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Jean-Claude Gets Pumped Up

At the Cannes Film Festival, Van Damme works the weights and the media.

May 21, 2000|AMY WALLACE | Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

CANNES, France — It was just another sweaty morning in the Carlton Hotel gym, where the many worlds that make up the Cannes Film Festival collide.

Look one way and there's 20th Century Fox chief Bill Mechanic sitting on a chaise longue applying sun block and independent producer Mario Kassar jogging on a treadmill. Look another and there are four fresh-faced actresses who hope pumping iron will help in their quest to become famous.

And then there's the compact man on a stationary bicycle who is famous already--but not entirely for the right reasons.

"I made some boo-boos in my life, like all of us," said Jean-Claude Van Damme, the 39-year-old martial arts star from Belgium, referring to the abuse of cocaine and sleeping pills that brought his career as an action tough-guy to a halt. "All I was missing the last 10 years was wisdom. I had lots of temptation. But now I'm back."

Van Damme was in Cannes, he admitted, without portfolio. The Santa Monica resident has no finished films here, though foreign distribution rights to his next two projects are for sale in the festival market. But the Muscles From Brussels, as he is known, couldn't pass up the opportunity to work the media. Or in the case of this particular reporter, to work out the media.

"After this, we go for some stretching, eh?" he instructed, casting a bemused glance at his exercise partner for the day. "And after that, the ambulance!"

The film festival here, while officially a standard-bearer for artistic values, is also a magnet for cheesy hype. Last year, among those who made up the opportunistic fringe surrounding the festival were Hugh Hefner and his troika of rhyming girlfriends (Brandy, Sandy and Mandy), who threw parties on a rented Playboy yacht and held a news conference that mostly focused on Hef's love of Viagra.

In this milieu, Van Damme--his once-graying temples now dark brown, his once drug-addled physique now seemingly made of iron--looked right at home. At a news conference to announce his physic1634476151publicist proposed that The Times go a step further, testing his endurance by joining him on a daily workout, it seemed, well, just too weird to pass up.

Van Damme did not disappoint.

"Take your shoes off. Take your shirt off. Just kidding!" he insisted at one point during the hourlong training session. Later, he offered to give me a massage and suggested a hamstring stretch he said he liked because "this way I get a great view of your tuchis." Then, he apologized.

"In America you have to be careful because when you make physical jokes, they have a great sense of humor for some stuff but not for the other," he said. "And you get sued for stupidity. And you know what? It's sad."

*

Sad and stupid were two words Van Damme used to describe himself back in 1998, when he first went public with a tale of self-destruction that included heavy drug use, untreated manic-depression and accusations of wife beating (which Van Damme denied). The former bodybuilder, whose first starring role was in the 1988 film "Bloodsport," said he had started doing cocaine in 1993 while making what would be his 13th major feature, "Sudden Death."

He had built his way up to earning a reported $3 million per movie, and his 1992 film "Universal Soldier" had been a hit. But everything after that flopped, including 1996's "The Quest," which Van Damme also directed. Then, while shooting "Knock Off" in Hong Kong in 1997, he claims he had one last fling with cocaine and quit for good.

"I came back on my track. It was a self-making decision," he said, adding that he now takes medication for his depression and has returned to celebrating his "temple," not abusing it.

Which is about where we came in. We had met Van Damme at his hotel, said goodbye to Gladys (the third of his four ex-wives, with whom he has reconciled) and walked half a block to the Carlton Hotel. On the street, Van Damme's international appeal was still evident as strangers yelled greetings in several languages. He was friendly, signing autographs and shaking hands.

In the rooftop gym, he remained Mr. Nice Guy, posing with some young actresses and politely asking other weightlifters if he could work in.

"Are you kidding? How often do you get to have Jean-Claude Van Damme as a trainer?" said Milton Justice, the producing partner of actress Julia Ormond, who is in Cannes seeking backing for a project Ormond wants to direct, "The Dreaming Child." "I'm enjoying all the free tips."

Indeed, Van Damme was full of advice. He wasn't shy, for example, about telling a Times photographer what camera angles and lighting would best complement his body, commanding at one point, "Go tight!"

To me, he said this: Work out every day (he goes to Gold's Gym in Santa Monica), mixing activity that gets your heart rate up (he likes the stationary bike) with strength training. Stretch. Eat good food. And opt for more repetitions instead of heavier weights. The goal, he says: balance, not brawn.

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