Looking for His Next Crush
Mar 20, 2013
Dressed in a suit and with his hair grown out, Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts hardly resembles Ali, the burly underground fighter he plays in French director Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone. In person, Schoenaerts looks like someone who could model for a cologne ad, but he has made a name for himself in the States over the last year by playing bruisers. In the 2011 Belgian film, Bullhead, he played Jacky, a cattle farmer pumped up on steroids who becomes entangled with the mafia. In 2012, Oscar voters nominated Bullhead for Best Foreign Language Film. Three months later, Rust and Bone, Audiard's follow-up to the critically touted A Prophet, premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Marion Cotillard stars opposite Schoenaerts in the film.
Schoenaerts had to gain muscle for both roles, but the regimen for Rust and Bone was less health-oriented, in order for Ali to look a tad paunchy. Ali, a father of a five-year-old boy, is jobless and broke when the film begins. His sister takes him in, and he picks up a job as a bouncer at a club, where he meets Cotillard's Stéphanie, who's sustained some scrapes in fracas outside. He drives her home and, to his surprise, learns that she's an orca trainer at Marineland. They part ways without becoming intimate, but not long afterward, a major accident during one of the whale shows causes Stéphanie to be hospitalized and have her legs amputated. Ali is candid, course in manners, and rough on his son, but he's unfazed by Stéphanie's new handicap. The two become drawn to each other and build a tenuous support system as Stéphanie attempts to re-engage with everyday life and Ali returns to underground fighting for money.
Under the Radar met with Schoenaerts in Beverly Hills in late November. He speaks French in Rust and Bone, but his English, aside from a few hiccups with tenses, is strong. He plays a New York Italian in the upcoming Blood Ties, and there are lingering traces of an East Coast accent during the interview. At the time, he had several projects on the table for his choosing. Since then, he's been cast in the Alan Rickman-directed A Little Chaos with Kate Winslet, and Suite français with Michelle Williams. Also, a live action short film in which he starred, Death of a Shadow, was nominated for an Academy Award. We asked Schoenaerts to discuss, among other topics, working with Jacques Audiard and Marion Cotillard on Rust and Bone, his background, and other projects on the horizon.
The logical assumption would be that Jacques Audiard saw you in Bullhead and then considered you for the role of Ali. But I understand that wasn't the case.
No. I did a casting twice without him, and then he wanted to meet me. So, I was already in the running, and then he saw Bullhead somewhere down the line. At first, that was not what got me there.
At what point did you start preparing for the role physically? Did you wait until you got the role?
No, I started already, because every time I met him, I wanted to look, more or less, close to the character, so he could be like, "Hey, that guy is the character." Actually, I was already acting every meeting I was there, because he didn't know me back then. He probably thought that's the way I was.
When you find out that you're working with someone who has the international status that Marion Cotillard has, do you think about whether she knows your previous work?
No, I didn't think that way. I was just like, "I'll have to be sharp." Of course, you have to be every time, but I was like, "OK, Jacques Audiard, one of my favorite directors, and then Marion, one of the best actresses, "OK, I gotta be ready, 'cause otherwise they're going to eat me alive."
I understand that you had hardly any contact with Marion prior to shooting.
Yeah, we just met once for a reading.
At one point did you think, "This is clicking. We've got some chemistry."
Day one, on set.
Do you remember the scene?
That's the scene that we shot again afterwards, in a different environment, because Jacques didn't like the setting of it. It's the scene where she comes to meet him after he left the club with another girl. And then we shot it a couple weeks later in a different area.
Stéphanie asks Ali, "What am I for you?" I'll ask the same thing: what is Stéphanie to Ali?
You want me to answer as Ali? Because Ali doesn't know.
No, I'm asking you.
She's his conscience somehow. She's his wake-up call. She's going to make him discover love and rediscover life because of that. That's one hell of a wake up call.
It's such an intense role, a lot of physicality to it, but you've said that one of the more exhausting scenes was the one with the phone call, near the end of the film.
[Laughs] Yeah. It's not exhausting, but it's a very fine line. Jacques wanted to try many options, because he wasn't sure what would be the best. If you have it in the edit, maybe it needs to be more of this, maybe it needs to be more of that, so he wanted to have everything. We shot it a lot of times, that's for sure.
