In a film exclusively populated by movie stars – much less one-liner-quipping action heroes – it’s an uphill battle to truly stand out. But in The Expendables 2, Jean-Claude Van Damme does just that – by, of all things, just simply giving a genuinely great performance. Playing Jean Vilain, a money-hungry mercenary intent on unleashing several hundred tons of plutonium upon the world, Van Damme turns a juicy opportunity to chew scenery into an acting showcase. And following his remarkable turn in JCVD, where he played “himself,” the former “Muscles from Brussels” demonstrates that he’s more comfortable than ever in his own skin, even if at this point in his career, even he characterizes himself as “the King of DVD.”
Movies.com sat down with Van Damme at the recent Los Angeles press day for The Expendables 2, where he talked about the techniques he learned about acting over the past two decades, revealed why he was--temporarily--as much of a villain off camera as on, and offered some insights into what sorts of projects he’s pursuing going forward.
Movies.com: It’s great to watch you have so much fun in Expendables 2. Did you have any trepidation about playing the villain?
Jean-Claude Van Damme: I was approached on [the first] Expendables, but I was busy on a movie I was directing and was in the middle of cutting. When you're involved in something you have your heart in it and you believe when you do a movie it's going to be the biggest film in the world, especially when you direct -- but it's not out yet. But Sly called and I wanted to know the story, so he told me you're going to have a fight with Jet Li, me, this and that, and you're going to play a guy who is going to be f**ked up and then come back, so that became the Dolph Lundgren part, which is cool. He's a good actor, and he helped The Expendables a lot. So thank God he called me back for The Expendables 2.
But then I said, what about me playing a bad guy? It's a short term [role] in The Expendables, but we talked together about how he wanted me to play this guy. So I said okay, I know plutonium, but why [is my character] doing this? And he said, for the money. And I said okay, no problem.
Movies.com: Is it easy to fully embrace his mercenary attitude, or do you have to find some deeper motivation for him?
Van Damme: You have to find something, because if you come like in the old time when I was doing [my earlier movies, where it’s] “he's coming with his great kicks and his good looks,” it's over. I’m past 50, so the good look is gone. I'm an old fish. The kick is still there because of that training for all those years, but you need to have layers.
I've got a great makeup guy who won a few awards, did Once Upon a Time in America, The Last Emperor. He worked with Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Pacino, De Niro. And he said, “Jean-Claude, Bobby De Niro told me when you make a film you have to build a character.” And also Ringo Lam, who did Maximum Risk with me, told me the same thing, and he told me something very special. He said, “When you make a movie, try to be more honest than yourself in real life.” So then you have to think about where I'm coming even if it's not explained in the movie, how did I grow up, why I became a bad guy, why I'm f**ked up, why, why, why, why. And when you have all those layers, the first time they see you, you're full of information and people want to know your life.
Movies.com: Everyone in this movie gets their big-applause moment. Did you plan in advance doing these two amazing roundhouse kicks, and go, “That's going to be my big moment”?
Van Damme: I didn't care. I just did my job as a villain and Sly asked me, what can you do there? I said right here I can kick this way if you want, and Sly didn't get it. He said, kick this way, and I said, “Yeah, but the one I did to Billy was from here to there, so the one I'm going to do to you is jumping in the air and doing a 360 so it's all different stuff. Take advantage – the more the kick is beautiful in the middle, the more merit you'll have at the end.” And he saw the cut and he was so upset at the editor and then he repaired that cut.
It's a big movie and it's not the usual film I do at a $1.5 million budget and they made a fortune – which is why I'm like the king of DVD. People love me. I'm a small investment. But I received that chance to be an Expendable. I don't think Expendables will put me back to the studio. I don't know -- I don't know what's going to happen in the future.
Movies.com: You have these great moments where you're about to square off against Stallone and little flourishes when you’re interacting with Scott Adkins. How much of that was in the script, and how much of it was purely improvised?
Van Damme: Improv, you have to, because when you know your character, it’s like when you know your car -- if you drive a Mercedes, then you know what you can do with that car. Sly came with some good moves. And he said you have to train your arms better – they're cut, but they have no mass. So he made me train, and I became big, so we see the meat [in my biceps]. I mean, the guy really knows his business. So he made me look good with those improvisations, and also I gave up some moves he loves, so together it was cool.
But he called me one day, my secretary and he said, “Tell JC he's no good.” I was scared as shit, because I don't know which way to read lines from take to take, so I’d say “I'm going to kill you,” laughing, and then say “I'm going to kill you,” serious. I gave him lots of variation. And I was talking while I was doing my moves, because sometimes editors cut your dialogue, so it's better to do it like John Wayne did -- John Wayne always made his move at the same times of his dialogue, so they cannot—sorry, the expression—f**k him up in the cutting room.
Movies.com: There is such a team mentality in this movie, but I'm sure there was a sense of competition between you all in the '80s and '90s. Did this film help repair any old rivalries?
