We know Matthias Schoenaerts from his roles in The Danish Girl, Red Sparrow, Rust and Bone and Far From The Madding Crowd, but in The Mustang, Schoenaerts gets to shine front and center.
The Mustang is a powerful story from director Laure de Clermont Tonnerre, centering on an alternative rehabilitation program featuring Mustangs. Schoenaerts is absolutely terrific as Roman, the convict who winds up in the program. What results is a beautiful story about a relationship between a man and horse, forcing man to look at himself. Roman is a wild beast, incarcerated. The mustang is a wild beast that needs to be tamed. It’s a story that we’ve seen before, but here Schoenaerts’ performance is one where there are few words, but more emotion and action.
I caught up with the actor to talk briefly about working with horses and how shooting at a real location helped tell the story.
What was it about the script about The Mustang that made you want to be a part of it?
I met Laure about two and a half years ago and she started talking about it. I realized she had been working on it long before that and realized it was such a passion project for her and she was so deeply engaged in it. And that was a trigger for me.
I read the screenplay and thought, wow, this is relevant, important and it’s such a valuable story to talk about. It was also a challenge to dive into that character where it’s set in such an emotional and specific space. It’s non-territory. There’s also the poetic quality of this man rediscovering himself and rediscovering others through this interaction through this magnificent animal that symbolizes so many things. It symbolizes sincerity and this non-judgemental spirit, but at the same time, it’s a brutish force of nature and it’s that interaction that creates this possibility for change. That’s what I thought was so valuable that it contributes to the notion that transformation is absolutely possible.
Is man going to break the horse or is horse going to break the man is a key theme and we see so much with the Mustangs and that interaction. What was your perception of horses going into the film?
I didn’t know anything about this specific process of breaking a horse before I read the script. I didn’t know anything about it. I wasn’t familiar with the rehabilitation program at all.
Roman’s arc is so well done, you see that change and how he goes from who he is to that question that’s raised at the end of the film and should people be given a second chance. How did you tap into who he was and his emotions? Was there something or someone that proved to be really helpful for you?
We visited three maximum security prisons and it was really inspirational to speak to inmates and to get a notion of their experiences and their reflections. It was an enormous and huge sense of inspiration when creating the emotional part of that character.
How did shooting at a real facility help you?
I think that contributes to the realism to the extent that we don’t even realize. I don’t know what it would have been like to have shot on a recreated facility. We were so lucky.
It contributes both visually and energetically, both had such an enormous impact on how that energy affects your being and your performance and how that manifests itself on screen.
How much time did you get to spend with the horses before you shot?
Months before, I’d travel to the USA and I’d spend time on ranches to learn the basics. When we were shooting, I’d spend time with the horse after a day shooting too. So, it was really a fair amount of time.
What about working with Jason Mitchell and Bruce Dern, both different relationships to Roman on screen. What was that like working with them on this film?
I was so happy to work with Bruce. He’s a living legend and it was such a blast working with him and seeing him in action here.
Jason and I really became friends, so not only was I able to work with an amazing actor, but we had this friendship come out of it.
Roman’s journey is great and you see that scene where he talks about committing the crime. You really get into his skin as a viewer. It was such a profound moment. Talk about that scene.
A big part of it is prep. Some of it is instinct. There’s no mathematical method to it. Some of it has a methodical aspect and some have an intuitive emotional aspect. I know how to do it myself, but I don’t have the formula.
They say never to work with animals or children, yet you work with Mustangs here. What was it like working with them, especially in this relationship that we see with Roman and the horse?
I was so open to going on that journey. I was surprised to learn about the psyche of that animal. It was completely unknown territory for me. I always love learning new things and I was surprised to learn so many new things about them and so that was really a blast to discover these things.
It’s so great with that question the film raises too about who deserves a second chance and how that relationship with the horse changes during the film.
They redeem each other. They comfort each other. There are so many layers to that relationship. By comforting each other, they help each other and they find tenderness in each other and I think that’s one of the important aspects.
Tenderness and kindness have such a healing power and it’s so valuable.