That was atypical compared to the rest of the shoot?
You've been acting for quite a while—
—Well, not really. I just graduated 10 years ago. I did a theater play when I was a kid, and then I had a very small part in a film when I was 15, but apart from that, I think my career really started 10 years ago. That's when I really engaged myself with acting. Before, I was just being a kid.
Were you pursuing anything else at that time?
I wasn't pursuing anything. I just wanted to do it [acting] at that specific moment in time. That's what I wanted to do. I wasn't considering the future in any way.
Do you have an athletic background?
I did a lot of sports when I was a kid. I did a lot of soccer. I could have been a professional soccer player, but somehow, when I was 16, something snapped inside of me, and I just stopped playing.
What team do you support now?
Best team ever. They make it look so simple. It's playful, it's imaginative. It's fast, it's elegant, it's fair play. It's genius.
Have you tried getting into American football?
I don't know how that works. I don't know the rules, so I see them bashing each other. I know you've got to drop a ball behind a certain line, you can't just throw it, you have to touch it down. But I don't know. Once I saw an NFL final on television, and that was pretty rough. These guys, they're motherfuckin' huge. They really hurt each other, they go like fuckin' trucks slammin' into each other. That's acary as hell.
It's sad, the type of physical setbacks that these guys have once they reach their 40s and 50s.
Of course, what do you want?
But once you get the rules down—
—I can imagine, for sure. Otherwise people wouldn't be so hooked on it.
Right. It's very precise and mathematical. Once you catch on to how that affects strategy, I think you'll get into it.
Yeah, I believe it.
Compared with the last 10 years that you've been acting, what's this year been like for you, beginning with Bullhead's Oscar nomination, then the Cannes film festival with Rust and Bone, and now award season press in the States?
It's been a whirlwind, but it's exciting. There's a lot of stuff happening, a lot of projects coming my way, so I'm excited, I'm happy.
I read in an interview with you where you said that you were looking for a crush, you wanted to have a crush on your next project.
Yeah, of course.
I've never heard it phrased that way.
But I get it.
If you have a girlfriend, you want to have a crush on her, right? Why go with a girl that you don't have a crush on? It doesn't make any sense. The same goes for a screenplay. You want to have a crush on it. If you don't have a crush, then drop it. It doesn't make any sense. That's how I feel about it.
You've done a lot of short films, and I believe that's how you met Michaël Roskam, the director of Bullhead.
Yeah, I did his third short film [The One Thing to Do] with him, and that's how we got to know each other. That's when he talked to me about the project he was developing, which was called Bullhead. Which was six years before— He didn't have a first draft back then. He just had this idea that was boiling in his head. And we got connected and we kept talking about it, and then, so many years later, boom, we did it.
Did you go to the Oscars for that?
What was that like?
Wow, that's an experience. It's exciting. It's a mythical event, so to be part of that, wow.
Had you spent much time in Los Angeles prior to this year?
I've been here twice before because my very best friend lives here, but since last year, I've been here quite a few times.
Where do you live right now?
Is that where you grew up?
You grew up speaking Dutch?
Yes, and French.
When did English come along?
It's part of our education. And then, later on, I don't know. When we see American films, for instance, we have subtitles. We don't dub them, so you grow up with all these American films. So I probably picked up a lot from that as well. And then, I shot a film in the spring, which is called Blood Ties, and I had to play a New York character, and so I worked with a dialect coach.
I saw that the character's name is Tony. Is he Italian?
Yeah, Anthony Scarfo. Yeah, he's Italian. He's a very nice guy.
Had you known the director, Guillame Canet, personally before working on that film?
Did you get in contact with him through working on Rust and Bone?
Yeah, absolutely. We have a really nice connection with each other, and it became more of a friendship.
For The Loft, you're reprising a role.
You did that in Dutch the first time?
Yeah, the original was in Dutch.
But the rest of the cast is different?
I guess that happens in theater, you reprise roles. What was that like?
