For a while in the early ’90s, Jean-Claude Van Damme was box-office Viagra. (Believe it or not, he’s the second most profitable actor of the last few decades.) The guy had everything the era demanded in an action star: personal trainer good looks, a perpetually oiled chest, mastery of the mid-air splits, and an amusingly thick, Tommy Wiseau-esque accent. (Incidentally, he also shares Wiseau’s propensity for baring his ass on film). He spin-kicked his way through blockbuster smashes like Bloodsport, Kickboxer, and Timecop, achieving global mega-stardom. But then, shit happened. Tastes changed, Van Damme discovered cocaine, and suddenly he was trapped in VOD purgatory. His career went flaccid.
That’s the sorry state in which we find Van Damme at the beginning of the new Amazon dramedy Jean-Claude Van Johnson. He’s in the throes of has-been-hood — washed-up, downcast, and apathetic, drifting through his hideously opulent Malibu home on a Segue, and getting confused with Nicolas Cage at restaurants. But things take a turn when Van Damme calls up his agent (played by Phylicia Rashad) and decides to resurrect his career. That’s when the truth, and the very funny premise of the show, emerges. All those low-budget flops he’s been filming in far-flung locales? Turns out they were just a cover for his real job as a black-ops assassin, code named Van Johnson.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen Van Damme skewer his faded fame. He did it in 2008’s JCVD, in which he played himself as weathered, aging former star caught in a bank heist. His self-aware performance displayed a surprising amount of pathos and heartbreak, proving the crazy bastard could actually act. But in Van Johnson, written by The Expendables’ Dave Callaham and directed by Key & Peele’s Peter Atencio, Van Damme is mostly just looking for LOLs. In this third act of his career, the 57-year-old is allowing his entire film oeuvre, and the perception of himself as an actor/martial artist, to be used as source material for jokes. Thankfully, the jokes are good. When we sat down with Van Damme, Callaham, and Atencio earlier this month, the Muscles From Brussels displayed his command of a skill we’ve rarely seen in him: the side-splits.
Jean-Claude, I was caught off guard by how hilarious you are in Jean-Claude Van Johnson. Have you always been his funny?
JCVD: Yeah, funny is one thing. I can be funny, but the story was also funny and well written for me to able to extérioriser... how do you say? To express myself as an actor. The director chose his own team of writers very carefully, so it stays great. He’s very demanding, but not demanding, if you know what I mean.
DC: He’s selling himself a little short; he’s a very naturally funny person. There are people who, when they’re interacting with people in a room, they like to have fun and play jokes and they lighten things up. And Jean-Claude, you wouldn’t describe yourself that way, but that’s how I found you.
That’s true. Jean-Claude plays such a tough guy in movies, but whenever I’ve watched interviews with him, he’s always had this jocular, playful demeanour.
JCVD: Yeah. Life is so short, you know? Your first name again?
JCVD: Alex! Ah, like my big brother in Hong Kong, Alex Van Damme. Or remember the other Alex? Double Impact.
JCVD: Never mind. I was talking about Chad and Alex in Double Impact. It was a long time ago. You were not born yet. (Laughs.) Your voice sounds so young and so good! You have a good voice, by the way. Very big.
Wow. Thank you so much!
JCVD: And yeah, what else? Everything was great. Great show. What was the question again?
DC: I don’t remember either! (Laughs.)
I was just saying you’ve always had this funny side to you in interviews.
DC: Saying that you’re muzzled is a really good way to put it, because I suspect that’s the reason that this has turned out the way it has. I think that Peter and I have also felt muzzled by on our respective roles in Hollywood. The thing that’s unique about the show is we’re being allowed to do a lot of things that there’s no way you could do on network TV. There’s no way we could sell this as a movie to a major studio. So Amazon is giving us this opportunity and all of a sudden, like, all this stuff gets to pour out of all three of us.
I can’t even imagine what your pitch to Amazon must’ve sounded like.
DC: It was so confusing to them that they just said, ‘Okay.’ They didn’t want to admit that they didn’t know what I was talking about. They’d probably deny that, but they always sort of let us do what we wanted. They could tell we were passionate and that we felt confident in what we were doing. Amazon is a very good example of a company that made their way by just trusting creative people who had ideas that don’t sound that marketable, to be honest, and getting out of the way.
In the first episode, there’s this scene where Jean-Claude tells a waiter, “I’m not Nicolas Cage retired, I’m retired retired.” What does it mean to be Nicolas Cage retired?
