Actor Matthias Schoenaerts employs his body as acting tool


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TORONTO -- Robert De Niro has nothing on Matthias Schoenaerts (pronounced Shuh-nar).

For the Belgian actor's breakthrough role in "Bullhead," he gained 50 to 60 pounds. "I lost most of it and then, for this film, I had to regain it," he said of "Rust and Bone" in which he plays Ali, a bouncer and brawler opposite actress Marion Cotillard.

The French-language movie, which had a single Pittsburgh showing during the 2012 Three Rivers Film Festival, returns Friday for a regular run at the Harris Theater, Downtown.

Mr. Schoenaerts' training for "Rust and Bone" focused on boxing, weightlifting and following "a very specific unhealthy diet," bolstered by burgers and ice cream.

After the production, he dropped back to a normal weight, which meant he wasn't taxing the buttons or seams of the flattering gray suit and black shirt he was wearing this day during the Toronto International Film Festival. Doing interviews in the lobby restaurant of a hotel, he was happy inside his skin once more.

"I don't know if I should do it when I'm 50. I probably won't recover that fast," he said in slightly accented English of his extreme yo-yo dieting. "It still feels quite OK" at the moment, though, especially since his body is another tool in his acting arsenal.

"It helps you to radiate a certain aura. To me, it's all part of our being -- it's mind, body and soul."

In "Rust and Bone," brawny Ali is homeless, penniless and unexpectedly in charge of his 5-year-old son, Sam, when he moves in with his estranged sister in the south of France. She's a supermarket cashier who stretches her meager budget with food past its expiration date and who informs her brother she has no time to tend to a child.

Young Armand Verdure, who plays Sam, had not acted before, but it was "love at first sight" for director Jacques Audiard. "Then, I met him and I was completely attached to him," the leading man said, and they spent months together as the boy adapted to the notion of being on a set and doing scenes more than once.

There is something primitive and wild about Ali, and Ms. Cotillard's character trains orca whales at a marine park and then meets this man she may or may not be able to tame.

"To me, it was a guy who -- for the last couple of years and probably ever since he grew up -- has been confronted with one setback after another and after a certain point, hits rock bottom and doesn't have any place to go anymore. And on top of that, is put in charge of his son and doesn't know any way out ...

"He doesn't have a particular ambition in life. He just takes life the way it comes, day by day. He doesn't have any self-pity about it. He's just dealing with it. He's used to living a [lousy] life, so he's adapted himself to it." He probably didn't have a dependable father figure and history is repeating itself.

Ali initially takes a job as a bouncer and then a brawler, meeting opponents for down and dirty fights that may not literally be in an alley but figuratively are.

Although it certainly looks as though Ali is taking a pounding -- and delivering same -- in bare-knuckle boxing scenes, the only injuries the actor sustained were nettlesome, from having his bare back slammed onto small stones on the ground.

Asked whether he got hurt, he said, "No, not at all. We really rehearsed that over and over and over again.

"Because we had to be very confident about it and very precise and, in order to be confident, you have to do it over and over again because everybody gets excited when you shoot, and you know it has to radiate a certain aggression. So everybody goes at it way more than you do during rehearsals, and that's where accidents come in. So if you're not properly prepared, then things go wrong."

The script requires Mr. Schoenaerts to carry Ms. Cotillard on his back out to sea and to shore again. Not a problem, he said. "She's a heavyweight actress but she's a lightweight human being."

The director initially considered casting a non-actor and spent six months prowling gyms. When that didn't work, he looked at some professional actors but still couldn't find his perfect Ali.

The movie's casting director had seen 2011's "Bullhead," an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, and showed it to Mr. Audiard who hired Mr. Schoenaerts. He was far from a first-timer; as a child, he appeared on stage in "The Little Prince" and made his screen debut at age 15 in "Daens," an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film.

"Bullhead," set in Belgium where cattle farming, coincidence, calamity, cowardice, courage and lost manhood combust in a tragic way, absolutely was a turning point for the actor. "Not only because of the success but also very personal involvement," Mr. Schoenaerts said.

He and director Michael R. Roskam spent six years on the script and character, a cattle farmer who regularly shoots himself with hormones and steroids "way before we even knew we would ever make the film." When it started to gain critical notice and prizes, they would ask, "Man, who the hell would have imagined this six years ago? ... Is this really happening? Yeah, let's enjoy the moment."

Although "Rust and Bone" and Ms. Cotillard, in particular, had been regulars on the awards circuit, the movie garnered no Academy Award nominations. But Mr. Schoenaerts appeared in an Oscar-nominated project, a live-action short, "Death of a Shadow." (It lost to "Curfew.")

Mr. Schoenaerts stars in the Dutch-language film, directed by Tom Van Avermaet and produced by Ellen De Waele.

It's a 20-minute fantasy about a World War I soldier, stuck in limbo between life and death, who collects the shadows of the dying with the hope they will earn him a return to life and the woman he has loved from afar.

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.


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