Blunt Hits and Bloody Knuckles
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Photography by Laetitia Bica | Sweater by Dries Van Noten
Matthias Schoenaerts wants you to know he’s bigger than his body. There’s a lot behind this notion, especially as it applies to the Belgian actor’s work, which, for American film buffs who’ve seen it, is likely defined by Schoenaerts’s brute physicality. In 2011’s Bullhead, his Oscar-nominated breakthrough vehicle, Schoenaerts enters scenes bobbing his massive shoulders as if channeling the beast of the title, flaunting the hulking physique required to play a man dependent on testosterone supplements. In 2012’s Rust and Bone, co-starring Marion Cotillard, he plays a bouncer-cum-kickboxer who brutalizes opponents for money, and breaks his hands when punching a frozen pond to save a drowning boy. As Schoenaerts pervades the American market, with a trove of stateside films slated for this fall and beyond, these are the popular images that accompany his rising star: shirt-busting muscles, feral movements, bloody knuckles.
This isn’t something Schoenaerts is entirely thrilled about.
“I don’t want to be pinned down as just a physical actor,” he says. “I understand that people may think I am, since Bullhead and Rust and Bone popped up one year after another, but that’s a coincidence. I’ve done a lot of different stuff.”
While Schoenaerts has indeed tackled various roles and genres in his career, playing a departed soldier in the steampunky short Death of a Shadow and an adulterous suspect in the Belgian whodunit Loft (he also stars in the American remake, The Loft, out later this year), this “different stuff” is right there in the brawn-driven films that have made his name. Another reason Schoenaerts is greater than his frame is that he portrays characters whose insides dwarf their outsides completely. The literal bulk of Jacky, his cattle-farming criminal in Bullhead, is a direct result of a horrific, emasculating trauma the character suffered in youth, the effects of which Schoenaerts quiveringly conveys with wordless, gentle-giant agony. It’s no wonder the actor is often compared to Tom Hardy, another sensitive soul who’s sporting pounds of toned muscle, and who happens to be Schoenaerts’s co-star in September’s Brooklyn-set mob drama The Drop.
Also directed by Bullhead filmmaker Michaël R. Roskam, The Drop sees Schoenaerts and Hardy go head-to-head over a girl (Noomi Rapace), a dog, and an infamous neighborhood murder, with Schoenaerts quietly nailing the role of Eric, a wild card so unnerving and volatile he seems to scare himself. “I wanted to make him emotionally imbalanced,” Schoenaerts says. “Yes, he has an element of danger, and he might do something outrageously crazy, but it’s only because he’s so fragile.”
Sweater, jacket, and fur scarf by Dries Van Noten