AFM: Jean-Claude Van Damme on His New Passion Project and Why He Won’t Be Retiring Anytime Soon (Exclusive)
The action legend sits down with director James Cullen Bressack to discuss ‘Darkness of Man’, which they promise will show a side of the Muscles From Brussels that the world hasn’t seen before.
Of all the action heroes merrily kicking the asses of bad guys in the late ’80s and early ’90s, in terms of actual fighting prowess, few came close to Jean-Claude Van Damme, a karate and kickboxing champion who turned his phenomenal martial arts skills — including a particularly impressive spin-kick — into, for a while, back-to-back box office gold.
First propelled into the action arena thanks to Cannon Films’ 1988 low-budget smash Bloodsport, Van Damme quickly cemented his iconic status as the Muscles From Brussels thanks to 1989’s iconic Kickboxer, then starred as warring twins in 1991’s Double Impact, began a long-running onscreen feud with Dolph Lundgren in Roland Emmerich’s sci-fi 1992 hit Universal Soldier, led John Woo’s U.S. debut Hard Target in 1993 and donned Guile’s beret in 1994’s Street Fighter video game adaptation. Like many ultra-ripped stars of the time, however, the hits eventually dried up and so began a period of mostly straight-to-DVD releases. But out of nowhere, Van Damme suddenly showed another side to himself in 2008’s gritty, self-reflective and personal JCVD, then began mixing things up, starring in comedies, voicing kids animations (Kung Fu Panda and, most recently, Minions: The Rise of Gru) and joined his former cohorts for The Expendables, all the while keeping the action going.
Now, at the age of 62, JCVD is set to keep the action going again in Darkness of Man, his latest project being introduced at the American Film Market by VMI Worldwide. From director James Cullen Bressack — a prolific young filmmaker whose list of action films includes Beyond the Law (starring Steven Seagal), The Fortress (starring Bruce Willis) and Hot Seat (starring Mel Gibson) — and based on an original story he devised with Van Damme, the film, to be set and shot in Los Angeles, looks poised to show yet another side to the star.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter from Thailand (where he owns a Muay Thai kickboxing ring) via Zoom, Van Damme — alongside his director Bressack — describes the “brutal” nature of the violence in Darkness of Man (he’s going to get an absolute kicking, apparently), says that, despite reports, his final action film might be some way off, explains why he’s looking forward to shooting in L.A. (clue: It’s his dogs), and reveals why you shouldn’t be alarmed if you see him stretching in an elevator.
How does Darkness of Man differ from your other films?
JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME We’ve actually been working on the ideas for this for almost two years, and it feels much different and darker. In the film, I’ve got to fight out of passion, I’ve got to fight out of friendship and I’m also out of shape. My character has been drinking, he’s got a problem … he’s lost somebody. He’s in a very dark place. My character is going to be more honest than me in real life.
JAMES CULLEN BRESSACK This is like a neo-noir film in many respects. His character has witnessed the murder of a person he loved and he’s basically taking care of their child. He ends up spiraling out of control and, instead of being this polished martial artist, becomes someone fighting out of necessity, doing everything he can to keep this kid alive. You’re going to see J.C. take real damage in this movie, and you’re going to see a side of J.C. that I don’t think we’ve seen before. It’s a very less polished version of him.
J.C., I hate to ask this question, but how much of your own stunts can you still do? Can you still do the legendary spin-kick and the splits?
VAN DAMME Yeah! I’m lucky — I think it’s in my DNA. But I’m stretching three times a week. The most important thing in life is to stretch, because muscles can grow and disappear depending on the consistency of your routine. Stretching has to be consistent, and not even in a gym. You can do it anywhere, in the right stretchy way, although it’s a little more strange to look at. In Hong Kong I live on the 75th floor and it takes about a minute to get up there. So in the elevator, I squat down and slowly come back to my maximum while stretching over the course of the minute. (Van Damme squats and stretches to show the exercise.) I’m stretching all the time, like a cat. So right now I’m doing very well. I’m also taking lots of good products — dried fruits and ribose — I’m like a pharmacy!
BRESSACK What’s really great is that J.C. is planning on doing most of his own stunts and fights, so to keep the visceral and passionate nature of them we can do a lot of the stuff in real time.
