Interview: Matthias Schoenaerts on “Rust & Bone,” the Audiard Method, and His Own Documentary About a One-Legged Cage Fighter

The brawny star of "Bullhead" flexes his heart muscle in the latest film from "A Prophet" director Jacques Audiard, and reflects here on his breakthrough year, pushing past the...
Matthias Schoenaerts in Jacques Audiard's film "Rust and Bone"

Matthias Schoenaerts didn’t have much time to sleep last year. For a guy who loves movies, the last one he can recall seeing was back in his home of Belgium where he caught Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In,” so he’s had to settle for late night runs of “Breaking Bad” on his laptop, though when he mentions this, he’s careful not to give the wrong impression.

“It sounds like it helps me fall asleep,” Schoenaerts says. “No, not at all. It keeps me awake for at least one more hour because sometimes I watch two or three in a row because they’re so good.”

If anything’s been a constant in the actor’s life over the past two years, it’s been an adherence to a particular regiment, whether it’s catching up on the adventures of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman or unwrapping Big Macs or peeling back tin lids of tuna to bulk up for roles that have been as meaty physically as they have been substantively. The combination has resulted in a breakthrough year for the 35-year-old, who now looks like a ruggedly handsome shadow of the hulks he’s played in his most recent films, the Oscar-nominated “Bullhead” and the equally deserving “Rust & Bone,” which brought him to Los Angeles recently to help the film’s awards chances.

“You’re just like a gypsy traveling all over the world,” Schoenaerts says of the past 12 months, in which he’s been filmed three thrillers set to be released this year, including “Tell No One” helmer Guillaume Canet’s “Blood Ties,” sure to take advantage of his considerable presence while promoting the two that showcase his soulfulness. Dressed for the occasion more than he knows, his choice of a loose blue earthtone sweater that few men could pull off with no shirt underneath on this cool Southern California day is indicative of the strong, sympathetic type he’s perfected of late.

In “Rust & Bone,” Schoenaerts stars as Ali, a drifter whose body ensures a steady stream of odd jobs as a bouncer or in security while his always wandering mind makes him no more mature than the young son he’s charged with taking care of, a mix that positions him as an oddly congruous fit for a dolphin trainer (Marion Cotillard) he meets at a club who, once robbed of her legs after a terrible accident, is in desperate need of distraction. What ensues proves more significant than either believes at first, especially when Ali finds a talent for mixed martial arts street fights.

Amazingly, as Schoenaerts explains below, he was in the midst of making a film about a friend going through similar circumstances when he first learned he might star in the latest film from “A Prophet” director Jacques Audiard, an opportunity he knew he couldn’t pass up. In this rare break from the action, he reflected on his two performances from 2012, the freeform process of Audiard and when he might put the finishing touches on his own directorial debut.

Surely working with Jacques Audiard and Marion Cotillard was an attraction, but was there something attractive to you in the script for “Rust & Bone”?

Absolutely. It’s a very human, honest portrayal of two lost souls bringing each other back to life. The characters are full of contrasts, the story is full of contrasts –it’s a love story, but not the most conventional one and my character is brutal, he’s tender, he’s repulsive, he’s attractive. He’s genuine, he’s pure, he’s simple. At the same time, you hate him and you love him. That is attractive. I like underdoggish antiheroes. I don’t know why.

After “Bullhead,” was there any hesitation about playing a character that at least, on a superficial level, are similar?

Yeah, maybe because they’re both big guys, but to me, they deal with life is totally differently. Jackie [in “Bullhead”] is extremely self-aware of his drama, Ali is not at all. Ali has an almost playful approach to life, even though he’s like in a big mess. The guy hit rock bottom and he’s almost homeless and still he’s a bit playful about life. The guy laughs a lot and he takes life the way it comes. Of course, they don’t express themselves verbally. They’re emotionally handicapped personalities, but like Ali has a sense of humor whereas Jackie doesn’t have that at all. On a sexual level, yeah, obviously these two characters are absolutely different. When I read the script, I saw a danger of being in a similar kind of energy, so that’s when me and Jacques, we added this juvenile energy to Ali, not because we wanted to stay away from “Bullhead,” but because that would make the character disarming. Otherwise, you would just be a weird guy engaging in this perverted relationship with a girl with no legs.  

Is it a character you got to build from the group up with Jacques or was a lot of it already on the page? I’ve heard you talk about how the weight gain was done in a different way than for “Bullhead,” substituting tuna for Jackie with cheeseburgers and Haagen Daas for Ali.

It’s something I talked to with Jacques and he wanted to grow a lot of weight, because after “Bullhead,” I lost all that weight and then he wanted me to grow weight again to get some muscle mass. He wanted that character to look strong, but not fit or healthy. It’s not a guy who spends three to four hours in a gym every day. He doesn’t have the means, but he doesn’t have the time, either. So he wanted him to look like a naturally strong guy with an unhealthy feel to it, not artificially built like in “Bullhead.” I spent a lot of time getting there.

On the emotional level, he didn’t have an idea. Of course, he had some ideas about the character, as did I, but we wanted to discover him by working together and exploring the screenplay and exploring all kinds of ways to take on a scene. and somehow by doing that, things will stay with you, will cling on and will feel natural, like that’s interesting. And slowly but surely, you’re building that character and it becomes a part of you and before you know it, you have it. 

Is Jacques’ process liberating?

