You don't wind up with two major releases within three months by being simple. The expectations for Street Fighter are high -- it's supposed to be your $100 million breakthrough film.
VAN DAMME: I would love the movie to be successful because the guy who did it, Mr. Sugimoto of Matsushila, put two big studios -- Columbia and Universal -- together for the first time since Towering Inferno. He put in his own money from his company and I received a good salary, double what I got for Timecop. So I would have been crazy not to do it.
PLAYBOY: He has already invested more money in remaking the Street Fighter video game with your image. Have you seen it?
VAN DAMME: They've had 600 people working on this one video game for the past two years. When I asked what it was about they said, "Top Secret." I know it's unusual and that they're using my face as Colonel Guile. So now the kids can play with Van Damme -- jump, dance, kick, get punched. I'm a part of a phenomenon.
PLAYBOY: And how are you in the film?
VAN DAMME: I'm funny, like Over the Top.
PLAYBOY: Did you feel that way about Timecop?
VAN DAMME: In Timecop I do everything -- break arms, kick, jump, do a split, do karate, aikido, street-fight, knife-fight. I even fight with tools. Plus, it is an intelligent movie.
PLAYBOY: No one would say that about your two previous movies, Hard Target and Nowhere to Run.
VAN DAMME: Hard Target was a bad script, but we had some great action scenes, and John Woo made me look like a samurai with greasy hair. Nowhere to Run, the script was also not that good. The writer told me he was going to fix everything. I was in his house, he shook my hand, he promised me, but he didn't fix it.
PLAYBOY: Did you always want to be a movie star?
VAN DAMME: Absolutely. I was crazy about movies since I was born. I wanted to go to America to become a movie star. My father was against me to go to the U.S. "Crazy," he said. "You'll never make it. So many kids like you, and they speak the language." Everybody tells me it's impossible, but when you have something in your head, you have to do it.
PLAYBOY: But weren't you already a success? You owned a gym in Belgium when you were still a teenager.
VAN DAMME: I was making a fortune with the gym -- $7000 a week, more than my father ever made. I was 19. I called it California Gym, and it was the biggest in Belgium. But I gave it all up -- the business, my family, even though I love my parents, my first marriage -- to come here. And when I came here it was difficult. I didn't speak English, I had no work permit. But I was happy. And full of ambition.
PLAYBOY: You make it sound easy.
VAN DAMME: It was not easy. Nothing happened for a long time. I learned the hard way. But you have two ways to go to Rome -- you can take the freeway or you can take the road.
PLAYBOY: Before you came to America, didn't you try your luck in Hong Kong?
VAN DAMME: Yes I had all these business cards from Hong Kong producers, but nothing happened. Then I came to America and nothing. Few people responded to me.
PLAYBOY: Did you feel like you didn't belong here?
VAN DAMME: No, I felt right, that L.A. is my place, like it's part of me, like I was here before.
PLAYBOY: Did you continue to train while you looked for film work?
VAN DAMME: I was very methodical. I was training four times a week, working at least ten hours a day, then going to casting, talking to people. I was always pushing, pushing, pushing.
PLAYBOY: Did you get any interesting work?
VAN DAMME: No. I was driving limousine. I did massage. Delivered pizza. Cleaned carpets. I was a bouncer.
PLAYBOY: Did you enjoy any of that work?
VAN DAMME: When I drove a limousine I took two women from Texas who were fortyish. They asked me, "Driver, do you have something to chew on?" I said, "Yes, bubble gum." "No, we want something to chew on, something in our mouths." They were trying to take me.
PLAYBOY: In other words, they wanted to chew on you?
VAN DAMME: Something like that. Their husbands sent them to Beverly Hills to have plastic surgery and they wanted something to chew on.
PLAYBOY: And you didn't want these women to perform oral sex on you?
VAN DAMME: They were ugly.
PLAYBOY: Did you run into such problems when you gave massages?
VAN DAMME: My first one. This guy took off his robe and he was naked. I said, "Do you have a towel?" He said, "Oh, I don't need it." I started to massage his back and he opened his legs. I said, "Buddy, that's it. I'm leaving." He stood up, it was half hard. I have nothing against homosexuals -- I have lots of friends who are gay. But that was it for massage.
PLAYBOY: As a bouncer, did you ever have to throw anyone out?
VAN DAMME: Never. It was in Newport Beach, at Chuck Norris' wife's restaurant. I drove three hours every day back and forth.
PLAYBOY: And when did you eventually work for Chuck?
VAN DAMME: I went to see him when he was with a friend of his and I said I could train him. But he wasn't sure so he have me spar with his friend and he sat and watched. I jumped in the air, started kicking -- the guy didn't expect that. Then I trained Chuck for months, for free.
PLAYBOY: Why didn't he pay you?
VAN DAMME: Ask him. I will never ask for something. After I train him every day he took me to dinner sometimes, and I also became an extra for him in M.I.A.
PLAYBOY: During this time you were also sticking your picture on car windshields, hoping a producer might call. Did you ever hear from anyone?
VAN DAMME: Nobody. I even went to the parking lots of the big studios like MGM and Fox, and also to the independent studios, which were more approachable. I always looked at the big cars -- they were the producers'. I left pictures of myself and my phone number. Thousands of pictures. Sometimes I followed some cars to see the houses. People think I'm nuts, but it wasn't to harm anybody.
PLAYBOY: It sounds pretty desperate. Did you ever wonder why you were having such a tough time?
