With startling suddeness, Belgium-born Jean Claude Van Damme rose to stardom via his bravura performance in the box-office hit Bloodsport. Now he’s booked to star in back-to-back films until 1991, beginning with Cyborg, due for a November 1988 release. To many martial artists, Van Damme is the new generation’s answer to Bruce Lee. In this high-voltage three-part interview, Van Damme openly and passionately discusses his Hollywood triumphs and traumas from bare-scraps survival to motion picture stardom; his early innovative martial arts training in Brussels; his tenacious pursuit of Cannon Films President Menahem Golan to get his big break; his persistent efforts to save Bloodsport when it was shelved for almost two years; his relationship with Chuck Norris; and his future goals.
His is one of those incredible success stories that conjures intense images of the underdog overcoming impossible odds and improbable circumstances to live out his dream. Consider the obstacles. Jean Claude Van Damme came to Hollywood from Belgium in 1981 hoping to become a movie star. He hardly spoke a word of English. He knew nobody. He brought $2,000 with him, which he lived on for four years. Among other stimulating occupations, he worked as a bouncer and a chaffeur. There were times when he was forced to sleep in his car and scrounge for food. It took him five years to get his big break in Bloodsport. Then, when Bloodsport was completed, the original version was so bad the picture was shelved for almost two years. It might have never been released had not Van Damme helped recut the film himself and beg producers to release it. Then the miracle happened. Bloodsport, shot in Hong Kong on a meager $1.5 million budget, became a U.S. box-office hit in the spring of 1988. By May it had grossed some $12 million and, once it runs its international course, is expected to rake in as much as $30 million. Audiences supported this film for only one reason. Its star was sensational. Jean Claude Van Damme, Hollywood’s new Bruce Lee, had finally arrived. At the time of this writing, Van Damme was on location at the De Laurentiis Studios in North Carolina filming Cyborg, his second starring role for Cannon Films. Cyborg, scheduled for a November ’88 release, is a science fiction film set in a future devoid of firearms and fuel, a time when a plague has scourged the population. Van Damme, as the central character, must escort a scientist with a cure for the plague through the wasteland and past its more evil inhabitants. The only weapOh’s’are sticks, blades and empty hands. Jean Claude calls Cyborg a mixture of Aliens and Mad Max. Born Jean Claude Van Varenberg, the son of a Belgian florist and a Flemmish mother, Van Damme grew up in cosmopolitan Brussels with one sister, Veronique. He received his black belt in Shotokan karate from Claude Goetz in 1978 and briefly studied kickboxing in Paris with French karate king Dominique Valera. He won numerous tournament championships on the European karate circuit. On March 8, 1980, Van Damme scored a 1st-round kick-knockout over West Germany’s D. Turgills with an outrageous jump spinning back kick to win the world middleweight kickboxing crown of the European Professional Karate Association. But Van Damme always wanted to be an actor. After doing some European television and film work, in 1981 he sold his very prosperous “California Gym,” which he says was grossing $15,000 a month, to move to Los Angeles in pursuit of stardom. It was there that his troubles really began. After a nightmare period of survival, Van Damme got his first co-starring role in 1985 in Seasonal Film’s No Retreat, No Surrender, in which he played a Russian kickboxer. It was in this film that Van Damme established himself as a commanding physical presence with awesome fighting and gymnastic prowess. He then played an alien in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Predator. His star arrived as the lead in Bloodsport. And while that was shelved he starred opposite Sho Kosugi in Black Eagle, an espionage thriller not yet released at press time. In 1986, Jean Claude married gorgeous champion body builder Gladys Portugues. They have one child. What makes Jean Claude Van Damme a candidate for superstardom? The 5-foot-10, 180-pound, 27-year-old actor has it all. He’s handsome; muscular; charismatic on screen, charming off screen; a superbly skilled martial artist; intelligent (he speaks English, French, Flemmish and Italian); and he’s not just an actor but a filmmaker — an artist. Most of all, Van Damme has that magic cinematic appeal, much like Bruce Lee did, to all ages and all people — men, women and children. Throughout this interview, we were constantly interrupted by phone calls from producers anxious to sign Van Damme to a film. If he fails now, it would be a miracle. In Part 1, Van Damme discusses his martial arts roots, the slings and arrows of his outrageous struggle in Hollywood, and the slick tricks he used to open producers’ doors. What comes across clearly is the charm and humor of the man, the substance and sizzle, the anger and joy, and the toughness and tenderness common to the true artist. Meet Jean Claude… and fasten your seat belts…
Fighter: Where, when and why did you start training in martial arts?
