Matthias Schoenaerts: “Whenever I accept a new role, I always have to make sure that I can defend my character”

Belgian-born screen actor Matthias Schoenaerts (1977) has been the perfect ambassador for screen acting ever since he first appeared on the screen. His solid and unforgettable performances keep sneaking up on you in memory. They just don’t go away. That’s how powerful his acting style is—if there’s ever any way to define his incredible acting skills.

After he had made “Rundskop” (2011, a.k.a. “Bullhead,” nominated for an Academy Award as Best-Foreign Language Film), his career was launched internationally. Then came “De rouille et d’os” (2012, a.k.a. “Rust and Bone”) with Marion Cotillard, and he became an instant phenomenon in world cinema, appearing opposite Kate Winslet (“A Little Chaos,” 2014); Michelle Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas (“Suite française,” 2014); Diane Kruger (“Disorder” a.k.a. “Maryland,” 2015); Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton (“A Bigger Splash,” 2015); Jane Fonda and Robert Redford (“Our Souls at Night,” 2017), and Jennifer Lawrence (“Red Sparrow,” 2018). And this is only the beginning.

The son of the first Flemish screen star and acting legend Julien Schoenaerts (1925-2006) has now several new projects—in various stages—coming up, including Terrence Malick’s latest film “Radegund.”

Mr. Schoenaerts attended the Ostend Film Festival in his home country earlier this month to promote his latest French film “Frères ennemis” (a.k.a. “Close Enemies”), a well-acted gritty crime drama about brotherhood in the banlieue of Paris, directed by David Oelhoffen.

It was there that I met this tremendously talented actor for an interview at the Festival, prior to the premiere of “Frères ennemis” later in the evening.

Matthis Schoenaerts and Reda Kateb in “Frères ennemis” |  O’Brother Distribution.

Mr. Schoenaerts, which do you play in “Frères ennemis”: a hero or an antihero?

When I play a character, I never think in terms of heroes. I know that people are capable of doing heroic things, and that makes me very curious. It gives me the energy to know everything about it and know everything about the character I am about to play, no matter what kind of personality he has. But I don’t think in terms of heroes.

You can easily play all kind of different people, a German, a Russian, etc. Is the language important to you in your portrayal?

Absolutely. When it’s a French or an English-language movie, I think in French or in English. The language changes a lot of things.

You have been referred to as a new Marlon Brando. How do you respond to that?

It’s an incredible compliment, of course. I am very honored when people say something like that, and it gives me the impression that I am not overlooked or ignored. But in the end, it doesn’t help me at all [laughs]. You just try to do your work as good as you can. In the U.S., journalists ask me that question from time to time, but I always think it’s pretty difficult to give a good answer because in a way it’s a complicated question.

When you’re on the set shooting a scene, you always know what’s going on. You know your lines, you know the story, the direction, everything, so there are no more surprises for you. How do you manage to make sure the audience will be surprised by what you do?

That’s basically what acting is all about, and that’s really the joy of acting. On the set, we all know what we’re doing, but in the meantime, we’re all supposed to forget it, that is what people expect from an actor when he does his best to bring out the magic between ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ It’s like when a child puts on a cowboy hat, and he is a cowboy for the next hour or so. Your imagination and the joy of acting are very crucial when you need to stay focused and make sure you’ll surprise the audience. An actor needs to do a lot of work, or there’s a lot to prepare if he wants to get everything right—not only the right movements and behave like the character is supposed to, but also the wardrobe and everything. The audience isn’t aware of that; they don’t see everything that has been done to get that one perfect magic camera angle.

Matthias Schoenaerts in Antwerp at an event for Flemish television, 2015 | Leo/Film Talk

Do you analyze your character in any way before you start shooting?

