What Are You Looking At?
Empire magazine: February, 1995 (Issue #68)
Interview by John Naughton
In No Retreat, No Surrender, he wore an unspeakable white suit and broke the leg of someone he barely knew. In Kickboxer he slid between the legs of an extremly fearsome man with a ponytail and punched him fair and square in the do-re-mi. In Cyborg he endured many terrible flashbacks in which he was forced to sport a risible Christopher Lambert-style hairdo, but he still managed to shout a lot and kill everyone. In Nowhere to Run he smashed large wooden posts over people's heads and hit nice Joss Ackland with a car door. It is with a sense of impending annihilation, therefore, that I phrase the following indelicate question to the so-called "Muscles from Brussels", the fourth biggest action hero in the world, the man whose biceps appear larger than many a woman's waist and who has a very worrying lump on his forehead. "Tell me Jean-Claude Van Damme, is there any truth in the rumour that on a recent visit to these shores, you made an indecent proposal to the lady press officer who was your companion for the day?" He sits up from the horizontal position he has been occupying on a Dorchester hotel sofa for most of our interview, and leans forward. Oh dear, is he about to deliver your correspondent one of his bespoke head butts, as he did himself in Double Impact? Thankfully no. Instead, he removes his gold-rimmed granny glasses with one hand and starts to massage his eyes vigorously with the other while letting out an almighty sigh and groan. This groan sounds like nothing so much as the noise made by the lead singer of Boney M. (a Dutchman if memory serves) at the end of their song, Rasputin, where he sighed, "Ohhgghh, those Russians." Jean-Claude Van Damme, you see, even groans with a foreign accent.
"Ohhgghh, why do they make up those stories?" he ponders in his uniquely guttural Franglais. "To make it juicy?" Van Damme was, for example, recently involved in a court case in which a woman allegedly claimed during the making of the film Hard Target, he and his fourth wife, Darcy LaPier invited her and her boyfriend to a hotel room and forced them into a spree. Why is this? "Oh, I don't know. It's sad." Could it be, I suggest, because he continually promotes himself as a man with an extremely healthy libido? "Maybe, I don't know. You'll have to ask the person who told you that story. You see who I am. Hey, you know what? I'm doing a movie, I'm happy. If that's the price you have to pay, it's still acceptable. If nobody touches my family, my children, that's fine. I know what I'm doing. I know what I'm saying. I know my act, blah, blah, blah. If they had me on radio saying these things that would be a different story."
Van Damme was born Jean-Claude Van Varenburg in a small town in Northern Belgium 34 or so years ago. Van Damme is slightly coy about his precise age, preferring simply to emphasise that he is much younger than his box office rivals, Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Seagal. As a child he was considered slow and even his parents thought he had a speech problem (a view which has persisted with some of his audience.) Thin and with thick-framed glasses, he looked like the sort of schoolboy whose dinner money regularly found it's way into the pockets of other children, until he took up karate. Since then no-one has kicked sand in his face. "When I started karate I was like a pencil, skinny as hell. Too much wind - I was flying away," he explains with his characteristically engaging turn of phrase. Along with his karate, he took ballet and kickboxing lessons, earned a black belt, won a Mr. Belgium bodybuilding contest, set up a gym and then threw it all in to become a movie star. An unhappy stint in Hong Kong spurred him to head for Los Angeles, where his career stalled at the carpet-laying and pizza delivery phase until, the story goes, he spotted Menahem Golan, the head of Cannon Films, across a crowded restaurant. Walking over to him, Van Damme delivered his martial arts calling card, a high-stepping leap and spin in the air, followed by a kick which missed schlockmeister's bonce by the width of a gnat's nose. Golan set up a meeting for the next day, signed him, and made Bloodsport, Cyborg and Kickboxer at a total cost of $5 million. Together, they grossed about $150 million. Van Damme had arrived.
