If the Beatles and the Rolling Stones spawned their own dueling fanbases, connoisseurs of late 1980s and early ’90s action flicks often have their own disagreements about the merits and appeal of Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. While the former generally smashed heads and cracked skulls with the disposition of a sullen ox, the latter had a more compact frame, and a kind of balletic karate skill set to match a slightly more engaging personality. Known as “The Muscles From Brussels,” the Belgian-born Van Damme would put his stamp on the action genre with a string of increasingly profitable hits like Death Warrant, Double Impact, Universal Soldier and Timecop, the latter two of which were $100 worldwide smashes. Changing tastes and struggles with drug addiction would combine to derail the genre actor, but Van Damme turned heads with 2008?s JCVD, in which he played a sad-sack version of himself, and he’s been acting again (and even directing) with regularity. In his new movie, Assassination Games, Van Damme portrays a contract killer who reluctantly teams up with a man (Scott Adkins) driven by vengeance after his most recent hit goes sideways. We had a chance to recently submit some questions by email to Van Damme, about Assassination Games, the arc of his career, the upcoming sequel to The Expendables and more. The intriguing answers, inclusive of Facebook and dogs, are appended below:
ShockYa: Seemingly not many action films would allow for the sort of overt emotionalism that marks the final act of Assassination Games, when we see a tear pass across your character’s face (and another charged scene with Scott Adkins’ character). Do you think that necessarily reflects a change in the tone/tenor of action movies now versus the 1980s and ’90s, or is that perhaps just a coincidence, and reading too much into things?
Jean-Claude Van Damme: Your question is interesting since I think it really asks if the genre is changing. In action-dramas this type of character performance has been relatively common, but in straight action movies character development and overt emotion have often been lacking. There is certainly some degree of change occurring, and I think it is an improvement. The idea of showing a human side to a character as opposed to one-dimensional “slam-bam” is overdue. The director of Assassination Games is a very good director, with a broad background. This gave me a chance to stretch my acting chops a little bit, and I really enjoyed it. I look forward to seeing more of this type of [character development] intercut in action films.
ShockYa: Assassins make somewhat popular movie characters, because of course they’re dark and interesting, and people can vicariously live out that sort of intrigue or violence, whereas in real life it would likely be quite nasty and isolating. When you’re doing a film like this, do you necessarily work out a backstory for your character, or does it not really matter as much as what unfolds on screen, between [the characters]?
JCVD: Well, I have never actually been an assassin, although I suppose a couple waiters in restaurants over the years might disagree. A backstory in that sense is only as good as my own imagination. A sense of the character is driven by both the story, the director and the actor’s own sense of the character. I had in my mind a sense of who I felt Vincent Brazil was, and I often considered how Vincent might see things while I was off the set. Movies, as we know, are often stylized, so in that sense you have the latitude to do something cool — which, as you observed, is probably not the case with a gainfully employed assassin.
ShockYa: What level of involvement do you have in plotting/choreographing the action scenes in a movie like Assassination Games, and how (if at all) has that changed over the course of your career? Did you used to be more/less involved?
JCVD: I am a bit crazy when it comes to action scenes, and I always have been. I studied from age 12 under Claude Goetz, who is a perfectionist, and that in turn caused me to be a perfectionist. I am very fussy about movements, position, and the realism of action moves. I am always involved in planning the action scenes, and sometimes to the chagrin or I hope appreciation of a director, I am equally involved during editing, to ensure that an action scene looks the way I think it should. Over the years, I have gained more experience, and I hope that translates into what I am able to contribute to a film.
ShockYa: What was the production of Assassination Games like (the number of shooting days, etcetera), and how important if at all is rehearsal to you?
JCVD: We shot for around a month on location. We certainly rehearsed. For me rehearsal is important because it helps you to focus and visualize a scene better than simply reading from a script. As you go in character you see things differently than you do when you only read a script. Things begin to come alive. When you rehearse a fight scene, things sort of pop out at you. Only then can you really finalize what you want to see out of that scene.
