Matthias Schoenaerts’ ‘hysterically funny’ reunion with Kate Winslet

Matthias Schoenaerts’ ‘hysterically funny’ reunion with Kate Winslet

By: - Entertainment Editor
/ 12:30 AM March 04, 2024

Matthias Schoenaerts’ ‘hysterically funny’ reunion with Kate Winslet

Schoenaerts (left) as Herbert Zubak and Winslet as Chancellor Elena Vernham —PHOTOS COURTESY OF HBO GO

In “The Regime,” the six-episode political satire that launches on HBO and HBO Go today, Kate Winslet goes off the beaten track with a darkly comedic portrayal of Chancellor Elena Vernham, the corrupt populist leader of a fractured country.

But Elena grows disturbingly paranoid when she turns to volatile soldier, Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts of “Rust and Bone”), as her unlikely confidant. It doesn’t take long before she begins prioritizing his “suggestions” concerning issues related to China and the United States, land reform, dealing with oligarchs, even her daily workout and dietary regimen! As Zubak’s influence over her continues to grow, Elena’s attempts to expand her power eventually lead to dire repercussions.


The citizens of this fictional European enclave are getting increasingly hungry and unhappy while the “tone-deaf” Elena, surrounded by enablers and apologists, continues to host lavish parties to drown out the burgeoning noise from all the rioting outside the palace walls.


But as Filipinos, obviously no strangers to the far-from-comedic horrors of martial law and authoritarian regimes, would tell you, being under a dictatorship is no laughing matter. In fact, watching “familiar,” “been there, endured that” scenes in the series feels like putting up a mirror. Truth is stranger than fiction, indeed.

Created and cowritten by showrunner Will Tracy (“Succession”), “The Regime” is directed by double Oscar nominee Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “Prick Up Your Ears,” “Dangerous Liaisons”) and Emmy-winning director Jessica Hobbs (“The Crown”).

“It’s a twisted love story about two people who should never have fallen in love,” noted Kate in the production notes. “But it’s also a geopolitical satire where, at times, things that happen are so absurd that all you can do is laugh your head off.”

But “absurdity” is relative. In the series, Elena regularly visits the basement mausoleum, where the corpse of her long-dead father—the country’s former leader—has been preserved, to seek “advice” from beyond and gain a measure of affirmation.

“This is a global leader singing ‘Santa Baby’ as her Christmas message, and we decided to lean into the sheer lunacy of it,” Kate explained. “Here is a woman who thinks people want to see her body all the time. So, we went all-out and had her sing the song dressed in this dreadful, trashy Santa/Elf gimmicky thing. It was totally mad!”

‘Human nature’

While Kate undoubtedly holds court in “The Regime’s” thespian proceedings, Matthias holds his own and manages to go toe-to-toe with his Oscar-winning leading lady in what plays out like a tag-team screen partnership.


That hasn’t in any way made the 46-year-old Belgian actor’s task of bringing to life the troubled military man—whose brutal past has earned him the nickname The Butcher—any easier. But it isn’t difficult to see how he dives deep into such high-wire undertaking with stunning believability and aplomb, looking scary and cunning one minute and childish, lost or vulnerable the next.

“I think that’s part of human nature,” said Matthias when asked about the difficult “juggling act” during a recent roundtable with journalists around the world. “We are many things at the same time. Will wrote such a rich character, and he gives you all these aspects to explore and play with.

“So, you just dive in and give it as much heart as you can. All these different places within one soul—being lost, being sad, being dominant, being violent, being manipulative, being caring, being big—all those things are part and parcel of man’s complexity.”

It’s a “scary” performance, we told Matthias, noting how Herbert has been sweeping his personal demons under the rug until a semblance of authority, courtesy of his inexplicable influence over Elena, starts empowering him to bring them all out.

Channeling darkness

How did the actor channel his character’s dark side? Was there anything about Herbert that he liked?

“I’m not sure I know why, but I definitely love him,” he shared. “As for channeling him, that’s still a mystery even to myself. An actor’s imagination is often triggered by what the writing offers him, then it sets off an enormous amount of ideas.

