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‘JCVD’ Star Jean-Claude Van Damme on Life, Acting, and Everything Else

Having a conversation with Jean-Claude Van Damme, we're quite pleased to report, is just as awesome as you'd always hoped: The Muscles From Brussels is friendly, talkative, sincere, and, most of all, prone to wild tangents and non sequiturs. Van Damme makes his much-anticipated return to the screen this weekend in JCVD, in which he plays an exaggerated, down-and-out version of himself, embroiled in a custody fight and trapped in the middle of a bank robbery. New York's David Edelstein calls the film's pivotal scene "the most amazing piece of acting I've ever seen by a martial artist." Van Damme spoke to Vulture by phone yesterday about pretty much anything he damn well pleased. Trust us, you'll probably want to read this.

So how did JCVD happen, exactly?
It was first a script was written by the producers; they had a relationship with the studio, Gaumont. They came to me with a script called King of the Belgium, a comedy. And in the studio, they have a lots of offices with names of producers. And one young man walked by, and he saw "Jean Claude Van Damme project: King of the Belgium." And he said, "Wait a second, can I read that script?" It was [director] Mabrouk [El Mechri]. They said, "Sure, read it." And he came out and said, "This is a complete piece of shit. You're gonna put him in a piece-of-shit movie! I want to direct this."

He knew everything about me. Everything. And he knows everything about a lots of people. Because he's some crazy guy. He had an idea that was very special, and it happened. He left the country and came back eight days later, and he came back with a script called JCVD. I don't know where he went. He had a broken heart, his girlfriend left him. He's a very sensitive guy. He didn't want to tell me. But other people told me. But he wrote me a nice piece of story, half real, half fiction. I was completely amazed.

So you developed a pretty close relationship with El Mechri?
With everybody. I don't have a bad relationship. I'm 48 years old. I think life is too short for that. To me, life is... you open the shutters, you see the dogs outside, you look left, you look right, in, what, a second and a half? And that's a life. How old are you, Amos?

I'm 24.
Oh, okay. I'm double. What I'm saying is, when you'll be double, we look at life differently. When I was 24, I was full of life. I was that ham who wanted to be famous, a movie star, all that stuff. I think it's cool. But it was not what I was searching for, really. It was more a delusion.

Did this movie help you find what you were searching for?
This movie didn't help me find something I'm searching for, but this movie helped me open up on a big way, without being afraid to act the way real men would act in a bank-heist situation, stuff like that. Like Dog Day Afternoon.

It allowed you to be more vulnerable onscreen?
It's not that. It was that the story becomes you. And then suddenly you don't follow the script anymore, the script is following you. If you're that good as an actor, the script is behind you, it's over. You're living the film. You start improvising. I never saw De Niro following a script. He's starting with an idea, and a close-up. The first impression is so important. The first close-up can really establish your character. If you eff up that first impression, it's time to do it again. Otherwise, the movie will be canceled — finished — in the minds of the people. So the first time you see me in JCVD, a guy doing big karate stuff, and then suddenly coming out of the studio, and then you go to his vacant room, that's the first impression. That's when the close-up is telling people, "This guy seems nice."

Was there a point where the movie was cutting too close to real life? Or were you encouraging the directors to take more from reality?
I saw myself on the screen — I was disturbed. I was not like, "Wow, I made a great movie, some great action." No, no, no — I was disturbed for a couple of days. The truth is like, why did I open myself so much? I opened the fruit, I peeled the skin, I cut the pulp. I put the pit, and I cut the pit, and I show inside the pit to the audience. I didn't just cut the pulp, you know what I'm saying?

Everyone's talking about this direct-to-the-camera monologue you have in the film. I understand it was inspired by your actual conversations with the director?
Yeah, it's difficult to have those real emotions if it's not coming from you. Because no matter what you say in life, the truth will always be the truth. You know when someone is telling the truth, you look in the eyes. I have a tendency to believe people. Very much so. This is my movie. This is my movie, sir, so if I say something from the top, I'm the top, without mentioning the egotistic feeling, okay? What I promise to my actors, and to my director, is to give them the salary and everything they need. [The lighting guy] said, "Wait a second, Jean-Claude Van Damme the kickass guy is asking me if I have enough of a lighting package?"

[The publicist cuts in: "We have time for one last question..."]

Amos, I'm sorry, because, the lady… Amos, she doesn't like to do that. It's her job, if not, she's gonna get grounded by the company.

No problem. Can you tell me about the movie you're directing, Full Love?
Oh, the movie, it could be great, but I don't know if it's good for my career. It's a tough movie where I like to tell the truth from the movie point of view, where I take the audience into a story. It makes sense and no sense at all, but at the end they'll understand why it makes sense. And between the ending and the movie, something will happen… Something will happen.

Related: JCVD review [NYM]
‘JCVD’: ‘Synecdoche’ for Dummies [NYM]

Photo: Getty Images