Van Damme: Totally correct. If a guy said no, it's bullshit. We all have our own ego, our own careers. We did our own action movies, had our own fans and we believe that our fans would like us to be this, so it was cool to have that. So basically when I came on the set I didn't want to see those guys, to have that, and they looked at me strange because I didn't say hello to them. And it was just kind of a shyness and also playing the bad guy; and then the first time we encountered with the copter behind us, it was hard for me -- because those guys are like heroes. I saw Rocky when I was young and to be able to go from “wow!” to “who are you and what are you doing here in front of me,” it's kind of like I was insulting my own admiration from the past. And they looked at me strange, like “what the f**k” because I was so into it [as the villain]. And they go “what an asshole” -- it's like, f**k you! And [afterward I went to] Sly and I said I'm sorry -- I'm sorry if I was that mean to you. He said no, it's okay man, and then they felt better.
Movies.com: How difficult is it to come to terms with being such a physical performer, and that you may not be able to do all the same things that you could do 5 or 10 years ago?
Van Damme: Action for me is kind of easy, because they said don't worry; when you do a 360 and the roundhouse kick, believe me, we're going to cover it. I said, let's try first the wide angle like in Bloodsport, and maybe we can do it in one shot -- and yeah, I was able to do it. So I did my two kicks, and after the first one, they said, okay, it's in, fantastic. I said, can I do a second so I can snap a little wider, and I did those two kicks and the other two kicks with complete easiness.
So I was concentrating on the acting of being that guy he wanted me to be, and at the end of the day, so people are impressed in the sense of oh, he can kick like in Bloodsport, which is amazing, but his acting is better. It gives more power to your kick.
Movies.com: You've carved out a really successful niche with movies like Assassination Games and Legionnaire and movies in the last decade that have been internationally very successfully. How comfortable are you continuing on that path? Particularly since JCVD, have you started trying to find non-action roles?
Van Damme: I'm lucky. After Expendables I helped my kids, who wanted to be in a film, so I did a movie called Welcome to the Jungle, which is a comedy -- and I think it's hilarious. Even myself I love it myself and my accountant, he never laughs and he was cracking up. People who know me, they were surprised. My name was Storm Rothchild and I was an instructor and I take a corporation into an island to make them strong, like a retreat, but the guys are middlemen. Half the people go into cannibalism, other people get eaten by a tiger.
So we did that movie, and then I've done one I was directing, and then I worked with [Timecop director] Peter Hyams where I play a bad guy, but like a Beethoven type of guy, like I kill people [with a real flourish]. So basically after Expendables I've got five movies coming out.
Movies.com: You're almost single-handedly responsible for bringing all these Asian directors to America in the '90s – Tsui Hark, John Woo, Ringo Lam. Are there any other filmmakers you would especially like to work with from that part of the world?
Van Damme: Zhang Yimou. This guy is one of the biggest directors in the world with Scorsese and people like James Cameron and Ridley Scott, top of the line, but he's like a painter.
Movies.com: What else do you have coming up?
Van Damme: Enemies Closer will be an action movie, and Full Love. I don't know which title we're going to have -- it's either Full Love or Soldiers. They are two very heavy action [movies], but I play a disturbed guy who is like a Taxi Driver type of guy, really a nut case. I have a scene like in Scarface where I tell people to sit down and no one will be hurt, put your gun down, and then I shoot them one by one. It's f**king crazy. I mean you're going to see what is a dangerous motherf**ker -- I mean crazy, crazy.
Movies.com: What kind of reaction are you getting from Hollywood these days? Can industry people be convinced you can do non-ass-kicking roles?
Van Damme: Those movies are finished, so they're going to see, they're going to be convinced -- I believe so. But here is the problem: I'm really chasing my projects. I never wait for an agent to call me -- and that never really happened. In the old time I took my car, knocked on the door, gave pictures and to the point I was begging, “please help me man, I know I have it,” and they looked at me and they gave me the movie by like pity. Bloodsport, I received not by casting but by begging, and then the producer saw the movie the first time and he said it’s piece of sh*t -- and it was a piece of sh*t, because it was badly, badly cut. So I begged again to cut this movie with a good editor, but I was behind him knowing the moves and everything, and that's why it became a hit.
It's like Stallone. Stallone, when he works in film, he likes to put the camera on his shoulder. Arnold, he is fighting to have the best director and he will take time. He will play tennis with Ivan Reitman for two years to get a comedy. So there are two big stars here -- one who likes to be in control and to make sure he's going to look good, and then you have Arnold, who knows that he has a good bank, a good hotel, a good this and they know he's going to have a good night or a good investment, the same with a good director.
So you have two ways to approach and I'm more like the Stallone guy, because I was not really helped by agents and all that sh*t, my Belgium accent. So I took that path and it's hard to come out of that path, but hopefully now I can have an agent who can really book me and I can relax and spend more time with my kids and help people. I'm waiting for that, but you don't know about destiny.