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Last year on the first day of Cannes, few outside of France had heard of Jean Dujardin. He then went on to win the festival’s Best Actor prize and, months later, an Oscar. You may not be able to pronounce Matthias Schoenaerts’ name now, but after a starring role in Jacques Audiard’s Competition film Rust & Bone opposite Marion Cotillard, this brawny Belgian may just be this year’s breakout star.
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After a solid career at home, Schoenaerts exploded onto the global film scene last year with his starring role in the Oscar-nominated Bullhead.
“This experience taught me a lot about myself and about being an actor,” he says of Rust & Bone. “Working with someone like Jacques is something I’ll never forget. It was just incredible.”
In the film, Schoenaerts’ Ali is a burly jock who finds himself homeless and looking for work while also burdened with his young son.
“Ali is an ambiguous character — he’s likeable and funny, but also violent and repugnant,” he explains. “As an actor, I need to like my character. My job is to defend him, so I need to fall in love with the character.”
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Cotillard’s Stephanie does fall in love with the character as he helps her cope with her handicap after losing her legs in an amusement park accident.
“He knows he doesn’t have much to offer a woman financially or intellectually. All he has is his body,” he says.
Like he did in Bullhead, Schoenaerts had to physically prepare for his role in Audiard’s drama.
“I’d lost pretty much all of the weight from Bullhead. Then Jacques asked me to bulk up for this role,” but, he adds, “not in the same way as Bullhead — less muscular and more natural.”
Unlike Dujardin, this actor speaks perfect English, with only a slight European accent. Repped by CAA stateside, Schoenaerts will be putting his English lessons to good use when he heads to New York in June for a supporting role in Guillaume Canet’s English-language Blood Ties.
Schoenaerts also has a role in Erik Van Looy’s English-language Loft with Karl Urban.
That doesn’t mean he’s rushing to the spotlight.“I love being the underdog,” he says. “I don’t like when people expect too much, because then I’ll only be disappointed if things don’t work out. I don’t like to think about it. I’ll let life take me where it will.”
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