Movies & TV / Columns

Jean-Claude Van Damme Talks w/411 About His New Amazon Series Jean-Claude Van Johnson, Creating a Character With a Serious Emotional Arc, and His Hopes for a Second Season

December 7, 2017 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Jean-Claude Van Damme - Jean-Claude Van Johnson

Jean-Claude Van Damme is back. The star of such films as Bloodsport, Timecop [“Which is like Looper, starring Bruce Willis, but a million times better.”] and the live-action Street Fighter movie is starring in the new Amazon series, Jean-Claude Van Johnson. In the new show, Van Damme actually portrays himself, or a fictional version of himself, where it turns out the long-time action hero was using his career shooting action films as a cover for his true identity: that of an undercover secret agent.

411mania recently had the chance to speak with the action movie legend about his new show, along with series director and executive Peter Atencio (Keanu) and writer and executive producer Dave Callaham (Wonder Woman 2, The Expendables, Godzilla), for an exclusive, sit-down group interview. Jean-Claude Van Johnson is an action-comedy romp that has a lot of fun at Van Damme’s expense, but it has a strange amount of heart and emotion to it as well. Here’s what Van Damme, Callaham and Atencio had to say about this exciting, new series.

Jeffrey Harris: TV is so interesting right to get a show like this on Amazon, and the development of media to bring ambitious projects like this to streaming media. So I wanted to know what you all thought of the changes in media content and delivery?

Dave Callaham: That’s why this show is alive. That’s why this show exists and why it’s as special as it is because we landed at a time when there were companies willing to take a giant risk and because Jean-Claude was willing to take a big risk. Now we get to get share our weirdness with the world. It’s fantastic.

Peter Atencio: Yeah. I keep waiting for someone to say it was all a dream. We get to make weird stuff. It’s a great time to be alive by making weird stuff.

Jean-Claude Van Damme: Plus, Amazon, they want to expand international — worldwide — so they need a specific, very American, international flavor type of project. So to be able to do that, we need a great script with lots of different types of characters who can please many countries in a sense. So, Amazon are also in a sense a partner in terms of invading Mexico and other countries because the platform is so big already. But Amazon now wants the world, including China, which is great. That’s why they need a weapon — a missile — of all those dimensions.

Dave Callaham: — *To Van Damme* And this is the weapon.

Peter Atencio: That’s the best way to describe it — as a weapon.

Jean-Claude Van Damme: But of drama, sadness, friendship, reality, comedy, but I mean real — disturbing.

*Atencio and Callaham laugh.*

Jeffrey Harris: In the movie, Jean-Claude’s character is working with his cover as an actor for a weird Huckleberry Finn movie with this yuppie, millennial director, Gunner. For Jean-Claude, is Peter in any way like that director, or does he remind you of any directors you’ve worked with?

Jean-Claude Van Damme: Peter has his own style. [*Peter Atencio laughs*] Yeah. He studies for what he prepares. He prepares for a long time. And while shooting, he still checks on something he did; a type of essence of thinking — my way of thinking. And then he goes in and makes his shots — well prepared, unusual shots. Also, it’s a great collaboration because it’s kind of strange to see a writer who is staying on the set every day. He’s very attached just in case — And also for Peter, sometimes they want to go into a different type of change — like a change [Author’s Note: I believe Van Damme is stating in case the writer and director wanted to make a creative change for the script while filming onset]. Amazon gave lots of freedom to that team to be able to do that. And that’s a great gift in terms of creative, right?

Peter Atencio: Yeah. I think Gunner is sort of like the unchecked id that probably lurks inside most directors. But luckily I have filters in place to stop things from getting out of hand.

Jeffrey Harris: So no vaping on set?

Dave Callaham: Peter’s nothing like Gunner. I’ll say that.

Peter Atencio: Limited vaping. As little as possible. But when the moment strikes, you can.

Jeffrey Harris: Would either of you like to speak of the inspirations for Gunner at all?

*Peter Atencio laughs.*

Dave Callaham: We work in Hollywood, and we work with feature directors. We see what they do sometimes.

Peter Atencio: Yeah. I think Gunner is loosely based on a variety of directors. Some of whom are even close friends of mine because I think it’s hard to be a director without being a little crazy in some ways. I don’t think a sane person would do the job. Gunner is like an amalgamation of all the worst traits of directors just bundled into a person who wears the most annoying clothing known to man.

Jeffrey Harris: For Jean-Claude, in the first episode, your character has difficulty performing his splits move. And it seems you are having fun with your longtime persona and other characters you have played before. So were you having fun in playing with notions and perceptions of your persona and characters you’ve played over the years on film?

