Warning: SPOILERS for Jean-Claude Van Johnson
From splits-ing his way to victory in Bloodsport to punching snakes the fuck out in Hard Target, Jean-Claude Van Damme has always been the epitome of the ‘80s-'90s action movie star. He represents the golden era of action movies, back when men put their bodies on the line for their art and their insistence on performing stunts resulted in daring and realistic depictions of explosive and thrilling cinema. Hand-to-hand combat and well-choreographed fight scenes sprinkled an air of authenticity into these pictures, and it’s the reason why we still find guys like Van Damme so inspiring after all of these years.
In his latest project, Jean-Claude Van Johnson, Van Damme plays himself with a bit of a twist. In the show, he is playing the Hollywood movie star we all know and love, but he also doubles as a secret agent who completes missions in faraway countries while simultaneously filming movies that eventually go on to be released in the states. He had given up his secret lifestyle (as well as his ultra famous one) and gone into retirement, until an old flame named Vanessa re-enters his life and draws him back into his old games. Now, with both his life on the line for his country, and the love of his life close within his grasp, Van Damme will have to see if he still has what it takes to get the job done and get the girl back – and still arrive ready to fight on the set of his new big movie. Will he be able to complete the impossible? It’s all in a day’s work for the Muscles from Brussels.
Birth.Movies.Death: Bruce Lee once said that “Honestly expressing yourself is very difficult to do. It is easy for me to put on a show and be flooded with a cocky feeling and feel pretty cool and all that, or I can show you some really fancy movement, but to express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself, now that my friend, is hard to do”. How does this concept of being true to oneself play out in your newest project, Jean-Claude Van Johnson?
Jean-Claude Van Damme: Being true, it’s like being true to your character and being very real. They say acting is a great word, it’s a word we know, but trying to tell the truth about this character, even though it’s a comedy, you really believe you are that person, wondering if he’ll get what he wants. Wanting what he wants. Then, when you as an actor believe it too, it works.
BMD: How much of your onscreen personality is really you? Is this autobiographical at all?
JCVD: Yes, I mean some has my way of thinking, and maybe not only one character, maybe on one of the many characters I take on. It feels good to go from action, one-dimension guy, to do something like Filip, a Robin Williams type of figure. It’s kind of fun, you know? It will be surprising, I believe. I get to play so many different characters in my secret missions.
BMD: It’s interesting because your character isn’t just re-entering the game as an action star, but somebody who’s fighting for the love of his life. Can you talk about creating humanity in this character and branching out from the action to fulfill a role people can relate to and invest in?
JCVD: I think it’s cool because it made me look very vulnerable and very kind of realistic too. Because men, you know, they love women, they can go nuts, and vice-versa, and this character of Jean Claude Van Johnson, he’s a very emotional and sensitive guy, so it has all those multi-layers that women like and hate.
Peter Atencio: (laughs) Definitely both.
BMD: Love the big action set piece of the helicopter garage and signature splits at the end of the show. Can you speak to filming that scene and revisiting the risky stunt that made you famous?
JCVD: Well I mean it’s not my idea, you’d have to talk to the writer because the writer came up with those ideas.
Dave Callaham: We had a drawing on a white board in our writers’ room of that helicopter garage because we knew that we needed to have him doing the splits to hold something together, so the first idea we had was a helicopter garage, so we drew it, laughed for about two months, thinking ‘There’s no way we’re ever going to get a fucking helicopter garage. It’s so stupid.’ And then we got into production and we were still doing a helicopter garage and then we got into prep and then we did a helicopter garage! That’s a terrible story about how the helicopter garage happened.
Peter Atencio: Well no, what really screwed us was I went to visit the writer’s room while they were in writing and they told me about this idea and I got like really excited and I was like, ‘Yeah, we can totally pull that off!’ Like, just promised them the moon, so then they were able to hold that over my head every time I was like, ‘Guys we can’t do this one part, this costs too much money’, and they were like, ‘Yeah, but you said you could do the helicopter garage so we gotta get that’, and I’d have to say, ‘You’re right I did say that but I was stupid in prep’, so they just kind of bullied me into keeping it, really.
JCVD: Yes and I mean what’s the expression, we all knew it was going to be kind of funny, right? I asked them, ‘So are you going to hear my bones snap?’ and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah! Of course!’ and while we were filming they were like, ‘Make it look like you’re really suffering! No, more intense! Like you’re losing everything!’ and I said, ‘Are you sure it’s not going to be too funny?’ and they said, ‘No, no, it’s going to be good!’ I see that camera coming in and coming and coming and up to my eyes! And then I’m on the floor like a cripple, right? And then the pretty girl looks at me and says ‘Are you okay?’ and I say, ‘I’ve never felt so good in my life’.
Peter Atencio: It just felt like the right emotional cap for everything coming together and the perfect ending for this season.
Dave Callahum: Whose emotional journey doesn’t end in a helicopter garage?
Peter Atencio: Yeah! Their body ripped to pieces internally.