It felt like an adventure. Erik [Van Looy], the director, called me. He said, "OK, I'm doing it"—'cause they were in talks for so many years—"and I brought a tape of you." In the beginning, they were not considering taking me at all. So, they were casting it, and Erik knew I had good English, and he brought a tape, and then all of a sudden, he showed the producers. He said, "I've got an option for this part." [They said,] "We want to see it." And so, he showed the tape, and apparently the producer said, "OK, we want him. Let's have him. Let's do it." So that was exciting. [Erik] called me and said, "OK, you want to do it? And I was, "OK, let's be part of this adventure. Let's go, three Belgian guys remaking their own film in the States." It's an experience, it's fun.
Did you talk with Erik about trying a different role?
No, because all the other characters are older. So, there was only one option, it was the same character.
Your father, Julien Schoenaerts, was an actor. Is there a particular role or performance by him that's especially close to you?
The Apology of Socrates, written by Plato. That's a theater performance—because he was mostly a theater actor—that he did more than 1,500 times over the course of 25 years. It's kind of the manifest for humanity, and so that was quite remarkable.
And you shared the stage with him in a play?
Yeah yeah yeah, we did Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince. We performed that like 80 times when I was eight years old.
Have you had any time off this year?
When you're not making films, you're reading scripts, you're traveling to audition and promote your films, you're talking to press. Can you have any down time? Can you afford to when there's this much interest in you?
I try to. I need it. That's my source of inspiration. That's where I reload batteries, and I've got to reload. You can't go the distance with an empty tank.
What kind of music do you like?
It can be anything. It can be from classical to hip-hop to jazz, rock, whatever. Good music.
Do you turn to music at all when you're on set?
Yeah, I always have a little iPod with me. Not permanently. It depends, but I always have it with me.
Were there any particular songs or a type of music that got you through this role?
Actually, I was listening a lot to classical music. Rachmaninov, the third piano concerto, it's just beautiful. Erik Satie. Beethoven. Some Bach, Johannes-Passion. That kind of stuff. I remember, I was on set, and I was with my iPod. I was waiting for something, and Jacques was like, "What are you listening to?" And then he looked at me like, "I didn't expect this!"
You had time to spend with him before filming. What are those talks like? Were they in person? It seems a lot of people are auditioning by Skype these days.
That's weird. No, I just spent a lot of time with him exploring the screenplay, talking about the screenplay, trying to define the character but not define it, in the sense that you have a fixed idea on the character. It's just exploring it. And not working too much on the scenes that were in the screenplay, just imagining some situations where the character could be that are, of course, related to what could happen in the script. And then just trying stuff out. Slowly build it and see, "OK, this is an interesting aspect. OK, if we do it like this, then we've got to watch out." And then, slowly but surely, it starts building. And then, of course, you do a lot of work for yourself as well. And before you know it, everything becomes very intuitive. The character becomes part of your intuition and part of your DNA, and once you get on set, you have this blueprint for yourself that helps you to ground yourself over and over again. But, at the same time, you have to be ready, especially with Jacques, to let go permanently, and to throw away everything that you thought of. You can only do that if you have a blueprint for yourself, and you can only do that if the character is really with you somehow. And then you can go up, down, left, right. And that's what he wants you to do all the time.
What sets him apart from other directors?
He's all about his actors. He has such an intelligence about actors. He sees you comin'. He sees if you're falling back on mechanisms and all that, and he's gonna smash it away. But he's very generous, he's very respectful to actors. He gives you a lot of freedom. He wants you to feed him, and then he feeds you back. But it's a permanent exchange, and he's right beside you. He's with you all the time, and he's gonna exhaust you, and he's gonna push you around. He's gonna tease you. He's gonna challenge you, but he's always gonna be extremely respectful, and he's gonna love you. That's for sure.
For you, what does it mean when a director is generous?
He gives you a chance to be free. He's not telling you what to do. He's just teasing you and giving you stuff that sends you in so many places. He tries to create circumstances for you to be intuitive. When I say generosity, it's because he wants to hear what you have to offer. He wants you to propose stuff. He's not gonna tell you, "No, no, no, you're idea's shit" about the character. [He'll say,] "how do you feel about it? What do you think? C'mon." And then he jumps on a track, and then jumps on another track.
What's next for you?
What's next is making up my mind. There's a couple of very nice projects, but I've got to make up my mind, because everything is set for the same shooting period. It's a mind-cracker.
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