The six-episode action-comedy series Jean-Claude Van Johnson, available to stream at Amazon Prime, follows Jean-Claude Van Damme (playing himself, in this wildly funny send-up), once one of the world’s most popular action movie stars, who is really a secret spy. After deciding that it’s time for him to make a comeback, as both an actor and an undercover operative, he also realizes that he’s not fully over his former colleague Vanessa (Kat Foster) and convinces his talent agent/spy handler (Phylicia Rashad) to get him back in the game and out on a dangerous mission.
At the show’s press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down for a chat with Jean-Claude Van Damme, creator/executive producer Dave Callaham and director/executive producer Peter Atencio, in which they talked about how this all evolved, the pitch to Amazon, the insanity of having the same director for every episode, how often they thought they’d never get to actually shoot what was written, the challenges of playing so many different characters, paying homage to the career of Jean-Claude Van Damme while also breaking new ground, and getting Phylicia Rashad on board.
Collider: When you first started to explore the idea of making a TV series in 2013, was it anything like this?
JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME: It changed, but a good team around you can make a big difference.
PETER ATENCIO: Originally, it was supposed to be an hour-long action show.
DAVE CALLAHAM: I wrote an hour-long version of the pilot, as a comedy. It has this great scene where Jean-Claude is in a refrigerator.
VAN DAMME: What they did was great, creating so many different characters for me to play and even adding time travel, so that I can confuse the audience even more. And there’s a great cast and great music.
This is definitely not a story that could have been told in the confines of a movie.
CALLAHAM: No. There’s a lot of storytelling happening, even within these three hours. When I look back at it, it’s actually a miracle that we fit it all in. If we’d had four hours, I think we would have been well-served. Maybe next time.
If there is another season, have you thought about whether you’d want to do more episodes?
CALLAHAM: We talk about what that might look like, but there’s also a degree of that conversation that’s an Amazon decision, in terms of number of episodes and what they’re willing to put on the platform. We felt pretty comfortable with what we did.
ATENCIO: This felt like a manageable amount. It felt like we were making an epic three- hour movie. I don’t know. More seems daunting. But I also know that when we were finished, we were like, “Oh, that’s it! I wanna keep playing in this universe!” So, I just wanna go back.
Peter, was it daunting to direct every episode?
ATENCIO: It was idiotic and foolish. Why would you do that?! It made no sense, but it was really fun. I’m really greedy, so when I read something that I really like, I don’t want to let any other directors touch it. I didn’t want to let anybody else have as much fun as I was able to have. It was a treat.
Jean-Claude, how was it to work with the same director throughout all of the episodes? Did you find that really helpful, in maintaining consistency?
VAN DAMME: It was good because I was playing different characters.
ATENCIO: He’d never done television before, and this was a lot closer to what he’d experience on a movie.
VAN DAMME: And the timing of the show gave Dave more time to write. It’s not complicated when you see it, but if you start to explain the story, people are like, “What?!” It was a risky pitch, so for Amazon to take it, was courageous. And then, there were the Scott Free people, and big people love big ideas. It’s that simple.
ATENCIO: It’s definitely a risky project, and getting everybody on board with the town was the most challenging part of getting it going, in the first place.
Dave, when you were writing this, were there times when you wondered how you were going to get away with any of this, and did Amazon ever ask what you were thinking?
CALLAHAM: Constantly, and no. Writing the pilot on spec, it didn’t matter what anyone thought because I just thought there was no chance anyone was ever gonna let me do it. When they made the pilot, that seemed incredible, but then I had a writing team for the series and that was amazing. On a daily basis, we were all under the assumption that it was never gonna get shot, and not because of Peter or because of Jean-Claude, or anybody other than ourselves. The stuff that we were doing seemed incredibly strange. It’s a hard series to pitch, and I had to pitch the whole series to Amazon to get us going. It was a three-hour pitch and it was so strange that I think they just didn’t know what to say, so they just said, “Go ahead.” They sent me directly to script, with not a single note. That’s not because it was so great. I think it was just so baffling.
