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The Bulletin at 60: From the archive (2003) Jean-Claude Van Damme: Local hero
“You’re going to be a very good father,” Jean-Claude Van Damme tells me. “Better than lots of people.” Thanks, I say. “Worse than lots of people too,” he continues. He puts a hand on my shoulder. “But you’re going to be on the high side.” He pauses dramatically. “And you’re going to have more than one kid.”
My wife is eight months pregnant and I’m chatting about it with the Belgian action star, father of three and part-time prophet as we sip expressos on the balcony of his room at London’s Philippe Starck-designed Sanderson Hotel. It’s taken me three weeks to arrange the meeting: I’ve spoken to Van Damme’s agent, assistant, sister and mother, and followed him by phone and fax from California to Moscow to Cannes.
I’ve been following his progress in the papers, too: he’s been quoted as saying that Kylie owes her buns of steel to the exercises he taught her on the set of Streetfighter (this is, after all, the man who once claimed he could crack walnuts between his buttocks); he’s turned up to the unveiling of a plaque in honour of John Lennon in London; and he has been reported as being in the running to star in an English National Ballet film of Swan Lake (although he says it’s the first he’s heard of it).
But, despite the publicity, things haven’t been going too well for the self-proclaimed “Fred Astaire of karate”. A decade ago, he was one of the planet’s biggest stars, commanding $6 million a film. But now, like Schwarzenegger, Van Damme is discovering that his kind of testosterone-laden action flick is no longer in fashion: his last three have gone straight to video.
He wasn’t always a muscleman, of course. The boy who was born Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg in 1960, in the Brussels commune of Berchem-Sainte-Agathe, was, by all accounts, shy and sensitive. When he was 12, his father Eugène, who owned Rodin, a florist’s in Avenue Buyl, took him along to the nearest karate school. “He was puny, short and wore glasses,” says Claude Goetz, a burly man in his sixties who still runs the school, “but he was keen to learn.”
Goetz put the boy onto a regime that set him on his way to a pumped-up physique. But Van Damme wasn’t all brawn. While working in his parents’ shop, the teenager had noticed an attractive woman who came in regularly. She ran a ballet school nearby; he enrolled.
“I often went to Rodin’s,” says Monette Loza, pointing at a house across the street from her apartment where the shop once was. “They had gorgeous flowers. But when Jean-Claude turned up at my school, I had no idea he was the Van Varenberg’s boy. I did notice at once that he was extraordinarily flexible – he could do the splits, which is quite rare in a man. I said to him ‘Finally! Someone comes to my school who I can really make into a dancer,’ he replied. ‘I want to make lots of money.’”
Loza, who had had a brief singing career and is now a sculptor, says Van Damme made the right decision. “Dancers’ careers don’t last long. Jean-Claude was clever – he was ambitious and he knew exactly what he was doing. He would come to my class, do what he had to do, then head off to the gym.”
Van Damme kept up the ballet for five years and, according to Loza, could have been a professional. But his sights were set on America: after a karate contest in Florida and a visit to California’s famous Gold’s Gym, it was all he could think of. He left school and, with his father’s help, set up his own gym in Chaussée d’Ixelles, the California. He was 18. An admirer of Chuck Norris, who had parlayed his job as a martial arts instructor to the stars into a film career, Van Damme would tell people who visited the club that, one day, he too would be a movie star.
In 1979, he went to Hong Kong to try to break into its burgeoning martial arts film industry. Nothing came of it, so in 1987 he moved to Los Angeles with just $2,000. He worked as a chauffeur, carpet-layer, bouncer and pizza delivery boy, sleeping in a rented car and showering at the gym, before a chance meeting with Norris led to a bit part. In 1983, he adopted the surname Van Damme, after a family friend. Shortly after, he landed a small role as a gay martial arts expert in Monaco Forever but five years after leaving Belgium, he still wasn’t much nearer his dream. He’d call his parents and Goetz to update them on his progress. “If things didn’t work out,” says Goetz, “we planned to open a chocolate shop in Brussels.”
But Neuhaus and Godiva were not to have a rival. In 1986, Van Damme made a move that was to become Hollywood lore: spotting the influential action film producer Menahem Golan leaving a restaurant in Beverly Hills, he aimed a 360-degree kick at him, stopping just a hair’s breadth from his face. Golan gave Van Damme his card and suggested he drop by the office the next day.
The meeting led to Van Damme’s break-through: Bloodsport, in which he played real-life underground martial arts champion Frank Dux. It made $35 million from a budget of $1.5 million. A string of other hits followed, and Van Damme started earning serious money: a million dollars for Universal Soldier in 1992, $3 million for Hard Target in ’93, and over $6 million for Streetfighter a year later. The puny boy in glasses had become one of the world’s biggest movie stars.
