Rust and Bone, from French director Jacques Audiard, is the oddball love story between a a down-and-out street fighter and double amputee. French superstar Marion Cotillard has already been wracking up early awards for her role as an orca trainer who suffers a tragic accident on the job, but the true revelation is her costar, Matthias Schoenaerts. The Belgian actor plays the gruff and troubled Ali, who goes to live with his sister and her husband after gaining custody of his young son. He meets Cotillard’s character while working as a bouncer at a nightclub, and when her accident leaves her without legs, she calls the number Ali left her the night they met. The rest, as they say in movieland, is history. As expected, Schoenaerts is starting to gain notice from casting directors stateside, and he’ll be reuniting with Cotillard as part of an all-star cast in the upcoming period cop drama, Blood Ties. We recently caught up with Schoenaerts to talk about his mastering this complicated role.
You’re Belgian, but Rust and Bone is a French film. Do you mostly work in Belgium or France?
Well, it’s moving around lately. Mostly I’ve done a lot of work in Belgium, but the last three things were Rust and Bone, The Loft, and Blood Ties—two American projects and one French.
Tell me about the American projects you’ve been doing. Is acting in English a different experience?
It’s a different experience, but I love it. It’s liberating. It’s freeing for me because English works really well as a movie language. It’s weird, but there are some languages—like Flemish, for instance, is not a very good film language. It sounds weird, and certain dialects in Flemish are very interesting, but the general Dutch is just… it’s impossible.
Having not read the book Rust and Bone is based on, what struck me about the movie is that it’s about people who are going through this tough shit but it’s such an uplifting movie.
Yeah, that’s the strength of Audiard, I guess. I think the short stories were more fatalistic. The film is as gritty and dark as the short stories, but I think Jacques added something to it by setting it, first of all, in a very sunny environment. You could have shot it in the ghetto, for instance, but Jacques opened it up; he set it by the seaside and the sun, and that brings a lot of oxygen to the story. And my character has an awareness about the trauma in his life, but he’s not overly aware. He’s not just running around self-pitying himself, like, “Oh, my life is so miserable.” He hit rock bottom, but he’s still standing there and taking life the way it comes and most of the time even enjoying it. Ali’s not a complainer. He just deals with it.
And that’s true in the way he interacts with Stephanie. He’s so matter of fact with everything. He takes everything at face value.
Absolutely. And I think that’s the quality of the character. Even though he’s complex in his behavior, he’s very simple. He’s very straightforward; he’s very ‘what you see is what you get.’ He’s not a malicious guy. There are no bad intentions, there are no good intentions, there’s just a very natural reflex to everything. Even being tender is as natural a reflex to him as being brutal is—everything is very spontaneous.
Did your conception of the character or story change as you were working on it?
With Jacques everything lives all the time. Everything changes. If a certain scene turns out in a certain way, he will rewrite the scene that comes after—making the film is a living process for him. For him, the screenplay starts living once we start doing the scenes, and then everything we do is under the influence of the circumstances and your costar and the moment.
Could you talk about what it was like to work with him as a director? Is he really hands-on?
He’s very hands-on, but at the same time he’s very generous. He gives you a lot of freedom but he doesn’t let you go. It’s not like “Okay, you guys take care of it and I’ll do my stuff.” No, no, it’s like, “Go at it, be inspired, be creative, and feed me so I can feed you back.” That’s what he’s all about: “Let’s bring it to life here right now. Forget the screenplay, forget everything. We’re here right now; let’s make something happen.” It’s kind of exhausting sometimes because he sends you in every direction. He wants you to let go all the time, and in order to do so you have to be extremely well-prepared. You need a blueprint for yourself—you have to carry the map of your character with you in order to be confident, and because you have that confidence you’re able to let it go and just walk around. If you’re not prepared, you will lose yourself and you’re going to end up depressed.
Speaking from experience?
No, not at all. But I saw it happen to an actor on set. That was really hard, though, because he just had one day, one scene. It’s hard coming on set and having just one day of shooting when you have this amazing director and you want to give it your best shot, because you’re extremely well-prepared, but you’re too prepared. You have your idea and you’re not ready to let go, and then Jacques comes in and he slams you with a sledgehammer and says “Take it all away!” Then you’re like, “What the fuck, take it all away? Where the hell am I going?” Yeah, I saw that guy crumbling down. I was trying to keep him up all the time. I was like “Jacques, don’t be so fucking hard on the guy. Just be sweet! The guy’s crumbling; he wants to give you his best, but you treat him like that and he’s gonna go home and think about quitting acting. Stop it!” But Jacques had a bad day that day. He got out of bed in a weird mood, so he was kind of feisty—I don’t know.
How do you hope people respond to Rust and Bone? What do you hope people get out of the movie?
Well, I don’t know, I don’t want to talk about a message. What I hope people experience is a very profound and intense emotion. It’s about two people discovering love and rediscovering life through one another. I don’t know, it’s always dangerous to talk about a message, but it’s a movie about sticking together, I guess. Jacques wanted to make an uplifting story.
Rust and Bone comes out in select theaters this Friday