In the intense, amplified French melodrama Rust & Bone (director Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to A Prophet) breakout Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts is a revelation as the bare-knuckle boxer who helps Marion Cotillard’s despairing killer whale trainer regain her self-belief after she loses both legs in a marine-park calamity.
At first sight, Schoenaerts’ Alain is brutish and brusque, a negligent single father throwing punches on the illegal fight circuit. But he knows how to push Stephanie’s buttons. ‘Do you want to fuck?’ he asks matter-of-factly after dropping his platonic friend off at her flat following a day at the beach. Let’s just say that Stephanie’s nervous laughter gives way to a big fat ‘oui’ – and Schoenaerts will be winning a few fans with his no-holds-barred, few-clothes-worn performance.
‘When I first heard about the film, I was like, “Wow, my favourite director and one of the best actresses in the world? What the hell is going to happen to me?”’ laughs Schoenaerts when we meet for coffee during the Toronto International Film Festival. ‘But once I got on set, I was just eager to attack it.’ And the Flemish beefcake does so in a robust fighting-and-fucking performance.
But Alain has his soft edges, too. ‘He’s just a simple, sincere guy who responds in a very natural way to things,’ observes the 34-yearold actor. ‘Sometimes it’s brutal, sometimes it’s tender, sometimes it’s unlikeable. But what you see is what you get.’ There’s more to Schoenaerts than meets the eye, though. As well as being an actor, he’s also a keen graffiti artist who has journeyed all over Europe and the US painting murals, and he’s an avid sportsman, too. The acting bug didn’t really bite until he was in his twenties, and the attention really started flying his way when Bullhead – in which he portrays a steroid-addicted cattle farmer – was nominated for this year’s Best Foreign- Language Film Oscar.
Cotillard swooned over her co-star, branding him ‘a real man’ and convincing her off-screen partner Guillaume Canet to hire Schoenaerts for his next film, Blood Ties. With his brawny physique and interest in exploring the darker side of masculinity, it’s no surprise that Schoenaerts is being sized up for Hollywood action-hero roles. Not that he’s in any great rush – too much screen time will pry him away from his outdoor passions.
‘I’m not someone who wants to make 10 films a year,’ he states. ‘One or two a year is enough. Otherwise, I get crazy – I become a nutcase.’