Matthias Schoenaerts, Star of ‘Bullhead’

Published: February 17, 2012

The actor underwent a brutal physical transformation for this intense Oscar-nominated film

Many people were surprised when the dark but poetic crime drama “Bullhead” was chosen as Belgium’s entry in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language film. This impressive and beautifully photographed first feature by Michaël R. Roskam (click here for James Rocchi’s interview with the director) was not typical fare for the Academy and both the director and star of the film, Matthias Schoenaerts, were delighted when it made the final cut and became one of the five nominees. For his role in this tragedy, set against the backdrop of Belgium’s illegal bovine hormone market, Shoenaerts spent years transforming his slender frame into the hulk-like cattle farmer, Jacky Vanmarsenile, who becomes involved in this illicit world. Because of a freakish childhood incident, Jacky is now dependent on hormones himself. This creates severe physical and behavioral ramifications for the young man. I talked to Matthias Schoenaerts and asked him about his willingness to go to such demanding lengths for a role.

MSN Movies: Given that this was Michaël Roskam’s first feature, what guarantee did you even have that the film would get made?
Matthias Schoenaerts: Oh, I always believed it would be made because the script was so powerful, and, of course, I was convinced of Michaël’s talent. But I knew it would be a question of time, because it was a very ambitious film, and, as you said, it was his first film. To find the right talent, to raise the funds, that wasn’t easy. Sometimes we’d get so frustrated. At one point about four years ago, we were supposed to start shooting but then that fell through. But in retrospect, all that time really helped us refine what we were trying to do. We were able to get to the core of the story. Michael was able to work on the script and I was able to get into the character on the deepest levels possible.

Including your physical transformation. I read that you went through very intense physical training and a diet that made Robert De Niro’s preparation for “Raging Bull” pale by comparison!
I am naturally very skinny so I started working out a lot to get my body used to that level of exercise. Then, about a year before we finally started shooting, Michael called me and said, “Okay, I have a date, we have the money, it’s definitely going to happen,” so I decided to cut out all my other projects and just throw myself into the preparation for this film.

I so admired the sparseness of this film. Was it a challenge playing a character who is less dependent on dialogue and is more about conveying long-repressed inner turmoil?
Yeah, absolutely. For me, that was the most important aspect of Jacky. At some point, you spend so much time preparing for a role like this that it becomes part of your DNA. I remember a moment when I was just sitting, not saying a word, and I felt I was just breathing as Jacky, I knew he existed for me.

This is a pretty dark film, although it has many poignant, endearing moments. When you’re shooting a film as intense as “Bullhead,” can it be emotionally draining?
You know, in contrast to the hardness and extreme energy you see on the screen, we had a lot of fun during the filming. We needed a lot of oxygen to maintain that kind of energy. Of course, there were moments on set when I felt the need to isolate myself because a certain scene was coming up, but a lot of times, to avoid drowning in that darkness, I found myself laughing a lot between takes. I needed to have a very open approach while I was working. If I had held on to Jacky’s energy off-set, I would not have been able to have open communication with Michaël or the other actors. It was easier to lighten up at those times because I had so much time to prepare for the role and knew Jacky so well.

Because of how the character of Jacky is set up with the flashbacks from childhood, I always felt a lot of sympathy for him. Were you surprised to read some of the reviews that described Jacky as almost animal-like?
No, because there’s a lot of that going on, too. He’s intimidating and he’s dangerous and he’s brutal but that was not the essence of that character for me. He had a lot of vulnerability. For me he was like this innocent and naïve kid that never really grew up. I knew that the physical appearance would help with all the rest so once I managed to get there with all that ridiculous physical preparation, I knew I could focus on that kid that was inside Jacky which to me was the core of the character.

I was floored by how visually beautiful the film is.
That’s all Michaël Roskam. You clearly feel his background as a painter. He never went to film school, he thinks in compositions and colors and atmospheres and together with his DP, Nicolas Karakatsanis, they used painters as inspiration, not other films. I remember them talking about Courbet and Rembrandt, working for hours on light and shadow. That’s absolutely a part of the film because it creates a lot of the atmosphere.

One of the underlying tensions of the film seems to be the inherent conflict between Belgium’s French-speaking Walloons and its Flemish population. I’m afraid most Americans know very little about that dynamic.
We have a very small country with two separate communities that have a lot of cultural differences. And we have this huge language barrier because, for the most part, Flemish people don’t speak French and the Walloons don’t speak Flemish. It’s fun for us to work with because on both sides we always try to joke with each other. The Walloons love making jokes about how stupid the Flemish are, and vice versa. It’s the classical conundrum between two populations living in the same country.

So did you get any criticism about the two French mechanics who were sort of buffoons in the story?
Well, maybe one journalist made a remark about that but it never really became an issue because Michaël incorporated these two mechanics into the film like Shakespearean characters. They act stupid and make a lot of mistakes and without even being aware of it, they are the ones who navigate the destiny of the main character into some pretty life-changing consequences. That was their main function in the film.

Before you got involved with this film, were you familiar with this whole world of illegal bovine hormones?
Oh, yeah, it’s part of Belgian history now. In the 90s we had this veteranarian who was trying to investigate this world. He knew there was a lot of stuff going on and became a kind of an Elliott Ness figure. He wanted to clean it up but he ended getting killed by these mobsters. That exposed the whole universe to the public. We realized we had this enormous crime ring going on in Belgium that was very well organized. Michaël wanted to make a film noir and he thought that this hormone mafia was quite an original universe that’s typically Belgium, it comes from our soil, so it’s not trying to be some kind of American crime film.

Was there any concern that some of the thugs from this world might come after you?
Not really, because it was never Michaël’s goal to make any new revelations about what they were doing, it was just a very interesting backdrop for him. I don’t think he had to dodge any bullets…

Or find a disembodied cow head in his bed!

When you were making the film, did you expect to get all of this international attention?
Not at all, we didn’t even expect to get much national attention! We hoped the film would be successful, but we knew that it was a dark story, a hard story, but at the same time very touching and poetic and beautifully crafted. But it came as a complete surprise when the audiences in Belgium fell in love with the film. We had huge crowds come out and we thought, “What the hell is going on?” Then came the selection from the Berlin Film Festival and other festivals and then the awards started happening. It’s been amazing!

And now the Oscar nomination.
Yes. I was surprised because we had really strong competition from the Dardennes brothers who are huge filmmakers in Belgium who have won Cannes three times. They had never been nominated for an Academy Award and we thought this was their year, we didn’t think we had a chance! But I know that this is a film that really touches people. We’ve been in Moscow and Croatia and so many other places, and everywhere it’s the same thing, people just really care for this character.

What’s next for you?
I just finished a French film. I hooked up with director Jacques Audiard for this film called “Rust & Bone” with Marion Cotillard. I loved that experience so much I’m truly sad that it’s over! Without revealing too much, let me just say that it’s a story about two people from very different backgrounds that you could never imagine together. They hit rock bottom in their lives and somehow come together and start depending on each other and caring for each other. That’s all I’ll say, let the rest be a surprise!

Any American films in your future?
I’d love to make some films here. I’m reading a lot of screenplays now, so we’ll see!

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