Published: March 7, 2015
I don’t like to be cautious.’ Matthias Schoenaerts leans forward in his chair, his voice rising. ‘I think cautious is boring. I want to be passionate. I want to just throw myself into something. I want to be bad. I want to be good. I want to work like Jackson Pollock made a painting.’
Schoenaerts has been called the Belgian Brando – and the roll of his eyes and his snort of dismissal when you mention it warns you not to get him started on that. But you can see why. The physical presence, the simmering intensity, the spooling thought processes…
It is a cold day in Antwerp, and having spent the morning being photographed, Schoenaerts now sits in the studio kitchen, toying with a plate of salad. All morning he has been in and out of designerwear for the camera, but now he’s dressed down in black jeans and a checked woollen shirt, the appearance of a man who might be reaching for a look you would describe as New York beat poet, circa 1959, but who doesn’t much care whether he has arrived there or not.
He apologises. If he looks bleary-eyed it’s because he has been up half the night fixing up a new studio he has rented, where he can paint – more than a hobby, he says, a passion. It started when he was a young teenager flitting around the streets of Antwerp, doing graffiti and street art. ‘So I paint, yes,’ Schoenaerts says, his almost perfect English delivered with the faintest Flemish drawl. ‘But if I consider people like Francis Bacon, I wouldn’t dare to call myself a painter.’ Schoenaerts, who is 37, has built his reputation in a series of roles in European films playing what he calls ‘wounded animals, people having a hard time with themselves and others’.
His first starring role, in 2006, was in the Belgian film Love Belongs to Everyone, playing a mentally challenged man learning to adjust to life after a prison sentence for a rape he may not have committed. In Bullhead, nominated for best foreign language film in the 2012 Academy Awards, he was a cattle farmer hooked on steroids, who finds himself mixed up in the underworld of the Belgian mafia. In Rust and Bone – the film directed and co-written by Jacques Audiard that was nominated for two Golden Globes and won a raft of best actor and actress awards for Schoenaerts and his co-star, Marion Cotillard – he played an impulsive drifter scratching a living in illegal bare-knuckle fights.
Tough-guy roles softened by a vein of bruised, clumsy gentleness, in both Bullhead and Rust and Bone, signalled a formidable physical presence, an actor who used his body as an instrument. For Bullhead he bulked up his usual 14st 2lb to 16st 4lb with intense weightlifting and copious amounts of fast food. Having lost most of this additional weight, he then had to regain it for Rust and Bone, putting on 4st 3lb with a regime that entailed boxing, weightlifting and ‘a very specific unhealthy diet’ to put flab on the muscle, suggesting a strong man going to seed.
It is a sleeker, if no less well-muscled, Schoenaerts who now finds himself poised on the brink of the journey from art house to multiplex. In that familiar car crash of new releases that often signals the arrival of a major talent, whom producers and directors took note of two or three years ago but who is now due wider popular recognition, Schoenaerts is suddenly everywhere.
The next few weeks see the release of three new films in which he takes leading roles. In A Little Chaos, starring and directed by Alan Rickman, he plays Louis XIV’s garden designer, André Le Nôtre. In Far from the Madding Crowd, he is Gabriel Oak opposite Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba. But it is to talk about Suite Française – the eagerly awaited film adapation of the novel of the same name, in which Schoenaerts plays a German officer, Bruno von Falk, who falls in love with a young French woman (Michelle Williams) – that we are meeting today.
Suite Française was written by the French novelist Irène Némirovsky, who died in Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of 39. She left behind a notebook containing the two novellas that comprise Suite Française. Believing it was a diary, and fearing it would be too painful to read, her daughter Denise secreted it in a drawer, where it remained unread for 50 years. It was not until the late 1990s, when arrangements were made to donate Némirovsky’s papers to an archive, that Denise realised the notebook actually contained a novel. Suite Française was published in France in 2004, and went on to become a bestseller around the world.
Beautifully shot on an epic scale, on a budget of €15 million (big by European, if not American, standards), Suite Française is set in 1940 in the French provincial town of Bussy, which, following the fall of Paris, has been occupied by a battalion of German soldiers. Von Falk is billeted in the home of a young woman, Lucile (an outstanding performance by Williams), whose husband has been taken as a prisoner of war and who is living with her domineering mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Lucile’s antagonism to the unwelcome guest is softened when she hears him playing the piano and discovers they have a shared passion for music. Bruno is a cultured, sensitive man in a brutal, and brutalising, environment, torn between duty and his own sense of decency. ‘That ambiguity I found very interesting,’ Schoenaerts says. ‘At the beginning of the film we see him as an evil force because he’s part of the Nazis. The challenge is to work it out so that by the end of the film the audience don’t see that costume any more; they are seeing Bruno.
‘What I like about him is that he’s noble, almost altruistic; always truthful and correct. And I don’t want to sound cynical or nihilistic, but those are rare qualities. At the same time you could easily consider a character like this to be extremely boring.’ He mimes yawning. ‘“My God, I’m going to fall asleep!” So how can I make it so that you attach yourself to that person? That’s also a challenge.’
