Jean-Claude Van Damme: Because of His Cocaine Addiction, Filming Was Sometimes a Nightmare. He Made His Way Back to the Top Though
A charismatic muscled man with the face of a model who completely stole the show in the 80's and 90's. An unforgettable star of action films such as Universal Soldier, Hard Target, Bloodsport and Kickboxer.
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Denim pants, gelled hair, black tank top, flexed muscles, rough facial expression and murderous turning kicks. That's a brief description of the Belgian actor, who, despite a strong accent, made it all the way to Hollywood and worked on films with acclaimed and successful directors and award-winning actors.
Although Jean-Claude Van Damme has never been as popular as his colleagues like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Bruce Willis, he has proved that he can actually act in addition to hard hits. His posters were stuck on the walls of students who wanted to look and fight like him or shy girls who were enchanted by his looks.
At the same time, he was loved by all fans of thrilling and rough action movies. He usually portrayed mysterious heroes with a dark past who help those who need it the most - even at the cost of getting into more trouble with the mafia or police. Oftentimes, all of that just for a brief love affair. The golden era for him was undoubtedly the 80's and 90's.
At that time, his face was all over the covers of all kinds of magazines. He was invited to the most popular talk shows (David Letterman, for example) and appeared in the most memorable films. And as Petr Cífka writes in the book Encyclopedia of Action Film, Jean-Claude Van Damme exchanged masculinity, frown, and a cold look typical to his more famous colleagues for gentleness, coolness, and boyish charm.
Karate changed him
He was born Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg, but once he started in the film industry, he changed his name for one that's more memorable and easier to pronounce. Later, thanks to his athletic character, he was nicknamed Muscles from Brussels. As he admitted to Martial Arts Professional magazine, he wasn't very strong as a child. He was also not among the tallest (only 177 centimeters tall).
When he started playing karate at the age of eleven, he had no idea that it would later be a stepping stone to his success in front of the camera. "Karate made me what I am. I mean, karate, first of all, transformed me from a very anxious person. I’m very emotional and sensitive. Karate brought me good physical abilities, and then karate brought me the dream of being a movie star," he told a magazine dedicated to martial arts.
Van Damme was awarded a black belt at the age of 18. Just a year later, he became European karate champion as a member of the Belgian national team, beating the world's number two at the time. Since he was involved in sports as well as bodybuilding (thanks to the Marvel superheroes, whom he admired), he already had his own gym in Brussels called California Gym and at the same time trained in karate. A less known fact is that he also dipped his toes in ballet. He started at sixteen and trained for five years.
Homeless man without money
As Van Damme told Fighting Arts, he soon decided it was time to fully put into practice the self-confidence he had built up over the many years of training. As a result, he broke beyond Belgium. When he said he wanted to leave for the United States, his father told him he was crazy, Van Damme told Martial Arts Professional magazine.
He wasn't phased by that, though. According to his own words, he came to America full of confidence but soon found out that it wouldn't be so easy. "I kept chasing my dreams and kept being in good shape, physically and mentally. I came here with five-thousand dollars in my pocket. Five years I was here, and then I didn't have any money," Van Damme admitted.
"I lived in a car and slept on the street. "I lived like David Carradine in the Kung Fu TV series, I was homeless," he added. In an interview with Yahoo Entertainment, he also revealed that he even occasionally stole food at the time.
According to Mental Floss, after arriving in America, Van Damme worked as a taxi driver, waiter, or even a bouncer at Chuck Norris's club called Woody's Wharf. Van Damme worked as a stuntman on the film Missing in Combat (1984) with Norris, who already had a fairly rich filmography at the time, and also as his sparring partner.
He could have played a predator if...
Same year, the Belgian scored a short role in the dance film Breakin'. He was only seen in the picture briefly dancing in the background. In 1984, he still appeared in the medium-length comedy Monaco Forever, where he played the role of a gay karate fighter. Even though we know Van Damme today mainly as the good guy who fights the villains, his first major role was, paradoxically, negative.
He was finally able to make full use of his martial arts knowledge. In the film Karate Tiger, he played a cold-blooded, uncompromising, and arrogant Russian Ivan. This is where he demonstrated his legendary split for the first time. Even though it was a full-length acting debut, he performed a truly respectable performance, and the role of the villain suited him perfectly.
