“My name is Jean-Claude Van Damme,” announces the 57-year-old Belgian star in the opening words of Amazon’s surreal comedy, Jean-Claude Van Johnson. Van Johnson is his black ops alias, and those low-budget flicks he’s been shooting in Eastern Europe have just been an excuse to bust Bulgarian heroin traffickers. When not drift-racing drug lords or blowing up factories, this caricature Van Damme lives a quietly strange life. He rides Segways, hoards Pop Tarts, and occasionally agrees to kick ass in, say, an action remake of Huckleberry Finn alongside a female Tom Sawyer brandishing a straw hat and sais.
It’s been 31 years since Bloodsport made Van Damme an international star. For a decade, he was one of the most profitable box office bets until the drugs, and the flops, took charge. He spent the next decade taking his direct-to-video licks, and reemerged in 2008’s JCVD playing, for the first time, a meta version of himself who tears up saying, “It’s not my fault if I was cut out to be a star.”
JCVD should have been his ascension to legit critical consideration, but his dog had a stroke and Van Damme skipped most of his press tour. (The dog lived.) Since then, he’s kept scrambling his identity. In Jean-Claude Van Johnson, written by The Expendables’ Dave Callaham, directed by Keanu and Key & Peele’s Peter Atencio, and executive-produced by Ridley Scott, Van Damme is both hero and fool, an egotistical goon who, when confronting a look-alike stranger named Filip (played by himself, credited as an actor called, er, Filip Van Damme), he squabbles with him about the science of Time Cop. In person in Los Angeles, however, Van Damme is the image of sophistication in a three-piece gray suit and glasses. He’s ready to get serious.
You once said that when you finish a film, if you believed in the character, you feel empty inside.
The first time it happened to me, I was in the movie In Hell. The director said something that shocked me in a good way. He said, “You have to play a guy who’s more honest than in your real life.” How can I be more honest than myself? So I start to sit differently, talk to people more straight in the eyes. I came into the feelings of being a simple guy who worked in a factory, married. He goes through lots of suffering. But when the movie was finished, I feel strange to go back to the Van Damme with the convertible car.
Is that feeling the same when you’re playing a character called Van Damme?
When I play this, you come home, you’re dead tired. You have no time to know which one you play. I mean, you know which one you play, but you don’t know which one you love. I love all of them. I love the blond one, I love Filip, and I love Van Damme, JCVD, JCVJ, JCVV — that’s the real him, but it’s all good.
Does saying lines that someone else wrote for a guy named Jean-Claude Van Damme give you a different perspective on who you are?
The Filip character, those are my fans. Lots of my fans are simple people, blue collar, go to the factory, they’re waiting for the next Van Damme movie, and they go and they have a beer. That’s my audience, and those people are great. You have your conscious and you have your subconscious. You can be very stupid by knocking this cup of coffee on your pants, or you can do it another way, but it’s the same event: The coffee will touch your pant. So in this movie, we’re pushing the strange a little too much, like “Wow, fresh idea!” But the acting is very serious. I didn’t care about what they made fun of. I wanted to play as neutral as possible. I gave my best to them and they took the best and put this together. It happens like that every 20 years, great movies.
Filip Van Damme signed his own contract. Does he have your same signature?
Actually, I signed a different one. You know contracts. It’s the lawyer, you know the rules.
Did he get paid the same?
No. Scale. Filip is not difficult.
In the first scene, this Van Damme can’t do the splits. If you do the splits every day, will you be able to do them when you’re 100?
Every day, no good. Three times a week. Every day will inflame you. You have to be careful. Also, some people are lucky. They have different types of hips. They have closed hips, open hips.
Yes, yes, yes, it’s true. I was not very flexible when I joined karate. But I was 9 years old, so we start young.
Early on, the show also shoots a close-up of your character’s pot belly. Have you ever really been out of shape?
It happened before on that movie, Derailed. I was out of shape. It was winter and I was upset. It was 9/11, all this CNN and the War in Iraq. I’d close the curtains and watch TV. I didn’t pay attention to much of the movie. I was eating in my room ice cream, meat — in Bulgaria. You stop training, that’s when you want to eat more. I wanted to get out of there, but I was signed to do this movie. Play or pay, I cannot go back.
How many times have you been to Bulgaria?
Oh, eight, nine, ten, twelve times. Many times.
This is set in Bulgaria, but for once, you got to stay home and shoot in L.A.
Can you believe that? I go, “We’re gonna shoot in Romania or Bulgaria?” They go, “No, no, no, we’re going to make Bulgaria here.” Here I am trying to escape and shoot in Los Angeles, L.A. studio, and then I see Bulgaria around me.
You choreographed several of the fights.
