HFPA In Conversation: Matthias Schoenaerts, Finding An Inmate’s Soul

by Kirpi Uimonen Ballesteros March 20, 2019
Actor Matthias Schoenaerts

matt winkelmeyer/getty images

In The Mustang, Belgium actor Matthias Schoenaerts plays a violent prison inmate who undergoes a personal transformation when he is entered into a mustang-taming program.  HFPA journalist Greet Ramaekers sat down with Schoenaerts and talked about how an actor from Antwerp ended up having an internationally successful career.  His breakthrough role was in Bullhead, a crime story nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, followed by Rust and Bone, nominated for a Golden Globe. After working in films as diverse as Far from the Madding Crowd, The Danish Girl, A Bigger Splash and Red Sparrow, he faced the challenge of portraying Roman Coleman, a convict who has been incarcerated for 12 years, five of them in isolation.

“The real challenge was how to get into a psyche of somebody that lives in those circumstances.  He hasn’t been talking to anyone probably for a long time, hasn’t vocalized what he felt, is probably completely alienated from what he feels about himself and what he feels about others.  What does that do to somebody’s heart and soul?  And how can you translate that to a screen?”

He visited inmates in three State Prisons: San Quentin, Solano, and High Desert.

“Each time we spent either one or two days and most of the time we spent talking to inmates to get a notion of their emotional state of being and then their reflections about themselves, about their stay in that facility.”

Schoenaerts found it helpful and inspirational.

“I couldn’t have done it without those experiences because all of a sudden all the preconceived notions you might have about longtime inmates are completely stripped away and all of a sudden you get back to the core.  When you take the context away, the crime away and the violence away and the prison away all of a sudden you’re looking at and listening to a person with a beating heart full of fear, full of desires and full of hope."

The days in the prisons were intense.

“I absorbed so much information on a conscious level and a subconscious level. It affected me but also gave me so much.

The mustang taming program is one of the most successful of all rehabilitation programs. Coleman finds comfort from a horse.

“The horse is a symbol of sincerity, authenticity, but at the same time is an unpredictable brutal force of nature.  And the horse is also a mirror to Roman.  It doesn’t only help him to find redemption within himself but he also finds comfort in the horse because they share the same type of loneliness.”

Listen to the podcast and hear why he slept one night in an empty prison; how are his horseback riding skills; why The Mustang is timely at the moment; how was it working with director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre; how he became an actor; what he ate before he filming Bullhead and how gaining a lot of weight impacted him; why it was magical to work with Jacques Audiard, the director of Rust and Bone; how was his transformation from a Belgian actor to a Hollywood actor; why he doesn’t want to play happy characters; why he does not believe in the image of the absolute hero; what three languages he spoke as a kid and how those helped him with his English accent; why graffiti art is important to him; why he has an "it is my way or the highway" attitude; how he describes his father, Julien Schoenaerts, who was a famous Belgium actor; what love means to him; and who is the person who helped him become who he is today.