Published: March 8, 2013
It must feel a bit surreal to find yourself, in the tradition of once-unknown European actors like Javier Bardem and Jean Dujardin, suddenly an American sensation. Just ask Matthias Schoenaerts, who starred last fall in the French art-house hit “Rust and Bone,” in which he plays Ali, a single father and mixed-martial-arts fighter who falls into a careless romance with Stéphanie, played by a deglamorized Marion Cotillard, who has recently become a double amputee after being maimed by one of the whales she trained at a SeaWorld-type park on the Côte d’Azur. Schoenaerts’s performance, suffused with a clumsy gentleness that recalls Ryan Gosling’s career-changing role in “Half Nelson,” has earned him critical raves and media infatuation. One day he’s a working actor living in Belgium, finding time to go to the gym; the next he’s a Hollywood man of the moment, with a string of movies on the docket.
“It’s been exciting, but at some point it drives me nuts,” Schoenaerts says. Indeed, he feels that his quiet life in Antwerp — where he lives with his girlfriend, a law student and model — is slipping away. “I haven’t been here a lot this year,” he says. “Next year I want to do two projects and not more. Four or five a year starts feeling like a grab-the-money-and-run show.”
Before “Rust and Bone,” Schoenaerts was busy promoting “Bullhead,” a drama in both French and Limburgish (a dialect of the Dutch-Belgian-German border) and a 2012 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. In it, he plays another nonverbal lug, a cow farmer addicted to steroids and hormones similar to the ones with which he injects his cattle.
For both roles, Schoenaerts bulked up from his usual 198 pounds to as much as 230 pounds, with intense weightlifting and copious amounts of fast food. “Ali should look like he could’ve been an athlete once but he got a belly,” he says of his “Rust and Bone” character. “Now I’m slimming back down and getting back to my sports schedule.”
In fact, sports — namely soccer — were his salvation growing up. He was raised alternately by his grandmother in Brussels and his mother in Antwerp; his mother never married his father, the Belgian actor Julien Schoenaerts, who died six years ago, and Matthias speaks very little about his family history. “It’s complicated,” is all he’ll say. “But when I was playing soccer, everything was fine.”
Then along came another passion: street art. Online there is a video clip of a teenage Schoenaerts and some buddies getting apprehended by two cops while doing a graffiti mural in Antwerp. “We didn’t run when we saw them, we just kept painting!” he says with a laugh. A decade ago, his love of graffiti even led him briefly to New York, where he painted with the Bronx group TATS CRU.
His father’s career hadn’t held much interest at that point. He enrolled in film school in the late 1990s but was kicked out after a year. “I was lazy back then,” he says. Eventually he came around, making a name for himself in “Loft,” a 2008 Belgian thriller about five buddies who share a loft for trysting purposes — then turn on each other in paranoia when a dead woman is found there. He stars in the American remake, due this year, with James Marsden, Wentworth Miller and Eric Stonestreet, of the TV show “Modern Family.” It is his first English-language film, and others will soon follow, including “A Little Chaos,” with Kate Winslet, and “Suite Française,” with Michelle Williams, both due next year.
Later this fall he’ll appear in “Blood Ties,” a crime thriller set in 1970s New York, in a supporting role in a cast that includes Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis and Cotillard; Guillaume Canet, Cotillard’s boyfriend, directed the movie. One offshoot of working with a dialect coach on the film is that Schoenaerts speaks English with a “GoodFellas” twang. “My so-called neutral American accent now seems to be a New York accent,” he says.
That may come in handy as he inevitably spends more time stateside. But he says that as much as he likes small doses of America’s manic energy, he’s determined to stay rooted in Belgium. He also swears he won’t do a rom-com. The thought of playing “just a charming, good-looking guy gives me goose bumps,” he says, and he doesn’t mean it in a good way. “Then again,” he adds, giving away a bit of his newfound Hollywood savvy, “if it’s a good screenplay . . . yeah, why not?”
© 2013 T Magazine | Written by R. Kurt Tim Murphy | No copyright infringment intended.