Jean-Claude Van Damme: No. I took it seriously in terms of character. Inside that funny scene, I was having my own persona. I was faithful to my character — going down, getting older. That’s all he has; action movies.

Peter Atencio: That’s what impressed me most working with JC was how seriously he took the acting component, knowing that it would be funny around him, but it has to be played bones straight in order to do that.

Jean-Claude Van Damme: Yeah.

Jeffrey Harris: You are still really flexible and in great shape for your age. What the’s the key to be doing the stunt and action work at this point in your career?

Jean-Claude Van Damme: Maintaining. Maintaining. I’m advising that the older you get, it’s better to go to the stretching side and light weights in general. It’s enough for them to understand. Light weights and stretching.

Jeffrey Harris: The action is a lot of fun because the stunts stay in close and tight on you, and it doesn’t look like they are stunt doubles performing the action. It looks like it’s you performing the action. So, is it you performing all the stunts and fight scenes?

Jean-Claude Van Damme: We have great fights, and it’s going to be even better in case we have a second season. It will be even better because physically I will be in better shape.

Peter Atencio: I don’t know how that’s possible.

Dave Callaham: I don’t think you can be in better shape.

Jean-Claude Van Damme: — Because I’m training more than before.

Peter Atencio: I think you were pretty good. He definitely — if it was up to JC, there would be nobody else but him doing it. So it’s really like the stuff that’s either super-dangerous or we were just [told] like, “You can’t do that,” that’s what it really came down to — the only times we would ever use stunt doubles.

Dave Callaham: We put him in that car [He’s referring to a drag racing car sequence in the show].

Peter Atencio: We definitely did stuff we shouldn’t have done *Laughs*.

Jean-Claude Van Damme: The last day of shooting. He wouldn’t mind.

Dave Callaham: He’s better at all this stuff than any stunt person we can hire. The kicks and the punches and the control that he has — we were at dinner last night, and he was demonstrating to me. He did a punch, and I could feel the air next to my ear move. The point is that he has so much control, you’re not going to find a stuntmen that have the lifetime that he has. It’s incredible.

Peter Atencio: And the depth of knowledge. He’s done it all.

Jean-Claude Van Damme: Thank you.

Jeffrey Harris: Besides Jean-Claude’s character arc, I think Kat Foster has a really great character arc that’s built throughout the season, where you learn more about her and her background. She’s not just your typical love interest. It played like a great subversion of that type of character archetype. For Dave, how can you speak about developing and writing a character like that?

Dave Callaham: Yeah. Without giving too much away about the arcs of the season. The storytelling behind some of the female characters was incredibly important to us. We were really looking to change the way that those stories are told because action films have historically not made a lot of use out of the female characters. Like you said, they usually are just there to be love interest. So we were really concerned about making sure the women in our show that the women are really representing the new mindset that a lot of us are seeing and taking part in. But also, I will say, that it was really important for us for all the characters to have real emotional arcs; that you really care about. Even Luis, you see a little bit of that. It compounds as the season goes on. The idea was always that Jean-Claude would have a much more emotionally introspective arc than what anyone would probably expect going into the show, and so would everybody else. And we want them to feel like real characters. If we’re treating him like a real character, a multi-dimensional character, than it doesn’t make sense to have everyone else around him just be window dressing. We wanted everybody to be real fleshed out with stories that everyone could relate to.

Peter Atencio: Yeah. The show is so good, and Dave as a writer is so adept at subverting expectations. And that’s so much of the foundation of what it’s built on. That in itself an expectation the show tried to subvert.

Jeffrey Harris: For Jean-Claude, was it difficult at all for you to approach playing multiple characters in the show?

Jean-Claude Van Damme: It was difficult for me in terms of fighting because when you play many characters, you have to divide. You have to go into that specific, one character. Then you have to go back to the other one. And believe me, I can rip you apart. It’s more exhausting than going five rounds with [Mike] Tyson. It’s like the very first time I did this in my life. Thank god I was well supported by a great script. I trust the man. “Let’s go bro. Let’s go all the way.”

Jeffrey Harris: What about season two? I would like to see a season two.

Jean-Claude Van Damme: I agree, man.

Peter Atencio: That would be the most fun in the world.

Thank you to Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dave Callaham and Peter Atencio for taking the time to speak with us. Jean-Claude Van Johnson‘s pilot is streaming now on Amazon Prime. The first season debuts on December 15.