Not really; it goes in all different directions—physically or psychologically—it depends on the character that you’re playing. And there are times when you don’t know everything, so you need to understand him socially, culturally, historically, which means you need to look at it from an objective point of view. The bottom line is that whenever I accept a new role, I always have to make sure that I can defend my character. Each individual is unique, no matter what character you’re playing, and that is what an actor needs to show up there on the screen. You can never generalize a human being. Because, for example, a journalist… what is a journalist? An office clerk, what is an office clerk? So you have to look for a unique way to portray that particular person. It’s not always easy to find the perfect balance when you’re figuring out all the tiny details about him, especially since most roles you play are people you’ve never met.

You are a much sought-after star, and most of the time you work abroad. Does it make a difference to you where exactly you are working?

I live in Belgium; I love it, and I love working in Belgium, but at one point you will always run into the same people, and that’s dangerous for your creativity. It’s always good to have new challenges and meet new people. So when you have the opportunity to work in France, England, and in America, the door to your own creativity remains wide open. Everything is always new and fresh, and I love that, because you work with new and creative people all the time, people you’ve never met before, and you can start all over again.

Film Festival Oostende, Ostend (Belgium)
September 14, 2018

“Frères ennemis” (2018, trailer)


DAENS (1992) DIR Stijn Coninx PROD Dirk Impens, Dave Schram, Jean-Luc Ormières, Hans Pos, Maria Peters SCR Stijn Coninx, François Chevalier (novel by Louis Paul Boon) CAM Walther van den Ende ED Ludo Troch MUS Dirk Brossé CAST Jan Decleir, Gérard Desarthe, Antje de Boeck, Michael Pas, Karel Baetens, Julien Schoenaerts, Johan Leysen, Herbert Flack, Matthias Schoenaerts (Wannes Scholliers)

MEISJE, a.k.a. GIRL (2002) DIR Dorothée Van Den Berghe PROD Jan Declercq, Dominique Janne, Alexander Vandeputte SCR Dorothée Van Den Berghe, Peter van Kraaij CAM Jan Vancaillie ED Menno Boerema MUS Daan Stuyven CAST Charlotte Vanden Eynde, Els Dottermans, Frieda Pittoors, Matthias Schoenaerts (Oskar), Nico Sturm, Wim Opbrouck, Dirk van Dijck

ANY WAY THE WIND BLOWS (2003) DIR – SCR – MUS Tom Barman PROD Alex Stockman, Kat Camerlynck CAM Renaat Lambeets ED Els Voorpoels CAST Frank Vercruyssen, Diane De Belder, Eric Kloeck, Natali Broods, Matthias Schoenaerts (Chouki), Dirk Roothooft, Jonas Boel, Sam Louwyck, Frank Focketyn, Jan Van Looveren, Johan Heldenbergh, Guido Hendrickx, Ben Segers

ELLEKTRA (20) DIR – PROD Rudolph Mestdagh SCR Rudolf Mestdagh, Daniël Lambrechts CAM Danny Elsen ED Jan Hemeeuw MUS Brian Clifton CAST Axelle Red, Gert Portael, Matthias Schoenaerts (DJ Cosmonaut X), Serge-Henri Valcke, Sam Bogaerts, Manou Kersting, Herwig Ilegems, Catherine Kools, Julien Schoenaerts, Barbara Sarafian, Lucas Van Ammel

DENNIS VAN RITA (2006) DIR Hilde Van Mieghem PROD Frank Van Passel, Bert Hamelinck SCR Hugo Van Laere CAM Jan Vancaillie ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Bert Joris, Helmut Lotti CAST Els Dottermans, Matthias Schoenaerts (Dennis), Veerle Baetens, Damiaan De Schrijver, Tom Van Dyck, June Voeten, Reinhilde Decleir, Guido De Craene

ZWARTBOEK, a.k.a. BLACK BOOK (2006) DIR Paul Verhoeven PROD Jeroen Beker, Teun Hilte, Jens Meurer, San Fu Maltha, Frans van Gestel SCR Paul Verhoeven, Gerard Soeteman CAM Karl Walter Lindenlaub MUS Anne Dudley ED Job ter Burg, James Herbert CAST Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Waldemar Kobus, Derek de Lint, Halina Reijn, Christian Berkel, Dolf de Vries, Matthias Schoenaerts (Joop)

