Gabriel Oak, the rugged shepherd at the heart of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 classic Far From the Madding Crowd, is one of literature’s most patient romantics. “I was fascinated by the absolute selflessness and sincerity and loyalty of that guy,” says Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Oak in the stylish film adaptation of the novel (in theaters May 1). “And I was like, ‘Okay, I wanna get in here.’ He’s a romantic soul, but it’s not all about ego-driven action. He doesn’t know anything about instant gratification.”
Schoenaerts (just say SHONE-arts with a throaty cough) can relate. The 37-year-old Belgian actor, whose sonorous voice betrays just a cayenne pinch of an accent and the occasional charming malaprop like “energetical,” has resisted the easy buck. A few years ago, worried that the movie was too big for him, he passed on the lead role in the remake of RoboCop, preferring to carve out intense, dangerous portraits of masculinity in 2011’s foreign-film Oscar nominee Bullhead (as a steroid addict), 2012’s French-language Rust and Bone (as Marion Cotillard’s cage-fighting lover), and 2014’s The Drop (as a psychotic Brooklyn street thug).
“I remember watching Rust and Bone,” says his Madding Crowd costar Carey Mulligan, “and thinking that I’d never seen such a huge, hulking, handsome real man on the screen. So I was overjoyed to get him in this film. Gabriel Oak is someone who tells you exactly what he thinks, and that’s the connection to Matthias. He’s got a fantastic ability to show what he’s thinking just through the way he looks at you.” The movie’s director, Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), concurs: “He’s incredibly intense, in a positive way. He can be doing almost nothing, yet he radiates and people love him.”
Since Bullhead, for which he packed 60 pounds of muscle onto his 6-foot-2-inch frame, Schoenaerts has been hailed as the Belgian Brando. Though as the infamous Method actor would have, he’s quick to defend against simple categorization. “Maybe in some roles I have a physical presence and a certain brooding energy that people might interpret as macho, but I never want to emphasize that,” he says. “The way I approach everything I do always comes down to one thing, which is love. And I don’t mean it in the flower-power type of way. I mean that, even if you look at The Drop, my character is insane, but it’s the loss of love that drives him that way.”
Schoenaerts has an affinity for European auteurs such as Vinterberg and fellow Belgian, Michaël R. Roskam, the director of Bullhead and The Drop. But one of the ways he perfected his English was by watching American movies, and you can gleam a lot about his artistic sensibility from which filmmaker he’d most love to work with: “David Lynch has the most unique look on life of any director in the world. If I was told I could only be in one more movie in my lifetime, I’d want to be in his.” Asked what is his favorite Lynch film, Schoenaerts runs through the director’s filmography before settling on his G-rated 1999 fable, The Straight Story. Might they work together? “I hope so. I met him at his house, which is crazy because it’s the Lost Highway house. We were driving up and the assistant tells me, ‘There’s his house,’ and I was like”—he feigns a valley girl twang—‘Oh my God! Am I really getting in there?’”
His performance as Oak in Madding Crowd is quiet, dignified, and slightly aloof in a manner that’s sure to make audiences swoon. And they could be seeing a lot of him this year. Already, he starred in January’s erotic thriller The Loft, reprising his role from the Belgian original. In upcoming months he’ll appear opposite Michelle Williams in SuiteFrançaise, Kate Winslet in A Little Chaos, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson in A Bigger Splash, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, and Diane Kruger in Maryland, as a soldier suffering from PTSD. “I shouldn’t tell you about it, but that part almost killed me,” he says. “It was crazy.”
Laughter, he says, is the key to surviving a role like that, and everything else. “Life throws many funny and not-so-funny things in your path, and sometimes you can lose your sense of humor for a little while. It’s happened to me as well. But to go through life like that, I just don’t understand.” True to form, he can’t help injecting a cheeky movie reference into the conversation. “When you meet someone without a sense of humor, I’m telling you what you have to do. ‘Run, Forrest, run!’ ”