VAN DAMME I’m doing all, except catching on fire and jumping from a building. Because the insurance will not allow that.
You’ve described this movie as being like “Jean-Claude as you’ve never seen him before.” I feel like this phrase has been used a lot previously. JCVD was obviously like we’ve never seen him before. Is it the action style that makes Darkness of Man unique?
BRESSACK Of course, there’s a lot of action in this movie. But this is really focused on a human level and rooted in emotion. And when I say it’s going to be a neo-noir, it’s very, very pulpy. This a very dramatic role for him, and a lot of the more dramatic roles he’s done, like [2018’s] The Bouncer and JCVD, were in the French language. So we’re looking at doing this in English. It really is going to be a very different version of J.C. than you’ve seen before.
VAN DAMME And the fighting, it’s going to be brutal!
BRESSACK What’s also very exciting is that we’re shooting in L.A., which has a very distinct look. And it’s great to bring J.C. back to where his roots are, and he hasn’t done a film in L.A. in a very long time.
VAN DAMME Yeah, I’m going to be close to my family and close to my … so many dogs. [Van Damme introduces his pet dog onscreen.] It’s so nice to be at your own house. I’ve been living in hotels for 20 years.
How did the two of you start working together?
VAN DAMME We met in a sauna!
BRESSACK He did a spinning kick! No, actually I wrote him some fan mail and his team got back to me. This was about four years ago and I just said I’m a huge fan and would love to work with J.C. And that’s how it all began.
I actually watched Kickboxer in preparation for this interview. It still holds up!
VAN DAMME You know, a lot of people tell me that those movies haven’t aged. Maybe I know why. It’s about sincerity. If you’re sincere in your role and believe in your part, that — plus all the martial arts — helps the audience ignore the poor background.
JC, you’ve worked with a lot of filmmakers. What do you look for in your directors?
VAN DAMME When you look at the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship], most of the time the fighter wants to win for his trainer, who has dedicated months. When you do a movie with a director, you go to war — a healthy, artistic war. You try to make them look good. So for me, if my director wins an award, I’m as happy as me winning an award, 1,000 percent.
What do you think of the younger generation of action stars? Is there a worthy successor?
VAN DAMME I’m actually quite shy and I’m not sure about the term legend. I’m just a normal guy, but the media can elevate you to a position where you look like a legend. So I’m trying to be as close to possible to that word legend. But regarding the younger generation, I was actually having a dinner with Bolo [Yeung] from Enter the Dragon and Bloodsport, and a TV crew showed up and asked, “Who’s next after Van Damme?” And he said he didn’t know. But one guy is out there, and he’s going to pop out soon. It’s a cycle. I don’t know where he is, but I’m telling you he exists somewhere. And we’re going to try to kill him!
You’ve branched out away from pure action and into comedy, gritty drama, even kids’ animation. Is action your comfort zone or are you happy to try other genres?
VAN DAMME The first thing for me is the director. I need to meet the director and for them to tell me the story themselves. They need to put me in a headlock and walk around the block — a big block, three times — saying, “So that’s when the women left you, and that’s where you lost total control, and why” … so I get the full story. I need to hear their truth, their imagination, and know that we like each other.
Earlier this year, it was announced you were going to star in a film called What’s My Name?, which was being described as your final action film. Is that project moving forward? Will it be your final action film?
VAN DAMME I want to make one more big martial arts film. But I guess it’s not the time right now. Before I believed in destiny, but now I believe in synchronicity. So if something doesn’t go my way, then it’s not supposed to go my way. So What’s My Name? may happen, may not happen. And I have another project that’s as good. But that’s for later. Right now, I’m so into Darkness of Man, which was always working in parallel.
Why do you think so many action stars from the ’80s and ’90s are still working today?
VAN DAMME I know an actor who did so many movies. He’s in his 70s and is still making movies, but still professional, and still wants to work and work. There’s nothing wrong with that. Stallone told me on The Expendables that he’d like to die on set.
You’ve got no plans to do that, have you?
VAN DAMME When people ask me my age, I say I’m eternal.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Nov. 2 daily issue at the American Film Market.