DE MUZE, a.k.a. THE MUSE (2007) DIR – SCR Ben van Lieshout PROD Ben van Lieshout, Bea de Visser CAM Stef Tijdink ED Jan Ketelaars MUS Michael Cashmore CAST Matthias Schoenaerts, Tara Elders, Sallie Harmsen, Bart Klever, Fem Petraeus

NADINE (2007) DIR Erik de Bruyn PROD Erik Schut SCR Erik de Bruyn, Gwen Eckhaus CAM Bert Haitsma ED Sander Kuipers MUS David van der Heyden CAST Monic Hendrickx, Halina Reijn, Sanneke Bos, Mano Tzoulakis, Fedja van Huêt, Frank Lammers, Matthias Schoenaerts (Cornee), Manou Kersting, Herwig Ilegems

LINKEROEVER, a.k.a. LEFT BANK (2006) DIR Pieter Van Hees PROD Frank Van Passel, Kato Maes, Bert Hamelinck SCR Christophe Dirickx CAM Nicolas Karakatsanis ED Nico Leunen CAST Eline Kuppens, Matthias Schoenaerts (Bob), Tom Dewispelaere, Sien Eggers, Marilou Mermans, Frank Vercruyssen, Ruth Becquart, Manou Kersting

LOFT (2008) DIR Erik Van Looy PROD Hilde De Laere SCR Bart De Pauw CAM Danny Elsen ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Wolfram de Marco CAST Koen De Bouw, Filip Peeters, Matthias Schoenaerts (Filip Willems), Bruno Vanden Broucke, Koen De Graeve, Veerle Baetens, Tine Reymer, An Miller, Charlotte Vandermeersch, Maaike Cafmeyer, Marie Vinck, Jan Decleir, Gene Bervoets, Ruth Beeckmans

MY QUEEN KARO (2009) DIR – SCR Dorothée Van Den Berghe PROD Frank Van Passel, Bert Hamelinck, Kato Maes, Arielle van Gestel CAM Jan Vancaillie ED Marie-Hélène Dozo CAST Anna Franziska Jaeger, Déborah François, Matthias Schoenaerts (Raven), Maria Kraakman, Samuel du Chatinier, Cezanne Cuypers, Ward Weemhoff, Nico Sturm

LA MEUTE, a.k.a. THE PACK (2010) DIR – SCR Franck Richard PROD Franck Ribière, Vérane Frédiani CAM Laurent Barès ED Olivier Gajan CAST Yolande Moreau, Émilie Dequenne, Benjamin Biolay, Philippe Nahon, Matthias Schoenaerts (Le Gothique en toc), Ian Fonteyn, Georges Lini

PULSAR (2010) DIR – SCR Alex Stockman CAM Sébastien Koeppel ED Nico Leunen MUS Guy Van Nueten CAST Matthias Schoenaerts (Samuel Verbist), Tine Van den Wyngaert, Andrea Barbos, Leah Chanmugam, Sien Eggers, Josse De Pauw, Nico Sturm

RUNDSKOP, a.k.a. BULLHEAD (2011) DIR – SCR Michaël R. Roskam PROD Bert Van Langendonck CAM Nicolas Karakatsanis ED Alain Dessauvage MUS Raf Keunen CAST Matthias Schoenaerts (Jacky Vanmarsenille), Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy, Barbara Sarafian, Tibo Vandenborre, Frank Lammers, Sam Louwyck, Baudoin Wolwertz

DE PRESIDENT (2011) DIR Erik de Bruyn PROD Joost de Vries, Leontine Petit SCR Marco van Geffen (novel by Khalid Boudou) CAM Rolf Dekens ED Brian Ent MUS Steve Willaert CAST Achmed Akkabi, Najib Amhali, Charlie Chan Dagelet, Dirk Zeelenberg, Rosa Reuten, Matthias Schoenaerts (Boyko), Frank Lammers, Erik de Bruyn

