Matthias Schoenaerts: ‘I have a very interesting problem with authority’

He hates being told what to do, but Carey Mulligan’s costar in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ joined the film world nevertheless – and is now Hollywood’s intense, go-to period hunk

Matthias Schoenaerts is late for our appointment. “I’m so sorry,” he says when he eventually turns up. “I’ve just been working so much.”

He's not wrong there. Should you happen to miss this week's Film Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, never fear: another one will be along in a minute. Arriving hot on the heels of A Little Chaos, starring Matthias Schoenaerts, and Suite Française, starring Matthais Schoenaerts, comes Far from the Madding Crowd, the latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy's durable 1874 novel, starring Matthias Schoenaerts.

That’s a lot of period costume. He must have been glad to get back into jeans. “For sure,” he says. “I think I’m going to have to take a break from the costumes for a while.”

But not yet. Stay tuned until November and the same actor will have popped up on the red carpet at Cannes with the bodyguard drama Maryland before appearing in Tom King's Speech Hooper's early-bird Oscar favourite, The Danish Girl, alongside Eddie Redmayne.

Fans of smaller screens, meanwhile, can hop on the Schoenaerts bandwagon with Galveston, from the True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto, and HBO's long-awaited historical miniseries Lewis and Clark.

Between acting jobs he’s busy with promotional duties as the face of Louis Vuitton. “I’m going to have to find a way to take a break,” he says. “That’s for sure. I think I’ll have some time off after December. I’m going to go on a big, big, big holiday.”

It's not just the work rate: it's the velocity. The man they're calling the new Brando has a penchant for challenging roles and has made his name with the wounded-animal antiheroes of the Oscar-nominated Bullhead and the highly decorated Rust and Bone.

In common with Mr Mumbles, Schoenaerts also has shape-shifting as a superpower: for Bullhead he bulked up from 90kg to 104kg with an intense weightlifting regimen and lashings of fast food.

“I like characters that have contradictions,” he says. “To me that’s a more honest portrayal of life. We’re never just one thing. We can be heroic and cowardly at the same time. We can be romantic and brutal in the same act. I’ve never met someone who is only romantic. It depends on what life throws in our path and how we react to it.”

Far from the Madding Crowd's much put-upon Gabriel Oak must have felt relatively straightforward compared with Schoenaerts' more tormented turns. "Yes. He's admirable. The strength he finds to always do the right thing. His honesty. His loyalty. Even when he gets hurt he never abandons those traits."

Football future

Schoenaerts was born in Antwerp, in Belgium. His father was the late Flemish actor Julien Schoenearts. Matthias made his film debut at the age of 15, alongside his dad, in the Oscar-nominated Daens. But during his teens Matthias had his heart set on an entirely different path and was on the books of Beerschot AC. Sadly, his footballing career was not to be.

“I have a very interesting problem with authority,” he says, laughing. “I hate when people tell me what to do and when to do it. And when I was 16, and getting close to the first team and becoming a professional, all of a sudden I had a whole bunch of people telling me what to do and how to do it. That never really worked for me.”

So he enrolled in film school with the intention of working behind the camera, but was soon expelled for poor attendance. Authority again? “That was a little different,” he says. “I think I was just in a weird place on my life back then. But authority has always been an issue. Authority implies a power structure. It puts someone above someone else. And that doesn’t fit with my sense of justice.”

Still, film sets can be dictatorial environments, right? “That’s different. Because the code is very clear. And there’s a spirit of generosity. Of course you know there’s a structure and it’s an exchange. I’ve only once been on a film set where I was told to do something I didn’t want to do myself. Get a puppet, I thought.”

Accidental actor

Acting, despite Schoenaerts’s pedigree, came along almost accidentally. “I signed up for the academy. Back then I didn’t have the ambition to become an actor whatsoever. It was just something I wanted to do at that very moment, but before you know it you’ve finished school and, boom, you’re working.”

But having watched his father in plays and movies and TV, had the idea never occurred to him before? “Nobody wants to do exactly what their parents do,” he says, laughing. And now? “I’m happy and I’m enjoying it. That’s the important thing.”

There is a hint of Flemish and a sprinkle of generic American underpinning his otherwise perfectly rounded English vowels. For Far from the Madding Crowd he mastered the Dorset accent while his English costar Carey Mulligan stuck to received pronunciation. He was, of course, the only choice for the Hollywood remake of The Loft, the Belgian box-office record-setter that first made him a star back in Antwerp. Was it odd playing the same character in a different language? "Yes. But when you change the language you change everything."

Hang on. The Loft is released this year, too. Schoenaerts really has earned that holiday.

Top trio: The best Thomas Hardy adaptations

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) Is that a petticoat or is it a maxi skirt? John Schlesinger's take on Hardy's first hit (1874) is jollied along by Nic Roeg's sublime cinematography and Richard Rodney Bennett's sweeping score. It couldn't be more Sixties if every other word of dialogue was "groovy", but with Julie Christie (right), Terence Stamp and Alan Bates as the romantic triumvirate, who is going to argue?

Tess (1979) Roman Polanski's powerful, unhurried adaptation of Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1981) cast the unknown Natassja Kinski in the title role. Despite the young German's bewildering take on the Dorset accent, Tess is utterly faithful to the source. The devastating fate that befalls the heroine – who ties with Jude as Worst Luck Hardy Character – is somehow made all the more devastating by Kinski's wide-eyed, haunting beauty.

Jude (1996) Jude Fawley (Christopher Eccleston) longs to go to university and marry his cousin Sue (Kate Winslet). But this is a Hardy joint (Jude the Obscure, 1895), so nobody gets to do much of anything without devastating consequences. The note that reads "Becos we were to menny" is so tragic it's ludicrous. The director Michael Winterbottom does good work grounding the melodrama. The Claim (2000), Winterbottom's adaptation of Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) set in 1860s California, is equally impressive, if not quite Wessex.

Far from the Madding Crowd is on general release