VAN DAMME: Before I came to America I was on vacation in the south of France and had my dog Tara with me. She was a black chow. I really loved this dog. I treated her like a girlfriend, like the love of my life. I was walking her when I saw a man walking a big male dog, very healthy looking, and I thought he was the perfect guy to take my dog because I cannot take her with me to America. So I gave my dog to him. A year later I went back to see her, but when I got there I thought maybe it wasn't a good idea that she see me -- it will make her sad again when I leave -- so I bought sunglasses and I put on a hat for the dog not to recognize me. When I saw my dog walking, she had holes with no hair and I said to myself, "You are such an idiot. You give that dog away to follow your dream, and they're treating you like shit in America. You're doing two-bucks-an-hour jobs, and here is the dog who is loving you like nobody else, and you left her." I wanted to go and touch her, smell her, but if I did then she would be happy for one day and then become even more broken. Like if you go back to a woman you once loved but now respect as your best friend, she thinks that it's love -- a woman will not understand. So I stayed away for three days, looking at my dog every day and night, like a detective. Crying beneath my glasses. I left and returned a year and a half later, and she was gone. Gone. And the same happened to my parrot, a gray female. She loved me, she'd sit on my hand, stay on my shoulder. I gave her to an old lady and the bird died. The woman never called me. I will never give an animal away again. I thought, That's why God gave me such a hard time making it, to punish me. He loved the animals, they die, now you're going to suffer before you see the light.
PLAYBOY: Your suffering stopped when you finally got Menahem Golan, the co-owner of Cannon Films, to put you in a movie. What's the real story of how you caught his attention?
VAN DAMME: I tried to meet him for five, six years. Then I was going into a restaurant and he was coming out. I said, "Menahem, it's me, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Remember all the pictures I sent you?" He was busy doing business. So I said, "I can do great action films." And I kicked above his head, like a 6'2" kick. I impressed him. He gave me his card and said, "Call me tomorrow."
PLAYBOY: He didn't think you were crazy? You could have kicked him in the head.
VAN DAMME: No, the guy is from Israel. He came with 20 bucks to this country, he liked that stuff. The next day I called him, he wasn't available. So I drove to his office. Now, imagine me, I was driving a taxi, cleaning carpets, delivering pizza. Here I am in the penthouse of Cannon, the biggest independent company at that time. They had signed Stallone for $12 million for Over the Top, and I was on the sofa outside waiting for Menahem, who was on the phone shouting some deal. I thought, 'He likes to yell, he's a salesman.' I was there one p.m., two p.m., three p.m., four p.m., five p.m., six p.m. Sitting there all day as people came in and out. Finally he came out, tucking his shirt into his pants, and I go inside. This time I think, 'Jean-Claude, you're here for six years, everything is shit, this is your only chance to have a small part in a movie. Don't panic, don't sweat your hand when you shake his, be strong.' I felt all Belgium was behind me. Because many times people there cross my father, and they say to him, "Hey, we heard your son is a punching boy in America. How's the punching boy?" My father was in shame. I gave up the gym and everything. Imagine my father. I know about how Menahem came to America with $20, so I say to him, "I came to this country with $40 and I have nothing and I hope one day I can be somebody. I'm here for six years, nothing is going well in my life, so let's cut the bullshit. I know I've got something special. I'm inexpensive and I'm very good. You can make so much money with me, you can make me a star." I was almost in tears, and he saw my eyes were real. I said, "Look at my body," and I started to take off my shirt. "See the muscles I have." Then I took two chairs and did a split balanced between them. "See, I am flexible. I can do kicks, everything. I'm a young Chuck Norris. Maybe one day a Stallone. So what do you say?"
He said, "You want to be a star? I'll make you a star. You got a green card?" I say yes, which is a big fucking lie. "Do you have a lawyer?" "I will tomorrow." "An agent?" "Tomorrow." "Then you're going to make a movie. You're going to be the lead in Bloodsport."
My legs are like cotton balls. I can't believe it. When I leave I'm jumping all over like an idiot.
But then Bloodsport was delayed and delayed. Four months later I was on a plane to Hong Kong. Thank God it was set in Hong Kong.
PLAYBOY: Could you have done it in the States without a green card?
VAN DAMME: No. It was a good script, but they kept changing it. So the story ended up in the garbage and they kept losing sight of the movie. I had to recut the film myself.
PLAYBOY: Why would Golan allow you to do that?
VAN DAMME: Because he saw the movie. He hated it. He said, "Van Damme, it's a very bad movie." I go, "Menahem, I beg you, I saw it too, let me recut it." And I cut the movie every night with the guy who cut The Towering Inferno. The producer didn't know I was recutting it. I was such a politician. I didn't say nothing to him, I reported to Menahem every week. Then they put the film on the shelf, so he never saw the new version. It was not released for a year and a half. Then Menahem released it in France and all those countries, and I flew everywhere to promote it. I paid my own ticket to Malaysia, where it was the biggest box office. Two weeks later I flew to France, did karate kick for a magazine, did a split on the Champs Élysées. Big success because of the fighting scenes. Now you go to Asia, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Bloodsport is unrentable in the video stores -- it's always gone. It's a cult film.
PLAYBOY: Did Golan know he had a hit?
VAN DAMME: After he saw the box office he knew. He called me into his office and said, "Van Damme, the iron is hot. We'll do two more movies." By then I had waited so many months. I had other things I wanted to do, and also I had signed some contracts with small companies. So I said, "You said you don't need