DE BENDE VAN OSS, a.k.a. THE GANG OF OSS (2011) DIR André van Duren PROD Matthijs van Heijningen, Guurtje Buddenberg SCR André van Duren, Paul Jan Nelissen CAM Piotr Kukla ED Ad Rietvelt MUS Paleis van Boem CAST Sylvia Hoeks, Frank Lammers, Marcel Mutsers, Matthias Schoenaerts (Ties van Heesch), Daan Schuurmans, Pierre Bokma

DE ROUILLE ET D’OS, a.k.a. RUST AND BONE (2012) DIR Jacques Audiard PROD Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Jacques Audiard, Pascal Caucheteux, Martine Cassinelli, Alix Raynaud, Annemie Degryse SCR Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain (story by Craig Davidson) CAM Stéphane Fontaine ED Juliette Welfling MUS Alexandre Desplat CAST Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts (Alain van Versch), Armand Verdure, Céline Sallette, Corinne Masiero, Bouli Lanners, Jean-Michel Correia

BLOOD TIES (2013) DIR Guillaume Canet PROD Guillaume Canet, Alain Attal, John Lesher, Hugo Sélignac, Christopher Woodrow SCR Guillaume Canet, James Gray (screenplay of LES LIENS DU SANG [2008] by Jacques Maillot, Pierre Choson, Eric Veniard; novel by Bruno Papet, Michel Papet) CAM Christophe Offenstein ED Hervé de Luze MUS Yodelice CAST Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis, Zoe Saldana, Matthias Schoenaerts (Scarfo), James Caan, Noah Emmerich, Griffin Dunne

THE DROP (2014) DIR Michaël R. Roskam PROD Mike Larocca, Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark SCR Dennis Lehane (also short story ‘Animal Rescue’) CAM Nicolas Karakatsanis ED Christopher Tellefsen MUS Raf Keunen, Marco Beltrami CAST Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts (Eric Deeds), John Ortiz, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Michael Aronov

A LITTLE CHAOS (2014) DIR Alan Rickman PROD Andrea Calderwood, Gail Egan, Bertrand Faivre SCR Alan Rickman, Alison Deegan, Jeremy Brock CAM Ellen Kuras ED Nicolas Gaster MUS Peter Gregson CAST Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts (André Le Notre), Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Paula Paul, Hope Hancock, Cathy Belton

THE LOFT (2014) DIR Erik Van Looy PROD Hilde De Laere, Matt DeRoss, Paul Green, Adam Shulman SCR Wesley Strick (screenplay of LOFT [2008] by Bart De Pauw) CAM Nicolas Karakatsanis ED Eddie Hamilton MUS John Frizzell CAST Karl Urban, James Marsden, Wentworth Miller, Eric Stonestreet, Matthias Schoenaerts (Philip Trauner), Isabel Lucas, Rachael Taylor

SUITE FRANÇAISE (2014) DIR Saul Dibb PROD Romain Bremond, Andrea Cornwell, Michael Kuhn, Xavier Marchand SCR Saul Dibb, Matt Charman (novel by Irène Némirovsky) CAM Eduard Grau ED Chris Dickens MUS Rael Jones CAST Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts (Lieutenant Bruno von Falk), Ruth Wilson, Sam Riley, Margot Robbie, Lambert Wilson, Clare Holman

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (2015) DIR Thomas Vinterberg PROD Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich SCR David Nicholls (novel by Thomas Hardy) CAM Charlotte Bruus Christensen ED Claire Simpson MUS Craig Armstrong CAST Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts (Gabriel Oak), Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden

DISORDER, a.k.a. MARYLAND (2015) DIR Alice Winocour PROD Emilie Tisné SCR Alice Winocour, Jean-Stéphane Bron CAM Georges Lechaptois ED Julien Lacheray MUS Mike Lévy CAST Matthias Schoenaerts (Vincent), Diane Kruger, Paul Hamy, Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant, Percy Kemp, Victor Pontecorvo, Michaël Dauber

