The 1001 Lives of Jean-Claude Van Damme. At 60 years old and busier than ever, it’s no secret that Jean-Claude Van Damme has still got it.
JCVD is an actor, a director, producer and scriptwriter. He’s a Belgian star who made a striking return in the Netflix production of ‘The Last Mercenary’. On top form and in a unsurprisingly philosophical mood, JCVD is back. ELLE meets the legend himself.
Location: Le Bristol Hotel in Paris. With: Jean-Claude Van Damme. We meet to discuss his latest action-packed film, The Last Mercenary, due for release on Netflix worldwide from the 30th July and, already set to be the next big hit. With his instantly recognisable voice, JCVD is more “aware” than ever, with a huge fan base surprinsingly ranging from 7 to 77. JCVD has also growing up : ‘I pay more attention to what I say now. When I spoke about mobile phones back in 2001, people took me for an idiot.’
With a career spanning 36 years (and counting!), he has experienced it all: the struggles, glory and riches – as well as a few ups-and-downs. His career first skyrocketed in 1988 with Blood Sport, followed by Kickboxer, Full Contact and Double Impact, right up to the cult-classic JCVD in 2007, where he played himself, as well as The Expendables 2 where he joined forces with other famous action heroes.
Today, the ‘Muscles from Brussels’ is seated in a comfortable armchair with Lola, his precious tiny 7-year-old dog. ‘I take her everywhere with me. She knows that this is the best place to eat!’ he laughs, casually helping himself to some chocolate as he opens up to us about his latest venture.
Can you please give us an elevator pitch for The Last Mercenary?
I play the role of Richard Brumère, a former secret agent who’s been out the game for years. He’s travelled the world and made a life for himself. In a previous mission, he met a woman and had a child. He made a deal with the French government to provide protection for his son, Archibald. In exchange, he had to ‘disappear’. He has to keep the affair secret. But, one day, he is forced to come out of hiding in order to save his son from the mafia, team up with a group of youngsters, and establish a relationship with his son. In a nutshell, he’s in trouble. He makes his way back home, problem solved? Not so fast! It also has a fantastic cast, including Patrick Timsitt and Miou-Miou, Alban Ivanov, Eric Judor, Valérie Kaprinski…
How would you classify the genre of this film?
It’s an action comedy film with a fantastic scriptwriter and director, David Charhon, who wrote for me a perfect tailored part. He has this Belmondo-esque (“bébel”) style, which is quite difficult to make – a mashup of Incorrigible and That Man From Rio for the American twist. I grew up watching Bébel and always admired his screen presence. He’s a classic stage actor but know how to capture madness. He always committed, and that shows. It’s like Louis de Funès in The Big Restaurant or Don’t Look Now… We’re Being Shot At! – yes, he’s very funny but he takes the acting very seriously. That’s what people expect. In general, comedic actors have a harder time of it. They create comedy at their own expense and make people laugh. I’m sure that someone like Robin Williams suffered a lot. I did a bit of comedy before Double Impact and found it a natural fit: for me it’s all about looking ‘neutral’ – even in the middle of the action.
In the first scene in the film, you perform your famous party trick – the splits. Does it hurt?
Not at all! I started ballet when I was around 13 or 14, and did it for 5 years, and started karate when I was 9. They require different types of movement. Doing the splits as part of a dance move is far more demanding than karate, because it’s all about keeping your core straight. I was even offered a placed at the Béjart Ballet School at the time. But I followed my father’s advice and stuck with karate.
Do you share anything in common with Brumère, the character you play?
He can be difficult and has a hard time praising his son. I also have children (editor’s note: Bianca, Kristopher and Nicolas) but I encourage them, and I always have their back. I don’t give them a hard time.
(Would you like some chocolate by the way? No? You really should!)
The filming lasted 54 days, over 10 weeks – how did you cope?