Van Damme: I started training in Brussels [Belgium] when I was 11, in 1971. When I was young I was very fast but very skinny. My father took me to karate class because he wanted me to have a connection with sports. He didn’t want me to fight, he just wanted me to learn self-defense. But I started to enjoy it so much I began fighting in traditional karate tournaments when I was 14 or 15.
Fighter: Which style did you study?
Van Damme: Shotokan. Well, not exactly Shotokan. My original instructor, Claude Goetz, taught three styles. He adapted karate to your anatomy. Like, if you were tall, you’d fight using distance. If you were short, you’d fight close to your opponent. My instructor is still in Brussels today. He was a wonderful teacher.
Fighter: Tell us a little more about your early competition. I thought children didn’t compete in Europe.
Van Damme: I won what was called the “Hope’s Trophy,” at a karate tournament where they put all the competitors together. As you know, at that time in Europe there were no weight or age categories. They placed people who were 15 with people who were, say, 27. When the master felt you were ready to compete, he just put you in there. Competition was very difficult for me because I was very fast but thin. Every time I touched somebody on the face to make a point I was knocked to the floor because I fought bigger guys. So I started training with weights when I was about 16. I was upset because I lacked power. Also, in Europe — in Belgium, especially — they did not have karate classes for kids. So I trained around adults. Because I was so small and skinny the adults would laugh about me training every day with weights. I was crazy about weights, you see. I wanted to put on muscle.
Also, nobody did splits at that time. They didn’t believe in flexibility. My teacher pushed me to do that only because he was advanced for his time. He told me, “It’s good for you because you can fight from long distance.” So he trained me like crazy with stretching.
Fighter: At the same time you were body building?
Van Damme: Yes, he trained me in body building too. Mr. Goetz was very powerful. He was 37 years old and he did bench presses with 385 pounds. Also, he trained me in strange ways. Sometimes he’d call me at home and say, “Come to my place.” Now, his place was about three hours away if I ran. And he’d make me run for three hours to get to his place about three times a week. Then, when I’d get to his house, sometimes he’d make me train with his dog.
Fighter: With his dog?
Van Damme: Yes. He was crazy [laughter]. He had a trained attack dog. When I finished my run, he’d put me in an outfit [padding] and he’d yell, “Run!” Then he’d let the dog go after me. The dog was nice; he didn’t bite my face [laughter]. He’d just go for my arms and legs. So I’d fight with the dog. I’m going to put that in my next film, The Kickboxer [scheduled after Cyborg]. I’m gonna put all the training sequences I had with him in that film, including fighting with sticks and other crazy but creative stuff. You’ll see what I mean when I use it in the movie.
Fighter: That certainly sounds quite innovative for its time. This was back when most Europeans were chiefly training by purely traditional means, right?
Van Damme: Yes, he was very scientific.
Fighter: Do you think that innovative training had a lot to do with your current skills?
Van Damme: Yes, because it was unbelievable the way I trained when I was young. I was training, like, five to six hours a day. When I came home from school, my father knew I was training so he never discouraged me. He knew I was not loafing. I was always in my training clothes. I was crazy about sports. It was a wonderful time in my life. My instructor told me I was going to be a champion. I believed in Mr. Goetz … he was like a spiritual father. People think I trained hard for Bloodsport. But I did not prepare myself [physically] for Bloodsport. Because I trained so much when I was young, everything I did — I mean the splits, the fight scenes, everything — I don’t have to train for that anymore.
Fighter: So it all comes natural to you now?
Van Damme: Yes. If you asked me to do a full split in front of you right now, I could do it. I don’t need to warm up or throw a few kicks first. I have perfect technique because I trained so much. And I have a tendency to take advantage of that.
Fighter: How so?
Van Damme: Sometimes I don’t train in karate for, like, a month. But I keep running and I keep training with weights. But when you have the technique, you don’t have to go further. What you need then is conditioning. Physical conditioning and power. Because a kick is a kick and a punch is a punch. If you do it right one time, you’re going to do it right a thousand times But if your body is not prepafeil, you’re gonna do a good kick the first time and by the fifth time your power is gonna drop 20% because you need more cardiovascular training.
