Rust and Bone and a Brutal, Back-Alley Imagination

Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts on brawling with monsters and loving Marion Cotillard in "Rust and Bone"

“You can relate to a certain vulnerability,” says Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts of his role as a brutal backlot brawler in “Rust and Bone.”

“If you get cornered by life so hard, you get hit by life so many times, somehow you can imagine it. I think for an actor it’s the imagination that will get you there.”

Although he’s 6-foot-2 and beefy in the chest and arms, Schoenaerts couldn’t help but be unnerved when he saw the guys director Jacques Audiard wanted him to tangle with in the movie’s fight scenes.

“The guys in front of me were monsters!” Schoenaerts told TheWrap’s Editor-in-Chief Sharon Waxman at a special showing Wednesday night at L.A.’s Landmark Theater, part of the TheWrap’s Awards Screening Series. “These guys were big, professional cage fighters.”

Brawling aside, most of Schoenaerts’ “Rust and Bone” scenes are with Marion Cotillard, whose character, Stephanie, he coaxes out of her shell following a horrifying accident that results in both her legs being amputated.

To make ends meet, Schoenaerts’ character, Ali, a single-father security guard with experience in the ring, enters back-alley slugfests for money.

The film, which premiered at Cannes, won the Best Film Award at the London Film Festival, is now is being talked about for the Oscars. It hits theaters Nov. 23.

The two actors met only once during casting, then Cotillard took off to shoot “The Dark Knight Rises,” They didn’t see each other again until filming began.

“I think on a human level you have the connection or you don’t,” said Schoenaerts, explaining the chemistry between himself and Cotillard. “Once we got on set, she was extremely prepared and very generous and all in from the very first scene.”

His other “Rust and Bone” co-star was young Armand Verdure who, at the age of five, was perhaps not as generous as Cotillard.

“Sometimes he’d just kill the scene,” laughed Schoenaerts. “He’d say, ‘I’m not doing the scene,’ and he’d cross his arms. And then we wait until he feels it. That was a true master class for us, me and Marion.”

Looking slimmer than his onscreen persona, Schoenaerts told the crowd he put on 66 pounds for last year’s “Bullhead” — in which he broke through as a steroid-injecting cattle farmer — but lost it all by the time “Rust and Bone” began casting. He had to put it all back on again eating junk food and going to the gym.

Son of Belgian stage actor Julien Schoenaerts, Matthias said his father had a profound influence on him, and he recalled performing with him in a theater production of “Le Petit Prince” as a youngster.

He seemed well on his way as ana actor, but took a step backward at the age of 19 when he was kicked out after one year of film school.

“I thought having a good idea was enough, and execution is not so important. I was a bit too lazy back then,” he confessed. “I got really angry cause they wouldn’t let me pass. I just had a very strong conversation with them.”

Two years later he started drama school in Antwerp, and acting became his passion.

Since “Rust and Bone,” he’s shot “The Loft,” an American remake in which he reprises his role from the original Flemish film about a bunch of friends who share a loft where they take their girlfriends until one day a girl is found dead there.

Also, he will be seen in Guillaume Canet’s “Blood Ties” starring Mila Kunis, Clive Owen, Billy Crudup and Canet’s partner, Cotillard.

Set in Brooklyn in the 1970s, the story focuses on two brothers, one a cop and one a criminal. Schoenaerts has a supporting role as a guy who’s sent to jail where he soon learns his wife is having an affair with the cop that arrested him.

“The Loft” and “Blood Ties” will be out in 2013.