jean-claud van johnson

Last year’s Amazon Pilot Season included Jean-Claude Van Johnson. Action star Jean-Claude Van Damme plays himself in the self-referential comedy, where Van Damme movies are only the cover for his real mission: he is actually a super spy. The full first season premieres this month on Amazon Prime.

Van Damme has already revealed some mild spoilers in previous appearances. Filip, the Van Damme lookalike with the funny voice whose favorite movie is Timecop, will return and there will be actual time travel. The show’s trailer also showcased part of the epic riverboat fight on the set of Huck, a gritty reboot of Huckleberry Finn, in which real bad guys come after Van Damme and the director mistakes them for stunt men.

Van Damme himself sat down with /Film to discuss Jean-Claude Van Johnson’s take on his epic career in action movies. Show creator Dave Callaham and director Peter Atencio (who spoke with /Film last year) joined Van Damme for our interview. Jean-Claude Van Johnson premieres December 15 on Amazon.

You’ve gotten to do comedy in movies like Welcome to the Jungle recently and now this. Do you feel you missed out on doing comedy the first 20 years of your career?

Van Damme: Yeah, but it’s hard to upset [my persona]. After Bloodsport, people delineate from Bloodsport to comedy. Nobody came to me to be in a comedy. I’ve done lots of action movies. Maybe Double Impact had some comedy, people saw something there, I thought maybe we can play with that. Then I stayed with action movies.

Have you enjoyed the transition to comedy?

Van Damme: Oh yeah. This is all a true joy.

Everyone loves when Van Damme plays twins. 

Callaham: To be clear, Filip is not related to Jean-Claude.

Sure, but playing to characters in the same scene whether it’s Double Impact or Timecop. How did playing double characters become your trademark? 

Van Damme: Maybe I was always missing a brother psychologically. I didn’t have my punching bowl.

Atencio: Punching bowl?

Van Damme: My brother. Like a bag. When you have a brother, you can play in the field.

Atencio: Yeah, I have a brother so he’s my punching bowl. Younger brother too. I’m the older brother so I get to mess with him.

Are all the posters in your house at the beginning of the show your favorite roles?

Van Damme: Yeah, you have the Lionheart poster. It was a good shot.

Atencio: They’re his favorite roles that we could also get legal to sign off on.

Van Damme: I like the shot of my dogs. You saw my dogs, all my dogs? I walk in holding my dogs, his cats also. We put all our dogs and cats there. The guy has no girlfriend. Of course he’s got girls but he loves dogs.

Those are your real pets?

Van Damme: Some of them, yeah.

Atencio: It was a mixture of his real dogs and then a few dogs from us as well.

Everyone loved Filip. Was it nice to bring him back?

Callaham: Fans love Filip and we listened to our fans.

How did it feel to play Van Damme’s biggest fan?

Van Damme: I understood him better later. They knocked on my door, Amazon and Scott Free TV. They have to follow the rules very correctly and they said you have to have a contract to Filip. He said, “What do you mean? He’s not your twin brother.” For real, it’s not a joke, Filip is a different entity. You play Felip but Felip is not Jean-Claude Van Johnson. I signed [a contract] as a different character. It’s cool because you can play different.

Was it more special that Filip was such a Jean-Claude Van Damme fan?

Van Damme: Fantastic, but that was well created by Dave to have this guy loving him and all that stuff. It was cool because in real life you have fans like that. You have to be very responsible. When I go to the north of France, Belgium, those countries, England, not in the UK city but people from the country truly believe their action stars. On Expendables when Sly was spitting on my back at the end fight, it was just a movie. Some people felt insulted on Facebook. “He shouldn’t have done that.” People are so into the movie, I’m not joking, because here in Los Angeles you’re very advanced and civilized or well instructed about movies and green screen and cable. In some countries they know about green screen and cable. They see the news and they go to the theater to see movies. Wow, it’s magic. So we have, not as idiotic [as Filip], but we have fans like that who are so in love with those types of movies.

Atencio: You’re a real hero.

Van Damme: I kill you, you kill me. [They expect me] to be responsible, not blow up all their friends in a factory.

Are you impressed by how many different ways Dave and Peter find to use your splits in the story?

Van Damme: [Laughs] Yes. It will not be the last time, believe me.

Was it a challenge to keep coming up with new ways for it to be logical he has to do a split?

Atencio: It was difficult to figure out the mechanics of how one would hold doors shut.

Callaham: That element, but in terms of the overall plotting of the splits it was actually really easy because we knew going in, the pilot’s already out there, people know at the beginning he can’t do the splits. He finds his way. Then it was very clear from the get go that he was going to need to sacrifice his greatest love at the end of the season. That was already laid out to be the splits, so it was just a matter of figuring out what specific stunt are we doing with the splits.

Atencio: You read it on the page and then you kind of go, “Oh, okay that makes sense.” That ties in, a nice thematic and emotional arc for the character. And then you’re in your 20th meeting about where his feet are going to go in relation to the handles and how his body is [positioned]. Then you start going, “Oh my God, we’re actually going to do this for real. That’s insane.” By that point you’re in too deep. You gotta do it.

Van Damme: And you saw that scene right. Did it hurt to see it as a man?

I already know that you can do things my body can’t.

Van Damme: But I mean, it hurts as a normal person when you see that, right? The sound of it [creaking].

Yes, I was worried they were going to go even darker with it. I thought they might really hurt you.

Van Damme: Right. [Laughs]

Was the riverboat fight scene one of the most difficult fight scenes you’ve ever done?

Van Damme: It’s a cool scene because it was like wide shots. It was all there. All the guys came. It was a good fight.

Atencio: We were asking a lot of him. We shot that over three days and he’s really in there mixing it up, jumping over railings. It was physically very demanding. You watch a scene like that cut together and it looks physically demanding. Then you realize oh no, they have to do that for hours upon hours over days. It’s a lot.

Callaham: Credit where credit’s due, our writer Ashley Wigfield who wrote that episode and that scene is also asking a lot of Peter. The storytelling within that sequence, Peter has to figure out a way to convey that some of these guys are real bad guys and some of these guys are stunt men, have that logic be clear to the audience while Jean-Claude’s fighting everybody. The stuntmen are fighting the real [assassins]. There’s a lot going on and the fact that it comes across, you’ve got Gunnar (Tim Peper) screaming at people. It’s  really complicated scene. Without both of them really nailing it I think it could’ve been a big mess but luckily it really works.

Was it hard to get a Blockbuster Video sign?

Atencio: Surprisingly, easier than you might think. We kind of went into that process not knowing if they would sign off on the idea or not because technically, they’re owned by Dish now, contacting the owners of the brand and saying, “Hey, we kind of want to make fun of it,” they were surprisingly more receptive to that than you might’ve thought.

It’s not false that there are no more Blockbusters anymore.

Callaham: Aren’t there two in Alaska?

Atencio: There are a couple that are still holding on because people in that town have no other option for entertainment.

Callaham: And then the one in Nowhere, California that we used.

Did wrapping your hands in videotape remind you of Kickboxer?

Van Damme: Yeah, that’s a cool idea. It’s like cable foam, lots of layers.

One episode is called “Run to Nowhere.” Did you consider making every episode a play on Van Damme movies?

Callaham: Yes.

Atencio: I think I may have talked you out of doing that at one point.

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