When we reached Matthias Schoenaerts by phone Friday afternoon, it was nearing 7 p.m. in Paris, and ceremonies for the César Awards were not too far from getting underway. But Schoenaerts remained unhurried. “I’m not at all dressed and ready and go. I just got out of the shower, and I like to take it easy and not rush anything,” he said. But don’t let his laid back attitude fool you. For anyone paying attention, the hard working actor’s career has taken off like a rocket thanks to Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee “Bullhead” and this year’s arthouse sensation “Rust And Bone” — for which he would pick up a Best Newcomer award at the Césars later in the evening.
But on this call, we’ve caught up with the actor to talk about another performance, one that should surprise audiences who’ve only seen his more physically imposing turns in those aforementioned films. In the Oscar-nominated short “Death Of A Shadow,” Schoenaerts plays Nathan Rijckx, a deceased World War I soldier, stuck in limbo between life and death, who earns a second chance when he’s tasked to photograph the shadows of 10,000 dying men and women. As he nears the end of his obligation, a turn of events could alter his path forever. It’s a remarkably accomplished production from director Tom Van Avermaet, who creates both a fantasy world and period-based setting, imaginatively and realistically, with what we could only imagine is the kind of budget shorts don’t get very often. And as Schoenaerts tell us, getting those finances together kept the movie from cameras for quite a while.
“It was a very tough job to get it made, because he need a lot of money and so he had a really rough time. I think he spent four or five years trying to get that film made,” the actor explained, though his dedication never wavered in that time. “But I stood by him. I always believed in the project, and finally two years ago we shot it. It’s wonderful to see that the film is getting so much recognition and that his talent as a young director is being noticed…He was really very stubborn and devoted to make that film, he stuck with it and it’s amazing to see that all the hard work he put into it is paying off right now.”
Shot between “Bullhead” and “Rust And Bone,” it’s been a long journey for the short, but Schoenaerts’ faith in the director matched his admiration in the material. “I liked the universe that he portrayed and I liked the way he dealt with themes like life and death,” he explained. “In the screenplay, he treated it in a very sensitive and original way, and I saw his [film school] graduating film, so I knew what his visual vocabulary was like. So I was absolutely convinced that he would make a really nice film.”
And the result speaks for itself; it’s a strong calling card for Avermaet who has since signed with CAA, and a showcase for Schoenaerts, who delivers a largely internal performance in a film where dialogue is at a minimum. With both “Death Of A Shadow” and “Rust And Bone” picking up acclaim, the actor has been busy on the promotional tour for both. And while he’s gracious with his time on the phone with us, he makes it no secret that he’s ready to stop talking about movies and get back to making them.
“I wanna dive into again, I want to work, I want to have my hands in the mud, I want to be on set. The last thing I shot was ‘Blood Ties‘ with Guillaume Canet and we wrapped that up in June,” Schoenaerts said, referring to the upcoming crime thriller co-starring an ensemble that includes Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Mila Kunis, James Cann, Marion Cotillard and Zoe Saldana. “So we’re almost a year further, I gotta get to it. I wanna work.”
Well, Schoenarts has ensured that he will be very busy for the first half of the year. As we’ve reported, Schoenaerts shared that he’ll take a supporting role in his “Bullhead” director Michael Roskam‘s American feature debut, “Animal Rescue,” starring Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace. In April, the actor confirmed that he’ll start work on Alan Rickman‘s period effort “A Little Chaos” opposite Kate Winslet, and then in the summer, he’ll join Michelle Williams for the WWII drama “Suite Francaise.” And while his rising profile surely means the offers are going to keep coming, Schoenaerts makes it clear that he’s not ready to jump to a Hollywood blockbuster just yet.
“I think me and my agent are pretty clear about it that that’s not the thing that I’m really looking out for,” he said. “Of course, there’s some good blockbusters out there as well, and I’m open to any exciting experience, it’s not that I’m saying no to it right away. But that’s not what I’m looking for.”
What he is looking for seems to be stories and characters that are compelling both on the page and on screen, and undoubtedly his choices have delivered a body of work that is becoming as strong as it diverse. There’s lots ahead for Schoenaerts as this awards season comes to a close, but the last stop will be the Oscars tomorrow night, where “Death Of A Shadow” will be hoping to cap off a strong year.
The Oscar-nominated short films are now playing in select theaters around the country. Go here to see participating theaters and dates.