“Then, it starts working on your emotional persona. You start building it as you try to find the truth. Be honest and generous … just dive in and eat like a lion in the savanna. And I tell you, there was a lot of meat on the ball, so yeah, I loved it. Also, I’ve always had a very specific problem with authority myself, so that’s something I can relate to.”

However, finding a middle ground between the production’s comedic and dark elements was a tough nut to crack for Matthias.

“The first time I read the script, I was like, ‘This is beyond hysterically funny! At the same time, it’s insanely disturbing and mad and tragic,’” he recalled. “And I found that contrast very intriguing, so I was like, ‘But how are we going to pull this off?’

Kate Winslet (left) and Matthias Schoenaerts in “The Regime”

Kate Winslet (left) and Matthias Schoenaerts in “The Regime”

“In the beginning, I was kind of, ‘Yeah, I can say this and that line.’ But I was a bit confused because I was laughing my head off one second, then I’d be completely disturbed and worried the next. I knew finding that balance was going to be a challenge. But I like challenges.”

The rest of our Q&A with Matthias:

Can you talk about how you built your chemistry with Kate on set?

We didn’t really have to build chemistry. It was already there since we worked together 10 years ago (in Alan Rickman’s 2014 film, ‘A Little Chaos’). So, we were very happy and excited to work with each other again. I also think the chemistry actually built itself during the shoot because we were enjoying it so much as we immersed ourselves in those scenes.

You share a lot of scenes with Kate. Did you talk about how to approach your scenes together?

To some extent, we spoke about the very specific beats in the arc of Elena and Herbert’s relationship. But at the same time, we also wanted to surprise each other on the spot. We knew the big points we needed to mark solidly, and those we spoke about thoroughly.

But in between, we were just like, “Let me throw this at her,” and she was the same—and that’s where the playfulness came in. That is why I love working with Kate so much… she’s very open. She’s not “self-protecting” in the way she approaches acting. She’s like, “OK, let’s go … let’s do some stuff.” She really “dances” along with you.

Your character requires a lot of physicality. He has so much energy and is very violent. How did you keep that energy up?

It’s different for every actor, I imagine. For me, it’s an intuitive process. You subconsciously manipulate your own psyche into making that happen. I think you can sustain it by finding a way to love it.

Some viewers might see similarities between the relationship of Rasputin with Alexandra, wife of Nicholas II (the last czar of Russia), and the relationship forged between Elena and Herbert. Did those historical figures play any role in the way you prepared for your characters?

Not necessarily, because the writing was so imaginative there was already so much to work with. We didn’t really have to look outside for inspiration. Of course, the parallels are obvious, but they’re more a reminder that these dynamics have been existing for a long, long time.

You shot this for six months. When you inhabit a character for so long, do you consider it an opportunity to go deeper, get to know him more? Is it harder to let a character go after living under his skin for six months?

It’s not necessarily a conscious process. It’s just something your body instantly adapts to. I’m not really aware of how difficult it is to shake a character out of your system—it’s just a matter of time. Obviously, the dramatic arc of this character stretches over a longer period, so it definitely affects the way you work.

But then again, you condition yourself to do whatever needs to be done, whether it’s over two months or two days of work. It’s like doing a sprint … if you have to do 100 meters or 400 meters, your body intuitively adapts to the distance you have to cover. It’s just subconscious conditioning that you acquire over many years of working.

Were those tattoos on your character real? And do you feel uncomfortable when you’re shirtless onscreen?

They weren’t real tattoos. I chose all of them with the makeup designer, even if the show doesn’t dive into the details surrounding them. No, I don’t find it strange to be shirtless. I was born naked, so [going shirtless] is okay.

The series features a lot of comedy elements. Any anecdotes about those from the set?

I remember that we were laughing so much during work, and we were laughing every day! So it’s hard to think what the funniest moments were. Maybe it’s the scene where I’m not supposed to be biting her fingers—that was hilarious. Or the scenes with the therapist. There was quite a lot of improv there.

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Oh man, we cracked up all the time … to the extent that the directors were like, “OK, guys, let’s get serious now. We still have two hours go and three scenes to shoot.” You could see people slumped behind the camera bursting into fits of laughter. Sometimes, they had to keep us in check because we would just take it somewhere. Everybody was enjoying it too much. INQ

TAGS: Entertainment, Kate Winslet

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