Today he's in London to promote Timecop, an action picture that cost $27 million, and later this year, for a fee of $8 million, he will appear in Street Fighter (along with wee Kylie Minogue), the movie of the video game. In between times, Jean-Claude Van Damme has made some truly awful films. So it is time for the career overview and, like the legendary pow-wow between Marti DiBergi and Spinal Tap, time to consider the wounding words of the critics. One review of Kickboxer wrote, "Mr. Van Damme is a sensational discovery, combining the balletic grace of Mikhail Baryshnikov with the acting ability of a turnip." How does he feel to share an accolade with Graham Taylor and be likened to a tuber? "What is a turnip?" asks Van Damme. The root vegetable properties of this cruciferious biennial having been clarified, Van Damme continues. "It's sad because I know that inside I'm a good actor. When I act, even in movies like Bloodsport, they were very low-budget movies, but my fighting techniques, my scream and passion for my fight, I mean it, it's always sincere. So the guy who wrote that is a turnip, because he cannot feel it. Sometimes actors are great, and around them it's bad, but they still shine. That's the answer. All my movies make money, and the audiences see something and they like it." They certainly do. And they see it again and again, because throughout Van Damme films have followed a strict formula. These days he can command directors like John Woo and scripts from Joe Esztheras, but it used to be a much simpler affair.
The staples of a successful Van Damme flick are as follows:
1. Enormous fight in the first five minutes in which best friend/brother is crippled by improbably large villain.
2. Long period of training, generally at the hands of wise old cove from the Orient.
3. A line of dialogue explaining how Jean-Claude came by his curious and frankly foreign accent.
4. Jean-Claude gives everyone a glimpse of his bottom.
5. Jean-Claude does his famous "splits" routine.
6. Final huge fight scene in which improbably large villain is laid low (not before attempting much skullduggery) by Jean-Claude's new improved kickboxing antics.
An optional extra on the standard Jean-Claude model is that he sports either a ridiculously macho or a simply ridiculous character name.
Which does he consider his favourite moniker? Was it Ivan The Russian in No Retreat, No Surrender or Gibson Rickenbacker in Cyborg perhaps? "I like Suska. It's what my grandma called me, it's like a Belgian slang, something very cute. Nothing to do with movies. I like the name Chance in Hard Target (full name Chance Bourdreaux), not because of the movie, but it's a cool name. My mama took one..." he explains, quoting a line of the film and weighing my knowledge of his oeuvre.
And which film does he consider his absolute worst? He ponders the question for a few moments before pronouncing, "The worst was Cyborg. (This proves the point, it dared differ from the Van Damme formula, no buns, no splits and paid the penalty of being rubbish) You know what? It sells, though. I could make so much better. I'm never happy about anything I'm doing anyway, never satisfied. Timecop, when I saw it again, I saw my own mistakes, on my part." Ones that the public would notice? "They don't see it. But if I do better they can go 'Wow!' They don't see the size of the chocolate, but when it's there it's one cube, it's one block. It's a block, you know?" Actually I don't, but we must press on.
Married four times and with countless stories testifying to his enthusiastic extra-curricular lovemaking activities, it would seem fair to assume Jean-Claude Van Damme is a romantic man. In the flesh, he's much shorter than he appears on screen, five-eight or five-nine, no more, and not broad in an unfeasible failing-to-fit-through-door-frame kind of way. He is however, undeniably good-looking, notwithstanding that large bump on his forehead which the studio wants him to have removed with plastic surgery, but which Van Damme seems to like. Kitted out in simple blue V-neck jumper and white T-shirt and wearing jeans and calf-length biker boots, it's not hard to see why he has such a large female (and male) following. Would he consider himself an incurable romantic? "Oh, very. Very romantic." So what could a Van Damme date look forward to from an evening with Mr. Muscle? Would it be all carefully planned in advance or, as Mills & Boon would have it, an act of wild spontaneity? "All in advance," avers Van Damme with a gravity becoming such a serious subject. "Because I've got a great imagination. I will call the woman and tell her we'll go out for a nice dinner. I will not tell her what, I'll surprise her. I'll tell her, 'How you going to dress?' I want her to dress in a special way, very classical looking. And they love to hear that. They love to hear that the male's expecting something special from them. They will go shop all day so that they can dress a special way, to be something beautiful. And I'm not making fun of them, I respect that absolutely. And then we go for a nice dinner. Low lighting, yellow, dark, shadowy, the glass of wine, water, fire, and then the rest isn't important. It's the chase. It's the mental chase. I'm very intellectual with love. Love-making is being intellectual. If you can understand what the woman wants intellectually, she will have such a good time with you. Because I'm very intellectual. I need something special to make love."