According to Eighties Kids, Van Damme got to play a predator a year later in the cult film of the same name by John McTiernan alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was an original member of the acting cast but had issues with the alien's suit being too hot and passing out. Production eventually decided that a bigger man was needed for this role to make the predator look more menacing. The actor's disagreements with producer Joel Silver also contributed to that.
He found a way to succeed
After that failure, the sun rose again. Van Damme's relentless nature guaranteed him a place in the film Bloody Sport (1988), which was a turning point for him. However, according to Mental Floss, this was preceded by a very bizarre story. When the budding actor met the B-movie producer Menahem Golan, he spontaneously began to perform karate kicks directly on him, without actually hitting him. He always stopped his leg just before it was in contact with the body.
The producer was obviously quite impressed, since Van Damme subsequently appeared in his office, allegedly convincing him shirtless of how skilled, charismatic and, most importantly, cheap he is (he received only $25,000, and the film eventually earned up to $65 million). Van Damme even participated in the film as an editor.
According to Ultimate Action Movies, the creators of the video game franchise Mortal Combat drew from the film Bloody Sport. Specifically, the character of Johnny Cage was inspired by Van Damme. The actors later offered the role of Cage in Mortal Kombat, but Van Damme eventually preferred a different part.
Cult films and a twin role
In the late '80s, Van Damme starred in Black Eagle, the sci-fi thriller Kyborg, and the thrilling Kickboxer, where he introduced himself as Kurt Sloan against a Thai villain named Tong Po in a bloody final match.
The '90s started off with the action drama Death Warrant, produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the film Lionheart, directed by Sheldon Lettich, produced by Universal Pictures, which he also co-wrote.
As a screenwriter, he collaborated with Lettich on another, now cult film, Double Impact (1991). It was extremely amusing since Van Damme played a double role in it - the part of the twins Chad and Alex. It was the biggest challenge for him so far, when he flaunted several acting positions at once. The personalities of the two characters were quite different from each other.
This was followed by the successful science fiction Universal Soldier directed by Roland Emmerich (who later filmed Stargate and successful Independence Day), where Van Damm's opponent was the actor Dolph Lundgren (they also met in following sequels, which were far from the quality of the first part).
Him and Lundgren later pranked their fans and the public by provoking a conflict on the red carpet during the Cannes Film Festival. "It was just for the publicity and it worked," Van Damme laughed in an interview with Yahoo Entertainment. They were really convincing.
Affair with Kylie Minogue and severe cocaine addiction
Although Van Damm's films were rarely successful with the critics, the sales were stronger than ever, increasing the value of the Belgian's name. In 1992, there was another surprising collaboration with the legendary director of first-class Asian action films such as A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Bullet in the Head and Hard Boiled. It was John Woo and this was also his first time making a film in Hollywood, outside his homeland. Fortunately, there was no qualitative difference at all.
The film Hard Target is one of the best films in which Van Damme has appeared. For example, Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo also starred in the film, and you probably remember a few memorable scenes from that one. For example, when Van Damme punches a rattle snake in the face or, in the end, throws a grenade into the briefs of the main villain. On top of that, the actor had an unconventional hairstyle in this film, also called "business in the front, party in the back".
In 1994, he met the famous singer Kylie Minogue on the movie set during the filming of Street Fighter: The Final Fight. For years, there's been speculations about the two beinginvolved, and Van Damme had been asked about it so many times that, according to the Looper portal, he once stormed out of an interview.
In 2014, he finally admitted that they had an affair. "Beautiful lovemaking. It would be abnormal not to have had an affair, she's so beautiful and she was there in front of me every day with a beautiful smile, simpatico, so charming," said the actor, who was married to Darcy LaPier at the time. She later admitted to the Daily Star that she was even pregnant at the time.
According to the film director Steven E. de Souza, Van Damme struggled with a rather serious cocaine addiction during the filming of Street Fighter. He allegedly snorted coke worth about $10,000 a week, which turned the shooting into a complete nightmare and reflected in the end result. The film was terrible.
Directorial debut and another divorce
The relentless Belgian finally recovered, made a few more feature films, and you probably remember his small role in Friends in 1996 alongside Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston, where he played himself and kissed both actresses passionately in one scene. It was also his premiere in TV series.
That same year, Van Damme starred in another great Ringo Lam action thriller called Maximum Risk, where he also filmed a passionate sex scene with Natasha Henstridge. Their "quickie" in the bathroom definitely belongs among the highlights of the film.
