Kamel Krifa is an actor, film producer, and Hollywood’s stars trainer—including Jean-Claude Van Damme, Michelle Rodriguez, Eddie Griffin, Steven Seagal, and many other ones. Krifa ranks among Van Damme’s longstanding collaborators and personal friends, acting alongside him in various movies. This conversation with cultural journalist Grégoire Canlorbe first happened in Paris, in July 2017; it was resumed and validated in April 2020.
Grégoire Canlorbe: In Kickboxer IV, you have given flesh and soul to iconic villain Tong Po. Do you intend to return to the saga?
Kamel Krifa: At the time I had been offered a contract of five films to interpret the character of Tong Po. It was an interesting challenge, for my acting was essentially limited to the expression of my eyes and to working the articulation of the mouth. Indeed, I was asked to wear a mask, destined to give me oriental features. Alas, concerning fighting scenes, I did not have the opportunity to really prepare them thoroughly, because I had to avoid spoiling, through my respiration, the three hours of make-up that were devolved to me each day. (Knowing that an extra hour was still required to remove my make-up after filming.)
Finally, I will have only once lent my traits—or rather, lent my stature and my agility—to the deceitful and cruel Tong Po. But I effectively returned to the franchise Kickboxer, since I appear in Kickboxer: Retaliation, alongside Mike Tyson, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, Christophe Lambert, and none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme. The movie was released in January 2018. It is the sequel to Kickboxer: Vengeance, a remake of Kickboxer released twenty-seven years after the original film.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Jean-Claude Van Damme has directed a single film, The Quest, in which he plays in the company of the late Roger Moore. According to you, why did JCVD not want to repeat the experience since then?
Kamel Krifa: Jean-Claude has an undeniable talent as a director and he does not hesitate to advise the directors who work with him. They benefit from his experience, acquired both before and behind the camera. In turn, he offers them the best of himself in his acting. Since The Quest, he indeed prefers to delegate the task to the director and to focus on his interpretation. It allows him to let his mind float — instead of cornering his attention with a host of technical considerations that never leaves his mind in peace. In that way, he can prove fully invested, relaxed, and reactive under the eye of the camera; he can put himself in the skin of his character with an optimal ability to concentrate.
Also, entrusting the filmmaking to someone else, whom he knows qualified, and to whom he transmits his directives, allows him to take time for himself: time to commune with himself, and to read and meditate on subjects that are dear to his heart. Jean-Claude is not only a man of great culture; he is an authentic gifted, a superior intelligence, who carries a unique and insightful look at people, the things of life, and the universe.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Whether as his coach, his producer, or his on-screen partner, you have been working steadily and consistently with JCVD. Would you care to say a few words about it?
Kamel Krifa: I have known Jean-Claude since he was thirteen. When I met him, I was twenty years old; and from simple sports room colleagues, we quickly became best friends, spiritual brothers. In 1989, Jean-Claude, who had just acted in his launch pad Bloodsport (and who was about to become an international star with the tremendous successes of the early 1990s), proposed to me that I become his exclusive trainer; very honored, I accepted his offer. I then had the opportunity to act alongside him in Death Warrant and Lionheart—and that is how I became a Hollywood actor.
During the 1990s I continued to appear alongside Jean-Claude in various action movies; on the same token, I launched into production. That is how I was an associate producer for Double Impact, featuring Bolo Yeung. I also co-produced Legionnaire, for which I made location scouting in Morocco for two years. I must confess that I have a special affection for that period film, which deals with the Rif War and which features Abdelkrim Khattab, whom I had the good fortune to play. Most recently, I collaborated with Jean-Claude on the pilot of the TV series Jean-Claude Van Johnson, sponsored by Amazon—and, of course, on the last installment of the saga Kickboxer.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Let us talk about the origin of your cinematographic vocation. What could be, in particular, the “double impact” of your Tunisian childhood and of your early discovery of martial arts?
Kamel Krifa: At the age of seven I had stars in my eyes in front of peplums and other spy films from the 1960s; and it is to a large extent in the popular movie theaters of Tunis, where action movie left me mesmerized, that my vocation of actor was born. But it is also at home, from a very early age, by having fun shooting amateur films through a play of shadow and light, by imagining myself in the shoes of role models like Tarzan or Maciste, that my attraction for cinema took shape. The martial arts, which I have been practicing since my childhood, seemed to me early on to be the royal way to make my entry into the Hollywood milieu. As an adult my experiences in the army, the police, or as a bodyguard allowed me to perfect my combat skills.