By James Mottram

His name might not be so familiar - or even that pronounceable - but Matthias Schoenaerts is coming to a cinema near you with all the force of a Belgium-born hurricane. With three British films inside the next two months, this Antwerp-raised actor is cozying up to the likes of Michelle Williams, Kate Winslet and Carey Mulligan in a trio of very different romantic period movies - which makes a stark change from the bruisers he's played to date.

Schoenaerts (pronounced 'SCONE-arts', approximately) made his breakthrough as a hormone-pumped farmer in 2011's Bullhead, which came out of nowhere (well, Belgium) to gain an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film. Europe swiftly woke up to him; he was sensational as the bare-knuckle fighter in Rust & Bone opposite Marion Cotillard - and gave gritty turns in Guillaume Canet's 1970s thriller Blood Ties and last year's Dennis Lehane adaptation The Drop, a US reunion with his Bullhead director Michaël Roskam.

While he has little problem bulking up, the 37 year-old balks at the idea that he always plays tough. "Sometimes that annoys me," he says. "When people define these characters as tough guys, I think it is a very, very, very narrow-minded vision of those characters. Because people tend to see...if you punch someone in a film, then you play a tough guy. But if you look at those characters on a deeper level, like Jacky in my head, he's not a tough guy at all!" Really? "No, I'm serious!"

Standing at 6ft 2in, Schoenaerts is not the sort you tend to argue with. He went to Robert De Niro-like lengths on Bullhead, gaining some 60lbs of muscle, but being typecast as the hard-man doesn't still well with him. "I'm probably over-sensitive," he admits, which may account for why he's gone wildly in the other direction. In Suite Française, he plays a German WW2 officer, Bruno von Falk, who falls for Williams' rural French lass; as he puts it, "The most interesting love stories are about hidden love, or forbidden love, or the impossible love."

He follows it with Alan Rickman's A Little Chaos, playing André Le Nôtre, landscape designer to King Louis XIV at Versailles. "It was something special," he says of working with Rickman and the "uncomplicated" Winslet, who plays his love interest. Then comes Far From The Madding Crowd, a luminous adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel worthy of the 1967 John Schlesinger film with Alan Bates and Julie Christie. Playing lowly sheep farmer Gabriel Oak, one of three suitors for Mulligan's strong-willed Bathsheba, he calls it "a very classical sweeping romance".

Never mind those tender blue eyes of his being put to good use, the sensitive Schoenaerts has no wish to further the idea that he's deliberately swapping punches for kisses on the big screen. "I don't look at chances like that," he retorts. "If you're going to do something because you think you need to do something different because that's what the people want to see, then you're not doing it for the right reasons. You know what I mean? That's what I truly believe. And if you do something for the wrong reasons, it's going to end up being shit anyway."

It's this quest for authenticity that's got him this far. His own father Julien Schoenaerts is also an actor, though it hardly inspired him, despite appearing in a bit-part in the Oscar-nominated Flemish film Daens when he was 15. "I didn't like the people within that universe," he says. "There was something to cheesy, too slimy and too fake about it. I saw how hypocritical that universe is. I don't want to talk bad about it, but I've also witnessed how my Dad suffered from that. And then at some point it was the only thing I wanted to do. I don't necessarily remember where that transition happened."

After studying at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Antwerp, he began acting in local productions. A part in Paul Verhoeven's well-liked 2006 return to Dutch filmmaking, the harrowing WW2-set Black Book, sent him on his way, though it was Bullhead that changed everything. While he was "surprised" at the film's success, if it was going to happen to any of his films, it was this one - a movie crafted with "intense concentration" and "extremely devoted passion" that took six years to get off the ground.

Naïve but pure-of-heart, it's clear directors love Schoenaerts. He's currently playing a gallery-owner for The King's Speech director Tom Harper, opposite Oscar-winning man-of-the-moment Eddie Redmayne. He's also just wrapped A Bigger Splash, a re-interpretation of the classic Romy Schneider movie La Piscine, with Tilda Swinton, for I Am Love's Luca Guadagnino. But is he worried about this success coming to an end? "I don't want to think about it," he exclaims. "Things will go the way they go."

Suite Française opens on March 14th. A Little Chaos is released on April 17. Far From The Madding Crowd opens on May 1st