Having rocketed onto the Hollywood scene in the 90’s due to his incredible martial arts skills and charisma, actor Jean-Claude Van Damme is turning a new leaf. For the first time ever, instead of playing the pre-requisite good guy hero, he’s now the wicked villain of THE EXPENDABLES 2, starring basically every action-adventure juggernaut from both the hey day of the genre and now.
We (and a few other journalists) sat down with the badass icon to discuss what it was like returning to the big screen, the intense training he put himself through, and if he can still do those signature splits.
So how much Van Damme-age did you bring to THE EXPENDABLES 2?
I don’t know. I didn’t see the film, by the way, but I did my best, I think. When I was called for THE EXPENDABLES 2, I wanted to play the bad guy so that I had more dimension and I think more exposure.
You were great as the villain. Did you miss your calling with all your hero roles?
Not really, because a villain can be so special, original. I said to [Sylvester] Stallone, ‘How do you want me as a villain? Do you want me, like, an extravagant villain, or do you want a guy who’s completely and serious and believes in what he’s doing and why he’s doing that?’ Then I said, ‘By the way, why am I doing that,’ and he said, ‘Because you love money.’ I said, ‘Fine.’ So, I became that type of villain. When I was locking with that type of character, being that very truthful villain, I felt good. Also, in THE EXPENDABLES it’s not comical. It’s not cartoonish, but it has, like, one fifth of a cartoonish feeling in a sense. Like, life can be cartoonish, but I was very serious, even in making those faces when they were talking to me. I was really into it. Sly was the same. He made me feel this way. When I saw all those cameras around me, I said, ‘Who are those bunch of clowns looking at us with those lenses and the lights and everything?’ I was really into the atmosphere of THE EXPENDABLES.
How physically prepared were you when you said yes to the role? Did you have throw yourself into training to get where you wanted to be for the role?
Flexibility, fighting wise, I know cameras, I know how to kick today as good as BLOODSPORT but mass wise I lost weight again for another movie. He said, ‘Your arms, your guns, they are too small,’ because he saw me in [inaudible] shooting in Thailand. He was huge and he said, ‘They’re too small. They look like toothpicks.’ I said, ‘I can go to the gym.’ I went to the gym every day and did light, light, light weights because if you don’t take the juice you can not big. So, light weights you can get big naturally. You have to eat and bring lots of blood, eat and blood, eat and blood. So, you have to do lots of reps, long reps for a long, long time. You’re doing arms every day. So, I was concentrating on the arms only and he put me with that black T-shirt. So, you don’t see the chest. You look like a crab, you know. It was missing that. He wanted me to have those big arms. On an acting POV, I was okay because I dig the role and since JCVD, it’s very hard for me to know from Sly or Simon [West] exactly what they want from me. I said to Stallone, ‘The final fight, are we going to make the final fight serious, or kind of comical? It’s very important for the exit of the movie,’ I told him, ‘Because if we are making the fight comical he’ll have to re-enter EXPENDABLES 3 in a comical way.’ If I come out in the fight, both of us, in a very serious way, then he can re-enter EXPENDABLES 3 in a scary way or in a funny way because the ending of two was so scary and serious that he was having the opportunity to go, do you understand what I’m saying? So, we discussed that, too. It was great.
What do you do to practice and train every day to keep in this kind of shape, the things that you pay attention to and are careful to keep up with?
