Jean-Claude Van Damme stars in and directs The Quest
Flexing new artistic muscles


Before Mel Gibson's Braveheart, movie directors were usually balding, bearded, or wore baseball caps.

So for his latest action flick, The Quest, set for release next Friday, martial arts poster boy Jean-Claude Van Damme tried his darndest to get himself one of those cap-wearing director dudes.

"I dreamed of having a guy like Oliver Stone direct the picture," says Van Damme, who, instead, makes his directorial debut.

"But when I met him and told him how I saw the movie, shot by shot, he said, 'Jean-Claude, the way you talk about it, you should do it yourself.' It was maybe a polite escape for him to say no, non?"

Sprawled across a couch on a recent film shoot in Toronto, a sleepy-eyed Van Damme is still recovering from the advice he took.

"It was very difficult to do -- physically and mentally," admits the 35-year-old, referring to his gruelling acting-directing work days, which includes his requisite two-hour work-outs at the end.

The film is about a New York street fighter -- "I'm like a white Mike Tyson" -- who sets out to commit a crime and ends up redeemed in Tibet. For the actor-director it was a labor of love and the start of a new 'movies-with-substance' Van Damme era.

"It's more than just a martial arts movie," he says, "It's an epic. It's the Ben Hur of all martial arts films."

Casting for the film's fighting finale, a competition between fighters "of all different colors and countries", Van Damme auditioned hundreds of non-actors who could kick butt.

"I wasn't looking for actors who can fight, I wanted fighters who could act -- and I found them. Natural people who look tough, look real, and can deliver some good lines."

One inspiring casting choice, as Van Damme's bad-guy partner in crime, is former Bond-man, Roger Moore.

"He has his own acting style, but I wanted something different," says the first-time director who took charge. "I told him, 'Roger, you do it your way first and then we do my way, and we'll decide in the cutting room.' And he listened to me, it was fantastic."

But if the quest of The Quest is to show the action star's directorial abilities, Bloodstone, which he just finished shooting in Toronto, is meant to unearth his acting talents.

"It's a love story-drama -- a mix between The French Connection and Seven," says Van Damme. "And it's the first time I really get into a character -- my acting improves 10 times. For the first time in my life, I'm enjoying what I'm doing."

"I've made so many low-budget movies that were shot in six weeks with first-time directors. Now, I want to make great movies," says the actor. "I have enough money now to take my time, and look for great projects."

He'd like his fans -- like the dozens of teenage boys who've stopped him on Toronto streets to perform his famous kick -- to see his vulnerable side.

"They have to know you have the person in the story, and you have the person in real life, and I'm just human, like all of you."

His future directorial efforts, he says, will continue to be "more deep, less adventuresome movies. Believe it or not, I really like love stories."

After Toronto, he's off to shoot Spies, where he'll portray "a spy, like a big James Bond -- but with a French accent."

C'est la vie.

April 20, 1996

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