The Muscles from Brussels Comes Clean about his Battle with Drugs, Depression and Divorce
Entertainment Online: October, 1998
Interview by Joey Berlin
Some things pack a bigger punch than Jean-Claude Van Damme. Like cocaine. Manic depression. And marital troubles. Even the Muscles from Brussels can't handle that combination, and now he admits it nearly cost him his career - and his life. Van Damme was one of the biggest action stars on the planet in the late '80s and early '90s, thanks to films like Kickboxer, Universal Soldier, Street Fighter and Timecop. Then came the emotional and drug problems. He left third wife Gladys Portugues and their three children to marry Darcy La Pier. Their brief, tumultuous run included a rehab stint and allegations of abuse against the star. Van Damme says he now has his demons in check. He's taking medication for his condition, has quit cocaine "cold turkey" and returned to Portugues and his kids. He has a new film, Knock Off, a Hong Kong action flick shot two years ago that also features funnyman Rob Schneider. But he's more excited about two other movies he recently completed that display more than just his action skills. Because these days, Van Damme is eager to show off his human side.
Berlin: You're back, onscreen and off. Are you enjoying it?
Van Damme: It's a great comeback for me, because I'm with my family and kids and everything. I'm back with my ex-ex-wife for the last six months, which is great. I've done my circus. I've done my mood swing. I've done all my s**t. Now I'm back good. I'm stable. I'm relaxed.
Berlin: With your emphasis on fitness, how did you ever develop a cocaine problem?
Van Damme: It was a mixture, more than just the drugs. It was emotional. It was relationship, friendship, disappointment. It was about many things. Then I stopped training. I was just having enough of pulling the rope. You really need some good people behind you just to come out of it - which is yourself, the first one.
Berlin: How did you get clean?
Van Damme: Just by saying, "Stop!" When you're ready to come back, you come back. If you're not ready yourself, nobody can help you. Not clinics, not medication. To me - I don't know about the other people - it's depending on you.
Berlin: Was there ever a moment when you thought you might not come out of it?
Van Damme: It became a point where I wanted to die. I didn't have any reasons to live. Maybe it's selfish to say that, but I was not excited about anything. Then you have to find back your self-esteem. And then, slowly, every piece of yourself becomes precious again. One day it's, like, either you pass or you don't. It's not the drugs, it's a problem with yourself, which you have to cure.
Berlin: Did you feel like your fans abandoned you?
Van Damme: No way. My fans are always there. People with taste have taste. [Laughs] It's not the fault of people, it's yourself. Millions of kids look up to you.
Berlin: Do you think, after all this, you're still worthy of being a role model?
Van Damme: I think it can be taken as a good example. There's nothing wrong to slip, if you come back. It's like a champ. If you go in a ring and you get knocked out, you train again and you come back as a champion. I never hurt nobody but myself. I was hurting myself because I made some big boo-boo with my private life. I always felt I was listening to the wrong person inside me. Since I'm back together with the family, with the wife and the kids, nothing will take me down.
Berlin: Gladys is still technically your ex-wife, though, isn't she? Will you two marry again?
Van Damme: I don't know. She doesn't care. I'm back with her in the house with the kids. We don't know yet. I think I'm going to move to back east to New York. I miss the culture. I miss Europe. It's difficult for me to stay in Los Angeles, because I have been to so many parties and so many hotel lobbies and all that bull***t. I'm sorry to talk that way, but it's just like it's not there. It's a big piece of billboard.
Berlin: What are your goals today?
Van Damme: It's not really my career. It's to find peace with myself. That's the absolute career. Making movies or TV or plays is great, but when you go home tonight, you have to be happy with yourself and your family. That's the biggest achievement you can do. Right now, I'm here to talk about Knock Off because it's part of my career, but my life will not depend on my career. You know what I'm saying? I just want to be happy.
Berlin: Unfortunately, your private life plays out in public. How has your family handled that?
Van Damme: My Gladys - she's there to help me and forgive me. And my kids, I'm just a hero when I come home. They know about everything. We talk open. They know me, they know the real Van Damme. How old are they? Eleven, seven and two and a half. Boy, girl, boy. Oh boy!
Berlin: Has therapy helped you?
Van Damme: It didn't help me too much. I'm sure it is good for some people. I met a great neurologist five years ago. The first time I went to his place, he said I was a daily cyclo-manic depressive. Which means in one day I was having a wave of three, four... up-and-down stuff. That's why I'm so quiet and less alive now. I've got the same passion for everything, but I was fighting that thing. I was fighting it with the karate when I was young.
Berlin: Are you on medication now?
Van Damme: You just have to take a little salt, and since I'm doing that it's, like, BOOM! In one week, I felt it kick in. All the commotion around me, all the water around me, moving left and right around me, became like a lake.
Berlin: You take salt?
Van Damme: Yeah, it's valperate sodium [a medication usually used for treating seizures]. It's like a lithium type of stuff, but you don't have to go for the checkup. Lots of people have it, and they're doing well with it.
Berlin: What kind of drugs were you abusing? Just cocaine?
Van Damme: That's it. That's what I did. But everything is a drug in life, when you think about it. Coffee, cigarettes, love, shopping, making movies, oxygen, training. Training is my biggest drug. Not these days but before. I was compensating for my manic-depressive disease with training. When I didn't train for a couple of days, I felt so low and nothing could make me happy. I'm telling you, you don't realize how crazy I was mentally without that salt. That simple salt! If someone has a drug habit in Hollywood, do people look the other way as long as they're showing up for work? If the guy makes money, what he's doing to himself is his own problem. Hollywood will forgive you, but that's not too important for a guy exposed to drugs. What he has to do is make peace with himself and forget about the box office. For the studio, it's the money. But for you, it's your self-esteem. It's two different answers. For me, everything is fine now. Everything is beautiful. Happiness is the cure, being happy with yourself.
Berlin: After all the years of action films, how is your body holding up?
Van Damme: Okay, still okay. But everything has a price. The body's getting used. I'm 38. What you have to do is keep on training. You have to go to the gym, like, every day so you don't get rusted. I read some article years ago about Sly [Stallone] saying with the age it becomes more difficult to go to the gym. It's mental and physical. It's not that easy. But I was lazy for two years, so this is a good film for me. Knock Off came when I started to come back. I just finished two movies since Knock Off. They're in the can right now. Tell us about them. One is like a foreign legion-type movie in the 1930s. It's like a Beau Geste in Morocco. It's like The French Patient, not the English one. And I just finished a film with [director] John Avildsen, a very crazy movie called Inferno. I play a crazy guy who wants to kill himself. He's an alcoholic and don't care about life too much. It's a very different type of movie. No makeup, no beauty, long beard. Crazy comedy. It's like a Pulp Fiction in the west. It will be a very surprising movie for the Industry. Your movies have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars around the world?
Berlin: Do you get respect in the film business?
Van Damme: It's the wrong time to answer, because Inferno and the foreign legion movie are so different.
You'll be surprised when you see them. I don't know what to tell you. I look like that strong, macho, kick-ass action star, which I portray in those movies, but I can do something else.
Berlin: You sound really humbled.
Van Damme: Maybe you're right. Maybe it's good, you know? Because what I really am in life is just another guy, you know? When you go through life, you start to realize that.