ShockYa: You’re 50, but hardly look it, especially in the movie’s shirtless scene. What sort of fitness regimen do you follow, and is it an everyday thing, or just a couple times a week, for “tune up”?
JCVD: The role of Vincent Brazil actually required me to drop some mass, so as I answer your questions I probably look about 50 percent better than I did in the film. Exercise is a part of my daily life. I am in the gym for two hours at least five days a week. However, it is the quality of the workout rather than the duration that is really critical. I have a training regimen that has worked very well for me over the years. Some I have adapted by myself and some I must thank Claude Goetz for.
ShockYa: Two of your children, Kristopher and Bianca, appear in Assassination Games. Although you don’t share many scenes with them, what was it like having them on set as adults?
JCVD: It was easier than having them as children — less candy and toy breaks. Seriously though, I am very proud of both of them. As a parent, I could not have wished for my children to turn out any better than they have.
ShockYa: How was 2008?s JCVD first pitched or presented to you, and how quickly or slowly did you come on board with it?
JCVD: I was spoken with around a year before the film. They walked me through the story, and I met the director. The timing was really good. I had been in period where I was coasting a bit; things were pretty routine and repetitive. I immediately fell in love with the idea of showing what I could do outside the traditional type of action films I am known for.
ShockYa: Not to be impertinent, but I know there was a period of your life when you struggled with drugs and addiction. Assuming that’s in the past, have you found a return to work to maybe be a very important and grounding experience, or does it more have to do with Gladys and family? I ask in large part because of that amazing monologue in JCVD, which seemed to have this amazing, cathartic (off-screen) quality to it, which was such a shock to a lot of viewers.
JCVD: Yes, I studied pharmaceuticals at one time. I think I was in charge of cause and effect. I woke up quite some time ago with the realization that self-destruction was not a desirable path, and in that sense have not looked back since. You mention Gladys, my wife. I have no words or superlatives to describe this woman — “grounding experience” is an understatement. My rock is my family, my wife, my children, and my parents, who are truly amazing in their own right. As for my monologue, Fidel can still speak longer than I can, and my kids say six minutes is a breeze when I lecture them. I tend to open up in this way. Please remember JCVD is fictional, but there is a character parallel. I will leave it to you to guess which part was me and which was JCVD.
ShockYa: Of all your movies, which one do fans seemingly mention most often?
JCVD: There are probably four that I hear about often: Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Timecop and Double Impact. I actually get a lot of fan feedback. I have a Facebook page and I am very active there. A lot of the fans don’t really believe it is me answering them, but it is. I read their comments, I can’t answer everyone individually, but the feedback is really appreciated and I really enjoy it.
ShockYa: On a somewhat related note, how many (if any) fans ever ask you to do one of your trademark splits, and could you still pull it off?
JCVD: It looks like this was the opposite of a compound question. Yes I can still do the split, and yes I appreciate analgesic ointments after a few splits.
ShockYa: You turned down a role in The Expendables, reportedly after Sylvester Stallone personally called and asked you to be in the film, but you are in the sequel. What didn’t fit or wasn’t right the first time around, and what made it a better fit the second time around?
JCVD: This is what people say but it is not actually correct. First, Sylvester Stallone is a great guy, I have always been a big fan of Sly and his films. I would have loved to be in The Expendables. The film turned out really well. At the time I had other commitments that would just not allow me to be in the film.
ShockYa: What can you tell us about your character in The Expendables 2, and whether there is an effort to incorporate as much of your style and ability as possible?
JCVD: At this point I think it is only fair that the producers describe The Expendables 2, but from what I know the film is going to be quite something.
ShockYa: Finally, is there anything you never get asked about in an interview that you wish you were – some new or secret hobby, perhaps?
JCVD: Yes, I have a very serious hobby – dogs! I have had dogs since I was a kid. I have quite a few dogs. Some are rescue dogs, and I am quite passionate about it. I also do sport dog training for agility, obedience and protection. There is a sense of teamwork, and an empowerment between you and the dog that is amazing. I have posted a few “homemade” videos on the Internet doing training with the dogs. But don’t get me going on this subject, or you will run out of print space.
Written by: Brent Simon