Matthias Schoenaerts doesn’t carry quite the air of intensity that you might expect of him after watching some of his heavier dramas. In reality, the “Rust and Bone” star is the laid back, all-smiles, and a surprisingly chatty sort, as happy to delve into the tenets of his dramatic education as he is to celebrate the comic force that is Will Ferrell.
Schoenaerts’ latest film, Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of 19th century author Thomas Hardy’s novel “Far from the Madding Crowd,” allows the actor to show off a degree of sensitivity of which audiences might never have known him to be capable. Schoenaerts plays a strong and stoic farmhand deeply in love with his boss (Carey Mulligan), whose character is likewise the romantic pursuit of a timid landowner (Michael Sheen) and a rogue soldier (Tom Sturridge).
Although we kicked off with a conversation about his work on “Far from the Madding Crowd,” Schoenaerts leapt readily to new, increasingly vast subjects. The Belgian actor eloquently batted around thoughts on matters as weighty as gender politics, education, and general philosophy, lending particular passion to his feelings on the tremendous importance of comedy in art and life.
Did you have any kind of relationship to the novel, or Thomas Hardy’s literature in general, before taking on this project?
For me, I discovered this universe after the screenplay. I knew the book was kind of a big, big, big deal in British literature and culture. But I wasn’t aware of the fact that Gabriel Oak was one of the big, big, big heroes. I was glad I didn’t know, because it would have pressured me. I’d have been under a lot of pressure. I read the screenplay, and then of course I wanted to see what the source material was, and to see how loyal we were to it.
Gabriel is this very, unbelievably consistent character. Consistent in terms of righteousness and loyalty and honesty and selflessness. He’s so selfless all the time. He suffers so much. Basically, you know what’s in his heart. He’s been rejected after his marriage proposal. So you can imagine what he’s going through. But he always sticks with her in the most beautiful way. And every [piece of] advice that he gives her is never manipulative, it’s always considering where she is right now. I think that is so admirable. And beautiful at the same time. And he never falls back into self-pity. He’s like a rock, in the purest sense of the word. His name is not by accident: Gabriel Oak. Rooted, strong, indestructible. But at the same time very sensitive. It’s not like he’s an indifferent chap. No, no. He’s ultra sensitive. But he doesn’t go down in the mud.
The idea of masculinity seems like a big part of the story. It’s as if each of the three male characters pursuing Carey Mulligan represents a different type of masculinity.
What I think — without trying to make a conclusion, because I think it’s such a great piece of art, so it’s open to many interpretations — but what I think is the most important thing that I extracted from Gabriel is that sincerity, eventually, will overcome everything. That is something that doesn’t only talk about masculinity or femininity, it talks about humanity. It’s even above that gender thing. It’s a philosophical concept.
You’re a pretty big, well-built man, and yet Carey Mulligan seems to really be the dominant source of power in some of your scenes together.
It’s just surrendering to the relationship that these characters have. Just accepting it and not wanting to go against it. Just accepting who she is and what she represents. At the same time, as a character, never losing your self-worth, and always standing up for yourself. But in a very loyal way.
Is the theme of gender something that interests you? I know you also have a role in “The Danish Girl,” a film about the first person to receive sexual reassignment surgery.
Of course. All of these notions of masculinity, femininity… life is in a permanent state of transition, and so are the developments of masculinity. So we need to reinvent and re-question that all the time. I think that is what art should do, if art has to do anything — especially film. Film talks about humans and their interactions and how they relate to life. So, of course, these are the questions that we work with as artists. These are all very important. It’s all very important material for us to work with. Does that interest me? Yeah, of course.
What is masculinity today? And how does it relate to masculinity in [the 19th] century, or another century? What is femininity? Where do masculinity and femininity meet each other? And how do they affect each other, and how do they transform each other? How does that all work? And how many angles can we have on that subject? There’s not just one angle. One angle is just an opinion from one individual. And it applies a judgment. And a judgment is not always a very objective notion. So it’s finding as many angles as possible to address it. And then, finding a way that is true. I always think, there’s not one way to do a scene. There’s a true way and a fake way. But to make a scene feel true, there’s a billion ways. It’s all about the intention and the authenticity of that.
There’s also an unexpected comic element to this film.
It’s so important, humor. I remember one of the most important things [I learned from] my first drama teacher in school. The school was named after her. Basically, you could call her a Belgian Lee Strasberg. Her name is Dora Van der Groen. She was a major inspiration for so many people. And she always gave education, in the first six months of the first year, she developed the core of what you eventually would learn in the second year, third year, fourth year.
She always said that you always need to see that your work consists of what is called the Five Ps: pain, poetry, pleasure, perversity, poetry… and then with a big strap of humor around it. And if you really consider it, you can miss out, because sometimes a genre doesn’t allow you to incorporate all of it. Then you need four of them. But if you only have three of them, then you might run into some shitty kind of problem.
The five Ps: pain, pleasure, perversity, poetry… Where is the fifth? I just said it.
I think you said “poetry” twice the first time?
Really? Hold on, I want to hit it. Where’s the fifth? Okay, there’s one more. I owe it to you. Let’s keep that a mystery. Those are the components, and whatever form they get — you can give these a lot of different faces — but these are very important components. But it’s very important [that] it needs to have humor. It’s like people. They need to have humor. If they don’t have humor, you need to turn around and run.
Are you interested in doing any straight comedy movies in general?
It depends. Of course! I’m open to anything.
Any particular actors or directors you’d like to work with?
I don’t remember the director, but I loved, for example, “Little Miss Sunshine.” I loved “Nebraska” by Alexander Payne. Beautiful film. At the same time, I’d love to work with Will Ferrell. Just to be on set and watch him, and lie on the floor and crack up all the time. So yeah, I’m open. I did a comedy [“De President”], like, four years ago. I played a sidekick with a friend of mine. We played two sidekicks. Bulgarian gypsy types. That was fun. But I must say that I tend towards… the comedy should be really good, because otherwise I get bored after two days. I like to act a fool, but after two days I’m like, “Okay, I’m done with this. Now give me the meaty stuff.”
“Far From The Madding Crowd” opens in limited release on May 1st.