This story was not supposed to be a post-mortem examination of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s latest show. But here we are. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Amazon is “cleaning house.” And that means gutting some series ― among those, “Jean-Claude Van Johnson.”
In the Ridley Scott-produced show, Van Damme plays Van Johnson, a caricature version of himself who masks his secret life as a spy with an overblown film career. Having retired, a bored Van Johnson attempts to reconnect with his past love while getting back into the espionage game, poking fun at action movie tropes along the way. From “Bloodsport” to “Timecop,” none of the actor’s films are off limits in the self-aware series, you can be Damme sure.
HuffPost spoke to the 57-year-old Belgian actor and martial artist ahead of Amazon’s decision to cut his series from its roster. Now, with no Season 2 in sight, “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” must end, but Van Damme’s quotes about punching people in the balls, punching snakes in the face and refraining from punching 100 duck-sized horses live on.
Since “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” is technically a parody of your life, I have to ask ― are you a real secret agent?
No, of course not. I was never an agent. But I was with a lot of different personalities all over the world from the Middle East to Russia to Bosnia to Chechnya to Indonesia. And all those people are at the head of countries. I don’t know why they like me. They love sports, they love martial arts, and I was able, because of that, to meet big boys and also meet normal guys. So I’m sure my phone is bugged.
Of course. Think about it. When an actor goes left and right around the world like that, they have nothing else to do than to listen. I’m not staying home ... so it’s a nice idea for me to be an actor and a spy in real life.
You make light of yourself in the series, including your famous split and crotch punch. When did you start doing that move?
Oh, the punching in the balls?
Yeah. Punching in the balls.
I mean, in real life it always works. Especially against big people, because I’m a small guy. No, no, but, I mean, in martial arts they have a kick to the temple, to the sternum, under the chin, to the throat, to the testicles. And it hurts ... but they used that in the show because it’s kind of cool.
Remember “Lionheart”? The guy is kicking me, and I block his legs in the air, and I go [makes punching and groaning sound]. In “Jean-Claude Van Johnson,” it’s different. It’s almost like [makes more punching sounds] and the guy goes down slowly.
Mortal Kombat’s Johnny Cage was modeled after you. Did you ever play the game?
You know, the moves and the clothing and everything. I never talked to those guys, but normally they were not supposed to use the name and the face and the lookalike. If I wanted to ... but I will never in my life. I will never sue anybody. It’s against my rules. Even if a guy slapped me in the face. I don’t care. But who cares? “Bloodsport” ― all that stuff in Mortal Kombat came from there.
You left “Predator” for “Bloodsport,” right? What do you think your career would’ve been like if you didn’t leave “Predator”?
One, I was bye-bye because they wanted to start “Bloodsport” just a couple of weeks after “Predator,” but thank God the suit I was trying in “Predator” didn’t work, so they made a new one. Which is true by the way.
[The original predator suit can be seen below.]
But you want to know the story? When I met “Bloodsport” producer Menahem Golan, no matter what I did — I did the split between two legs in between two chairs, I showed my body, I took my shirt off — he said, “My friend, you know you’re not a movie star ... Chuck Norris is a star. You’re just another guy.”
And I said, “Yeah, but Arnold Schwarzenegger likes me. And I’m the heavy in ‘Predator.‘” So he goes, “OK, call Fox.” So he called 21st Century Fox and said, “Is Van Damme playing the Predator?” They said, “Yes, Van Damme is playing.” He goes, “OK, so you get ‘Bloodsport.’” But he didn’t know I was in a costume in “Predator.”
So all this happened. It’s an amazing life.
It’s been about 30 years since “Bloodsport.”
Mark Wahlberg wants to do “Bloodsport 2” ... I don’t know if he’s going to get it, but Mark Wahlberg, when he came from Boston, he came to my house. Knocks on my door. But I was not the guy who opened the door. It was my guy Pepe ― housekeeper, great guy. And he said, “Well, there’s a young man outside. He wants to make a documentary on you, is a big fan of you from ‘Bloodsport.’” And I said, “I don’t have time to make a documentary about ‘Bloodsport.’ It’s not such a good movie. It’s only karate and stuff,” so the guy left.
It was Mark Wahlberg. You can mention that because it’s the truth. He came on Saks Avenue. It was about 25, 30 years ago. He came to my house. He found my house. To show you how hungry he was, he found my house. He rang the bell. That’s why he’s very successful today, I guess.
[A source close to Wahlberg told HuffPost that a sequel to “Bloodsport” was talked about 25 or 30 years ago, but added no further verification of Van Damme’s story.]
You punch a snake in “Hard Target.” Have you ever really punched a snake?
I never punched a snake. But do you remember the scene in “Enter the Dragon,” when Bruce Lee takes a snake out of a bag, and then he takes the head of the snake and smacks the snake ― to excite him ― and then he throws the snake inside? You have to see a movie called “Enter the Dragon.”
Yeah, I’ve seen “Enter the Dragon.”
Lee’s very sexy, and even with the snake it was sexy the way he did it. And then he sends the snake on his enemies. So I didn’t think about that. But you know Tom Pollock, who was at that time the chairman of the Motion Picture Group of Universal Studios? A good friend of mine. Aw, what a great guy. What a great person is Tom Pollock. He said, “Hey, Jean-Claude, I would like you to take a snake and to punch the snake.”
That’s his idea. And I said, “Tom, this will never work. Are you crazy? You want me to punch a snake? It’s gonna get knocked out?” He said, “Listen, Jean-Claude, you’ve got to do me this favor. I feel it’s gonna work.” And guess what? You know those guys, man, they just know shit we don’t know. They know what to do. They have sometimes those amazing moments.
Yeah, that still lives on.
But again and again, I did it very seriously. When I punched the snake, to me, it looked like I was punching the face of a bad boy, so I stayed very serious on the action, and it looked good.
It’s an iconic snake punch.
At the premiere, when I saw here’s the snake coming in on screen, and you see me holding the snake, and the snake gets knocked out, people start to laugh. I go, “That’s it. I’m in trouble here.” But they were laughing in a good way.
Since you’re known for your fight scenes, there’s this popular internet question: What would you rather fight, 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?
If I would like to fight 100 what?
[Publicist jumps in: “Would you rather fight 100 horses that are the size of ducks ― so like tiny little horses, but 100 of them? Or would you rather fight one giant duck that’s the size of a horse? Which would you rather fight?”]
The 100 small horses, because I know nature. You put a duck the size of a horse ― it’s very strong, you know? It will go nuts on the water ― woosh, like beep, beep ― and it will be great. But I don’t think a duck will hurt me because I’m such a cutie guy. It will maybe keep me captive for a couple of years. That’s not good for Amazon and Ridley Scott. But what can I do?
So you’d go with the horses?
I cannot kick a horse. I cannot kick a duck. Maybe I’ll be friends with them, because animals, they never engage a fight. That’s what humans don’t get. Some people get it. We have more good people than strange people in terms of animals. We have to really protect them. It’s very important for our children.
What do you think about all the parodies of the split you did in the Volvo commercial?
It’s crazy. Crazy. Yeah, the split became a new cult. But we gonna find a new move, huh? Something different to come back. I have to find a new move, something completely amazing. I think it’s a cool thing. It will go all over the place. It’s like the “I’ll be back” line of Arnold. But I think that split is more strong though, because it’s an image.
Has there been any talk of “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” Season 2?
Hopefully if it’s good, and the ratings are high, then we may have the chance to do a second season. And if not, it’s destiny. That’s it. It’s nothing complicated about life.
This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity.
RIP “Jean-Claude Van Johnson.”