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Matthias Schoenaerts: bad to the bone

With a starring role in Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From The Madding Crowd, the Belgian bad boy looks back on his rise from accidental movie star to Hollywood’s hottest property

Taken from the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Dazed:

After being labelled the “new Jean Dujardin”, “the next Ryan Gosling” and the “Belgian Brando”, actor Matthias Schoenaerts is ready to prove he’s more than just a handsome face. “I hate it when people try to make you look like a pretty boy,” he says, speaking from Antwerp. “I really don’t like that. I always try to make myself look like shit when I do a role.”

Following such unforgiving, transformative roles as a bloated exboxer in the César-winning Rust and Bone (2012) and a backwaters farmhand in Bullhead (2012), the face of Louis Vuitton SS14 menswear is about to get down and dirty once more in Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel. “I was struck by the grittiness of the portrayal of that time,” he says, “because we always have this very idyllic, almost postcard-ish idea of the period and setting.”

When Schoenaerts was given the chance to work with the Dogme 95 legend, he dropped everything to do it. “To be able to work with Thomas was absolutely one of the main reasons to do this film,” he says. It’s a plutocratic tale of passion between Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), an indecisive flirt for whom men are merely flavours of the week, and Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts), a shepherd. “The beauty about the book is that it’s many things at the same time,” Schoenaerts says. “It’s a very difficult love story and on the way to the fulfilment of that love there are a lot of bumps in the road, and those bumps are really intense. They’re pretty dramatic events that imply a lot of pain and a lot of drama, which is always good. It’s a kick in the nuts.”

He may have played a cattle farmer in Bullhead, but playing Gabriel was “totally different. No comparison.” Filmed on the “insanely beautiful” rolling hills and cliffs of Dorset, the movie saw him dig deep into farm life for the role. “One day we had to do some sheep dipping. That was a fun day. Sheep basically don’t want to go in the water, so we had to put them in the water all day and then they can’t stand in the water because they kick around all the time, and they relax as well, if you see what I’m saying. We were in some kind of a sewer for the entire day. That was fun. Carey and I had a ball all day.” 

Did he find it difficult to fall in love with Mulligan onscreen? “Well, I don’t know if it’s easy,” he pauses. “It’s something that grows naturally because in the end, if it’s artificial, it doesn’t feel nice and maybe it doesn’t look nice either. That’s what I think.” He likes a good challenge with his characters, but nothing too intense. “Easy’s boring, but difficult is boring as well. So somewhere in the middle!” 

After spending most of last year working solidly, the 36-year-old is now enjoying some downtime at home in Antwerp, where he was raised by his mother and grandmother. His father – Julien Schoenaerts, a notable film and theatre actor – would pop up now and again, and on rare occasions would escort his son backstage and around the theatre before one of his shows. “I loved to impersonate stuff that I saw from my dad, so I would remember whole chunks of Greek tragedies from when he was performing. I just played around with it and my dad was like, ‘What the hell is going on with this kid?!’” 

“I was an arrogant prick who thought he knew everything. You know how that goes” – Matthias Schoenaerts

Despite making his film debut alongside his father in the Oscar-nominated Daens in 1992 at the age of 15, the young Schoenaerts was not really interested in acting. “That’s not what I necessarily wanted,” he admits. “I wasn’t ambitious about it, I wasn’t thinking about the future. I wasn’t thinking about becoming an actor or not.” Instead, he spent his formative years painting the town red with an aerosol can and a tight-knit crew of hooligans. “In the early 80s graffiti hit Europe. I just got totally obsessed by it when I was a kid and it never went away, so when I started drawing at 12 or 13, I grabbed my first spraycan and that stuck and I never let it go. I loved it.” 

What would he paint? “Just very classic old-school graffiti stuff,” he shrugs. “Back then it was just letters and little characters and funny typical stuff, and then over the years it became richer and richer.” Then came trouble, in the form of les flics. A few brushes with the law got the adrenaline pumping. “A lot of funny stuff happened, we got in trouble, we got pinched,” he laughs. “Almost getting caught, running away and hiding under crazy places and sitting there for like, 15 hours because you’re scared to come out because you think the cops are all around – that sort of stuff.” 

Next came a stint at film school, where he got unceremoniously kicked out for poor attendance. “I was an arrogant prick who thought he knew everything,” he says. “You know how that goes.” A string of truancy led to the school barring him from passing. “I got pissed off and then we got into a conflict, and then stuff happened and they kicked me out.” Any regrets? “No,” he says. “It’s part of an evolution.”

In his early 20s, a more mature Schoenaerts finally decided to try his hand at acting, enrolling at the academy of dramatic arts in Antwerp. Although his ambitions weren’t clear, or even fully formed, “that fascination came back to me.” He discovered he loved the craft. On graduation at 25, Schoenaerts started doing the rounds in TV series and short films. The roles kept materialising, “and then all of a sudden people call you an actor and you realise, ‘Hey, damn! It happened,’” he laughs. “Shit.” 

Over the intervening years he’s cultivated a roster of unlikeable characters. “That’s a good thing, that’s what I like,” he says. “I like when you get to play with peoples’ senses, deeper senses, not just with their intellect – that’s boring. I like to share an experience which is visceral, which is physical, which affects people beyond the intellect. After all, if you don’t learn anything, what a shit experience that would have been!” 

With a spectacular cluster of forthcoming films like crime drama The Drop, the Kate Winslet-fronted A Little Chaos and German-occupation romance Suite Française already in the bag, Schoenaerts is getting to the point where he can practically put his career on cruise control. “I hope they don’t come out all at the same time because people are going to get bored of me!” he laughs. “In two weeks they will have had enough.” Somehow we doubt that’s going to happen.

hair Duffy for Vidal Sassoon at Streeters; make-up Peter Philips at Art + Commerce; photographic assistants Romain Dubus, Chad Gevaert; hair assistant  Luce Tasca; makeup assistants Monique Van Mooter, Sofie Van Bowel; digital operator Henri Coutant at Dtouch; production Floriane Desperier at 4Oktober

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