Matthias Schoenaerts Knows You’re Ogling Him. But He Has Grander Goals, Too.March 16, 2019
Matthias Schoenaerts became a sensation by playing the sexy beast. He portrayed the steroid-addicted Flemish cattle farmer in the Oscar-nominated “Bullhead” (2012); the tormented lover of Tilda Swinton’s rock star in “A Bigger Splash” (2016); and the street fighter who salved the body and soul of Marion Cotillard’s double amputee in “Rust and Bone” (2012), the French melodrama that alerted many of us to his tough and tender existence.
But none have packed quite the wallop of his latest role in “The Mustang.” Schoenaerts — brooding, wary — is Roman Coleman, a Nevada inmate with a violent past who is acclimating to the general prison population after a lengthy stay in solitary. He’s given the job of breaking and training an angry mustang he names Marquis, and in the process reconnects with his life.
Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, with Robert Redford as an executive producer, “The Mustang” has its inspiration in the Wild Horse Inmate Program, which partners prisoners with mustangs and burros culled from public lands, and leads to significantly reduced recidivism rates.
“I think the beauty of the program is that the connection with the animal requires you as a human to direct your attention outward and not inward” — something he experienced even as an actor, Schoenaerts said. “I kind of fell in love with my horse, basically.”
Schoenaerts, 41, still lives in Antwerp, Belgium, where he was born, preferring to “step in and hop out” of Los Angeles, he said in a phone interview. But distance hasn’t kept Hollywood at bay. He’ll soon appear in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat,” about the Panama Papers, and Terrence Malick’s “Radegund,” about the Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter.
During a break from shooting Jérémie Guez’s mob drama, “The Sound of Philadelphia,” Schoenaerts spoke about prison reform and why he wants to kick people in the heart.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did you prepare for this grueling role?
From an actor’s perspective, it’s a hell of a scary part. You can only put as much heart in as you can. Over the course of a year and a half, we went to visit four maximum security prisons, having long conversations with longtime inmates to get a sense of what it is to have a life in there — and what it is to maybe, after so long, have a life outside of it. And a lot of extras in the movie are former inmates that were part of that [WHIP] program, so we felt that we were constantly connected with the truth of the subject.
I can’t imagine that they let you in the corral with some of those very spirited horses.
We had three different energies of horses. There was one that was freshly broken and one that was already properly trained and then one that was about to be broken. Of course, for safety purposes, they couldn’t take the risk of me getting smashed by the horse. I was ready to do it all, but I think production didn’t really love that concept.
Seven years ago, after the double punch of “Bullhead” and “Rust and Bone,” there was a lot of talk about your Hollywood breakthrough. Now you’re working with Steven Soderbergh and Terrence Malick. Have you finally arrived?
I don’t make geographical distinctions like that. I like to work with fascinating artists with vivid minds, with people that have an attractive creativity. And the world is global now, so I don’t think about American movies and European movies. Of course, there’s a specificity to the cultural background and the context of it all — but in the end, it’s storytelling. It always comes back to, what is life? And what are we as people doing in that life within the time that is given to us on this planet? I think it’s important to kick people in the heart every now and then.
Back then, one of our writers called you “the most versatile beefcake actor of our time.” Is being called a beefcake a compliment?
I don’t pay too much attention to descriptions of myself because I think every human being is in a permanent state of transformation and evolution. So I can understand that people perceived me that way at some point, and I can only hope that perception also transforms as I’m transforming myself. I definitely consider it a compliment, but I don’t sit on it too much. I’d rather keep moving.
What do you think is the secret of your own allure?
I like to be respectful toward people, and whether it’s a woman or a man or a crew member, I think kindness is very important. Not that I’m always kind. I can be the opposite of kind as well, but I don’t like version of myself. But I think I can obviously say that by nature, yeah, I have a kind heart.
You’re a co-owner of a Belgian casting agency that supports diversity. How did that happen?
I founded that because we live in a very multicultural society here in Belgium, and I hardly ever see that translated into our TV or cinematic landscape. Very few people in Belgium that have different cultural backgrounds find their way to a dramatic education. So I thought, man, we need to do something because the streets are filled with diamonds. There are so many talented people out there that should be discovered, and we need to create a platform for them to be revealed.
Like the rappers Jay-Z and Meek Mill, you’ve become involved in criminal justice reform. Did that come through “The Mustang”?
No, actually it’s coincidental. I’m part of Rescaled from Hans Claus, a former prison warden in Belgium who now devoted himself to developing programs to reform incarceration principles and mechanics. I was shooting “Mustang,” and then he reached out to me and wondered if I was interested in supporting this project to give it some strength. And that’s how synchronicity works — all of a sudden, life brings things together without people knowing about it.
Can artists really make a difference in such a complicated system?
We live in such a complex world, in complex times. There’s so much polarization going on. People are reduced to numbers — but behind every number there’s a living soul with a beating heart. We’ve got to find a way to rehumanize people and let them become something else than a statistic. People need to care for each other. And if we as artists can contribute to that notion, and we can help each other to get one step closer to the realization of that, then I think we’re doing good stuff.
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