I coped well. I live in Hong Kong and am used to travelling everywhere – Australia, LA, Turkey and Armenia. I travel by private plane, so the time passes quickly and I’m not afraid of COVID. I was in Australia when COVID was rife. The world panicked and everything was cancelled. But I told myself – we’re going to go there. I shook hundreds of hands. People already had COVID, like Tom Hanks. Australia was one of the first countries to be affected. I stayed there and I was lucky (not to catch the virus). Since then, I’ve been able to return to Belgium, France and Italy. Right now, I’m fine. But you know, some virus can think, and know who to attack.
You’ve starred in over 65 films. What keeps you motivated?
Well…it’s such a great job! You have to work non-stop, yes but I’m lucky enough to make films in France and also in the US, getting the call up from both sides, which is amazing! Here in Paris, there is so much culture. It’s an unbeatable city. Italy is wonderful too.
You’ve worked with some international directors – French, American, German and Chinese. Which cinema approach is your favorite?
Honestly, I don’t see it that way – I took a risk with John Woo when he was still relatively unknown in Hard Target back in 1993. They gave me a month to write the script on a shoestring. It was like that with Emmerich when too when I worked on Universal Soldier (editor’s note: his biggest box-office hit) – at the time, he was just another German director and completely unknown. And same again with Stephen Norrington – no-one knew his work either. I signed him up and we made the film Blade. I would love to work with Scorsese, Tony Scott, Peter Weir… But I’ve already made a lot of films which have made a lot of money, without a director. That’s the beauty of my work!
Are you an actor who is happy taking direction?
I’m easy going and always ready to listen. When you’re in a Ferrari and you have a Ferrari driver, you don’t touch the car. With a good director it’s much the same. He knows what he is doing. So, you go along with it. You zip it: knock knock… we are ready…you come on set. When you are only concerned with your acting it’s perfect. But I’ve made lots of films where I had to take care of the editing too. If you take Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July (directed by Oliver Stone) versus Tom Cruise in Cocktail (directed by Roger Donaldson) for example, you can see that it’s good to have a good director. If I ever make a film with Scorsese, he won’t let me leave that chair until he’s happy with my performance.
Do you have any upcoming projects in the pipeline?
4! One in LA for Netflix, another in the genre of Die Hard, which is great. I’m also writing something at the moment with Nick Vallelonga, who won the Guild Award in 2018 for the best screenplay for The Green Book. He’s also done the screenplay for another film which will be my latest martial arts venture. So, four or five projects on the go. For the moment though, I’m just relaxing, and we’ll see what happens later!
Jul, the French rapper, referred to your spectacular muscles in one of his songs. How does it feel to still be inspiring the youth of today?
It’s only visual. They’re admiring a ‘character’. When people see actors like me, like Brad Pitt, we lose ourselves in a script, we inhabit a role which is more honest than ourselves in real life. We’re actors. You never know who we’re really like – as you haven’t met us.
Is honesty the best policy?
If you lie, you’re lying to yourself, so it’s a bit silly to make up stories and crazy stuff, I think that’s worse than being a compulsive liar. It’s best not to take yourself too seriously. Actors are ordinary people. They’ve known success, they were there at the right time and created their own opportunities. There are lots of other talents which aren’t recognized in the same way. So, it’s best to stay cool!
How important has success been to you?
I already knew at the age of 10 or 11 that I wanted to succeed. Cells move. That my mindset was important – the way you think and the way you behave. So, you have to think about what you want to become, how to be seen in public and be hungry for success. You’ve got to really want it to succeed.
Do you have any advice for young people who want to pursue a career in films, martial arts, or just general advice?
First of all, you have to get to know yourself. Nowadays, young people don’t know who they are. They are bombarded by information; they listen too much to the external noise and not to the sound from within. Sound is on the inside; noise is on the outside. They should be listening to themselves. Who am I? What am I? Why am I here? What are my strengths? So… take time to look at yourself. Forget YouTube and your mobile phone, cut cut cut it all out! Social media isn’t going away – but try to live without it for around a month and get to know yourself!
How do you do that?