In the second half of the '90s, Van Damme was so convinced in himself that he decided to try another profession. Although he played the lead role in the film The Quest, it was also his directorial debut. It didn't turn into a blockbuster, but for the die-hard fans it's definitely still a favorite.
In addition, the Belgian actor played here with Roger Moore, whom you might remember as James Bond. The Double Team action thriller was also undoubtedly memorable. Van Damme sparred with Mickey Rourke on camera, with the help of the unique basketball player Dennis Rodman.
However, the late '90s were not the best for Van Damme. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, had to deal with another divorce (ex-wife Darcy LaPier accused him of violent behavior) and was arrested for driving under the influence of illicit drugs.
Bunch of bad movies and return to the top
As Looper writes, Van Damme married five times. From 1980 to 1984 he was married to Maria Rodriguez. He then married Cynthia Derderian in 1985, but the couple divorced three months later. His third wife, the bodybuilder Gladys Portugues, married him in 1987, but they broke up in 1992. They later remarried in 1999 (after 15 years, she again filed for divorce with the action star, but they reconciled shortly thereafter).
In marriage he didn't do as well as he did on the set. However, at the beginning of the new millennium, it started getting tricky there as well. Even though Van Damme tried to sway with the double role in the film Replicant again, it did not work as well as it did the first time around. Over the following years, Van Damme starred in horrific films such as The Order, Derailed, or The Hard Corps.
The big return to the top league, which was finally approved of by film critics, was the self-reflective film JCVD, where he portrayed himself. It was filmed by the French director of Algerian origin Mabrouk El Mechri. The film has circulated at several international film festivals, including Toronto and Rotterdam.
Back to the roots
In 2012, Van Damme slayed the cinemas again, but this time not as a loser with a silly story and flat characters, but a top-notch ride. He was given the opportunity to play the main villain in the movie Expendables 2 alongside his more famous colleagues. The film was cast with names like Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Liam Hemsworth, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis.
Years later, Van Damme finally met his longtime friend Chuck Norris on the movie screen. With a negative character, he seems to have returned to his roots and the debut feature film Karate Tiger. In the final, memorable battle with Stallone, Van Damme demonstrated that he had not yet forgotten the turning kicks. As he told Yahoo Entertainment, thanks to him it was a classic one-on-one battle. He even advised "Sly" and the stuntmen on how to best capture it.
Stallone invited Van Damme to the acting ensemble before filming the first part of Expendables (2010), which he wrote and directed himself. However, according to Screenrant, the Belgian refused the part because the Rambo and Rocky actor couldn't properly tell him what the story would be like. He only promised him a lot of money. Van Damme allegedly wanted to play more elaborate, more profound roles at the time, and what interested him the most was his character in a film. Allegedly, he didn't get to learn much about that though.
Stallone later denied the Belgian actor's claim. He said Van Damme's reason for refusal was different. "I wanted to set Jean-Claude against Jet Li, but he didn't want to lose to Jet. He didn't think that was cool," said Sylvester Stallone in an interview with THR in 2019.
Most mature performance of his career and a split between trucks
Expendables 2 was not the last good movie in which Van Damme appeared. In 2016, he lent his voice to one of the characters in the popular animated film Kung Fu Panda 3. Two years later he performed one of his best roles in the French film Lukas. It was no action thriller filled with amateur screenwriting twists and exaggerated macho, testosterone-packed tale for adults.
On the contrary, this film by director Julien Leclercq was an authentic, dark and rough drama, which was really chilling at times. Van Damme performed most likely the most mature and believable performance in his career, while wooing skeptics who kept saying he couldn't act for years.
An equally pleasant surprise was the six-part miniseries Jean-Claude Van Johnson, which you can find on Prime Video, or the recent Netflix comedy The Last Mercenary, where the Belgian instilled a considerable amount of swagger.
He also proved that he can make fun of himself in an entertaining ad for Volvo, where he makes the famous split between two moving trucks. Van Damme's colleague Chuck Norris also presented himself in a similar ad, doing a split with several parachutists.
Van Damme's story is a bit like the ones he portrayed many times in his career. He embodies a character who gets knocked to the ground several times, always able to get up and power through, getting stronger with each fall. Thanks to this, the Belgian actor was also honored by a statue in Brussels, Munich and also in Azerbaijan.
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