When he's not smoldering on the silver screen, as he does in this month's transgendered drama The Danish Girl, Matthias Schoenaerts roams his home city of Antwerp, boxes, paints, and reads heavy philosphical works. Get to know the real-life Renaissance man and InStyle's December Man of Style below. And for the full feature, pick up a copy of the December issue, available on newsstands and for digital download now.
"Style is something you radiate," says Matthias Schoenaerts, the puppy dog-eyed European actor who has a habit of playing sensitive brutes, from Rust & Bone's MMA fighter to Suite Française's German soldier to a strapping hunk in the upcoming transgender drama The Danish Girl. "You either have it or you don't.”
Schoenaerts, wearing an off-white sweatshirt, a black denim jacket, and bright blue Lee jeans, has it in spades. He even appeared in a campaign for Louis Vuitton. Perched at a riverside bistro northwest of Antwerp, Schoenaerts's one concession to inelegance is the Lucky Strike rollie he takes a drag from. Running his hands through an impressive quiff, he smiles. "But style rules? No. I don't pay attention to them," he says, snubbing out the cigarette on the floor despite the ashtray in reach. A thin twirl of smoke lifts toward the yellow sky from the glowing ember. Schoenaerts extinguishes it with his Nike-clad foot and says, "I just have a basic sense of elegance, I guess."
You've played many characters enmeshed somehow in a complex moral situation. Are you drawn to the gray zones in particular?
"Hell, yes. I think the baddies are more interesting than the heroes. Why does everyone talk about the villains in Batman? It's because they are more fun to play, and you can see that onscreen. It's not just that I want to be an antagonist. It's that I look for stories that are ambiguous in nature and for characters who are complicated. People use the characters they see on TV and in movies to test their own values. So, as an artist, I wonder, What can I do to make the audience think differently about what good is, what bad is, who a man is, and who a woman is.
Certainly with The Danish Girl, in which Eddie Redmayne plays Lili Elbe, the first recipient of gender reassignment surgery, there have been a lot of questions, including why Elbe isn't being played by a real transgender woman.
I don't subscribe to that philosophy. If there is a character who is a drug addict, must he be played by a drug addict? Does every homosexual character need to be played by a homosexual actor? That's ridiculous."
In the past year, you've carried two fairly intense films: Disorder, in which you play a soldier suffering from PTSD, and Far from the Madding Crowd, in which you portray a seductive sheep farmer. Was it a challenge to adjust to playing a supporting character like Hans in The Danish Girl?
No. It's like in soccer. Sometimes you play center forward, and naturally, the center forward scores all the goals. But you need a right-wing defender too. If I'm second banana to whichever actor I truly admire, and if it is in defense of a good story, I'm happy to take on that part.
You have undergone dramatic weight gains and losses for some roles. What impact does that have on your wardrobe?
There are certain pieces like sweaters or jackets that I've had for 10 years that I know I can't wear for a little while, but eventually I'll get back to my normal shape and size and they'll fit again. In life there are things that feel right, or people that feel right, and the same goes for clothes. And when things don't feel right, you should probably just get rid of those things.
Kate Winslet, who co-starred with you in the romantic landscape-architecture drama A Little Chaos, once said that you "really look like a man." As far as leading roles go, do you ever feel boxed in by reductive stereotypes of masculinity?
In general, the movie business has become increasingly generic, which means the roles have become generic as well. But I don't want to sound like a nihilist. There are some brilliant films being made all over the world.