Blunt Hits and Bloody Knuckles: Matthias Schoenaerts, Belgium's hot new import and our face of fall,
gets real about his build, his craft, and all things skin-deep.

Matthias Schoenaerts wants you to know he's bigger than his body. There's a lot behind this notion, especially as it applies to the Belgian actor's work, which, for American film buffs who've seen it, is likely defined by Schoenaerts's brute physicality. In 2011's Bullhead, his Oscar-nominated breakthrough vehicle, Schoenaerts enters scenes bobbing his massive shoulders as if channeling the beast of the title, flaunting the hulking physique required to play a man dependent on testosterone supplements. In 2012's Rust and Bone, co-starring Marion Cotillard, he plays a bouncer-cum-kickboxer who brutalizes opponents for money, and breaks his hands when punching a frozen pond to save a drowning boy. As Schoenaerts pervades the American market, with a trove of stateside films slated for this fall and beyond, these are the popular images that accompany his rising star: shirt-busting muscles, feral movements, bloody knuckles.

This isn't something Schoenaerts is entirely thrilled about.

"I don't want to be pinned down as just a physical actor," he says. "I understand that people may think I am, since Bullhead and Rust and Bone popped up one year after another, but that's a coincidence. I've done a lot of different stuff."

While Schoenaerts has indeed tackled various roles and genres in his career, playing a departed soldier in the steampunky short Death of a Shadow and an adulterous suspect in the Belgian whodunit Loft (he also stars in the American remake, The Loft, out later this year), this "different stuff" is right there in the brawn-driven films that have made his name. Another reason Schoenaerts is greater than his frame is that he portrays characters whose insides dwarf their outsides completely. The literal bulk of Jacky, his cattle-farming criminal in Bullhead, is a direct result of a horrific, emasculating trauma the character suffered in youth, the effects of which Schoenaerts quiveringly conveys with wordless, gentle-giant agony. It's no wonder the actor is often compared to Tom Hardy, another sensitive soul who’s sporting pounds of toned muscle, and who happens to be Schoenaerts’s co-star in September's Brooklyn-set mob drama The Drop.

Also directed by Bullhead filmmaker Michaël R. Roskam, The Drop sees Schoenaerts and Hardy go head-to-head over a girl (Noomi Rapace), a dog, and an infamous neighborhood murder, with Schoenaerts quietly nailing the role of Eric, a wild card so unnerving and volatile he seems to scare himself. "I wanted to make him emotionally imbalanced," Schoenaerts says. "Yes, he has an element of danger, and he might do something outrageously crazy, but it's only because he's so fragile."

Schoenaerts himself has a penchant for fervently fluttering off on tangents. As we chat, he applies the idea of creative "flow" to both jazz and football; describes how his actorly method involves keeping "scrapbooks with pictures"; observes that the legalization of gay marriage in Belgium — the second country to lift the ban, after the Netherlands — has been "absorbed within society"; and recalls the first time he met Hardy, who talked breathlessly with his "ultrafast tongue." Yet one remarkable constant is the frequency with which he brings up fragility, a motif that on its own confirms he's much more than muscles and machismo.

"When I get on set, I don't know what's going to happen," he says. "And it makes you very vulnerable, as an artist, to do that. In our job, we're always the subjects of judgment, and if you want to do the real work, I think you have to be vulnerable as hell. You have to be prepared to suck."

Like Hardy, Schoenaerts has shown that part of his embrace of vulnerability has involved shedding all of his clothes on camera, an act that, in films like Rust and Bone, simply serves narrative logic. ("It'd be ridiculous to all of a sudden have someone pull his underwear up," he says of certain intimate scenes.) Talk of nudity and sex appeal launches Schoenaerts into a fitting, near-philosophical monologue on the body and its frailty. Before long, he's noting everything from the "stupidity" of vanity to 2012's little-seen Ulrich Seidl film Paradise: Love, about a middle-aged Austrian woman who beds multiple young Kenyan men to devastating, if honest, effect. The point at which he ultimately arrives is not so much nudity's necessity for truth in film but rather the body itself as something "fashionable," which is to say fleeting.

"What I think is sexy is truthfulness," Schoenaerts says, "and that's something that overwhelms time. That's why Marlon Brando is still sexy nowadays — not because he was a gorgeous guy, but because his work was truthful. The rest is form. That may make me want to have sex with someone, but it's temporary, and in the end it's bullshit."

It might seem that Schoenaerts's perspectives would make him an unlikely candidate to be the face of a fashion label like Louis Vuitton, which tapped him to headline its global spring/summer 2014 men's campaign. But while Schoenaerts admits that "being the face of anything is a very abstract concept," he identifies with the brand's "classy simplicity," and a look at one of the line's Arizona-set promo videos (aptly titled Desert Philosophies With Matthias Schoenaerts) yields familiar Schoenaerts musings. "Sometimes you wreck yourself trying to create a character," the actor intones while roaming the great wide open. As more and more viewers are about to find out — in everything from this fall's Suite Française, based on Irène Némirovsky's rediscovered French novel, to next year's Far From the Madding Crowd — Schoenaerts can bring the blunt hits and bloody knuckles, but it's the inner wreckage he conjures that makes him an acting titan.