By Jordan Riefe
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Among the big surprises at January's Oscar nominations was a foreign language movie nod for Belgium's "Bullhead," and perhaps nobody was more shocked than its first-time director, Michael Roskam, and leading man, Matthias Schoenaerts.
The nomination, Oscar watchers seemed certain, would go to the Dardennes brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, who are icons of Belgian cinema. After all, their "The Kid with a Bike" won a Grand Prix award at the Cannes film festival last May and "Kid" is widely-considered their most accessible film yet.
"I thought this time they will make it because they were never Academy Award nominated," Schoenaerts told Reuters. "And then it came as a surprise that we made it."
Schoenaerts was in France when he heard the news on the set of his new movie, "Rust & Bone," which is co-produced by the none other than the Dardennes.
"They came to visit us on set," he said. "They were really happy and they really appreciate Michael's work and mine."
In "Bullhead," Schoenaerts plays Jacky Vanmarsenille, a muscled-up, steroid-injecting cattle farmer whose tragic childhood continues to cripple him as an adult.
Jacky is linked to the "hormone mafia," a criminal network that distributes livestock-enhancing steroids throughout Europe where it remains illegal. When an investigator is assassinated, Jacky's world caves in around him.
"I wanted the audience to see an artificially built man, a man that was not supposed to be so muscled," said Roskam, who was recently named one of Variety magazine's ten new directors to watch for 2012.
"He was carrying weight on his shoulders, but also the past," Roskam said.
BIG BODY, VULNERABLE MAN
Schoenaerts put on thirty kilos (66 lbs.) of muscle for the role, knowing the big, bulky body would intimidate audiences but that he could win them over if he could get inside the "artificial body" of Jacky and show his character's true innocence and vulnerability.
An unimposing man in real life, Schoenaerts had six full years to become the bullish Jacky Vanmarsenille, a luxury that allowed him to make the character part of his own DNA. Even so, the actor was shocked to find himself struggling with his confidence just hours before the cameras rolled.
"I was like, 'damn, I'm not ready,'" he confessed. "I'm always scared as hell but for this part especially -- because it was a very complex part. And I was looking forward to it for so many years. Then, it's the moment of truth."
But after all that preparation, it took Schoenaerts only moments before he realized he was ready. "I felt it from the first rehearsal on set," he sighed.
While the Dardennes and "Kid With a Bike," won at Cannes, "Bullhead" has been no slouch in the festival world, either. It played at last year's Berlinale and found a U.S. distributor in September.
A month later, it selected to be the Belgian entry for the Oscar, and it's been a rollercoaster ride for Roskam ever since.
"I'm literally getting sick of it," he told Reuters, blowing his nose.
When asked if the nomination changes the way he looks at "Bullhead," or any of his films, the director paused for an uncomfortably long moment.
"I just didn't know that the very best of what I could do, what level it could be," he said, reflecting on the experience. "It's hard to explain suddenly becoming somebody who made an Oscar-nominated movie."
(Reporting by Jordan Riefe; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)