Jean-Claude Van Damme: The 8 Million Dollar Man

You've heard of Jean-Claude Van Damme, but have you ever seen one of his movies? While you've been renting Anthony Hopkins/Emma Thompson films, he's been moving up the action-star food chain. Here he talks about the size of his salary, his feet, and his manhood, while offering career advice for Steven Seagal and Sylvester Stallone.

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Jean-Claude Van Damme, snapping his fingers to a crackerjack rendition of "New York, New York" played by the natty lounge pianist at the St. James's Club, tells me he'd rather be hearing him play "My Way." Why? "Let's cut the bullshit," he answers. "'You think you're big. I think I'm big. Because, if we didn't, we wouldn't brush our teeth in the morning or wear the clothes we do. You have to think you're special to respect your soul, your body. You're living your special dream. I'm living mine. I did it my way. That's inspirational."

On-screen, the Belgian-born bone cruncher, best known for such chest-beaters as Universal Soldier and Hard Target, can strike one as a Tom of Finland drawing, a campy, hypermacho hunk out of Jean Genet, made flesh and bone. Not only is he prime sirloin, way dishier than Arnold, Sly, Steven, and Chuck-- ask any girl--he's the one who truly looks as at home in Versace as he does in martial-arts getups. This is no dummy. He worked himself up from pizza-delivery and carpet-layer and bouncer gigs to $600K salaries on video-ready movies to a niche as the world's fourth-biggest action star to an eight million smackeroo salary for his next epic. Now he's got multiple movie deals with both Columbia and Universal. But, I fretted before meeting him, can the product speak?

In person, as it turns out, the 33-year-old Van Damme is a wild card. I've heard he can be cranky and impatient, but not tonight. Mercurial, maybe. One second he's gyrogear-loose, then he goes all bottled up; now he's merrily self-mocking, then icily self-aware. He'll get cozy and surprisingly frank, then duck for cover behind his work-in-progress English. Best surprise yet: he's nearly always out there and brimful of brio.

I met with Van Damme once before this to mess around with a bunch of topics. Some of his responses surprised even me. Such as? Well, such as how he's planning, despite the looks of his new film Time Cop--a $30 million futuristic thriller that marks his 14th action outing--to break ranks with the Arnolds, Slys, and Stevens of the world. Such as what went haywire between him and Hard Target ace chop-socky director John Woo. Such as what the star, who says that over 80 percent of his fans are women, prescribes for peak passionate lovemaking. Such as whether or not he has ever been paid to make love. Such as the pending legal case in which he's been charged with forcing a woman to perform fellatio on him in a French Quarter hotel. Such as why, he insists, he has never romantically entangled with a co-star and why he believes the press never tires of speculating about the size of his . . . well, you get the idea.

But right now, while women in the lounge fuss with their hair as they feign ignorance of his presence, Van Damme is showing me an imperfection, a small mound that protrudes from his otherwise unflawed forehead. "See this bump right here?" he asks. "It's scar tissue. I don't care too much about plastic surgery. Because then I know it's fake. But 'they' want me to have it fixed because it looks obvious in films. I'm thinking about it, but I don't know. I know that I don't care that my hair's got gray in it. Doesn't disturb me at all."

Is this guy, who studied ballet, who won the Mr. Belgium body-building title, and once revealed his diet secret as "chocolate and women," telling me that he isn't narcissistic? "What's narcissistic?" he asks, without guile or irony. After thanking me for filling him in on the definition, he chuckles and says, "I'm a seven, eight on the scale. I've got to be. I'm proud of myself. If I see something going wrong with my body, I want to fix it right away. I like beauty, I like form. Right now, I want my chest and my calves bigger." He juts out his leg before me. It looks as if it's been chiseled from marble. "If my calves were bigger, my knee would look smaller." How about such quick fixes as steroids? Shaking his head, he says, "Never. No drugs, ever in my life. Steroids show in the thickness of the skin. The people doing it will pay later.

"Narcissism," he says, repeating the word, tasting the concept. "I'm a funny guy about that. I want to be, like, around 40. When I am 40, I will look great! Right now, I even try to make myself look older in movies. In Time Cop, we kept putting shadows around my eyes and face to make me look more tired, older. I love Clint Eastwood, and they never respected him when he was doing all the guns and Western stuff. Now, look at all the Academy attention, the good roles. So, I'm on that path. I'm following that path. And I think I'm right."

Breaking out a wry grin, he says, "But I have to, you know, compete with the bozos: Arnold, Sly, and Seagal." I crack up and say, "So, I'm not the only one who thinks of these guys as muscle-bound goofballs?" He makes a great show of confusion, saying, "Bozos, in Europe, is an expression like 'the boys,' cool, happening guys. What does it mean, a 'bozo,' in America?" I'm not sure I buy any of this, but, when I tell him it means roughly the equivalent of a mindless clown, he says, "See, I have to be careful sometimes when I use my language. No, no, I love Sly and Arnold."

Does he not love Seagal, who once offered on Arsenio Hall's show to whip Van Damme's butt? "Well, he's a good guy, but he's too tense. I saw him in Planet Hollywood and I said, 'Hey, Steven, you speak bad about me on TV. Why?' And he goes--" he breaks off, spewing Cro-Magnonesque mutterings, then continues in his own voice. "I said, 'Come on, look, I'm a nice guy. Am I a bad guy?' I shook his hand, he relaxed. Hey, it's okay if he wants to say things. It's not my problem."

Since he's feeling magnanimous toward Seagal, might he offer any career advice to the competition? "What's my right to judge them when those three guys are bigger box office than me?" he protests, adding playfully, "Domestic'' Sure, but how does he size them up? "First of all, Seagal is very smart," he observes. "He's not in good physical shape, absolutely not. He came on the screen playing a macho guy who fights in a suit. Women love that. Warner Bros, really promoted him in Above the Law and the movie didn't do that much, but he became a star on video. I believe he's got some charisma. Now he has to change, to find something new. It will be...difficult."

Okay, now how about the other two? "Arnold is versatile; he can wear shorts, a suit, a Terminator outfit. And he has a body, so he can use that. Look, my lowest budget on a movie was $1.5 million. That's the salary of a makeup guy on an Arnold movie. I'm joking. His secret is that he will bleed to find a good director. Paul Verhoeven, Jim Cameron--good directors and strong people, who go, 'Hey I want my budget, I want this, I want that, fuck you!' Arnold knows that and, once the director takes the job, Arnold gets to show up and enjoy life in his trailer.

"Now, Sly is a fantastic actor," he continues. "I don't care what people are saying to me, people should not judge him badly right now. He has to be a little more loose. You know, when you become so wealthy, so famous, you start to get scared to lose it? Sometimes, it's just good to relax."

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