If you don’t watch it, you become this insane control freak that starts flirting with being overly self-aware. If I suck, I’ll do it again. If everybody saw I sucked, then what? Then we have a big laugh about it and try it again. Matthias Schoenaerts

Every now and then an actor comes along who reminds us of the way movie stars used to be. In the case of Matthias Schoenaerts, who’s registered regular comparisons to Marlon Brando due to his earthy masculinity and brutish physical charisma, it might have something to do with his self-professed focus on just one thing—the work, rather than the trappings of the Hollywood fame game. There are echoes of the brooding old guard in the way Schoenaerts ekes out the truth in his performances. And perhaps it’s that quality, in addition to his rakish, athletic good looks, that has turned the Belgian export from a European cinema fixture to a Tinseltown-worthy leading man in the space of just a few years, and has made us most excited for what’s to come.

Born in Antwerp, Schoenaerts, now 37, was obsessed with soccer and graffiti as a teenager. He made his screen debut in a bit part alongside his father, actor Julien Schoenaerts, in the period drama Daens (1992). And, after starring in a succession of Belgian films, including Loft (2008), the highest-grossing Flemish movie of all time, Schoenaerts broke through to Stateside audiences with two notably visceral performances in 2012. He bulked up to obscene proportions to play a steroid-addicted cattle farmer in Michaël R. Roskam’s Oscar-nominated Bullhead, and hit the gym and the junk food once more to play Ali, a single father and mixed-martial-arts fighter gone to seed on the Côte D’Azur, in Jacques Audiard‘s art-house sensation Rust and Bone.

But Schoenaerts has managed to massage his tough-guy roles into something more than muscle-tempering his Brooklyn thug in last year’s The Drop and his German officer in occupied France, opposite Michelle Williams, in the forthcoming Suite Française with enough nuance and heart to render them into three-dimensional beings. This month he goes full romantic hero, playing the flaxen-haired sheep farmer Gabriel Oak, pining for Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba Everdene, in Thomas Vinterberg’s take on Thomas Hardy’s Victorian-era romance Far From the Madding Crowd. After that he has a slate of high-profile projects, including Alan Rickman’s A Little Chaos, alongside Kate Winslet, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, with Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, and Lewis and Clark, a miniseries for HBO.

But despite the starry rush of Hollywood calling, Schoenaerts prefers to keep a low profile, still living in Belgium and, as he says, “disappearing for a while” between projects. That’s something that the work-first Tom Hardy, Schoenaerts’s friend and The Drop co-star, knows something about as well. Hardy reconnected by phone with Schoenaerts, on a break from filming The Danish Girl, to hear all about it.

TOM HARDY: I’ll just be a bit boring and blow smoke up your ass for a moment, but there’s very few actors out there like you, who love the work and participate at such a high level. When you turned up on set [of The Drop] with the best Brooklyn accent in the world, and English not being your first language, that was very hard to handle. But on the other hand, I didn’t know you were such a talented graffiti artist. What’s with that?

MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS: That’s something I’ve been doing ever since I was … I don’t know, 13, 14. As a kid, I had a lot of books about painters; I was totally absorbed and obsessed. It’s something that always stayed with me and became more and more of a passion. Every now and then I go back to it when I’m in between shoots. I just rented a studio. I’ll get out there and start making canvases, or I get into the city, pick a wall, and paint it. It has a meditative effect on me because it doesn’t involve so many people. I think filmmaking is fantastic between “action” and “cut.” But everything around it is such a hassle. What I like about painting, it’s me and the wall or the canvas. I love just being able to take that time without anyone breaking my head about anything. That freedom brings me a lot of peace and allows me to go back to the madness afterwards.

HARDY: Is there anything else that you do that does that?

SCHOENAERTS: Yeah, sports. I box a lot. I play a lot of soccer. I go to the gym. I need the rush. I like to feel that my body is living, that it’s not just a vehicle. Every time you come out of the shower, it feels like a renaissance; it feels like you’re reborn. I love that.

HARDY: How old are you now?

SCHOENAERTS: Thirty-seven. I’m an old fart.

HARDY: You’re the same age as me. I’m September 15. You’re December 8, right? So you’re a little bit younger. In my experience, we’re always playing a little bit younger than we actually are, which is kind of cool. Sometimes we get to play up.

SCHOENAERTS: It’s like we get the chance to fuck over time. By doing film, we get the chance to stab it in the back.

HARDY: You get that “hindsight is 20/20” thing. But there are stages for guys, I think. There’s the warrior stage. Then there’s a certain, what I’d call a “sad monk” stage, where you’re physically past your 22, 25 prime and you’re growing into an older man. Ultimately you move on from there. Our work coincides with our experiences—for me, anyway. What I’m interested in is reflected in my work. What stage are you at in your life right now, as a man? What’s important now that’s passing into your work at the moment, compared to where you were at Bullhead? Are you in your blue period or your pink one?