Fighter: Who are you training with today, if anybody?
Van Damme: I train by myself and with Michel Qissi [pronounced Quee’see]. In the movie Bloodsport, did you see that boxer, the guy who fought Chong Lee and Lee broke his leg? That’s Qissi. Michel’s from Belgium. He was twice European amateur boxing champion, and the guy’s very courageous. I wake up at five in the morning — he’s got an apartment here in Los Angeles next to my home — so anytime I call him he’s always ready to train with me. In the morning we like to run and at night we like to spar and work with weights.
Fighter: Didn’t you also train with France’s Dominique Valera, Europe’s counterpart to America’s Joe Lewis?
Van Damme: Yes, I trained with him for a few weeks.
Fighter: When and where did you take up acting?
Van Damme: Since I was 13 years old I always wanted to be in films. And when a kid wants something, as you know, he goes to his parents and says, “Hey, what do you think about this idea?” Well, when I asked my parents about acting they said to me, “No, it’s impossible. You’re dreaming. You can’t go to America. You can’t even speak the language. Millions of actors want to make it in films and don’t. It’s impossible; just don’t think about it.” So, because they loved me so much they didn’t want me to pursue this big dream and be discouraged. When I was 19, I opened my own big gymnasium in Brussels [in 1979], called the “California Gym.” I was making lots of money at that time. I did some acting in Paris, in some movies. I took the train back and forth; it’s about a three-hour trip. I was crazy about working in films all the time. So, when I was 20, I suddenly said, “Forget it, I’m leaving.”
Fighter: Were you teaching martial arts at your gym?
Van Damme: Yes, karate. dancing, aerobics, body building — everything. It was a big, big business. It was making $15,000 [U.S.] a month. When I decided to sell my gym my father thought I was crazy. He said, “What the hell are you doing? You have the best gym in Brussels. You have a sports car, a beautiful apartment, you’re making so much money that you can have anything you want — and now you’re going to sell your business and go to America.” He was very upset. I had tried to put a manager in charge of my gym before I left but the business dropped. It didn’t work because I was very charming with people. Every time you came to my gym it was like a fiesta. Everyone loved it there. I wrote special training programs for people, and it was a very upbeat atmosphere with music and everything. When I put the manager in charge, he knew business but it wasn’t the same. So I sold my gym and I sold it very fast because I wanted to leave for Los Angeles for an acting career as soon as possible.
Read more: Jean-Claude Van Damme‘s Kickboxing Career
Fighter: Did you talk to Cannon Films’ President, Menahem Golan, at the 1980 MIFED (the annual international film business convention in Milan, Italy)? And is that what encouraged you to move to Hollywood?
Van Damme: Yes. One day my father was reading the newspaper and he saw a big advertisement for the MIFED. He told me I should go there because it was in Milan and maybe those guys would have film work for me in Europe. So I did, and when I arrived at the MIFED I found out you needed a special card [a pass], as a producer or distributor, to get in. At that time I was, like, 19 or 20 and everyone there was, like, 45 or older. At the gate they asked, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m an actor. I want to meet some people.” They said, “It’s impossible” and they threw me out. So I went around the block to the back exit and I found a guy there coming out of the exit, Xavier Gelin, who owned Para-France, a French film company. He knew me from Paris. He was selling videos and it was his last day there so he gave me his card. I tore off his picture and they let me through the front gate even though my picture wasn’t on the card.
Once inside I gave everybody — I mean, everybody — my business card. I didn’t know anything; I was so naive. I gave my card to Chinese people, Japanese, American, European. At that time I had already been on covers of karate magazines in France. So I also gave them covers from my magazine stories, plus pictures and resumes. Then I met Menahem Golan from Cannon Films. He was presenting Chuck Norris films. I thought, “Oh, Chuck Norris! Maybe that company can help me because I can do stuff like Chuck Norris.” I was very confident. So I came into his office and I did a full split. Menahem looked at me, gave me his business card and said, “If you come to Los Angeles, I’m doing a movie with you. Were doing a contract.” I was so naive.
So that’s how I got business cards from everybody. They all gave me their cards and said, If you come to Los Angeles, call me.” Now, in Belgium, when you say that to somebody, that means they have a job. But in America, “take my card” doesn’t mean anything. You know the business. I was so stupid I took all those cards from everybody — about 200 people! — went back to Belgium three days later and told my father, “They all want me!” [Laughter] That’s true. I don’t know if you saw the movie Empire of the Sun; I was like the kid in that film when I was young. Go see the movie and that kid is Jean Claude when he was at MIFED. I was so happy I believed everything I was told.