He considers this for a moment. ‘What is also beautiful is the reason that Bruno and Lucile connect to one another – yes, there is physical attraction, but that comes in the second or third place. The first thing that unites them is their mutual passion for music, and the very refined energy of that very specific music. And that, I think, is a beautiful thing to share, because we live in a day and age that is so dominated by the vulgar, the carnal… which is also human. I’m also an animal. I can also be a beast. I know about sex. Fine. Good. But there’s a lot more as well.’
Schoenaerts’s father was the Flemish actor Julien Schoenaerts. His mother, Dominique Wiche, and Julien never married, and Matthias was raised alternately by his mother in Antwerp and his grandmother in Brussels – a situation that he describes as ‘complicated’ but declines to elaborate on. Schoenaerts has a brother, Bruno, a lawyer, who is older by 23 years. Julien was a hugely popular actor in Belgium, famous for his film roles and mesmeric stage performances, not least a two-hour monologue, The Apology of Socrates, which he performed more than 2,500 times.
Last year a Belgian journalist, Stan Lauryssens, published a contentious biography of Julien, Schoenaerts, dwelling on the actor’s breakdown in the early 1970s, following his being admitted to a psychiatric institution suffering from bipolar disorder. Matthias and his mother took legal action against the book, winning a judgment that it should be labelled as containing numerous factual inaccuracies. Rather than bowing to the judgment, Lauryssens withdrew the book altogether.
The young Matthias would sometimes watch his father on set and on stage. At the age of 12 he acted alongside him in Daens, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. ‘Don’t mention it,’ he pleads. ‘It was not even a supporting part; I call that a wallpaper part.’
There was no early desire, or pressure, to pursue an acting career. In fact, he rebelled against it. ‘Maybe that is part of growing up and definitely not wanting to do what your parents are doing. But I really didn’t want to have anything to do with it.’
Instead, as a teenager he wanted to be a footballer, and was good enough to be on the books of a professional team, Beerschot, but not to make a career of it. He enrolled at film school, but was expelled for poor attendance. ‘I was lazy then.’
By the time he finally surrendered to the inevitable and enrolled in drama school at the age of 21, he was already acting professionally in small roles on television and in Belgian film.
‘My father was very free-spirited and open-minded. He was like, “Let’s see where this kid ends up by nature. Let’s not try to navigate him into whatever we think might be good for him.” Which sounds like a beautiful concept…’ Schoenaerts laughs. ‘But then I ended up doing something I thought I never would.’
Julien Schoenaerts was unable to see the success that his son achieved. For the last few years of his life he suffered from Alzheimer’s. He died in 2006. ‘We were communicating on a different level – a beautiful level, but there were no practical, matter-of-fact reality conversations about what did you do today, I’m doing this. We were on a different page, which was, I think, way more important.
‘People ask me a lot of times, would your dad be proud of what you’ve achieved? To some extent, yeah. But to him it was more important that you’re happy with what you’re doing. Do you feel good? Do you feel like your energy can flow? Does it bring you happiness? That’s what is interesting. He wouldn’t be concerned about the level of success, because he knows that’s not where the true joy lies.’
Ah, true joy. For Schoenaerts, the phrase seems to act like a lit match on blue touchpaper. True joy, he says, is the chemistry that happens between actors and directors – ‘the symbiosis between minds’ in the moment the camera is rolling. ‘It’s between “action” and “cut” – that’s what I enjoy, and honestly most of what comes before and after I enjoy less. You ask a soccer player, what does he enjoy – and it’s when he’s on the pitch. The same goes for acting. And everything else is much less…’ He pauses. ‘Do you say “much less?”’ He repeats the phrase, toying with the paradox. ‘Much. Less. That’s fantastic! Much less interesting.’
He doesn’t want to get too philosophical about this, he says – ‘too esoteric’ – but for him the biggest joy is when you forget you’re playing a character, forget the intellectual challenge, forget you’re acting, ‘forget everything. Everything else is boring. Really. Art that doesn’t come from that absolute state of freedom where you’re channelling energy and sharing energy – all art that doesn’t come forth from that, I’m very suspicious about it.’
Spontaneity! Freedom! Schoenaerts bangs the table in excitement. He has worked with actors, he says, who plot their every word and gesture in a notebook before they even get in front of a camera. Madness! ‘I’m like, my God! Let it go. Breathe. Listen to your partner. Watch each other. I worked with one director who told me how to say a sentence before I even got to the scene. I’m like, what is this? It didn’t make any sense. Yeah, you study and all of that, but you cannot determine the inflections in a sentence before you’ve even got to the set and before you’ve heard your partner say what he or she has to say. What kind of bullshit is that?’
He raises his eyes to the heavens. ‘The best things happen naturally. If Barcelona make this wonderful goal after 50 passes, to some extent they train hard to be able to do that. But when they do it in that specific moment, that moment is unique and totally magical. And that’s the same in acting.’
