Before he was cast in a small but pivotal role in “The Danish Girl,” actor Matthias Schoenaerts was almost the lead in Francois Ozon’s “The New Girlfriend.” Had scheduling conflicts not gotten in the way, the Belgian actor would have played a man transitioning into becoming a woman. (Romain Duris wound up taking the role. The movie came out in America earlier this year.)
Instead, Schoenaerts wound up watching another actor go through a similar arc. “The Danish Girl” tells the fictionalized story of a real woman: Lili Elbe, née Einar,a male painter who, in the 1920s, became one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Eddie Redmayne plays Lili, while Schoenaerts — who broke through with “Rust and Bone,” opposite Marion Cotillard — plays Hans, an art dealer who falls for Lili’s ex-wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), after the two split up, at least legally.
“When Lili appeared I didn’t see Eddie anymore,” Schoenaerts tells us of watching his costar. “I was stunned. I thought, ‘Here’s a new being. Here’s a character brought to life.’”
A lot of the attention surrounding “The Danish Girl” has focused on it LGBT issues, though Schoenaerts says what drew him was its look at relationships.
“I think this is a story about unconditional love and truthfulness,” he explains. He saw Hans as not too different from Gabriel Oak, the quiet, helpful character he played earlier this year in “Far from the Madding Crowd.” “I thought, let’s create a character who is absolutely selfless and is totally about investing himself to help someone he truly cares about in the most sincere way.”
Hans finds himself in a delicate predicament: falling for a woman as she’s going through a break-up, but not wanting to hurt the other party. In fact, Lili, as Einar, had been a childhood friend.
“There’s a beautiful dynamic between these three people,” he says. “Lili is being very generous about that relationship. She sees it happening. She sees it unfolding in front of her eyes. And she stimulates it and supports it. In all directions you can see these people are really trying to understand each other and help each other.”
Like his character Hans, Schoenaerts himself is involved in art, sidelining as a graffiti artist, which he’s been doing since he was a teenager. “It’s very expressive, colorful and energetic, I think. Maybe that comes close to describing what it is I do,” he explains.
Schoenaerts does a lot of period films; in addition to “Madding Crowd,” he’s hopped back to the past two other times this year, in “Suite Francaise” and “A Little Chaos.” He’s also an actor strongly driven by spontaneity, which doesn’t, one presumes, always gibe with stuffing one’s self into pristine historical costumes.
“It’s all about being sincere,” Schoenaerts says. “The historical context shouldn’t have any influence on the authenticity of the emotions.”
Schoenaerts says he’s known trans people in his life, though he’s never known people transitioning, as in “The Danish Girl.”
“I learned that they don’t want to be labeled,” he says of his experiences on the film, which included help from people of the trans community. “They want to be seen as people who have a soul, that they want to be seeing as more than they way they are presented or how they present themselves. The label is something we should get rid of.” He avoids calling them “normal,” insisting what they aspire to be seen as is “human.”
His character too is very progressive, especially for the 1920s. In one scene Hans fondly recalls a kiss Lili and he shared as kids, wearing a big, nostalgic smile. “That was a choice we made, Tom and I,” he says. “You could approach that scene many ways, but we decided to make him very outspoken, almost joyful about it.”
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