So I sold everything and moved to Los Angeles [in 1981]. First, I flew to Hong Kong to do a modeling job. In Hong Kong I tried to meet Raymond Chow [of Golden Harvest Studios], the guy who produced Bruce Lee’s and Jackie Chan’s films. I didn’t succeed. I made some phone calls, but he was very untouchable at that time. But I met Jackie Chan and I showed him some of my pictures. He was very impressed and shook my hand and said, “Maybe we can do something together.” What’s funny, though, is that Raymond Chow just flew here one month ago to Meet me. He owns some theaters in Asia where Bloodsport was released. And Bloodsport beat The Running Man [starring Arnold Schwarzenegger]; we made five times more money on the opening [of the film]. Raymond Chow saw that and wondered, “Who’s this guy Jean Claude Van Damme? I never met him before.” He saw Bloodsport and was very impressed. He said the movie is okay — [it had] bad directing and a bad story — but the kid is fantastic.
So he flew to Los Angeles and we met. Now, he’s the guy who made Bruce Lee famous, then he made Jackie Chan famous. Now he wants to make Jean Claude Van Damme famous for the international market and also the Asian market. He wants to sign me for six movies. Anyway, back in Hong Kong nothing was successful for me so from there I flew to Los Angeles. And when I got here it was a very big disappointment because all those business cards I had [from producers at the MIFED], I called all those people and said, “This is Jean Claude Van Damme.” And they all said, “Who?’ I explained that they had met me in Milan a year-and-a-half ago and this and that, but it was no good. Everybody sent me to hell. Everybody. I was so depressed because I had sold my gym and I had said to my father and all my friends, “I’m gonna be a big star.” So I was ashamed. And also, when I came to L.A. I didn’t speak such good English. So all I could do was start to survive [laughter].
Fighter: What were some of your early struggles in Hollywood?
Van Damme: When I sold my gym I had made some money. I put my money in the bank in Europe in case, if I fell on my ass, I could always go back to my country and open a new business. I took with me [to L.A.] only $2,000. And I survived with that $2,000 for, like, four years.
Van Damme: That’s right. Living expenses, food, everything! When I came to Los Angeles, even if I didn’t speak such good English, I was still very charming. I started to give some private classes in karate; I started to give some classes of stretching in different clubs. I did everything to make a living. I was a bouncer in a nightclub; I drove a limousine. It was a nightmare. I also met some nice people who gave me a place to stay. In exchange I had to clean this and clean that and pick up their kids at school. It was crazy. It was especially difficult for a guy like me. What saved my sanity at that time was my training. I was very depressed, but every night I ran in Santa Monica, then I’d train at Gold’s Gym [the famous weight training gym in Santa Monica], then I’d take a shower — I was always clean — and this helped me to survive for many years. I answered casting calls. And every Wednesday night at midnight I’d buy the Dramalogue and I’d send out my picture and resume [in answer to ads] on Thursday morning. I tried everything to make it. I even invented a story. I’d call movie studios and say, “I’m an actor from Brussels and I have an investor from Hong Kong.” Then I told a friend of mine, “If somebody calls you, tell them that you want me to star in a movie and you have some money to invest, but we need more money.” So I came to producers with a [contrived] deal. And suddenly, all my phone calls to producers were answered. All of them. Of course, I did this just so I could meet the person [laughter].
Fighter: So the pretense that you had a backer worked?
Van Damme: Yeah. They thought, “Look, he has a heavy French accent, but maybe the guy’s got money.” I told them I had about $1 million — that’s not a lot, but it’s okay for a low-budget film — and right away the doors opened. I was with the owners, the presidents, the vice-presidents, they all met with me. Finally I’d say, “Look, I was full of it. I lied to you, but I wanted you to see me. It was the only way I could see you. This is me. I’m new in this country, I’m fresh, I’m inexpensive, I’m the best…” And I gave my picture and resume to all those guys.
Fighter: At this point were you looking for acting work in general or martial arts work in particular?
