Interview: Jean-Claude Van Damme on Amazon’s action comedy Jean-Claude Van Johnson

Jean-Claude Van Johnson

Credit: Amazon Prime Video

Jean-Claude Van Johnson is available on Amazon Prime Video today, and fans can now see the muscles from Brussels return as an action star. This time he’s back with his own show where he plays himself. But secretly, he’s a retired undercover operative who is back on the field. The action comedy is a great homage to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s different films including Bloodsport, Hart Target, Street Fighter, Timecop and more.

“I was approached by Scott Free, the production company behind the show,” Executive Producer Dave Callaham tells Nerd Reactor. “They had already spoken to Jean-Claude, and he was interested in doing television. They came to me because I had been writing action movies for a couple of years at that point. And I think at that time there was still a conversation of maybe it’s an action television show because Jean-Claude is famous for doing action. I came in and told them I’m much more interested in doing what no one has ever seen before from Jean-Claude. I was very confident that he had a lot to show people that he had not shown people yet with comedy, more dramatical elements, and more heart. So I pitched to them that I wanted to do something different, and luckily Jean-Claude responded to it.”

Jean-Claude Van Damme was on board with poking fun at himself in his own show. It also allowed him to play different types of characters.

“The story is shot like a movie, but the scenes are unusual. It’s a fresh concept with an unusual James Bond type of guy,” Van Damme tells Nerd Reactor at the junket located in the Four Seasons hotel. “It’s like right now, you’re playing a journalist. When you come out of this hotel, can you play an engineer? A guy who’s going to sit more straight for the meeting, afraid to lose his job? Maybe he’s married and shy, so it’s a different character. It’s you, but it’s not you, so it was great for me to do so. But it can take a lot from you.”

Credit: Amazon Prime Video

“There was a lot of times where he would have an idea for how to make a character unique like Felipe,” Director Peter Atencio added. “JC came to Dave and pitched that voice. ‘What if he talked like this?’ and did the voice. ‘Great! It’s amazing! Do that!’ There was a lot of collaboration. It’s a lot of fun!”

“It’s kind of cool to be able to throw ideas,” Van Damme added. “And then for them to listen to them and digest them. I tell Dave and Peter, ‘I have this crazy idea.’ I came with a cartoon mind and cartoon thoughts. I was raised with cartoon images. And they took some of them like Felipe and some that don’t belong there. Amazon gave us a lot of freedom because normally the company wouldn’t allow us to touch the story anymore.”

Callaham is the perfect person to tackle the show since he has a background in action films and is a fan of the martial arts star.

“I grew up loving Jean-Claude’s movies. So having an opportunity to write something comedic, it seemed like the natural thing to do would be to sprinkle in a couple of references throughout every episode for the fans who do know his older body of work. Over the course of the writing period and the prep period, even all the way to production design, we’re always just looking for opportunities to refer to something he’s done. Maybe it’s overt or maybe it’s a specific prop that’s designed to look like something. Maybe it’s a direct reference to the Timecop/Looper thing we do. And sometimes it’s a little more subtle, but it was always a thing we’re tempted to sneak in whenever we could.”

Since the show does mix fantasy with Van Damme’s history, how much of it is fiction, and how much of it is fact?

“50/50,” Van Damme said.

“You’ll have to guess which 50/50 though,” Callaham added.

Synopsis: Jean-Claude Van Johnson stars global martial arts and film sensation Jean-Claude Van Damme as “Jean-Claude Van Damme,” a global martial arts and film sensation…and, operating under the simple alias of ‘Johnson,” the most dangerous undercover operative in the world. Unhappily retired, he’s now whiling away his days in superficial Hollywood… until a chance encounter with a lost love lures him back into the game, eventually forcing him to confront the greatest enemy he’s ever faced: a Bulgarian drug cartel.

Just kidding it’s himself.

Jean-Claude Van Johnson stars Van Damme along with Kat Foster (Your Family or Mine), Moises Arias (The Middle), and Phylicia Rashad (Creed). The show is executive produced by Dave Callaham (The Expendables), Peter Atencio (Key & Peele), Ridley Scott (The Good Wife), David W. Zucker (The Man in the High Castle), and Van Damme. From Scott Free Productions, the series is directed by Atencio, and written and created by Callaham.

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