Yet even as his career was rocketing, Van Damme was in trouble. His first marriage had ended in 1984: before long, he had two others behind him, and had wed former model Darcy LaPier. In 1996, he checked into the Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital in LA for cocaine addiction: he checked out after a week. LaPier filed for divorce, claiming Van Damme had physically abused her and had threatened to kidnap their son Nicholas.
Van Damme’s annus horribilis was 1998: back on cocaine, he was beaten up by one of his former stuntmen in a topless bar in New York, and was ordered by a Californian court to pay LaPier $27,000 a month in child support and $85,000 a month in alimony. In 1999, he remarried his second wife, Gladys Portugues, a former bodybuilder, in a ceremony in Knokke. He was fined for drunk-driving in 2000, but he seems to have settled down since, shooting four movies in the next three years.
Which brings us to today. Van Damme has promised on the phone he will tell me things about his life he hasn’t told anyone before, so I’ve prepared a list of questions covering everything from his childhood to his battle with drugs.
Things don’t go quite as planned. As I enter his suite, his assistant, an attractive American in her early thirties, is about to leave. He kisses her on the lips, then turns to me and grins. “Do you fuck around?” he asks.
I shake my head. “That’s good,” he says. “You shouldn’t. I fuck around.” He laughs. “Not really, of course.”
“Nice way to start the interview, Jean-Claude,” says the assistant.
Van Damme smiles boyishly, and asks her to order coffee for us on her way past reception. “And cookies.” He points at me. “This guy’s too skinny.”
We head to the balcony. Sporting a crew-cut and a tan, he looks in good shape, and younger than 42. He’s wearing a grey sweatshirt, dirty trainers, and a pair of stonewashed jeans with the number 7 down one leg – part of his own Dammage 7 collection, launched in 2001.
Then he lights a cigarette and tells me that he doesn’t want to discuss “anything physically real”.
It’s hard to describe what happens next. Van Damme loves to talk, but it’s stream-of-consciousness stuff, and his English is hard to follow. For much of the time, it feels as if I’m not there, as if he’s working out the answers to his own questions.
“You know, I have to be very aware of what I say to you,” he begins, with an ironic smile. His emphasis is deliberate: Parlez-vous le Jean-Claude?, a book of 20 years of extracts from 20 years of interviews with him, is a best-seller in France. The word that crops up most in it is “aware”, and it has made him an object of ridicule in the French-speaking world.
“A guy like me, when I say something to people, I’ve got nothing to gain,” he says, “I get into trouble, because I speak too fast and I don’t explain myself too well. But now I became better. It took me a long time because, you know, when you leave school at 16 and you have your own way of talking…” He tails off.
Van Damme claims that the media has misrepresented him. “Thy cut me, left and right,” he says. “Like butchers. Why butchers? Because butchers are killers.”
I can see the problem. His sentences sometimes go on for 10 minutes. As he winds up a monologue on the “speed of thought”, I decide to risk a question on the physically real. “I spoke to your former ballet teacher…” I begin.
The problem is – I’m gonna cut you – all those people I met in my life, they’re past. The present is all that counts. Those people you spoke to met me when I was 15. But let’s say something happened to me. Something wonderful. And since then, the man changed, OK? Wow. But he was educated that way. But he remembers stuff. And in fact, even when he wants to remember something now it doesn’t come until it’s supposed to come.” He slaps his head. “Now I knew it.”
So you’ve changed I say.
“Completely. And I wrote a script.”
The script is called either The Choice or The Tower, and it’s Van Damme’s obsession. “It’s what keeps me alive,” he says. It’s about a professional motorcyclist who has a crash and slips into a coma, where he discovers himself inside a seven-level tower he has to move his way up. Van Damme has been working on the project for six years, and plans to direct and star in it. After a long, abstract explanation of the plot, he gives me a broad grin. “Wow,” he says. “Profound. You see, if you want to do an interview with me, you have to spend three, four days. Because then you start to know a person. After this meeting, we can go on the street and talk normal. Listen, sometimes I smoke, I train every day, I go three hours to the gym. My favourite ice cream is vanilla. I can say that – it’s more nice for the people, because it’s more about the physical here. But I’ll prove it to you. I’m on paper here. I believe in my stuff.”
He returns to the film’s plot, and there are some interesting ideas beneath the twisted grammar and leaps of logic, like his belief that any moment from our past can revisit us to guide our actions. I tell him it reminds me of the Russian-Armenian mystic Gurdjieff’s explanation of vivid childhood memories as “moments of consciousness”. Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em… Van Damme is fascinated by this. Gurdjieff was right, he says: our past is the key to our evolution.