I’ve got many, many injuries because I’ve done a lot of stunts myself, like Jackie [Chan], but today Jackie, and he’s smart, has lots of doubles, a double for jumping, a double for kicking for this. He needs to because Jackie, when he wakes up in the morning, he’s got a bar above his bed and he’s got to hang himself to crack his back and everything. This guy is very courageous. I mean, the stunts that Jackie has done in his life are amazing, and I’m about the same, but in a different way. I’m not so acrobatic as him. I’m more martial arts in a sense. I’ve got those long legs and a short body, and so I’m very martial arts, kicking, flexibility. Jackie, too, but he’s more of an acrobat and Bruce Lee is more that type of [growls]. So, they keep on training every day. You have to train every day. If not, you’ll have to use CGI and all that stuff and it’s not the same. On the big screen, when you see real action, you see a vein bulging – I said that before – on a super 35 millimeter screen and you see that, that’s the difference between today’s movies. Those actors of today are very good, very strong, too, but they are accustomed to a new type of technology which we didn’t know at the time. Our role models, I don’t know about Sly and Arnold [Schwarzenegger] and all those guys, but my role models were Kirk Douglas or Charles Bronson, those guys that were physical because they didn’t go to the gym, they fought themselves.
What was it like sharing some time with Sly and Bruce [Willis] and Chuck [Norris] and Arnold because you were all in the same position at time or another, but by yourselves? What was it like being together?
I’ll tell you what, those guys were like role models for me, because we have to be honest, we need to look at something to have a goal. I saw RAMBO. I saw ROCKY. I saw CONAN. I saw DIE HARD and so to me, they were like heroes. I was back in Belgium watching them on the screen, buying tickets and dreaming of becoming like them. I wanted to be an actor since I was eleven, twelve years old, and now here I am and they’re chasing me. A metaphor. I’m the villain, right, and so the only way to be good with them and to be scary against them and for them not to like me because the camera is on them, I think I became a good actor with guys like Ringo Lam with JCVD, and he told me something. ‘It will be very difficult for you now to do a bad movie because I’ve got to believe in being truthful as a character,’ and so when I came on the set I didn’t talk to nobody. I didn’t want to see them because you know Arnold is like bop, bop, bop and I was talking more to Stallone about the part than anything else. So, I believe, and I felt when I was looking at them, it was like, ‘Who are you?’ Nothing to the eyes. I felt like that I didn’t like them. I took it very seriously. Of course, when the movie was finished I was like, ‘Hey, guys, I really admire you, but I didn’t talk to you in the beginning because I wanted to have that type atmosphere, that type of tension.’ I think you can see that when you look at the lens, when I look at all them and I’m like, ‘Go down to the floor, guys, bark all of you like dogs.’ It’s hard for me to say that to my heroes, but it was the only way, and then when the movie was going to end, that’s when I started to knock on trailers and say hello to everybody. ‘Hey, Chuck, how are you?’ Sly understood that.
VeryAware: It’s more method then?
No, when you start to become involved in the film and you believe in something it goes so fast. When I made movies like DOUBLE IMPACT and BLOODSPORT, it’s physicality, it’s kicking, it’s punching, cool, but the character is not there. So, you have to prepare layers, and I have a great makeup artist who said, ‘The most important thing is the first impression.’ So, even if you don’t explain to the audience who my papa is and who my mama is, in the movie as a character what happened to me, why I’m a bad guy, why I love money, why this and why that; you have to ask those questions of yourself and you prepare that for a couple of weeks until you get it, until it clicks. Basically, you have to tell the truth and on every take, Stallone asked me, ‘Okay, tell me you’re going to kill me.’ I said, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ ‘Okay, one more time.’ ‘I’m going to kill you.’ ‘One more time.’ ‘I’m going to kill you.’ He didn’t know which take to take because if you do a good take you cannot repeat the same one. So, I gave him all the versions he wanted. He called my secretary and he said to her, he said, ‘Tell Jean-Claude he’s no good.’ I started to get so sweaty. He said, ‘He’s excellent. I love him, but I don’t know which F’ing take to use. Tell him to keep on going this way and I’m very happy.’ So, I did my best with THE EXPENDABLES and I hope the movie is going to be cool enough.
When’s the last time you did the splits?
In THE EXPENDABLES 2 but in the air. Another thing is, when they say to me, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll cover you.’ I said, ‘Guys, let’s try first a low angle, like old time, and I’ll do the full kick.’
THE EXPENDABLES 2 opens on August 17.