Looking for the real Jean-Claude Van Damme

Gulf News: March 7, 1998

By Rohini Bhatia-Singh

Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night?" someone asked Jean-Claude Van Damme at the press conference during his recent visit to Dubai. "Yeah," he replied, "sometimes I wake up at 3 in the morning to eat chocolates." Now that is one thing we certainly did not know about him - either as Van Damme the actor, or Jean-Claude the person. But who is Jean-Claude Van Damme really? In the '90s, a notion of a star is rabidly post-nuclear. We expect our heroes to encompass a cornucopia of traits; to leap on to the big screen and perform incredible feats and woo us - and then charm and delight us when we meet in person. And, when we do meet them, despite all the hype and hoopla, they tend to be pretty normal people.

So it's 10:30 on a Thursday morning and with reservations, I leave to spend a day with the star in Dubai. As I am leaving the office the previous night, one of my fellow journalists inquires about what I am planning to wear. "What difference does it make?" I say. "Well, you're spending the day with Van Damme," comes the quick reply. That pretty much sums up the impact Van Damme has on women.

Even the most intelligent tend to go dippy in his presence, or at the mention of his name. But let's be fair, he charms just about everybody - men, women and children alike. Children, in fact, adore him. His acrobatic displays of flying fists and feet in cult favourites as Bloodsport and Kickboxer are their reference points for 'cool stuff'. Couple that with his ability to deliver a kick an opponent's head during a leaping, execute a 360-degree turn and do the splits between two walls, and you have a pretty good idea of how kids can go a bit hallucinatory about him.

When you're with the man, you can't help but look beyond the brawn, and wonder who is the person behind the muscle. Surprisingly, what you see is a questing intelligence, a wit that can sting or fool around, and a smile that hangs on the corners of his mouth - hinting at a naughty kid within who is just living his dream. To get on with the Thursday morning rendezvous, I catch up with him to be told that he apparently woke up early that morning.

Nine am. "That's early, because I and Mohammad (referring to Mohammad Al Habtoor, CEO of Al Habtoor Group who is his friend) had a late dinner last night," he says. Dressed in blue jeans, a beige T-shirt, and sunglasses, he seems a trifle shorter than I expected, and not as bulky as he looks in the movies. But first we talk about breakfast. Today it's sushi. And yes, he does eat with chopsticks. (Talking of food, I get an update on the Chinese dinner of the night before - prawns, lobster, fried beef, fried vegetables, lemon chicken - a must-have for him and rice with lots of Perrier water to wash down the meal).

He kick-started the morning with a quick shower and then an hour of stretching and strengthening exercises. "I must exercise everyday, no matter where I am," he says. His famous body is a testament to his hard work and discipline. At 5-feet-10-inches and 180 pounds, he's not as big a fellow as immigrant-star Arnold Schwarzenegger in bulk - or box-office. Not yet... but maybe soon.

So what does he think of Dubai so far? "I think it's great," he replies. "And from a film-maker's point of view, it's a great place to not only shoot a movie because of the desert and so much history, but it's a great place to do post-production as well." The Dubai desert reminds him of the deserts of Morocco and Arizona. He is collaborating with the Al Habtoor Group on possibly three projects including co-production of the movie "Inferno", which will commence filming in April in locales such as the Arizona desert and Dubai, with an international supporting cast which has yet to be announced.

A special project, "The Eye of the Falcon", will be a collaboration between the two groups interweaving Arabic ambience into the action-thriller. "This is the right time to come to the Middle East and use it as a backdrop in an international film," says Van Damme. He was referring to such acclaimed movies as "The English Patient" breaking new ground for independent production companies to come to this part of the world and make movies.

"If you think about it, Dubai is only a seven-hour flight from London," he says, "and here, you have the desert, the ocean, good warehouse facilities and state-of-the art computer facilities. Nowadays, you only need a couple of laser computers and two or three people to finish and edit a film."

Jean Claude Van Damme... his eyes are set on Dubai. Gulf News. Obviously, he is not just a muscleman who does amazing feats on screen; he is an astute businessman who knows his way through the maze of film finance and production procedures. Although he counters, "I am an artiste first," he adds, "But I must be practical... to see an idea come to life, you need a budget and with the astronomical figures needed in movie-making these days, you better know what you are doing."

Would he consider co-starring with other action guys like Schwarzenneger, Stallone or even Steven Seagal? "If you have an action star... if you have Arnold and Van Damme or Seagal and Van Damme or whatever you want, they are going to pay the same money for the same type of people," he emphasises.

"Arnold was smart. He took De Vito for the comedy part in "Twins", and he starred himself as the action guy. So for the same price he got two different types of audience. In other words, me and Seagal will bring in the same money, maybe a million more, but me and Jim Carrey will be great because he will make a goof and will go behind my back and will go... 'hey (Van Damme grabs his neck with his right hand) save my wife'," he laughs.

"So that might be fantastic. So I try playing different types of people. But you need a great director," he continues, "because comedy is about timing. My latest movie, Knockoff, is a comedy and you're going to love it. So I made a right move. Like you say in your country, Inshahallah, if God wants me to act in other types of films, I definitely will."

Director John Woo, (of "Broken Arrow" fame) who worked with Van Damme in the 1993 action-thriller Hard Target, says, "Van Damme is an 'action- artiste'." Ary Harrouch, Van Damme's friend and creative director who is accompanying Van Damme on this trip to Dubai, says, "He's a great and caring person. He loves kids, he loves his profession and he loves life. Jean-Claude is just a kid at heart."

In the face of such testimonials, a sceptical journalist might be tempted to set up a toll-free hotline for anyone with anything different to say about the "Muscles from Brussels" as he is commonly referred... Anonymity guaranteed. However, he hasn't been exempt from the run of-the-mill Hollywood sniping. There have been blatant suggestions that his success has come at the cost of his personal happiness (Van Damme has been married four times).

His fouth wife gave an emotional interview to Hello magazine last month, citing the actor's hectic schedule and irreconcilable differences as reasons for the marriage breakdown. Yet, despite the personal dark clouds, he seeks his silver lining in his total dedication to his work. He has a reputation for giving 100 per cent on the film set and is very passionate and focussed about films and film-making. He proves that a performer can do fine work in an action-genre. His kind of films may not make the same waves as "Titanic", but they have a following that is just as frenzied and sincere.

You must give him his due - even if fists connecting with bone and feet flying like demonic doves is not your cinematic catharsis. He has come a long way, and his triumph is much more impressive because he won where so many others fail. Van Damme grew up in Belgium and was a thin, small, child who wore spectacles. He took both karate and classical ballet classes.

By the age of 18, he owned his own gymnasium and was well on the way to success. His training in ballet paid off as he was offered a place with the Paris Ballet - which he turned down because he wanted to be an actor and go to America. Why do you think you succeeded when so many others fail? I ask him. "(Because) I had a dream," replies Van Damme, "and I believed in my dream and never let go of my belief."

He went to America in 1981 and scrambled for a living working as a pizza boy, driving cabs, a bouncer in nightclubs and, sometimes, just sleeping in his car and scrounging for food. His big break came when he became Frank Dux in "Bloodsport". The years before he got his break - 1981-88 - were the hungry years, but he did not give up. Ever. "I always had faith in God and in myself. I just knew that if I got that one chance, I would be prepared."

It is at times like these that you forget his Muscles from Brussels image and see a human spirit which has triumphed over odds. There is iron will in him and an old-world charm, and together, they leave a more lasting impression on your mind than do his incredulous stunts on screen. "A bientot, mademoiselle," he says as our interview draws to a close. A quick wave and then he's gone.

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