“Look, I’m still on a huge process of learning. Life. Myself. Remembering. You. Love. Bigger. Faster. Smarter. But everything what you’re doing in life, what I do in life, is also attached to what we call our past life. I was born skinny, and I was laughed at in school, you know – I was with glasses and I didn’t speak well. I was having a lithp. Big lithp – I was talking like that.” We laugh.
“Plus I lost my first few girlfriends. I was so much in love with them, only with a kiss. And you know, at that time, sex was not existing – strong Catholic family. So I was waiting, waiting, afraid to do, and nothing happened. And I was hurt, big time. So karate came to my life. And I became very good. Very strong. And guess what? Ladies came at me! More than enough. Too much! Then I go to America with this package called muscles,” – he hunches his back in the classic body-builder position – “Carapace, the turtle, you know? It’s my cover. And I show that to people, and with that I become a star. But now I’ve got to say “Wait a second – what else can I do in my life? I show and show and show, but it’s still on the low chakra, on the primal way.”
He started having these thoughts while using cocaine. Instead of using the drug to party, he sat at home in his room, contemplating suicide. He quit coke, he says, because he realised he hadn’t yet created anything. “You just created an illusion,” he says, recounting his dialogue with himself. “What you think is real, it’s not real. You have to create inside you, JC. You have to go inside and ask the question to yourself ‘What do you want in life?’ You cannot talk to yourself, JC. You’re scared to think you’ve got something powerful inside who can tell you what to do, who knows every answer in the universe? But you have to believe in the question, knowing the answer is already in your head. So I want to create a movie, where I’m gonna try and do something very special.”
Understandably, he’s worried how his fans might react. “My people are from the street,” he says. “Those people made me. So if they hear me talking about the universe, this and that, they think ‘This guy is fucked up.’” This is why, he says, the film will start from the mundane and gradually move through to the mystical. “I will take them through different levels. Then, if they don’t like it, they can walk back. But they cannot refuse me, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Those are my people and I am your people, guys! I’m still the guy, if I see a person crossing the street or a young guy getting hit for his lunch box at school who’s skinny like I was, I will go and fight the group and say ‘Guys, give back the food!’ Because I’m still a hero. A real hero. I mean, somebody gets attacked – I’ll protect. I’ll do my best. I’m for real, OK? I’m not made of cable.”
Perhaps a spiritual action movie is just what his fans want, I say: look at The Matrix. He doesn’t like the comparison.
“The background of The Tower will not be sci-fi,” he says. “It will be made of wood, stone, trees, water – elements. Earth elements. And lots of wisdom. We’ll have a gnome in the tower. An old person. A gnome.”
I notice he says “we” a lot. At one point, he says “The most important people are our gurus,” and I ask if he has one. “Of course. My guru is someone very close to me, someone I speak to every day. But if I say that in the newspaper they’re going to think we’re having sex or something.”
I promise to avoid any such insinuation. The good thing about having a guru, he continues, is that he has someone who can listen to him “from the heart” – and who can correct him. “I make notes like this,” he says, showing me a pad of paper. “I have something to add to them now, in fact. Today, because of you, I saw something.” He’s talking about Gurdjieff. “This guy doesn’t know shit about the script, but he remembers his destiny,” he says, pointing at me. “He told me the answer without knowing it! How did you give me the answer?” I have no idea, I say, imagining my name on the film’s opening credits. “We’re all here to search for perfection, to be able to cry without tears. Being able to compress your emotion to one point.”
Monette Loza told me she found you very self-contained, I say, even as a teenager. “What does that mean, ‘self-contained’?” I tell him, and he starts writing down the definition. “A beautiful word,” he says. He tells me he was in love with Loza. “I was 16, 17, and she was 40. But to be as in shape as an 18-year-old at her age, it’s very sexy. Also, when a woman is that age, you can talk with them. You can have dinner for two or three hours before love-making. And talk about life. And the wine.”
As we’re clearly now in physically real territory, I ask him what his plans are for the future. He admits he’s done “a few shitty movies”, but says he’s excited about those in the works: After Dark, a revenge thriller, and Lone Wolf, a “cool story – very commercial”, which he can’t discuss more for legal reasons. After that, it’s The Tower/The Choice. What about the remake of The Great Escape he’s mentioned before, or the rumoured sequel to Streetfighter? His eyes harden: “The plan is what I just told you.”
Eventually, his publicist appears by the table, and I realise we’ve been talking for nearly two hours. Van Damme looks like he could carry on for a few more, but I feel drained. He wishes me luck with fatherhood, which brings me back to earth. As we shake hands, I start worrying about how I’ll break the news to my wife: we’re going to have more than one child.
This article was first published in The Bulletin in 2003