Jean-Claude Van Damme Kicks, Quips His Way Back into Spotlight (Exclusive)

Amazon Prime Video

The action star opens up to ET about needing time to recharge after a surprisingly emotional experience on his new Amazon series.

It’s hard to imagine the indefatigable Jean-Claude Van Damme ever tapping out, but after wrapping his new Amazon series, Jean-Claude Van Johnson, the actor needed time to recharge after a surprisingly emotional experience on what, on the surface, seemed like a lighthearted action-comedy show.

“I truly believed in every one of those characters, and it destroyed me -- physically, mentality. It ripped me up,” Van Damme recalls to ET. “At the end of the show, I was very tired, like, ‘Aaaahhh.’”

Most action stars of the ‘90s traded on a grim stoicism, dispatching enemies and saving nations with little more than a grunt. But Van Damme was different, using a light touch and a charming personality to go along with his spinning jump kicks to become an international superstar, one equally at ease with kicking a mascot in the face in Sudden Death and swapping jokes with the Friends gang.

“The thing that always made him stand out was that he was always the sensitive action star,” JCVJ director Peter Atencio says. “The other guys were pretty much focused on ‘How big of a body count can we get?’ and ‘How badass can we look?’ and his movies portrayed him as this kind, gentle soul who’d really rather not kick anyone in the face. He always seemed like this sensitive, sweet guy who was pushed to this place, and there was something very human and approachable about that for me.”

The delightfully meta Jean-Claude Van Johnson, streaming Dec. 15, works as a perfect vehicle for Van Damme, who plays a heightened version of himself, a past-his-prime star who returns to his real job -- working as a secret agent for an international spy cabal led by the matronly Jane (Phylicia Rashad). There’s no shortage of action, but there’s also an equal amount of comedy, pathos, satire and … time travel, as Van Damme takes on several roles during the six-part series, including a lonely, look-alike janitor who loves Timecop.

“It was a nice package, like they say,” Van Damme says. “Much nicer than the last ones on VOD, let’s face it. The idea was fresh. I was talking about that concept many years ago but in a normal way, like Argo -- go around the world and kick ass.” But what writer Dave Callaham (The Expendables, Wonder Woman 2) created was highly unusual. “Even though the show is funny, the honesty is there. You have to be a good actor to be able to pull that [off], because if not, it can be dangerous. People can see and go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know he was able to do that.’”

Over the years, Van Damme hasn’t gotten many chances to show off his range, saying, “I’ve done, like, 50 movies playing the same guy.” But Atencio and Callaham, both self-professed Van Damme fans, say JCVJ is a showcase for the actor’s underappreciated talents.

“He has the ability to do a lot of things that no one’s really taken advantage of before,” says Callaham, whose five-page concept for the show confused executives but thrilled Van Damme, who received the treatment before the writer was aware of it. “I think we’ve seen glimpses of it, scattered throughout his career, but nothing quite as far as this show. We go pretty sensitive and we go pretty introspective in this show, and he was eager to show that side of himself. He didn’t say no to anything. He was incredibly game and humble.

“He was my favorite actor growing up, so I definitely had a little bit of nerves going into the process, but he far exceeded my expectations,” he says. “There’s the saying, ‘You never want to meet your heroes,’ and since he came up in that era where everyone was flying so high, I thought there might be a version of this where he might not be as open to what we were doing. But he was just so selfless, which is hardly something you see with actors at all, let alone ones who have been famous for 30-plus years. For me, it was really, really heartening and wonderful.”

The 57-year-old actor went through a rough patch after his ’90s Muscles from Brussels heyday, but began to show a different side of himself as he became older, especially in the 2008 film JCVD, where, midway through the movie, he delivers a powerful monologue about his foibles directly to the audience. And while he’s continued to make action films since then, he’s made more waves through the force of his personality, playing for laughs his much-noted love of the splits or showing off his dance moves (which he first did as an uncredited extra in Breakin’).

“I’m very shy, but deep inside me, I know I’ve got them,” Van Damme says. “When you’re very relaxed and smart, you should make fun of yourself. Like Arnold (Schwarzenegger) does -- he’s cool with it. I like to make fun of myself. Why not?”

Jean-Claude Van Johnson first premiered in August of last year and went through the Amazon pilot process of having viewers vote on the series that will move forward with a full-season order. While the official numbers weren’t released, the show was sent to order last September, and currently has a 4.3 rating with nearly 13,000 votes, a sign that Van Damme’s popularity is still strong and that maybe Van Johnson has a few more missions left.

“If I retired now, I will retire with something like this behind me,” Van Damme says. “I’m very happy with this show. For the first time, I like myself in a movie.”