English lit costume dramas tend to be homegrown affairs, forcing the nation’s toniest thespians to declaim while dressed in stifling duds. The Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (“Rust and Bone”) is on record as loving spontaneity — something that doesn’t go with tight pants and forced dancing. Luckily the new “Far from the Madding Crowd” largely take place outside and deals with complicated emotions. He plays Gabriel, arguably the most lucky suitor of Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba Everdene, Thomas Hardy’s fiercely independent protagonist.
Gabriel is a little more accessible to audiences than some of the characters you’ve played, like Alain in “Rust and Bone.” But he can still be remote and doesn’t often put his thoughts into words.
Normally I like very ambiguous characters who have a lot of contradictions and a lot of contrasts. And here is this guy who’s good, but in the purest sense of the word. He’s selfless, he’s loyal, he’s truthful, he’s righteous. It’s so rare, and these qualities are so admirable. At the same time that’s an extreme challenge, this kind of goodness is a challenge. One-dimensional goodness is not interesting. But this kind of goodness, so layered and so emotionally charged — that is something to go on as an actor. This kind of character is very interesting for an audience. If you’re honest with yourself and you mirror yourself to Gabriel, you might run into interesting realizations. I have. Gabriel confronted me with a lot of things, in a good way. I learned a lot from him.
He has this adaptability and sustainability that’s pretty disarming. He loses his farm and is able to move on; his marriage proposal to Bathsheba is shot down, and he still stays in her employ. He’s someone who endures.
And even after the reversal of fortune, this guy, he never falls back into complaining, self-pity. He loves this person, even though she hurt him real bad. She broke his heart into pieces. He’ll still be the most loyal friend you can imagine, and give you very honest advice about what you should do. That honesty can be pretty disturbing; that’s why at numerous times she fires him from the farm, because he’s way too honest. But he’s never trying to hurt her. He’s trying to tell her what is right, and she just can’t take it.
He’s never saying, “You need to be with me.”
Never! Never! He’s not even implying it. That’s his utter selflessness. I found that incredibly touching. How can you make that believable, because — it’s sad, but it’s part of our human condition —people always directly or indirectly act selfishly, to some extent. Even in our altruism, we do it because subconsciously or consciously we expect something in return. This character is not about that. That’s the challenge. How do you make that believable?