'Bullhead's' Matthias Schoenaerts On Playing A 'Tragic' Character And The Film's Oscar Nom
In the last scene of "Bullhead," the Oscar-nominated foreign film from Belgium, the movie's protagonist, Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), is waiting to pounce. Standing in an elevator, a lifetime's worth of emotion -- anger, frustration, sadness -- is set to explode. He's a bull in a china shop, leaving the viewer as a spectator. It's a difficult scene you want to have control over, but can't.
Schoenarts' powerful performance was instrumental in propelling "Bullhead" to an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. For someone like Matthias, a relative unknown here in the States, the spotlight on this movie is both surreal and surprising. In "Bullhead," he plays Jacky, a cattle farmer who, due to a tragic accident as a child, uses illegal steroids and hormones. The Belgian-born actor spent more than a year preparing for the role, crafting his body, turning himself into a well-oiled, albeit complicated, machine.
Moviefone spoke with Matthias about his amazing physical and emotional transformation, his temptation to use actual steroids to prepare for the role of Jacky and his feelings on the film's Oscar nomination. [Warning: Spoilers ahead]
First off, congrats on the Oscar nomination
Thanks a lot.
I am assuming you had no idea this would even get nominated for an Oscar when you first got involved?
You never start on a project and think, "Alright this is going to get an Academy Award nomination." We just started the project out of passion and just wanting to do it, and to be nominated is just a blast. It's mind-blowing.
Where were you when you first heard about the nomination?
I was at home. When I heard the news, I just got into my couch and stared at the ceiling for 10 minutes, trying to believe what I had just heard.
From the viewer's perspective, this movie throws the audience through a range of emotions, so I am curious what your first reactions to the script were.
First draft I read, [I thought] it's a delight for an actor to play such a [character]. At the same time, it's so challenging, it's so complex -- I find it so compelling and touching. I had this intuitive feeling about it. It's hard to explain. I was immediately emotionally attached to the character. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to play that part. It was such an original screenplay, it was a very original crime universe, a very good storytelling structure, very original characters. At the same time, it was a very very, deeply touching, humane story. It had all the elements going for it.
The way the film stars off, it seems like your typical crime drama, but soon delves into youth and heartbreak and loss
Yeah, absolutely. It starts as a crime drama and then it evolves into a very personal tragedy. That's what, to me, was so appealing, because the backdrop is interesting.
Your character, Jacky, grows up around criminals, and then goes through a personal tragedy as a kid. Do you think his downfall was just inevitable or bad luck?
That is one of the themes in the film, it's destiny and sometimes as a human being you get cornered by destiny and you're not able to overcome it, and how one event determines your whole life to that extent. That's part of the life of the character.
Looking at photos from your earlier films, it's astounding how much muscle you got for this character. Could you walk me through your physical and emotional transformation for this role?
Basically I cut off all connection with the world and other projects, and I just jumped into preparation for the film; I just wanted to concentrate and focus on the one point, and that was shooting the film. So for more than a year, I prepped. And the physical preparation was weightlifting and eating and sleeping. And to me, this physical preparation was very important because his physical appearance had to be right. But that was not the only aspect that was interesting concerning the character, because the character's inner state is important. It was all about the contrast between the physical appearance and the inner being.
As an actor, is there a worry when you're playing a haunted character such as this one -- about being in that sort of emotional state for such a long period of time?
No, I never try to let that kind of worry into my mind. I was just so compelled and touched by [the character]. I knew that it would be an intense ride, but on the other hand, that's what I needed, and that's what I am looking for as an actor; that's the food I am looking for. And if it's not intense and if it's not profound and if it's not difficult and hard, then I don't know what it means, and then I don't know why I am sharing, and I don't know what the purpose of cinema is if it's not to share.
Did you find it difficult to get out of the role of Jacky?
The preparation was so intense, so it's something that slowly slides out of your system, it's not something that you just shut off. I prepared myself for the character to become part of my DNA, so I try to really incorporate the character. The last day of shooting was quite a shock for me, because for six years you're fantasizing about a character and for more than a year you're preparing it, and the shooting just took seven weeks, and that's very short. Then before you know it, it's the last day of shooting, and there you are, still stuck with the character and with that body you've been working on for so many years, and all of a sudden you realize "Oh, damn, it's over now." That was something that really stuck with me, and it took me a couple of months to readjust myself and re-adapt myself.
For someone playing a character who's using illegal steroids and testosterone, is there a temptation as an actor to try it yourself?
I did a lot of research on that, because to me, it was an unknown universe. I thought, "Why not? Maybe I should try it." So I went and talked to doctors, and if I was about to do it, I wanted to do it under medical assistance. So I talked to a couple of doctors and all of them didn't want to have to do anything with it. Then I was like, "OK, if that's the way it is and they're so reluctant to participate in it, then I shouldn't do it." So I went for it just the completely natural way. But of course, there was a temptation.
The end of the movie is both shocking and sad. The scene in the elevator is extremely difficult to watch
It's the bull going to the slaughterhouse and having this one last glorifying moment of violence. His last beat in life is exploding, finally, before he goes down. Because it is a suicide scene at the same time; it's a very desperate action. But even though the deed is very brutal, as an audience you go, "OK, now you can let it all go, just go for it, just explode, because that's the only way he can express himself." And you really want him, before he dies, to let all this emotion go. And it's too bad for him, the way to express himself is in a violent manner.
Moving forward, what's next for you? You've been getting a lot of buzz in the States with this movie. Are you interested in acting in any American films?
I am just on the lookout for a crush. There's an amazing concentration of talent in the States, and of course I would love to work [here] and play a challenging part. There's a lot of things moving. I had the opportunity to work with one of my favorite directors last year, Jacques Audiard, [on "Rust and Bone," co-starring Marion Cotillard]. And that was an amazing experience; what a director -- that, to me, was one of my dreams. Of course if the opportunity comes around to play a, preferably, disturbing wacko, then it gets all my love and passion [laughs]. As long as they're crazy, then I am happy.
Are you going to the Oscars?
Yes, we will. Me and Michael will be attending.
Are you looking forward to anything in particular or any other big actors?
I don't know what to expect. It's just such a big event. I think I am probably looking forward to the reception afterward. I don't know, I am just going to ride the wave and enjoy the evening and whatever happens happens.