For him, a screenplay is a starting point because he’s like okay, I wrote something and now it’s going to start living once you guys do something with it. Hopefully, you guys do something with it that changes my perception on what I’ve written, so it starts to live again because I have to reconsider what I wrote and I have to change what I wrote because you guys have taken it somewhere that I couldn’t have imagined. As an actor, he gives you a lot of responsibility. He gives you a lot of freedom and at the same time, he’s onto you. He wants that permanent exchange with his actors because yeah, he’s like my actors create my story, so if I don’t have them, I don’t have the film. So he wants actors that think for themselves and come up with stuff that feed and inspire him, so he can inspire them back. It’s a constant search and inquisition for what is truthful. 

You’ve said this experience has helped teach you a lot about yourself as an actor. How so?

Making a film is one big, massive thing. You have a whole team and it can become very heavy. Filming with Jacques makes you realize cinema is a living art and I mean that in the purest sense of the word. Filming with him is like painting. It’s very organic. Nothing is static. On whatever level of the process, you put yourself into perspective constantly. It’s questioning everything all the time. It’s being instinctive about everything. That’s how he works. He wants you to be impulsive, not to overanalyze stuff. Analyze the stuff before you get to set, but once you get on set, be intuitive, be instinctive, be sincere, be genuine. Don’t be logical. Don’t be psychological. That’s boring. People are not logical. People say one thing and do that opposite – that’s interesting because there’s a conflict. Let’s be that. Let’s be human, let’s not be perfect. Perfect is boring. That’s what I learned. It’s the first time I’ve experienced something like that. I hope not the last time. It feels like you’re creating something in the moment itself that wasn’t there before that’s not preconceived.  

I had read you spent some time in film school…

Yeah…(slight laugh)  

Were you actually thinking of making films?

I’ve been loving film ever since I was a teenager, so I was always interested in film or storytelling or the cinematography or the acting. All of the aspects that are part of moviemaking interested me. It always spoke to me. There’s so many ways to transcend energy through cinema. 

What made you want to be an actor specifically? I know it was already in your blood, but did it come naturally?

To be honest, I don’t really know that happened. It’s obvious if your dad’s an actor that as a kid, on a subconscious level, you’ve been inspired somehow. You’ve been touched. That probably influenced starting my education at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts, but how that happens precisely, I don’t have any idea. 

Is it true you’re now in the midst of making a documentary about a friend?

Yes, it’s a documentary about a childhood friend of mine who’s had a very troubled life. I decided to make a portrait of him. I hadn’t seen him for 15 years and it must’ve been like three years ago and there I saw him and I was struck by his appearance. He was in and out of jail most of the time. He lost a leg due to a motorcycle accident. Massive guy, built, completely filled with tattoos, standing on one leg. I was talking to him and reminiscing about the past and I was about to go when all of a sudden, he tells me, “Yeah, I have a fight within two weeks. If you want, come and see it.” I’m like, “What are you talking about, a fight?”

He said, “Yeah, I’m a mixed martial artist, a cage fighter and I have a fight next week.” “How does that happen? How do you get in a ring on one leg and fight other disabled people or what? [He said,] “No, no, I fight regular guys.”

That was so stunning to me. I was like whoa, I want to make something about this. At first, I [thought] this will be a portrayal of a guy doing something outrageous because to me, cage fighting is something outrageous, especially a guy doing it on one leg and ends up getting into a ring basically delivering a fight he can’t win. That was my starting point, but when I got closer to him and discovered more of his family situation and I started spending more time with him and talking about his past, I realized that fighting aspect of his life was just a metaphor for the life he’s living. All of a sudden, I realized I’m not going to make a documentary about a disabled fighter, I’m going to make a documentary about a guy trying to survive big time and having everything against him in his life. 

It’s a crazy story, but even more so when you think about the types of characters you’ve played recently. Has it made you think at all about violence? It’s been striking to me in “Bullhead” and “Rust and Bone” how fighting is always accompanied by the great potential for tragedy, but can also be a facilitator for redemption when there are no other means available.

It’s true, but violence always comes from somewhere. If I look at the characters, violence and vulnerability have a lot in common. The funny thing is I was working on that documentary before I got involved into “Rust and Bone,” so when my agent spoke about “Rust and Bone,” I was in shock because I was like what are the odds? I’m working about a documentary about a one-legged cage fighter and here’s a French agent talking to me about a story about a bare-knuckle street fighter who gets involved into a relationship with a girl that loses her legs. I was like, you have more chance of winning the lottery than that kind of coincidence. And then she told me Jacques Audiard is directing it, I was like oh my God! I want this part.

When do you have the time to shoot this thing when your schedule is so busy? This has got to be the most amazing time of your life.

Yeah, and now for a certain amount of time, I’ve been off the documentary. I’ve already shot a lot of footage and I still have a lot ahead to shoot. Everything I’ve shot so far is in the editing room, so once I get back to Belgium, I’m going to watch that and see if it’s any good. From there, I’m going to see what else I really need and then continue from there on.

Well, I don’t want to take up any more of your time since I know you’re busy and I’m out of questions…

Now, we’re getting to the good part. You’re out of questions? Now we can talk! 

This is like the Audiard method.

Exactly. That’s what he wants. Now you don’t know what you want anymore? We’re going to shoot. Turn on the camera.

“Rust and Bone” is now playing in theaters across the country. A full list of theaters can be found here.

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