BMD: As stated in the show, you come from the golden era of action movies with mainly hand-to-hand combat and choreographed fight scenes. What’s your take on the recent shift toward big superhero movies that use a lot of CGI, like Marvel and D.C. movies?
Peter Atencio: Cartoons! They’re making cartoons.
Dave Callahum: Superhero movies are great.
JCVD: I think it’s great, but I think even in those big movies there are some good action stunt guys, but we came from movies where we became famous because of what we’re doing physically, so that was our forte.
Peter Atencio: Yeah I think that’s the difference. Growing up watching Jean-Claude’s movies, it was like, that person is really doing that, you can get invested, you know that it is real, you know that it is happening, there are real stunts happening and that actor is putting their body in harm’s way for the sake of telling the story and there’s a real intimate, personal connection with that and I think really now, almost every movie is an action movie. Like, there’s just an action element in so many movies and in a lot of them, there’s a real disconnect between that humanity and that realism and what’s happening onscreen and you don’t really get that anymore, so, when I see movies now, there are certainly big action movies and superhero movies that don't do that, it’s just rare. I like watching what Jean-Claude does, it’s amazing.
BMD: At this point in your career is there one project you’re particularly proud of?
JCVD: Yeah, this one. Not because we are promoting this TV show, I would say a movie, but this has everything to please me. And if I do an action movie today, you just go there, you wait, they have so many mini-writers they’re going to make sure that if there’s something wrong they re-shoot the scene, and it’s just so fancy perfect. There’s all these tests, and these big monsters, so you just stay in your trailer and you just obey the script. It’s too well done, in a sense. So now when I do action movies, I look for a story. Like a story that will please you more. Like, Pound of Flesh was one of the lowest movies I made as far as being well made and shot, and some country played that piece of shit theatrically, and it made money, because the story was there and if you stay honest in your film people will respond. So I’m looking for a story that’s honest as possible and has good quality. At least eight million dollars can make a good movie today with those French type of movies with eight million dollars, but it’s possible to make movies between the big ones.
BMD: And it’s interesting, too, because there’s kind of a passing of the torch towards the end of this show to Kat Foster’s character Vanessa --
JCVD: Yes, but I’ll take it back later I hope.
BMD: Yeah, I thought it was interesting that it was passed to a girl.
JCVD: Yeah I mean I hope she will call me back at least. She did come back, though. At the end when I’m in my wheelchair (pretends to be slumped down in wheelchair) (everyone laughs).
Peter Atencio: No, but that was a very conscious choice in the plotting of the whole season.
Dave Callaham: Yeah you’ve seen the whole thing, obviously, you can see it clearly progressing over the course of the season, women coming up over the course of the season, and the men kind of coming down a little bit is something we were really interested in telling just because Jean-Claude comes from an era where, you know, women weren’t functionally featured as much in those movies, so we thought it was really important as today’s day and age to have three dimensional characters with needs and desires and you see Jane and you see Kat and you see Christina come up a little bit at the end and do some cool stuff that you don’t usually get to see.
BMD: Kat Foster, who plays Vanessa, called this show a feminist piece. Would you agree?
Peter Atencio: That’s definitely one major aspect of the theme which is, entering the modern world, what’s next? J.C. as a cultural icon represents this era which is very set in certain ways and there were kind of norms about that period that I think are antiquated now, and so I think over the course of the season and over the course of the show, he’s very pulled into this modern world, so everything that happens around that is very reflective of that. We wanted –
JCVD: He wants to go Gaddafi style. You know Muammar al-Gaddafi? Gaddafi was a dictator and all of his bodyguards were women. Like tough women, like handsome women would protect him. So Jean-Claude Van Johnson is very much in the same vein as Gaddafi’s women.
Dave Callaham: I will say that in the end, in the final fight that happens, we talked a lot in the development process about, ‘How do we surprise people with this show? What’s the one thing that you’ve never seen happen in the final Jean-Claude Van Damme fight? And we finally realized it was him not being in it. He’s not in the big fight, which is shocking, but he’s obviously doing something else that’s very important, which is saving the day in his own way while Kat is saving the day.
Peter Atencio: Yeah, he’s having an emotional battle by himself while the female in the story is actually saving the day and killing the bad guy.
JCVD: But I promise you, whether it happens again next season, I will not be holding the broomstick.
BMD: As far as your future is concerned, what would you like to see happen in the second season, and are there any upcoming projects you’d like to discuss?
JCVD: With those two cuckoos over there, you never know.
Dave Callaham: That’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten.
JCVD: Jurassic, maybe.
Dave Callaham: Do you want to go to space?
JCVD: Mr. [Jeff] Bezos, he loves space. But also you can go middle age!
BMD: So true!
JCVD: Are you doing martial arts?
BMD: I would love to. Do you have a favorite style?
JCVD: For women? Karate, taekwondo, there’s so many good classes for girls.
BMD: What’s your favorite?
JCVD: Shotokan from Japan.
BMD: Will we get a new Universal Soldier movie?
JCVD: Oh, that would be great. I would love that.