Van Damme: Acting. I always wanted to be an actor. Of course, my karate helped me a lot. I showed them [producers] pictures of me doing a split in the air with a suit on, you know, something very impressive. Something not everybody can do, because that’s my key to success. Like Arnold [Schwarzenegger] did Conan to show his muscles. So some producers, they were pissed off about my tricking them into a meeting. But others said, “This kid is funny!”
In the second installment of his sizzling three-part interview, the self-described “Muscles from Brussels” discusses his relentless pursuit of Cannon Films President Menahem Golan and how he got his big show-biz break. He also reveals the problems which beset Bloodsport and what the movie’s aftermath as a box-office hit meant to his career.
Fighter: You had been explaining the way you got your foot into Hollywood producers’ doors; that is, by using the pretense that you had a financial backer from Hong Kong with a million dollars. How did you get to meet Cannon Films president, Menahem Golan, again?
Van Demme: I tried to meet him, like, maybe 35 times! Sometimes I would wait in the parking lot of Cannon Films to try to meet him, but I was never successful. But finally, one day I had a meeting with a lady in a nice restaurant. And when I was coming in, Menahem was walking out with some older people, discussing contracts. This was five or six years after [first meeting him in] Milan, maybe 1986.So Menahem saw me and I said, “Menahem, it’s van Damme … from Milan! He looked at me like I was crazy [laughter]. Then I threw a kick above his head. When I gave that kick to him he was, like, a little scared … and he was impressed. He said, “Call me tomorrow morning” and he gave me his business card again. He had just built a new office on San Vicente Boulevard. So the next morning I called his office and they said, “Menahem is in a meeting.” I said, “Shit!” So I got in my car and drove to Cannon Films. The security guard stopped me at the entrance and asked who I was. I said, “My name is Van Damme. Menahem and I ate together last night. I have to leave for Paris tonight and he wants to see me today.” The guard told me my name wasn’t on the guest list so I told him, “That’s crazy! Please call Menahem because he asked me to come here to see him and I have to leave tonight.” The guard let me in! I waited in the lobby downstairs for maybe 25 minutes. Finally, the receptionist said, “Okay, Mr. Golan wants to see you.” Now I was sweating, man, because they had made me wait so long. So I went upstairs to his big beautiful office. The door was closed and Menahem was inside yelling and cursing at someone on the phone. I waited 45 more minutes for him to come out. He finally did and I hollered, “Menahem!” He said, “What do you want?” I said, You want to talk to me? It will only take five seconds?” He said, “No, no, you wait there. I’ll finish another meeting and you come into my office.” So 30 more minutes I was waiting. I was thinking, this guy is a salesman. I have to sell myself. I could not start the conversation with, “Hello, sir, my name is…” No. I have to sell myself. He came back and said, “Come in now.” So I walked into his office and took two chairs, placed them apart, and I did a split between these two chairs while I talked to him!
Fighter: Like you did in a scene from Bloodsport?
Van Damme: Right, right! [Turning very serious] I looked close in Menahem’s eyes and he saw I was very hungry. I almost cried at that moment. I was so hungry, and for many years I was waiting for my chance. I said to him, “I just want a small part. Something nice. I’m new in this country, I’m inexpensive, and I’m better than so and so.” I mentioned some names because, by now, I was very discouraged; I figured, hell with it! It was everything or nothing right at that moment. Menahem looked very closely at me and saw that I was so truthful. I was looking in his eyes, but my eyes were inside his brain. Honest to God, it was that intense. He stepped back, put on his glasses, looked at some pictures I gave him on his desk. Then he said [here Van Damme adopts Golan’s Middle-Eastern accent], “You want to be a star? I make you a star. Karen [shouting to his secretary], bring me Bloodsport!”
Fighter: You’re kidding!
Van Damme:No! It really happened that fast. Then Menahem said, “Be honest with me, do you have an agent?” I said, “No.” “Do you have a lawyer?” he asked. I said, “No, but I can have one tomorrow.” Menahem said, “Fine. I’ll sign you for three films.” So we did Bloodsport, which was low, low budget [about $1.5 million], and when it was finished he put it on the shelf for almost two years! You see, Cannon was doing big-budget films then like Over the Top [starring Sylvester Stallone], Masters of the Universe [starring actor/martial artist Dolph Lundgren], and Braddock: Missing In Action III [starring Chuck Norris]. Menahem didn’t believe in Bloodsport like he did in those big-budget films. Also, he saw the rough cut of Bloodsport with no music and bad editing and he didn’t like it. So I took Bloodsport and reedited all the fight scenes myself.