THE DANISH GIRL (2015) DIR Tom Hooper PROD Tom Hooper, Eric Fellner, Anne Harrison, Tim Bevan, Gail Mutrux SCR Lucinda Coxon (book by David Ebershoff) CAM Danny Cohen ED Melanie Oliver MUS Alexandre Desplat CAST Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Adrian Schiller, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw, Rip Torrens, Matthias Schoenaerts (Hans Axgil)

A BIGGER SPLASH (2015) DIR Luca Guadagnino PROD Luca Guadagnino, Michael Costigan SCR David Kajganich (screenplay of LA PISCINE [1969] by Jacques Deray; novel ‘La Piscine’ by Alain Page) CAM Yorick Le Saux ED Walter Fasano CAST Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, Matthias Schoenaerts (Paul De Smedt), Tilda Swinton, Aurore Clément, Corrado Guzzanti

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT (2017) DIR Ritesh Batra PROD Robert Redford, Finola Dwyer, Erin Simms SCR Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber (novel by Kent Haruf) CAM Stephen Goldblatt ED John F. Lyons MUS Elliot Goldenthal CAST Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Matthias Schoenaerts (Gene), Judy Greer, Bruce Dern, Iain Armitage, Phyllis Somerville

LE FIDÈLE, a.k.a. RACER AND THE JAILBIRD (2017) DIR Michaël R. Roskam PROD Bart Van Langendonck, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam SCR Michaël R. Roskam, Noé Debré, Thomas Bidegain CAM Nicolas Karakatsanis ED Alain Dessauvage MUS Raf Keunen CAST Matthias Schoenaerts (Gigi Vanoirbeek), Adèle Exarchopoulos, Eric De Staercke, Jean-Benoît Ugeux, Nabil Missoumi, Thomas Coumans, Nathalie Van Tongelen, Sam Louwyck

RED SPARROW (2018) DIR Francis Lawrence PROD Peter Chernin, Steven Zaillian, David Ready, Jenno Topping SCR Justin Haythe (novel by Jason Matthews) CAM Jo Willems ED Alan Edward Bell MUS James Newton Howard CAST Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Matthias Schoenaerts (Vanya Egorov), Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Joely Richardson, Thekla Reuten

FRÈRES ENNEMIS, a.k.a. CLOSE ENEMIES (2018) DIR David Oelhoffen PROD Marc Du Pontavice SCR David Oelhoffen (adaptation by David Oelhoffen, Jeanne Aptekman) CAM Guillaume Deffontaines ED Anne-Sophie Bion CAST Matthias Schoenaerts (Manuel Marco), Reda Kateb, Adel Bencherif, Fianso, Sabrina Quazani, Gwendolyn Gourvenec

KURSK (2018) DIR Thomas Vinterberg PROD Ariel Zeitoun SCR Robert Rodat CAM Anthony Dod Mantle ED Valdís Óskarsdóttir MUS Alexandre Desplat CAST Matthias Schoenaerts (Mikhail Kalekov), Colin Firth, Léa Seydoux, Max von Sydow, Michael Nyqvist, August Diehl

MUSTANG (2018) DIR Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre PROD Alain Goldman SCR Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold, Brock Norman Brock CAM Ruben Impens MUS Jed Kürzel CAST Matthias Schoenaerts (Roman Coleman), Connie Britton, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon, Jason Mitchell, Josh Stewart

RADEGUND (2018) DIR – SCR Terrence Malick PROD Elisabeth Bentley, Dario Bergesio, Grant Hill, Josh Jeter, Marcus Loges CAM Jörg Widmer ED Sebastian Jones, Rehman Nizar Ali CAST Matthias Schoenaerts (Herder), Michael Nykvist, Bruno Ganz, August Diehl, Jürgen Prochnow, Alexander Fehling, Joel Basman, Franz Rogowski, Johan Leysen