Matthias Schoenaerts is one of the most elusive, yet intriguing forces to come out of Belgium. At first, his physical appearance is disarming– one would not expect a blue eyed, well manicured, towering figure that, for the most part, is in complete juxtaposition of the gritty roles he built his resume around. As a newcomer to America, Schoenaerts first gained traction in the Belgium film Bullhead, as a steroid addicted cattle farmer. The performance won the affable actor rave reviews and the film itself earned a 2012 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year. Dedicated to character study, Schoenaerts has his own kind of method in taking on roles that border the edge of sanity.
In Rust and Bone, Schoenaerts sheds layers in his visceral performance as Ali, a nightclub bouncer, drawn to the seductive nature of Stephanie (Marion Cotillard). The two favor a call and response kind of chemistry, that at times is playful, yet intense as they try to find their footing with each other. Ali is a man who has fallen on hard times to survive with his young son in toe. Complex in his nature, he’s a humanly flawed character, and is easy to be judged for his brute honesty, and overwrought physicality. Still, there’s a cool composed nature Schoenaerts carries with Ali, which only makes for the moments of spontaneity, roll naturally in an explosive impetus.
With matinee looks, and a genuine need to understand the characters he brings forth, Schoenaerts is primed for American cinema. Later this year he will be seen in a supporting role alongside Cotillard, Mila Kunis, and Clive Owen in Blood Ties, as well as taking a lead in the film The Loft. The Inquisitr’s Niki Cruz caught up with Schoenaerts to discuss his film Rust and Bone.
THE INQUISITR: What drew you into this project?
MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS: First of all, [Jacques] Audiard. At the very first instant I was like, “I don’t even care what it’s about. I’ll do it.” The film is so rich. It’s so profound. It’s a story of contrast. It’s strong, it’s vulnerable, it’s ugly, it’s beautiful, it’s poetic, it’s tender, it’s brutal, and it’s visceral. It’s twisted but in a very natural way.
THE INQUISITR: Was there anything that surprised you about the character while you were filming it, that wasn’t initially apparent?
SCHOENAERTS: Absolutely. When I first read the script I had a certain idea that immediately changed after the second time I read it, and after I started working with Jacques. It’s something that grows organically because that’s the way he works. He wants you to redefine a character permanently. He doesn’t want you to find the character and then just stick with that. He thinks that’s boring. He says, “Make sure you have some kind of blueprint to work with but then make sure you’re ready to leave that behind, and be ready to redefine.” It was very, “Don’t let your actions in a scene depend on an idea that you made for yourself about the character. Just be authentic in the moment, and respond, and be intuitive.” That’s the way he makes his films.
THE INQUISITR: Were you able to get a sense of Ali right away? Jacques had said the character on the page was initially different.
SCHOENAERTS: Yeah, on paper he was darker, more serious, but when we started rehearsing we realized there was no seductive quality to the guy. Maybe because he was strong, but something malicious came out of him. So we were like, “We have to add some playfulness. There’s got to be something joyful about the guy.” And we realized we had to make the guy very simple, very humble, very sincere, and very straightforward. At the same time, of course he does a lot of things that you would qualify as being not good. So we were like, “Okay, how can we make it happen that people will not hate him for it? Okay, they’re going to judge him, and hate him a little, but still they’re going to care for him.” There’s something very honest about him and that’s a quality that you can understand that she would fall for. He’s not hiding anything. He’s just being who he is in the pure sense of the word.
THE INQUISITR: Juggling all of those qualities that make up Ali’s complex nature is astounding. What’s important is that he’s still a sympathetic character. Was it difficult to bring that out of him?
SCHOENAERTS: It’s all about being sincere and portraying him as a guy who doesn’t calculate his moves, or doesn’t edit himself. He’s not a guy that puts himself into perspective and then starts acting certain ways, so he’s perceived in other ways. There’s no bird’s-eye view. There’s no self-reflection. That’s what we had created. Of course that’s extremely complex to create because you want to make it feel as natural as possible. We worked a lot on it.
THE INQUISITR: You’ve said in the past that you like to break down stereotypes. Is that one of the ways that helped you achieve his complex nature in pre-production?
SCHOENAERTS: That’s something we developed while we were working on it. In the beginning we explored many different routes. Then during improv I started to let go of everything we thought of, and somehow in a very natural way there was a playfulness that just came along with how I was feeling in that very instant. All of a sudden Jacques was like, “Yes! This is it! This is wonderful! The guy is funny!” And not because he cracks a joke every second but there’s something very funny about him being very genuine. Of course it’s a heavy character, but if we made it too dark it would be unbearable.
THE INQUISITR: How did you prepare emotionally to bring the physicality out? Also, how did you prepare for a physical transformation?
SCHOENAERTS: I did a lot of boxing for a couple of months on a day-to-day basis. I had to eat a lot because he wanted me to grow a belly. He wanted me to look strong, but not fit. He wanted me to look like a guy that we can believe that was an athlete somewhere in his youth, but apparently didn’t have the means to continue that the last couple of years. He hit rock bottom probably a couple of years before the film starts, and he’s been trying to survive ever since. And then after that, the emotional part. How do you get there? It all comes down to the same thing–just being in the instant. The only thing you got to make sure is that you have your body filled with so much that has to do with the character, so you can release it in an instant, and be authentic and genuine in the moment.
THE INQUISITR: There’s this honesty to the chemistry you have with Marion. How was your preparation with Marion? Was it hard to find such an intense chemistry?
SCHOENAERTS: The thing is we didn’t have a lot of preparation. She was shooting Batman in the states, and then we met on set, so me and Jacques were concerned about it. I knew she was a great actress but I didn’t know what to expect about the chemistry. Jacques also, he always tends to work a lot with his actors to explore the scenes, and just to create a bond, and a language together. Just so you know how to feel, and to create an intimacy, so once you’re on set you can be really like, “Boom” and you don’t have to be cautious. It’s more so you know each other, and you talk straight forward, but we didn’t have that with Marion and so that was one big surprise. Once we got on set from the very first rehearsal, we had something very natural that happened. It was so genuine, and that was a relief, I think, for everyone, and for her as well because she didn’t know me, and you never know because you can have a chemistry off-set, and that doesn’t mean you’ll have it on-camera. You have the big symphony in your head or in your system somehow. Then you just dive into it.
THE INQUISITR: In many ways the heart of the film was about Ali’s self-realization of discovering that he’s a father. Personally, what’s the heart of the film for you?
SCHOENAERTS: To me the core of the film is two people discovering love and rediscovering life through love. That’s what I think the core is because of the fact that he does rediscover life, and he rediscovers love for everyone, for his kid, for Stephanie, and for his sister. It’s on so many levels that it changes his life.
THE INQUISITR: What can we look forward to in the recent future?
SCHOENAERTS: I have a Belgium film that I shot two years ago coming out called The Loft, which was fun. For the future I have some interesting projects, but I have to make up my mind still.
Note: Since the interview, Matthias has accepted his next lead role against Michelle Williams in Suite française. He’s currently filming alongside Tom Hardy Animal Rescue.
RUST AND BONE IS OUT ON DVD NOW.