Fighter: Wait a minute. Do you mean the original edited version of Bloodsport was so bad Cannon wouldn’t release it?
Van Damme: Right. When Menahem saw Bloodsport the first time he was very disappointed because there was bad direction, bad camera angles, and bad cutting [editing]. He [Newt Arnold] was a bad director — I’m being honest with you. So I took the movie and recut it myself, nonstop from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M.
Fighter: That’s highly unusual that they would let you do that.
Van Damme: That’s right. I edited all the fight scenes with Carl Kress. He actually did the editing, but he followed my directions for the fight scenes. We worked on three screens and I really felt what I was telling him would work. Sometimes he’d say, “Wait a minute. That’s not normal… you can’t do that! You can’t cut that way. It’s impossible for the [viewer’s] eye to follow.” I said, “Trust me.” So he cut it that way and afterward he said, “It looks good, man.” He was very impressed. And this guy, Carl Kress, had won an academy award for editing Towering Inferno! When the movie was finished [the second time] and we showed it to Menahem again, Carl told him, “I have to say something. Jean Claude cut the fight scenes.” He was very honest and it was nice of him to mention that.
Fighter:You said Bloodsport was shelved for almost two years.
Van Damme: Yes. After it was shot in Hong Kong, I waited for seven months, then I called Cannon. They said, “Oh, Bloodsport is canceled.” “Well,” I asked, “when will it come out?” They said, “Well, maybe next year. We have too many other movies.” When I found out how bad the rough cut was, that’s when I decided to recut it.You see, they didn’t believe in Bloodsport. Chuck Norris has a name, Stallone has a name, Dolph Lundgren has a name. But I was new. And my low-budget movie Bloodsport [later] made more money than some of their films. Can you believe that? And I feel so happy now. But when I walked into Cannon’; offices, when they were holding the film, I felt like, “Shit, man, you owe me something.” I was begging in their office. I said, “Can you please go see the movie now? I recut the movie. It looks different. We put good music in it, and the fight scenes are good.” They said, “No, we saw the movie once last year and that’s it.” “Please, I begged Menahem, “just come in and see it, sir. It’s your movie, goddamnit; it’s your money!” I was on my knees, man, but they were very reluctant to look at it again. But, finally, they did. And then, when Menahem finally released Bloodsport in Los Angeles, nobody believed in it even then. They put almost no publicity behind it. But, boom, it was a box-office hit. I was the baby of Menahem [meaning, his favorite]. So when the movie did well in Los Angeles, Menahem was very surprised and proud of it because it was making money for Cannon. So then they did a big national publicity campaign for Bloodsport and they sent me on tour [to promote its release]. As of now [early June 1988], the movie has grossed $12 million. And it is yet to be released throughout Europe and Asia, and they’re going to sell videos of it. They’re going to make at least $25 to $30 million profit on Bloodsport.
Fighter: What does the success of Bloodsport mean for you professionally?
Van Damme: To be honest with you, I’m not happy with Bloodsport. To me, honestly, Bloodsport is a piece of shit. The fights are okay and the film looks okay, and people have never seen a fighter like that before on screen. But just imagine if I had had a director like the one who did Above the Law [which starred actor/martial artist Steve Seagal in his acting debut], with a good story, plus my physical ability? It could be great. Bloodsport was a Rocky. People in the movie business know that film cost nothing. They know also the movie is me. I hate to play big mouth, but that is honestly what I think about it. And they know if they take that young guy who starred in Bloodsport and put him with a good director and a good story, they’re going to make a lot of money. Let me explain something. When Bloodsport was on the shelf for a year and a half, I was starving. I married a girl named Gladys Portugues. She’s a champion body builder and we have a kid. She was pregnant when Bloodsport was shelved. So before it got released I signed for four movies. When I was recutting Bloodsport, I took some edited pieces of the film and showed them to other film companies. Those guys said, “This is good! That movie’s gonna make money!” I said, “No. Cannon isn’t releasing the movie right now.” Four of those guys who saw some pieces of Bloodsport before it was released, they signed me [to a contract]. I got contracts all over the place now. So I went to work. but all those guys I signed with are low-budget people. Their companies aren’t studios like Paramount or 20th Century Fox. When Bloodsport came out, Tom Pollack, the president of Universal Studios called me and said, “Jean Claude, we want to sign you.” This was right after Daily Variety [the entertainment newspaper] called me the new Schwarzenegger and the new Stallone. But the problem is, I’m on contract, so I had to refuse those big movies — I’m talking about $8 to $10-million productions plus a good salary — because I signed to do movies with low-budget companies.