So it's an intellectual rather than a mechanical thing? "Absolutely!" But to get down to mechanics, there is one subject on which all action heroes like to expand and that is the size of their manhoods. In Nowhere to Run, Van Damme even worked it into the script, with a dinner table discussion between Rosanna Arquette and her son, Kieran Culkin, on the penile dimensions of the hero. So, cards on the table Mr. Van Damme. Are you hung like a horse or a hamster? "A horse or a what?" he replies with customary vocab deficiency problem. I explain the nature of our wheel-rotating rodent friend, a creature renowned for being rather light in the trouser department. "Oh, hahaha. Well, a dick is a dick, it doesn't matter the size. Women don't care. Guys care. That's why they like to build those huge buildings in a dick shape. It's ego. That's why all those studios are betting on the highest price for an actor, or highest price for a script, because it all comes down to ego. And ego can destruct men easily. But women don't care. If they really love a man, it doesn't matter. If they love a man for the size of their dick they won't come to me."
He starts laughing again before saying, "Hey, you're a funny guy." I'm not sure how to take this. It sounds like the sort of thing he might have said to Dolph Lundgren in Universal Soldier before chopping his body into a thousand pieces. When did he first become aware he had a gay following? "It was a couple of years ago," he suggests. "I have lots of gay friends, people working with me in the business, they're gay. Great people, doesn't matter to me." But why Van Damme rather than the other action stars? "Because they have no taste! No, lots of people have a gay following. Arnold does, Keanu Reeves, Mel Gibson. Gay people are gay people and straight people are straight people, we're all people." Van Damme is clearly a tolerant and mature man, but he's not telling the whole truth here. His early films were aimed full square at a gay audience. He has, I suggest, few inhibitions about showing the world his bottom. "No. It's my dream! That's why I'm doing movies! Came to Hollywood to have my butt shown all over! That's really the answer to acting. I can act with my butt! It's hard you know. If the script requires a butt then I show my butt, but it's not a necessity. When I get more power and control over everything then I can become more decent." Given all his much-trumpeted heterosexual activity a thought crosses my mind. It is thought that dare not speak its name. Here goes. Have you ever had a homosexual experience? "No. Why? That means me attracted by a man?" Indeed it does. "You know, homosexuality has been with us since the time of the Romans," he muses. "I'm not homosexual but I'm a very big fan of friendship. And I've been training for many years in schools and camps where all guys are together for weeks. And it's good to feel the strong handshake of a friend. It's different that the handshake of a woman. And I love women. So, in a sense, I understand homosexuals, because the body of a man and the body of a woman are two different types of paintings. Like I said, I'm not disturbed by homosexuals. They're great people. And you have great straight people. And you have stupid homosexual people and stupid straight people, you know."
Despite his bulging physique, Van Damme has repeatedly stated that he has never taken steroids. People might find this hard to believe. "The camera loves me," he explains. "I look very big on camera. I don't know why, but that's the way it is. One critic really hurt me, my first movie, Bloodsport, he said, 'He's worth his weight in steroids'. I go, 'Fuck, I've trained so many years'. I've got a following with kids, and I don't want them to take them. If kids believe I'm taking drugs then they're going to shoot themselves up to become like me. That's stupid. They want a role model. With drugs it's the worst you could have. All those guys that took a lot of shit, they have difficulties having kids, especially male children."
So no steroids then, but surely he must have dabbled in the occasional recreational drug as a younger man? "You know, I'm very late on everything. I never took any drugs. I smoked cigarettes, and I was sick about it. I'm from Belgium, and Belgium is like a village. Maybe if I was born in London or Paris, or Los Angeles... but I didn't. So everything came new to me. For example, I like biking. Biking came to my life three years ago! I'm 34, and at 31 I started to enjoy biking! And rock'n'roll, music like Guns N' Roses, I start to like it now. I was introduced to that stuff later. Horses! I mounted a horse just a year ago, first time. (The horse is rumoured to be preparing a lawsuit.) Everything came new to me. A late developer!"
Late developer perhaps, but Van Damme is making up for lost time at a frightening rate. He has taken the Schwarzenegger template (hard work, silly accent, big muscles) and written over it with a little more humanity and, dare one say it, a little more intelligence. He is, of course completely mad. Time is running out. He holds up a copy of Empire and starts to discuss his next project, The Quest, which, God help us, he is going to direct. "For The Quest it will be the biggest piece of shit ever. I will be on the cover of Empire... The back cover!" He starts to laugh again. As I make my way to the door, he shouts, "Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas!" I cannot help noticing that it's only the first of December.