I call it ‘basic instinct’ – developing the body and mind, but not at school. When you are overloaded by too much information, your instincts doesn’t have time to grow. I left school early, which isn’t something I would recommend, but thanks to that I was able to develop my intuition. By the time I left LA, after many highs and lows, I left for Hong Kong and I’m still living there. Now, I go on YouTube and I learn what I wanted to learn – all the way back to the Sumerian era, the symbols, constellations, the Andromache constellation, global warming, quantum computers – things which are all really important nowadays – human genetics, where we come from… Learning so much is a blessing (and sometimes a curse!) but I feel far more educated now and I can talk to people about loads of things – especially history, what it is to be human, the earth, the cosmos, mathematics, life, destiny, you name it! Of course, I’m not perfect, I say bullshits like everyone!
Do you have discipline in your life?
[When it comes to food] I find there’s a way to eat. You can eat 6 or 7 meals a day. And then you can also eat more junk food (he laughs). When your body is accustomed to eating that often, your body only retains 30 percent fat and burns off the rest – because it ‘knows’…whereas if you only eat 2 or 3 times a day, your body retains 70 percent of the fat! The secret: you start eating small portions. At first your body will experience bloating because it’s not accustomed to it. It all lies in half meal, a small banana here or there. Like now, I’m nibbling at some chocolate, it’s great, it’s delicious and in 20 minutes I’m going to have some pasta. By burning off fat, my body naturally cleanses itself.
When it comes to sport, do you still train regularly?
Everyday! It’s a must! I NEED to – at least two hours a day. Stretching, weightlifting, cycling, I switch it up. My body craves it, my heart too – my serotonin levels need to be high – it’s like a drug. But sometimes I get tired. So, I’ll go to the gym, train properly and use light weights. And swimming. Rather than doing intense sport, these days I stay active, keep at it – and sometimes even fall asleep at the gym! You don’t sleep when you’re asleep – you’re still thinking, your subconscious is awake… When I’m training, I separate my mind from my body. On a bike, I get into a rhythm where I hear only my heartbeat. Ideas flow in as my brain gets oxygen! Twice in my life, I’ve actually fallen asleep whilst cycling.
What about fashion?
Hmm… Fashion is beautiful. I always dress in head-to-toe black. Right now, I’m wearing black sweatpants (I left my trousers on the boat!). It reminds me of working in the Expendables with Stallone, who once told me: ‘I don’t like your fur-collared jacket,’ to which I replied, ‘I don’t give a damn!’. I said, ‘Stallone – well I call him ‘Mr. Stallone’… we had a fight, I’m not afraid to say it how it is…[with respect]…so I replied ‘Mr. Stallone, I don’t care if I’m dressed in black, red, pink… that not what matters…I’m going to give you what you need…a real villain… a really good bad guy!
Do you prefer playing the hero or the villain?
It depends on the script. But playing a villain is fun. I can really get into the role.
So, playing a villain in a James Bond film would suit you to a T!
I would absolutely love that, but the likes of Marvel and similar franchises have never been in touch! They’re afraid to call me! I could have played the role of Spider-Man or Batman – it’s like the Fast and Furious films – Vin Diesel doesn’t want Van Damme starring in his films – they’re intimidated by me!
Do you scare them?
I don’t know. Maybe they can’t compete with me! They can do action films but, at the same time, they don’t know dancing or choreography. They can’t do both. They’re no Bébel, you know! Whereas Belmondo could be a Stallone, an Arnold or a Jason… it’s great cinema. Perhaps they’re afraid of this duality and take themselves far, far too seriously. Michael Jackson is dead – so are lots of the huge stars, once you’re gone… I admit I took myself seriously before…. I’m a believer (in God), or rather I believe in lots of things. There’s definitely someone out there. The human spirit is so strong, the human race has been created. We’re stronger than a single God. After all, wouldn’t he want us to be better than him?
Are you okay with getting older?
I know where I’m going and where I’m going to end up. And when we’re no longer living, we pass into another dimension. We never die. We’re still here but transformed. Near death experiences? There are people who have experienced them and who describe what happened. And once you’ve experienced one you no longer fear death…People will again think I’m talking rubbish, so I’m not going to talk about it further…But what’s hard, is that you can no longer touch people, hold your children. No more physical contact.
And what about love?
It’s great. I’m in love with everything; love is everything! It’s being happy even in the face of sadness. Me – I make films for the love of my fans!