Fighter: Well, you had to survive, Jean Claude. You have a family to support.
Van Damme: That’s right. That’s what everybody says: “Jean Claude, you did well as a family man because, with a kid and a wife, what else were you supposed to do?” Fighter. How did the opportunity for Cyborg come about? fan Damme I have to do two more movies with Cannon. They first proposed that I do a movie with Chuck Norris [entitled American Red Army] and I said no. Then they proposed that I do Ninja IV with Michael Dudikoff [American Ninja]. I said, “C’mon, Menahem, what’s wrong with you? Why do you want to put me with those guys? Chuck is Chuck, Michael is Michael, and Van Damme is Van Damme.” So Menahem said, “What about Cyborg?” I read the script and told him, “That’s it! That’s my movie.” What I like about Cyborg is that everybody working on this film is working for almost no money. Albert Pyun [The Sword and the Sorcerer] is directing it. He’s an excellent director. It’s a visual science-fiction film set in the future where there are no firearms and no fuel, and people who have a plague like leprosy. I’m there to bring somebody from point A to Z to cure the plague. Cyborg is like a mixture of Aliens and Mad Max. It’s a very strong story with a lot of passion. There are good costumes and lots of good fight scenes, both stick fights and empty hands. I’m the technical advisor for the empty-hand fights. I think Cyborg is a picture that will work 100% or it’s going to flop 100%.
Van Damme: Because it’s a risky movie for me. It’s something different. It’s not another film like Chuck Norris does, like a Vietnam film or another action film. It’s very visual and you have to be right on target acting-wise and camera-angle-wise. The violence in this film is so strong that people are either going to accept it or not, depending on me: The way I’m going to kill people on the screen and the way I’m going to react to that. You’ll have to see the movie to understand what I’m talking about.
Fighter: So you chose a starring role in what could be a risky vehicle for you instead of a co-starring role in a Chuck Norris film?
Van Damme: Right. Look, I know Chuck Norris. He’s a smart guy and he’s a nice guy. But his brother [Aaron Norris] is going to direct American Red Army. That means he’s going to edit that movie.
Fighter: And Aaron will cut to favor Chuck, right?
Van Damme: You know that… that’s the way the business is. I kept thinking of how I slept on the streets for five years only to be asked to play in a movie with some other star.
Fighter: You sound like you have the drive and determination that Bruce Lee had. Like him, too, you go beyond just working in front of the camera.
Van Damme: What I’m doing right now is, I wake up every morning at 6 A.M. and those scripts for the movies I signed to star in, I’m rewriting everything. You see, I’m not only an actor, I’m a filmmaker. I can write scripts. Of those four movies I signed for, I wrote two of the scripts. I co-wrote the original story and the script for The Kickboxer and I cowrote the original story on The Wrong Bet. I work on everything, including the casting. So every movie I’m now signed to do is going to be low budget — those four movies — and I’m trying to save everything to make them successful like Bloodsport. If I can do that, I’m going to be considered a magician by the studios [laughter]. Because, if I can take $1.5 million to $2 million movies and make good nationwide box office with them, then when I’m finished with these four movies the studios will say, “We’ll sign him because, with him, we’ll make money. Imagine what we could make if we put that guy with good people?” So right now I’m hot and the studios want me. But I know if I sign with these big companies right now, the low-budget people will put an injunction [a legal halting process] on everything I do. So I’m trying to bring these smaller companies to the major studios to see if they’ll do a partnership. But those people don’t want to share. They have me for one film so they think, “Let’s make a lot of money.” But for my reputation they don’t give a damn. That the shitty part of Los Angeles. People don’t do movies because they’re artists; they do movies because they want to make money. Only a few people — like director Steven Spielberg and actor Robert DeNiro — make movies because they’re artists. It’s difficult today to find dedicated movie stars. Lots of stars think only about money.
Part Ill Next Issue Editor’s Note: According to Mr. Van Damme, Cyborg has been rescheduled for a February 1989 release in the U.S. The fight scenes had to be re-edited and Jean Claude was assisting with the new editing to bring the fight scenes up to his own high standards.