PROFILE: 'Muscles from Brussels' takes stab at bad-guy role

By AYAKO KARINO, Asahi Shimbun News Service

Jean Claude Van Damme has built his reputation by acting the larger-than-life hero in a number of action movies. But his incredible physique and martial arts skills are by no means the only attributes that have made him a Hollywood success story.

The 41-year-old actor is now trying to prove that there's much more to him than just his action abilities, as seen in his latest film, ``Replicant.''

Here, Van Damme takes a shot at playing a serial killer-his first ever ``bad-guy'' role-while at the same time portraying a newly cloned copy of himself, brought to life genetically to team up with a detective to track down the killer using its lost, confused memory.

``Playing the bad guy means playing over the top. In that sense, it wasn't such a big challenge for me because I've seen quite a lot in life now,'' said Van Damme in an interview during a recent visit to Japan.

``But playing the clone was difficult. It wouldn't be so bad if it were dumb or stupid. But this clone is `neutral,' which means it's not informed and therefore doesn't know what it should think or feel.''

Playing contrasting double roles would be a test for any actor, but Van Damme shows he is more than up to the challenge. In particular, his role as the lonely, bewildered clone shows another side to the brawny action hero fans tend to expect from him on screen.

The way he portrays the timid, naive character suggests he really once was a ``skinny, sensitive kid who loved classical music and painting,'' as he said. His rough, tough-guy film characters, it seems, do not reflect his real personality.

As his nickname, ``The Muscles from Brussels,'' suggests, Van Damme grew up in Belgium, where his parents were florists. It was his father who introduced him to the world of martial arts at age 11.

``My karate trainer Claude Goetz was optimistic, very different from my father. The classes provided me with joy and some space to escape my pessimistic family,'' recalls Van Damme.

The young Jean Claude was always serious about his training, spending hour after hour in the gym repeating jabs and karate moves. The martial art was still relatively new in Europe, and Van Damme eventually became the only child in the class.

``Which was good because it made me kick higher, trying to reach the adults' faces,'' he said. ``It improved my skills. Like they say, nothing's a coincidence.'' By 19, Van Damme had trained in all manner of fighting styles from Shotokan and tae kwon do to kick-boxing. He even learned ballet for five years, although that was for personal rather than physical reasons, he said.

``I was deeply in love with beauty, you see, especially the beauty of the ballerinas. I was very keen on trying to hook one of them up for a relationship,'' said Van Damme with a laugh.

It's little wonder, therefore, that Van Damme's physical movements on screen have a smoothness and grace that distinguish him from his action hero rivals.

But martial arts and ballet are two very different disciplines, he explained.

``Say, for example, the way you move the hip. When you do a jab or a kick, you can play with it, but with ballet you have to keep your hip constantly still in a rectangular shape, like this. The two diverse styles helped me build lots of different muscles,'' he said, giving a lightning demonstration.

Van Damme's dancing was of such a high standard that he was even asked to join the Paris Opera, while his karate skills won him first prize in a European competition. But those achievements meant little to Van Damme, who was beginning to set his sights on becoming an international action movie star.

``I was a moviegoer every since I was a child. Sitting in the dark theater, watching the big epic movies such as `Ben-Hur' and `Blade Runner' made me feel so good,'' he said. ``I was the dramatic, nostalgic type, and films really fascinated me.''

Even the business success he achieved in Brussels-making as much as $7,000 (945,000 yen) a day as the owner of one of Belgium's first large fitness clubs-was not enough to satisfy Van Damme. Leaving his flourishing business and despairing father behind, he traveled to the United States in pursuit of his Hollywood dream.

Nothing could have been harder for an unknown 19-year-old who couldn't speak a word of English. With neither a green card nor a friend to rely on, Van Damme survived by doing odd jobs from taxi driver and carpet layer to restaurant waiter to bouncer at night, while constantly attending auditions and meeting numerous directors and producers during the day. He had no place to stay, so he made his home in a battered Volkswagen.

``But I never forgot to stay clean,'' he said. ``I would get up with an alarm clock every day in the car, brush my teeth and do the laundry. I didn't forget to train either, to keep fit for the big chance to come.''

Van Damme appears to have found stardom through a combination of extraordinary determination, burning ambition and quiet patience. After five years, he finally received a phone call from movie mogul Menahem Golan, whom he'd walked straight up to in a Hollywood restaurant the previous night to demonstrate a breathtaking mawashi kick.

``I was pushing so hard, but nothing was happening. I was just about to have a nervous breakdown-you know, a real breakdown where you just can't cope anymore-when it all happened,'' he said.

In the producer's office, Van Damme launched into his usual spiel, only to stop halfway through.

``I said: `Look, forget it. Just take me for a film. I'm good. I'll do it for free.' Then I took two chairs and did the splits between them. I took my T-shirt off and showed him my muscles.

`` I felt tears flowing down my cheeks. He must have seen that my eyes were for real, for he shouted to one of his assistants: `OK, OK. Hey, get me ``Bloodsport.''' It became my first starring film. After five years, though. Five long years,'' he repeated.

``Bloodsport'' was an enormous worldwide success in 1988, securing Van Damme's new status as a martial arts action movie star. From then on his career took off, and the actor has since appeared in nearly 30 films.

Yet despite the standing he has achieved in Hollywood over the past decade, Van Damme's ambition and love of films remain undiminished.

``I'm playing a role of a monk for my next feature film, `The Monk,''' he said enthusiastically. ``It's my first comedy role. I hope it will provide another side of me, yet again.''

*    *    *    *

``Replicant'' starts today at Ginza Cine Pathos, Shinjuku Toei Palace and other theaters around town.

Febrary 24, 2001

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