Mr Matthias Schoenaerts

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Mr Matthias Schoenaerts

Words by Mr Stuart Husband | Photography by Mr Ben Weller | Styling by Mr Dan May

17 December 2015

<i>The Danish Girl</i> actor (dubbed the “Belgian Brando”) talks fame, football and nearly missing his flight.

Mr Matthias Schoenaerts is languidly recounting how he almost missed one of the biggest events of his professional life – the London premiere of his new film The Danish Girl (not to mention this shoot for MR PORTER). “So my flight from Antwerp yesterday had already left when I got to the airport,” he says. “Then I drove to the railway station in Brussels, and missed the train by a minute. So I hightailed it to the Brussels airport. I landed, changed into my tuxedo in a restroom, and jumped into a car. I was still in Belgium at 4.00pm, and on the red carpet in London by 6.00pm.” He grins. “I kind of like flying by the seat of my pants.”

This, it turns out, is also the 38-year-old Mr Schoenaerts’ modus operandi when it comes to acting; he follows his instincts. “Some people come to a role all prepared,” he says. “I like to feel my way as I’m going along, surprising myself, discovering things.” Mr Schoenaerts himself is full of surprises. Initially imposing (he’s 6ft 1in and 14 stone/ 196 pounds), he soon reveals a winningly candid and self-deprecating streak. He’s made something of a speciality in playing what he calls “wounded animals, people having a hard time with themselves and others.” In Rust and Bone he starred alongside Ms Marion Cotillard as an impulsive bare-knuckle boxer; in _Far from the Madding Crowd _he played opposite Ms Carey Mulligan as lovelorn sheep farmer Gabriel Oak. His quicksilver combination of physicality and sensitivity has led to him being dubbed “the Belgian Brando”, a comparison he bats away, although he does concede one affinity: “I think he was very much into the energy of a project, as I am. Doing a film, it’s kind of like going into a new relationship. You want to be in love. If there’s no chemistry, you’re like, OK, see you later.”

He’s fittingly passionate about his latest projects. In The Danish Girl, already generating plenty of Oscar buzz, he plays an art dealer, the boyhood crush of Mr Eddie Redmayne’s transgender pioneer Einar Wegener. “The screenplay was so seductive, and it’s a pretty amazing team,” he says. “Tom [Hooper, director] is dead serious, but he’s also super-fun and I love that combination, it’s perfect for me. And working with Eddie, Alicia [Vikander], and Ben [Whishaw], that’s the acting equivalent of Champions League football right there.”

The same could be said of his other forthcoming movie A Bigger Splash, due out in early 2016, where he’s the boyfriend of Ms Tilda Swinton, who’s playing a burnt-out rock star; their summer retreat is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Mr Ralph Fiennes, playing a Dionysiac old flame of Ms Swinton’s. According to the film’s director Mr Luca Guadagnino, however, it’s Mr Schoenaerts who’s the real force of nature: “Matthias combines integrity, solidity, and a thrilling unpredictability,” he says. “You never quite know what’s coming next.”

Mr Schoenaerts’ late father, Julien, was a hugely popular actor in Belgium. For a while, he says, “I resisted going into the family firm.” As a teenager he was football mad, and made the books of a professional team, Beerschot. He was also a graffiti artist. He still paints, and has a studio in his home base of Antwerp, “I’m no Lucian Freud – it’s more like a poor man’s Jean-Michel Basquiat and it’s just for me – but I love it,” he says. “Film involves a lot of people, and with painting I’m free from every authority but my own”. Then, at 21, he says, “it just hit me that acting was what I’d wanted to do all along. So I enrolled at Antwerp’s National Academy, and I became consumed by it, and then, boom! People call you an actor, and you’re like, f***, when did that happen?” By the time he became successful, his father was in the terminal stages of Alzheimer’s disease. “So we never even spoke about it,” he says ruefully. “But I know he’d be happy to see that I’m really enjoying what I’m doing.”

I’m sure Jared Leto’s going to do a great job [as The Joker], but I want it next time round

Mr Schoenaerts is fluent in English, French and Dutch, meaning that he moves between European and Hollywood projects with ease. “It’s fantastic to be able to keep moving,” he says. “I think the worst thing that can happen in life is that feeling of getting stuck. New visions, other languages, other cultures – that’s what makes you grow and energises you.” Later in 2016 he’ll be starring alongside Mr Casey Affleck in the HBO mini-series Lewis and Clark, about the explorers who mapped out the western half of the USA in the 19th century. He’s also got his eye on a superhero franchise: “Man, I would love to play The Joker,” he says. “I’m sure Jared Leto’s going to do a great job, but I want it next time round.” He’d also love to work with Mr David Lynch: “He has such a unique take on things. He’s the director I love above all others.”

Mr Schoenaerts will be spending the holidays back home in Antwerp. “I’ve been having a little break but now I’m getting hungry to work again,” he says. “It’s like an itch that has to be scratched.” He’s been taking a more-than-casual interest in the clothes on today’s set, possibly with an eye on some putative Christmas present list. Given that he hails from Belgium’s fashion capital, is style important to him? “I love quality and attention to detail,” he says. “Great fashion designers are artists, seriously. I love maniacs, basically; people who are obsessed by things. Everything that’s valuable in art comes from that sense of need, that urgency to create.” With a start, he suddenly checks his watch: his flight back to Antwerp is due, and with his cavalier attitude towards timetables, he’s cutting it uncomfortably fine again. “So I’m like, well man, whatever you do, make sure it means something,” he says, as he makes for the door. “Maybe it could change lives, maybe it could just blow someone away. Just as long as it connects.”  And with that, he’s gone.

Watch the trailer for The Danish Girl below