ATENCIO: It was baffling and entertaining, so they were like, “I don’t know what just happened to me. My body is numb, but I know I enjoyed the ride. If you can actually make that, and film it and edit it, sure, we can do that.” Otherwise, they would not have been on board.
Jean-Claude, did it ever get confusing playing so many characters and different versions of characters?
VAN DAMME: No, I wasn’t confused.
ATENCIO: There’s an episode where he has to play multiple people in the same scene, with very subtle differences between them, and he would come in, immediately dialed in to those differences. My job was like, “Okay, here’s where we are. Go!” He would just know that there’s a voice difference for this guy, and this guy stands up a little straighter with his chest out a little bit more ‘cause he’s more confident. He really just became the character, every time, with all of those nuances. It was really remarkable. Not a lot of actors can do that, and juggle all of the idiosyncracies between them.
CALLAHAM: He kept them straight, but the crew got really confused, a lot.
ATENCIO: The crew was constantly confused. They were like, “Which timeline is it?!”
CALLAHAM: We had to have multiple body doubles.
ATENCIO: My script supervisor quit, half-way through. She was just like, “I can’t do it! This is too much! This is too crazy!”
VAN DAMME: It’s fresh and complex.
ATENCIO: We wanted you to be able to watch it and get pulled along by it, and only when you stop and take stock of what’s happened, you go, “Oh, my god, that was insane!” But while you’re watching it, you just accept that all of these things are happening in this crazy universe.
CALLAHAM: We always set out to hijack you with the emotional element. There’s a pretty emotional throughline with Jean-Claude’s arc, throughout the season. The goal is always to have people tune in to see him and see the action, and they know some of the comedy is gonna be in there, but by the time it’s over, you’ll find it fairly moving. That’s what our goal was, and it’s sort of a trick that we pulled.
Was it tricky to find a balance between nods to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career and covering new ground with him?
CALLAHAM: Yeah, we compartmentalized those sections. If you think about the season, the first four episodes represent a traditional Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, and then he becomes aware that that’s not going to work in the modern world anymore. That’s when Jean-Claude has to enter into the modern world and find out who he is now. That helped us keep those two things straight. They’re just before and after, essentially.
Jean-Claude, were there things that you specifically wanted to poke fun at and things that you didn’t?
VAN DAMME: No. You’re put in a category, which is normal for action stars, and it’s difficult for an action star to do what we’re doing in Jean-Claude Van Johnson, but we did it. For me, I’m proud of that. I don’t know if the audience will accept it. They’re going to be very, very surprised. I don’t know if the people in the industry will accept it either. This is a huge change. If people cannot see the change, they’re blind. I’m proud of it, no matter what anyone says about it. I was able to jump into it and be funny. We’ve done a good job.
ATENCIO: There was nothing off-limits. He opened himself up and didn’t say no to anything. It was great.
There are such strong female characters in this. How did you get Phylicia Rashad for this, and what was it like to have her?
VAN DAMME: She looked like an agent.
ATENCIO: It was important that they have a maternal relationship, so who’s better than the most famous TV mom, of all time, to provide that maternal support.
CALLAHAM: She was our first choice, and she said yes. At the time, and still now, we didn’t know why, but she did it.
ATENCIO: Maybe she lost a bet.
CALLAHAM: The on screen relationship that she had with Jean-Claude was beautiful and perfect. They got along famously, on set.
ATENCIO: She’s just the classiest, smartest, most talented woman, ever. To have her around, it classed up the joint. We all felt like we had to take it seriously because Phylicia was going to be in the show. It was a nice touch to go to work and be like, “Okay, we’ve gotta make this worthy of her involvement.”
And after watching this TV series, it seems like being an actor and traveling around for shoots would be the perfect cover for being an international spy.
CALLAHAM: Jean-Claude might actually be a secret spy.
ATENCIO: One could argue that perhaps this show was made as a way of distracting from the reality of movie stars being undercover agents. One could say that. I can’t say that, but one could.
VAN DAMME: Like Argo. We’re just trying to make a show about reality.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson is available to stream on Amazon Prime.