The old-fashioned way. You get those guys, they’re very good-looking, big muscles, but they cannot project a belief into one punch or one kick. In my school, Shotokan way, you have to be ready to go “Pop! Pop!” and that’s it.
What do you think of the John Wick, new James Bond fighting style?
They have big tools to play with, acrobatic, big money. But just two guys, if it’s well-choreographed with pushing and dialogue — “Are you gonna kick my ass?” “Oh yeah, you’re gonna kick my ass” — and then we have a fight, it doesn’t need a big crane. Two or three close-ups to where it hurts [punches palm of hand] Ooooaaaah! It can be expensive in terms of emotion. When you see those mafia movies, they bring so much danger to the scene and the eyes. We’re scared more of that presence than the actual action. To build something and explode. Cause all those guys, John Wick, I love it — pah, pah, shing, shang, whoop! — but it doesn’t go like this in real life.
Does anyone dare to try to fight you in real life anymore?
No, no. I’m who’s very difficult to fight with because I’m very simpatico. If a guy is pushing me around, I’m relaxed. Until it’s red alarm.
What physical comedians do you like? Buster Keaton? Charlie Chaplin?
People who don’t talk? Chaplin was amazing. Also, guys like McQueen that didn’t talk much, or Bronson. Also Bruce Lee. For comedy, Robin Williams. I loved Jerry Lewis when I was young. Even Jerry Lewis in that movie King of the Comedy when he’s not being funny. And the telephone — how do you say, telethon? — for the handicapped children he did.
Your charity is for endangered animals in Australia. Why Australia?
They have lots of space. And they have lots of animals there.
And they have emus, which here remind the fictional Van Damme of his childhood.
And they have horses. You know all the racehorses for Dubai? They’re all in Australia. They have many things in Australia. They have animals who doesn’t exist anywhere else, but also they’ve lost lots of species. Thousands.
How can we get people to fight for the environment?
Education. And also, people are weak. The best way for the earth, but it’s against logic, is if we can adopt instead of making children. But go tell that to two people who love each other, or some Catholic. That would be the only solution: less people, less disaster, less pollution, less food to consume. That will not happen. And then we have Mother Nature’s solution, which is water going up and up and up.
What about seeing movies in theaters? Is that going extinct?
Yes. But today, you have those flatscreen TVs, double-sized, you can stick them on the wall in two seconds. Stuff like that, I’m not afraid anymore. This was an expensive show. The first episode cost a fortune. I’ve got my CPA next to me and I go, “Look, so beautiful, so rich.” “Yeah, all this for a portable phone.” It hurt me because the lighting and all this for a portable phone.
How do you describe your career so far?
Right now, I’m doing well and things are going up. I don’t know if the show’s gonna be successful, but it will not hurt. The film business is one of the most beautiful businesses in the world — entertainment, Hollywood — but it’s not everything. The more you grow older, 55, 56, you start to understand that life is becoming short. You know the number 1-100, right? So one-quarter, half, two-thirds — when you’re close to two-thirds, does the one-third go like the normal database, or shorter? So we have to do more. I’m happy that I did go to the Amazon field. Why? It’s more big as a communicator. Like, if I was the messiah, I’ll come down on a website. So I can reach everybody: phone, TV, PC.
Between JCVD and JCVJ, you let a camera crew follow you for five months for the documentary Jean Claude Van Damme: Behind Closed Doors. Are there parts of your life that aren’t for entertainment?
I’ve got private time at the gym. And in my car. I love to go to the gym cause I have my silence. I like to drive my car. I have lots of dogs. I love my dogs, I love my friends, everything is beautiful.
How many dogs do you have?
Eight dogs. All different sizes. The smallest is like this [shrinks hands to the size of a basketball]. I’ve got chihuahua and Akita, Japanese something. The biggest is Harley. He’s like a lab. He’s goofy, but he’s such a good dog.
You’ve been wanting to work with Ridley Scott for a long time. What did you talk about when you finally met?
About signs and the Sumerian empire.
The Sumerian empire?
We talk about because he made that movie Prometheus — I say Propheseus, and he goes Prometheus, ah it’s the same. Ridley knows about everything. You can talk to him about here and there. He knows everything. Smart guy.
I heard your mom is coming to the Van Johnson premiere in Paris.
Can you believe? I told her a story in the course of my career, “Mom, one day I’ll go back to the big theater, like in Time Cop time, and it’s going to be in Paris.” Now we have the premiere in Paris, Ridley Scott and Peter and Amazon — it’s like big, right? So everything happened.
Do you like the movie Synecdoche, New York?
Which one? I didn’t see it.
PETER ATENCIO: There’s a lot of that in this.
Oh yeah? The Nut King? You’re gonna write it to me.