Beyond Fest: Inside Jean-Claude Van Johnson

Beyond Fest presented an early look at the Amazon series Jean-Claude Van Johnson. The pilot went online last year, but season two won’t air on Prime until this December. So screening episode two was a big deal in the continuing undercover adventure of Jean-Claude Van Damme (himself).

Jean-Claude Van Johnson creator Dave Callaham, director Peter Atencio, costars Kat Foster and Moises Arias and Mr. Jean-Claude Van Johnson himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme, were at Beyond Fest for a Q&A about the series. Here are the highlights to tide you over until Jean-Claude Van Johnson returns.

Q: Has this vulnerable character been in you the whole time?

Jean-Claude Van Damme: It was all different characters. I had to go into a truthful way.

Q: What gave you this idea for Jean-Claude Van Johnson?

Dave Callaham: I had been approached by Scott Free. They were looking to do a television show with Jean-Claude. They were exploring the idea. I think they came to me because they thought I would write an action television show. I met with them and I just said, “Look, I don’t have any interest in that at all. I want to see Jean-Claude be funny. I know that he’s capable of it.” I’ve seen JCVD which is an amazing movie, but it wasn’t weird enough so I said, “I’d like to do some of that kind of thing but take it in a bit more genre-like direction and then get strange with it.” Luckily for me, Jean-Claude agreed to do it. That was the big question, whether Jean-Claude would be willing to do this type of material. He was game from day one.

Q: How did you come to audition for Jean-Claude Van Johnson, Kat?

Kat Foster: This audition came up at the end of a super rough pilot season. Right before this audition had come up, I quit acting because I was so sick of dumb things and auditioning for things I didn’t even like that much. So I was pretty over it, I got the audition and I was like, “No. No. No, I don’t want to audition. I don’t want to put myself through this.” Then I read it and I was like, “Oh, this is really good. Okay, one more audition. I’ll just do one more, it’s fine. I’m not going to pass on Amazon. Amazon’s cool.” So I auditioned and Dave was at my audition.

Q: And Moises?

Moises Arias: I auditioned as well. They initially described, I’m pretty sure it said “Large, tattooed individual.” So I went okay, this’ll be super interesting to go in for. I put my bandana on. I’m pretty sure I had a pink oversized shirt to make myself look gangster. Then I was like, “I’m getting this.”

Q: Where did the Filip voice come from?

Dave Callaham: The role of Filip was written with the intention of Jean-Claude playing that character. We didn’t know exactly what the look was going to be but the idea was that whatever costume he was professionally applied into, there would be a shitty version of it that was a real person he’d accidentally dressed as. But we never specified to Jean-Claude how to play Filip. We never thought about it. So much was going on because we had to change him in and out of stuff. Right before we started shooting, I was in his trailer getting ready and running some lines with him. He said, “I have a voice for Filip. He should have his own voice.” I said, “I don’t know, let me hear it.” He did the voice, “I am Filip.” I was like, “Yes, I want you to do the voice but I don’t want you to do it for any of the rehearsals and I don’t want you to tell Peter you’re going to do it.” So I was the only person that knew when we started rolling he was going to do that.

Peter Atencio: It was quite the surprise. We started with the Filip coverage first and he showed up. Even showing up on set, he was in character as a different person. He really is a very committed actor. Even for something seemingly silly, he throws himself into it. The voice came out and it was shocking but also it fit. It is Filip. Filip is his own person. Everyone on set loves Filip.

Jean-Claude Van Damme: I did a contract, like two brothers but for real. Filip is a different actor.

Q: You can still do the action and splits. Do you keep up the training day today?

Jean-Claude Van Damme: That’s why we have to do a second season soon. Let’s take advantage of the flexibility.

Q: Was the drift race in episode two inspired by The Fast and the Furious?

Peter Atencio: We talked pretty early on that there was going to be an action set piece in every episode. That was always the thesis behind the seasons. Dave would literally be like, “Well, what do you want to do?”

Dave Callaham: That particular set piece, Peter texted me within two weeks after wrapping the pilot, “I want to do a Fast and the Furious style race in Bulgaria but it just looks like shit.” 10 months later we were in the writers room and I was like, “Peter wants to do this drift race” so we did.

Peter Atencio: We just like doing the weird version of different stuff. The idea was always we take inspiration from action genres we like or action movies we like or JC movies that we love, and then just turn them on their head and have fun with them. We have a wonderful action crew. We have an amazing stunt coordinator, Casey O’Neill, who’s done huge movies. The luxury of Amazon letting us shoot this here in L.A., there’s an amazing wealth of talent here in L.A. and people who work on movies who want to be close to home. We got some incredible people to work on the show. There are some great action scenes coming down the pike.

Q: Was the plan always to escalate Jean-Claude Van Johnson into a heightened reality?

Dave Callaham: Yeah, the original idea as I pitched it way back when to Amazon was that Jean-Claude’s world of 1980s is actually how the world works. It’s just we laugh at it now, we think it’s not realistic. We’ve seen UFC so there’s no way people fight like Jean-Claude fights. The joke of the show was always designed to be: a lot of that stuff is real. We’re just turning our nose up at it.

Peter Atencio: You guys are at a little bit of a disadvantage. It is one story that continues so there’s kind of a method behind the madness. Seeing where it all pays off and thematically how it ties in with JC’s journey, there’s a lot of fun to it.

Jean-Claude Van Damme: Because we didn’t shoot everything in order, I said, “This is going to be one of the craziest shows but it’s going to hold together.” He told me, “It’s crazy, right? You have to stay very serious. I’ll take care of the rest.” I said, “Yeah, but it’s so crazy.” He said, “Don’t worry. Just play the part.” So it all came together like that. The movie is big but also it has lots of heart. It’s big and small at the same time.

Written by
Fred Topel also known as Franchise Fred has been an entertainment journalist since 1999 and specializes in writing about film, television and video games. Fred has written for several outlets including About.com, CraveOnline, and Rotten Tomatoes among others. His favorite films include Toy Story 2, The Rock, Face/Off, True Lies, Labyrinth, The Big Hit, Michael Moore's The Big One, and Casablanca. We are very lucky and excited to have Fred as part of the We Live Entertainment team. Follow him on Twitter @FranchiseFred and @FredTopel

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