My very first question in this interview is a spoiler for both Bullhead and Rust and Bone, but if you’ve already seen both movies, you should appreciate the comparison. But fair warning, if you have not seen either film, you may not want to read ahead. Matthias Schoenaerts starred in both films. Rust and Bone is making headlines for Marion Cotillard’s performance incorporating a graphic injury into many scenes. Schoenaerts plays Alain, a small time thief and underground fighter who actually helps her deal with her injury. We spoke with Schoenarts when he was in Los Angeles for the AFI Fest premiere of Rust and Bone.
CraveOnline: So I thought Bullhead was the best genital mutilation bovine hormone mafia movie I’ve ever seen, and now this is the amputee MMA fight promoter movie of the year. How did you corner these very specific genres?
Matthias Schoenaerts: [Laughs] What attracts me in these films is the intensity. Of course on Bullhead I worked with a friend of mine which I knew he was extremely talented. That was his first feature film and now working with Jacques [Audiard] who I already considered a great filmmaker way before I even got involved with this project, it’s the talent of the director and at the same time it’s the universe that they try to create on screen that attracts me. And of course the characters that they offer me.
Intensity is obviously something we see in the work. Are you always drawn to intense characters or stories?
Somehow, I don't know, on a subconscious level, most of the time that’s what I look for. I don't know why that is, maybe because these characters feel rich and interesting and both characters are very ambiguous. They’re raw, they’re gritty, they’re brutal but at the same time, they’re very vulnerable. There’s a tenderness to it. There’s something poetic about it. They’re antiheroes. They’re underdogs. Somehow I like that kind of stuff.
They can be very aggressive too. What do you draw upon for the aggression of these characters?
Well, the aggression most of the time is a result of some kind of emotional imbalance they carry within and that most of the time they’re not even aware of. So to me it’s a natural reaction, it’s a response to probably being hit by life too many times and not knowing how to deal with it. Then sometimes it comes out in the form of aggression.
In Rust and Bone, your character really doesn’t see sex as something you do with just one person, does he?
Yeah, he knows that he doesn’t have a lot to offer so he doesn’t consider himself a potential husband. So for him, it’s just a very physical primitive thing and he doesn’t even think about relationships because engaging himself emotionally on whatever level is something he’s never been used to. It’s not part of his nature. It’s a need and that’s what we discover throughout the film and that’s what he’ll discover himself, but at the beginning of the film, this is a character who’s totally emotionally handicapped and deals with things on a very instinctive and primal level. Sexuality is a part of that.
Did you have to eat a lot of yogurt? It looks like you swallow it on camera.
Yeah, I ate a lot of them. Oh Jesus, I remember that day. I was eating yogurt, oh my God.
You didn’t want to coordinate it with a cut so you could spit it out?
No, otherwise I start thinking too much. I was like okay, give me the yogurt, make sure you have enough and let’s go.
What has the acclaim you got from Bullhead done for your career? Have you gotten more attention from Hollywood since the Oscar nomination?
That’s for sure something that I noticed. I don't know if doors opened but there’s interest, that’s true.
What was the experience of the last year with Bullhead like for you?
It was kind of overwhelming because we really didn’t expect it to happen because it was such a dark and gritty film. When I saw it for the first time with the crew, I was really happy because I was really touched by the film and I was happy that we managed to create a powerful experience. But then, we never expected it to be such a success in Belgium, and then after that to go on internationally and get the acclaim that it got. That came as a surprise. Then of course on top of that, when we got the Oscar nomination, that was crazy.
Was it a very Hollywood experience going to the Oscars?
Yeah, well once we got into town, we were overwhelmed by meetings and people wanted to meet us and talk to us, so it was kind of a serious rush we got into. It was a very restless period.
Have things settled back down?
When I got back to Belgium I took some time off because I wanted to cool down because I was on this trip for a couple of months with Bullhead so I was like, “Okay, after the Oscars, I go back to Belgium, take some time off.” But then, the film Rust and Bone went to Cannes and then it started over again with Rust and Bone so I’ve been going for a couple months now.
Most of your films that I’ve seen have been subtitled. Have you always been bilingual?
Yeah, I grew up bilingual.
Has that been a useful tool to have for movies?
Yeah, of course. I think language, for me, it frees me as an actor. I don't know, playing in another language gives me a lot of energy. It’s freeing. It’s liberating. And it offers you the opportunity to work in France and in the states as well so that’s exciting because I think language, that’s a sad thing. The National Academy of Dramatic Arts, we don’t even learn French or English and that’s the only thing I think we’re missing in our dramatic education.
Your next three films: The Loft, Blood Ties and Wasteland...
Wasteland is cancelled.
Are the other two in English?
Mm hmm. Both of them.
What can you tell us about The Loft?
Well, The Loft is a remake of a Belgian film which we made five years ago now. So the director shot the remake and at a certain point he called me and said, “I’d like you to be part of it so how do you feel?” It felt really adventurous and the DP of Bullhead was on the trip as well so we were like okay, let’s go. Let’s make this adventure and let’s have fun and let’s do this film.
Did you play the same character?
Did you want to do anything different with him?
No, I didn’t. I thought of it as if I’ve never done it before. I didn’t want to relate to what I did before and I just wanted to have an open mind and to be able to make choices the way they feel right and if the choices I make are similar to the ones I made in the original, then that’s the way it is but I didn’t want to do something explicitly different because that didn’t feel right. I said to myself, “Okay, go at it the way you feel and if you make similar choices, okay, that’s the case.” Of course some things will change because I’m older now so you look at things differently and you interpret them differently.
You work with Marion Cotillard again in Blood Ties?
Yes, but I didn’t have any scenes with her.
What do you play in that?
I play a supporting role of a guy that gets sent to jail and loses his family because of that, because the wife can’t take it anymore and she decides to leave her husband and take the kid with her. So my character loves his family very deeply so once he gets out of jail, the only thing he wants is his family back but then things get complicated.
I’ve been to Toronto and Sundance, but what is it like to have a film at Cannes?
Well, Cannes is like the very mythical film festival so it’s an experience, absolutely. It’s big, it’s noisy, it’s exciting. All the good things.
What do you want to do next?
For now, for the next couple of months, I’m going to hang out and do the promotion [of Rust and Bone]. I’m reading a lot of screenplays and I have to make up my mind for what I’m going to do in 2013.
Is Hollywood offering you different kinds of movies than Europe is?
Yeah, it’s a different film culture so yeah, there’s a lot of different things coming my way but I’m happy because I don’t feel like there’s typecasting stuff coming my way, so I’m happy that people notice that I’m not looking for a certain kind of role. I’m just looking for interesting parts.
When you got the script to Rust and Bone, what sort of questions did you have for Jacques?
Of course I wanted to know how he felt about the relationship between Alain and Stephanie, how he felt about Alain himself, what he thought the traps were and what we should avoid. So we talked a lot and we rehearsed and we explored a lot of possibilities. We discovered a lot in improv and slowly but surely preparing the part, things came together and slowly but surely the character was revealing itself to us and then we realized okay, that’s the direction we should look for.
Did you have any questions about how the special effects with Marion would work?
No, I was confident that they’d take care of it.
Did that add a complication to any of the intense scenes when you also have to deal with a digital effect?
No. Not at all.
It was just a scene with you and Marion?