PA: Well, in the show he’s really stepped away from everything. He really has no connection to the film industry, and that’s where he’s starting from. I think to be “Nicolage Cage retired” is really where his career in real life was a few years ago, where he was doing VOD movies and things that were seen more outside of America, but within the context of what we in the US consider being less successful or having a lower level of cultural awareness than he enjoyed at one point in his career. I think a lot of stars go through what we call “Nicolas Cage retired,” where they’re still creative and making really interesting work, but it’s just not on the same stage that it once was.
Jean-Claude, when I was growing up in the ’90s, it felt like you were the biggest star in the world. Your face was everywhere. Nowadays, that fame has obviously subsided quite a bit. What’s it like to experience something like that?
JCVD: It’s an amazing experience. To go from nothing, from being a kid from Belgium who has to fight, first of all, to become strong mentally, and to go up against all these expectations and fly around the world and try to become something. It’s a long story, but basically it was great all the way up. You know that Conor McGregor guy, right? He had nothing, then he had success, and now he is in those suits and is enjoying his life. But that’s going to go away in a couple of years from now if he keeps on fighting, by the way. And then it goes away and then you’re looking for something else. And sometimes in life you can go down, which is great in a sense, but tell that to nobody. Because going down you can discover some amazing things that you can take note of and advantage of, and when you go back up, you’ll know what down is. And you’ll see some people in your life who are down there and you can tell them something they’ve never heard before. Look, I was down there, and now look where I am today with this show and all the people surrounding me. It’s almost like a miracle!
So there are no rules in showbiz. One day you hit it big and you score, one day you don’t. The actors of Hollywood, including me, they should not take themselves too seriously. You have some very smart actors and you have some very dumb actors. I’m telling the truth! Maybe I’m one of the dumb ones, but we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously! It‘s just like on this show — we go, we have fun, and it’s a job. It’s an art. It’s like painting. That’s what I like to do today, more than just going along and having people tell me how big I am as a movie star, when I’m just a normal guy. That’s just how I feel today about me.
So basically, you wouldn’t have the perspective you have today if you didn’t hit rock bottom.
JCVD: Of course, I didn’t want life to bring me down. Actually, I wouldn’t have jumped from a third-storey window knowing I could break my legs, but if someone was pushing me there from behind, it’s a different story. So that’s what life is. If I did not go down there, then how could Dave Callahan write a script like Jean-Claude Van Johnson without my life story? Dave took advantage of it, in a good waym and portrayed me as a movie star, as a normal guy, as very raw, as I am in real life. And hopefully we will have a second season, but you never know in life. If we don’t, believe me, I will not be sleeping because I will be sad for a while, but it’s only a show, okay? We have to think about other things in life also, you know? Global warming, the kids, the food, Congo, all that shit.
Clearly, one of the central themes of the show is the decline of the ’80s action hero. You guys sort of poke fun at all those old tropes (i.e. training montages, massive explosions, the one-man army) that now seem terribly outdated. I’m wondering what the subtext is there. What’s the role of the action hero in our culture today?
JCVD: In today’s culture where? In America or Europe?
Oh! That’s a good question.
JCVD: Because in America today, they like the woman to save the day. Which is cool. But in other countries, they like the man to save the day. And in some other other countries, they like something else to save the day. And what’s great about Amazon is that everybody can see everything they want. But I believe right now, in Los Angeles, they want it to be the woman. And that’s why Wonder Woman was such a huge success. So I think it’s just different types of cultures. And it goes up and down. Like, when they’re saying all those Missing in Action-style movies are gone — when Missing in Action and Rambo came out they were huge successes. You never know, in life, what will be the flavour of the moment. Right Dave?
DC: Don’t look at me. I’m just a writer.
JCVD: I don’t think that’s true!
DC: I would say that though the show is specifically about an action star, one of the things I’m very interested in as I get older, and something I’m able to explore through Jean Claude, is as you get older, if you’ve happened to have specialized in a field that is more reliant upon your body or your health, what happens when that goes away? You look at professional athletes, what happens when they retire? A lot of them freak out. I was really interested in exploring that notion. What am I going to do the rest of my life? Am I still the person I used to be? I think that’s relatable to people in all cultures.
PA: I also think, to your original question about the role of the action stars specifically, that the ’70s and especially ’80s and ’90s were the first time people were able to see stories on a global stage and these men were really a fairy tale we all loved to see. It was nice to think of a strong person saving the day. I think as we’ve continued to be connected, we’ve realized that that’s probably not something we should throw all our trust into. And I think in a lot of ways the global culture is having an existential crisis in that you can’t really depend on one person to come in and clean up and save the day. What this show is especially about is how that realization affects those action heroes themselves. What is it like for the people who were in that spotlight under those circumstances to lose some sense of power?
Well, at least there’s one thing Jean-Claude hasn’t lost: the ability to do the splits.
JCVD: That’s right! (Laughs.)