SCHOENAERTS: [laughs] Well, I’m in my green one. I think we’re always in a state of transition. But I’m in a very conscious state of transition, rediscovering who I am and who I want to become. That’s a very interesting period. Like, “Okay, what type of person do you want to be? How do you want to deal with life?”

HARDY: What do you want right now with your work? Do you have a purpose?

SCHOENAERTS: I hope it doesn’t sound melodramatic. We get the chance to speak to a thousand people in the theater, or 200, or 20, or millions of people. So what I always think is important is, “Okay, what do you share?” We’re in the position where people are willing to come and see what we share. I don’t mean that in a moralistic or preachy way, but I think there is a level of responsibility that comes with what we do. I think what you’re trying to say should be something that you feel from the heart because you believe in it. Eventually that will transport itself towards the audience. Are there directors I want to work with? Yeah, probably. That’s not where my ambition is. I want to share stuff that means something. I don’t like vulgarity. I don’t like first-degree stupidity. I don’t want to sound like a pretentious art-house fucker; I’m not making the distinction between that and popular films, not at all. I just want to be blown away by something that ignites my imagination, ignites my heart, ignites my soul.

HARDY: You can find that in any project, though. What you’re saying to me is that there’s an integrity and an authenticity to you. I know you’re a massive team player. You’re not there to showboat. How do you keep it real on the floor, bro? To me, you’re a proper actor’s actor. What’s your bullshit monitor, to know when it’s about you and loving yourself and when it’s about part of the team?

SCHOENAERTS: I think the best reflex is to have a very simple take on everything. You get what you give. If you get caught up and you have your head up your own ass, you’re just basically hurting yourself. Positivity attracts positivity. It’s not always easy because we’re emotional beings, and emotions can stir us up pretty well. I think we both know about anxiety and doubt and inferiority complexes.

HARDY: Yeah, but if madness is the repetition of the same action expecting a different outcome, when you spot that pattern, you will eventually transition. Because you will know, from the pain of repeating the same action, where it is that you need to grow, spiritually and mentally. That’s going to reflect in your journey, in your work, right? Why do you love acting so much?

SCHOENAERTS: I think I’m fascinated by everything that has to do with life and people. When you walk in the street and you watch a person, there’s a lifetime of stories right there. And every story is unique. If you look at people in different countries, every change of context—whether it’s historically, socially, culturally, emotionally, artistically—it implies such a wealth of different stories. I’m just fascinated by that.

HARDY: So acting is more than a job for you, right?

SCHOENAERTS: Yeah, I think I can say that.

HARDY: Obviously you approach acting technically. We both do. Then there’s a point where technique becomes redundant because there’s free flow. You have three or four months just to play one person in a world that’s artificial. How do you approach transformation into a character? Is that a break from being you?

SCHOENAERTS: Well, I have a very simple answer to it, but at the same time, there’s a lot of truth to it. It comes from a very famous film. I’ll let you have a guess. [in a Cuban accent] “I always tell the truth, even when I lie.”

HARDY: Man, you know I don’t watch films.

SCHOENAERTS: You must have seen that one: Scarface [1983]. It’s Al Pacino.

HARDY: Oh, yeah. Of course I’ve seen Scarface. But I don’t remember that line. I just remember, “Pelican fly.” [both laugh]

SCHOENAERTS: That is really how I approach it. We know that everything we do is fictional and artificial. But I think the emotion and sensitivity that you invest in it should be real as fuck.

HARDY: Do you have to actually feel the emotion of the character in order to transmit to an audience what that character is going through? Because I don’t.

I think we’re always in a state of transition. But I’m in a very conscious state of transition, rediscovering who I am and who I want to become. MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS

SCHOENAERTS: Me neither. I think we need to find a way to make the audience feel what we want them to feel in that moment, and that’s a different thing. When I was a young actor, I thought, “I have to feel what my character feels,” and it didn’t translate on screen. Now I’m like, “Okay, I need to readjust. I need to find something different because it’s not working. I need to find my imagination.” I think the imagination is the biggest tool of an actor, because otherwise it becomes masochistic.

HARDY: That’s why I have a problem with the method-acting conversation, because I don’t really get the method-acting thing.

SCHOENAERTS: I get it to some extent. But I think it should always be combined with creativity, because otherwise it becomes …

HARDY: Masturbatory.

SCHOENAERTS: Yeah, I don’t like that.

HARDY: I don’t either. What I love about you, man, is that you’re always in the room. We could talk and joke and fuck around, and then when it’s “action,” we’re in. And then when it’s “cut,” we start talking about what we were talking about in life, like today. You switch it on and switch it off. I love that.

SCHOENAERTS: I really believe that playfulness liberates you and allows you to go deeper and disconnect from your own thinking process, which most of the time is a screw-over.

HARDY: It blocks you. When did you learn to let go? Was Bullhead a turning point? I’m sure you had probably done it before. But Bullhead was your moment where people will go, “Ah, that’s a calling card for Matthias. We know who he is now.” But you must have had a change in order to come up with a performance like that. There must have been something in you that shifted.