And how often does that happen? He laughs. ‘Not so many times. I don’t want to put names on it, because if you do other names are going to be offended. But you have natural connections with people that you can’t really explain. There’s a reason why you meet someone and after five minutes you feel like there’s something different from the connection you have with another person; and the same goes with directors and co-stars. Sometimes there’s a constellation that generates a very special energy that enables you to do really inspired things without having to think about it, without having to intellectualise it, just through a genuine mutual interest and sensitivity towards the material, and – bam! – stuff comes, just like that. And I really love that.’
Schoenaerts may not say so himself, but an example that comes to mind is his collaboration with Marion Cotillard on Rust and Bone. On paper Rust and Bone must qualify as the one of the most improbable pitches in the history of film: layabout single father turned illegal street fighter falls in love and finds happiness with double-amputee who has been maimed by a killer whale. Schoenaerts says he might have thought exactly the same thing had it been any director other than Audiard. ‘But knowing him, I knew he was going to make that tangible, believable, and even find a way to make the relationship sexy; that was improbable, but he did it.’
On first acquaintance, Schoenaerts’s character, Ali, seems like a man unable to entertain a single thought about anyone other than himself – or win an audience’s sympathy. The catalyst for his transformation appears in the unlikely form of Stéphanie, played by Cotillard, who works as a trainer in an aquarium on the Côte d’Azur, and who is attacked by an orca during a performance. From this unlikely premise, Audiard conjures a love story of extraordinary redemptive tenderness.
‘What I found very interesting about Ali,’ Schoenaerts says, ‘is that he’s someone who’s living totally unconsciously, taking everything as it comes. Doing bad, doing good, it’s not even a choice for him; he just does it, and it’s we who make the judgment about whether it’s bad or good. So, OK, how can we get this person to a point where he very sincerely realises he loves someone, and expresses it verbally, and we believe it? Most characters in a film, emotionally they go from zero to 100. This character goes from zero to one. By the end of the film he manages to just say, “I love you.” But for this person it’s to hell and back. In that one sentence he reveals even to himself his true inner being. For me, that’s a real character revelation moment.’
The role of Bruno shows a very different side of Schoenaerts as an actor – a thoughtful, cultured sensitivity that is a long way from the brute force of Bullhead and Rust and Bone. Saul Dibb, the director of Suite Française, talks of Schoenaerts as an actor who combines ‘soul and complexity’, saying, ‘He doesn’t feel the need to have to make all of his parts likeable; I think he’s much more interested in making them understandable and human.’ Schoenaerts, Dibb says, takes a punctilious approach to preparation.
In the film Dibb tackles the habitually difficult problem of foreign language and accents by having the German soldiers speak to each other in German (with subtitles) and the French characters speaking in unaccented English – a more effective device than it may sound. As Bruno, Schoenaerts speaks both German and English. ‘And he really worked to make sure that his German was impeccable, and that he could speak it properly,’ Dibb says. ‘He thinks about the character and the broad brushstrokes of who he is, but he doesn’t overthink it. He has this laidback demeanour when he’s off camera – he does very funny Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonations – but an incredibly focused approach on camera, and it changes in a heartbeat. As soon as it starts to roll he’s absolutely there and finding it in that moment. He’s not hiding himself from you.’
Suite Française, Far from the Madding Crowd and A Little Chaos were all filmed in a hectic sequence through the summer and autumn of 2013. ‘And after that,’ Schoenaerts says, ‘I was “never again”, because that’s impossible. I go back to soccer: you can’t start a game knowing that you have two games right after in the same day because you want be able to fully unleash yourself.’
From the relative obscurity of the Belgian film industry, Schoenaerts now finds himself crossing the divide between respected actor and international star. This is a trajectory that traditionally includes prolonged stays in Hollywood, but it would be hard to imagine Schoenaerts taking that particular step. He does not have any intention of quitting Antwerp, where he lives with his girlfriend, a law student. ‘I’m happy here. It’s my “plug-out” city, where I can disconnect. I’m not going anywhere. And anyway,’ he adds, ‘I’ve just bought two kittens.’
In the past few months he has completed work on two films, Close Protection, in which he plays a former soldier suffering from PTSD who is hired to work as a bodyguard for a wealthy Lebanese businessman’s wife and child, and A Bigger Splash, a ronde of sexual relationships involving a man, his wife, her former lover and his teenage daughter, in which he co-stars with Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson; and he is now working on The Danish Girl, about the painter Einar Wegener, co-starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.
So how do you find the balance between keeping sane and being in demand? ‘I think Daniel Day-Lewis has a perfect answer to that. He just does a film every four years. That’s the answer. Sometimes I tell myself that’s how I want to do it, but then I’m too impatient, I’m too eager. Because it’s like playing for me. You know, the kid that plays cowboys and Indians in his room? That kid is playing, but he’s deadly serious about it. That’s me.’
Suite Française is released on March 13, A Little Chaos on April 17, and Far from the Madding Crowd on May 1
© 2015 Telegraph UK | Written by Mick Brown | No copyright infringment intended.