SCHOENAERTS: Well, I think it started with Bullhead. I really unlocked during Rust and Bone with Jacques Audiard because of the way he works. He’s all about letting go permanently. It’s like, “Forget what you’re thinking. Forget what your through line is. Just throw it all away, man. Just be in the moment. Listen to your partner. You just have to listen and react.” That’s basically it. That to me was a master class. I really noticed afterwards, when I started working on other projects, that I found myself in a different stage artistically. I became way more relaxed. I became way more present. I became more generous. All of a sudden I wasn’t scared anymore, and I wasn’t scared to be bad as well. As actors you’re constantly objects of judgment by the critics, by our colleagues, anything.

HARDY: And by yourself.

SCHOENAERTS: Exactly. If you don’t watch it, you become this insane control freak that starts flirting with being overly self-aware. If I suck, I’ll do it again. If everybody saw I sucked, then what? Then we have a big laugh about it and try it again. I’m like, “Allow yourself to be bad, and you might discover something that will lead to something great.”

HARDY: You’re making a documentary. How’s that?

SCHOENAERTS: Yeah, I’ve been working on it. But, you know, I’ve been away for so long, it died down a little. I have to pick it up again. It’s hard for me to talk about it right now because I’m going to bring it back to life.

HARDY: Who’s your counsel? Like, say you have an idea to do something, you get a script that comes in …

SCHOENAERTS: It’s my mother. She has such a profound reading. Not in terms of script analysis. I mean in terms of humanity. On a human level, she’s the most profound reader I ever encountered.

HARDY: I identify with having strong, powerful female influences in my life. Do you think that women are fairly represented in screenplays, film, TV, and theater today? Or do you think there should be better parts for women than just girlfriend and wife or lover? Because I’m bored with that.

SCHOENAERTS: Absolutely. I think there’s massive room for improvement there. Of course, every now and then, you get a film that portrays women in a much richer way than they used to be. But they’re still too rare.

HARDY: There’s a long way to go on that, but I do believe that the time is now. What did you have for breakfast?

SCHOENAERTS: Today? I had two sunny-side-ups and yogurt with raspberries and honey and a fresh green juice: apple, a lemon, and a big chunk of ginger.

HARDY: So you’re looking after yourself.

SCHOENAERTS: Yeah. I’m training a lot. I just want to feed myself properly. I never forgot what you told me, I think it was after The Dark Knight Rises [2012], and you went to Spain to some detox type of thing, you were very consciously eating the right food, and what it did to your energy level, but also to your emotional energy. There’s a lot of truth in that.

HARDY: When are we going to work again together? Because it sounds like you’re much better than you were when I last worked with you. [both laugh] You sound more talented, bro. But I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to say. [Schoenaerts laughs] I, like you, am passionate about my work. It’s something that I believe in. I don’t know why. The media is one side of what we do, which I don’t understand quite how to fit into because I didn’t come here to sell anything. You don’t get taught to do that side. What’s the worst question or the top three worst questions that you get asked in the press that you’re terrified of?

SCHOENAERTS: Not necessarily terrified. But the first question is, “What attracted you? Can you explain your character?” That’s the number one question that I’m like, “Oh my God, shit.”

HARDY: [both laugh] That one sucks major balls.

SCHOENAERTS: The second one is, “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” I’m like, “I don’t know, man. Shit. I might be on an island doing some agricultural stuff.” The last one is probably, “Why did you get into acting?” That type of stuff. I’m like, “Yeeeah, ugh.” First of all, it’s way too personal. And second of all, I don’t know if I really know that.

HARDY: What books should I read? I’m assuming you can read.

SCHOENAERTS: The Apology of Socrates.

HARDY: Has it got pictures?

SCHOENAERTS: [laughs] No, no. It’s like 50 pages. Socrates was sent to court and was about to get the death sentence, so he decided to defend himself. Plato wrote a version of that defense. I think it’s one of the most beautiful manuscripts in the world. It’s not an intellectual masturbation type of thingy at all. It’s so simple. It’s just so clear. That is the beauty of it. When my dad discovered this text, he fell so in love with it, and in the course of 25 years he always went back to that text and reperformed it as a play.

HARDY: I love a theoretician. Do you play Xbox, man?

SCHOENAERTS: I’m not into that at all.

HARDY: Oh, okay. You have a Rubik’s Cube?

SCHOENAERTS: No, not even. I have a soccer ball.

HARDY: If you could be anything in the world other than what you are, what would it be?

SCHOENAERTS: I think an architect. I don’t know why, exactly. I don’t have the mathematical structure for that, but I love architecture.

HARDY: What about an animal?

SCHOENAERTS: Well, I love tigers. I would be a little cat. They just hang around the house. They sleep. They eat. They don’t worry about anything. And they get cuddled all day. Life doesn’t get any better, does it?

HARDY: Now, where do you see yourself in ten years’ time? [both laugh]