ARNAUD VALOIS : THE REBIRTH
By Crash redaction
Photo : Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello – white mohair sweater
Arnaud Valois, or a career unlike any other. First embarking in cinema more than ten years ago in the films of Nicole Garcia and André Téchiné, he would later abandon acting to become a sophrologist. Contacted almost at random by a casting director, he returned to the screen – not without hesitation – in Robin Campillo’s “120 Beats per Minute,” which garnered tremendous praise at the Cannes Film Festival. Distributed in forty-two countries, the film looks back on the AIDS crisis in Paris and the life-saving direct action of ACT UP. On the occasion of Arnaud Valois’ nomination at the César awards, rediscover our interview with the actor from our Crash issue 81.
Why did you first get started in film, nearly ten years ago now?
I started acting in film because it was always a dream of mine. Not necessarily film itself, but acting. I loved getting on stage. I loved telling stories, inventing characters, and escaping from reality. It’s something that has always appealed to me, and I think that’s why I studied acting. I took private classes at Cours Florent more than ten years ago now. Shortly after that I started working on Nicole Garcia’s film, “Charlie Says.” So there I was with a film career after having gone to law school… which never really did anything for me. I moved on up to Paris, as they say, to achieve my dream.
You said you stopped working in film because you were unhappy with the industry. How do you define yourself today?
It’s true that I stopped doing film a little more than five years ago. I thought things would take off much faster after Nicole Garcia’s selection for the Cannes Film Festival in 2006. The film was not well received there, so it was difficult to get it into theaters. I didn’t have much going on afterwards. I was in good films, but always in small parts. I went to a lot of castings but always came in second. There was always something missing. I was always up against someone either more famous or more bankable than me. But instead of getting bitter or depressed, I just reminded myself that at twenty-five it was still possible to fulfil my potential, and that there was certainly something else I could do. First I used my contacts to get a few jobs in fashion. Then, two and a half years ago, I had a revelation in Thailand. I traveled there and discovered the art of Thai massage and Thai culture. It was a powerful experience for me. I went back a few months later to train for a month and a half at the Wat Pho temple in Bangkok, then I came back to Paris. I set up in a small massage therapy office in the Montorgeuil neighborhood and started my business. At the same time I started studying sophrology, and I just got my degree this past June, right after Cannes. So now I do Thai massage and sophrology.
When I went back to Thailand in January 2016, I got a call from Robert Campillo’s casting director asking me if I was still acting. I told her about what I was doing and she said, “come have some fun and a do a few screen tests.” I asked her what the movie was and she told me a little about it. When she told me it was about ACT UP and AIDS, I figured it was worth a shot to try out for the part. I went to the screen tests, and almost canceled an hour before, because I was so stressed out and asking myself what I was getting into.
So I went to the first casting without Robin Campillo, and I just had so much fun acting again. And everything fell into place from there. I came back the following week, but that time it was Robin who directed me, and again I had so much fun. Casting took quite a while, about three and a half months. I went back every week. We worked for two hours on different scenes and with different partners. I even changed parts, switching to Thibaut, and then back to my role as Nathan. After three and a half months, when I felt like it would never end, I told them I was quitting the casting because it just didn’t feel like my profession anymore. I couldn’t stand waiting around any longer and always wondering about what might happen next, which is why I quit film in the first place. I didn’t want to relive those situations. The next day Robin told me that I got the part.
I still don’t see film as my primary activity. But we are doing so much promotion right now, with the Cannes spotlight and the film’s distribution in forty-two countries that I’ve put my “normal life” on hold.
So you took some distance from the film industry?
Absolutely. I think there are two sides to me. One side seeks out strong emotions. That side was very dominant from twenty to twenty-five. Afterwards I changed course and discovered another facet of my personality. Now I prefer softer and more balanced energies, which is what I get from massage, sophrology, and personal development in the absolute sense. I meditate every day. I do an hour of exercise every morning, and yoga twice a week. I’m looking for a sense of personal well-being and I want to make other people feel good, too. But working on “120 Beats per Minute” was a strong and emotional experience that was good for me, as well. It’s an extraordinary adventure for me. But I definitely look at it as an adventure and not as a new beginning.
What was it like to live out that adventure on set?
I was drawn to the film for its subject matter, but I was still stressed out before shooting. Once Robin picked me and gave me his vote of confidence, after the long casting process, we had to do a lot of prep work, with a lot of meetings and calls. We did a lot of advance rehearsals with the other actors, so we could all arrive on set fairly confident. He’s someone who knows exactly what he wants, which makes it that much easier on the actors. You just have to be available, relaxed, know your lines, and then listen to his direction, understand what he wants, and follow it. He’s not like a drill sergeant, but he does have the power to get you motivated. He motivated all the actors on set. We were all transfixed. After two weeks I knew I was working with a master. He showed impressive drive, force, and vision. It was extremely inspiring and that’s how it was all the way to the end. We became good friends. It was very nice. It was the first time I had gotten so involved in the “production” of a film. He kept me updated on every aspect. We talked a lot during filming. We’ve spoken almost every day since Cannes. Promotion starts up again on August 16 and will last until next March or April…
Did you know much about ACT UP?
I didn’t know a lot about ACT UP. I was only ten at the time. For me, ACT UP was the condom on the Obelisk and Sidaction. I didn’t know or understand the full strength or demands of ACT UP. I just knew that it was a group of associations, and I didn’t realize they all had very distinct identities. It was only while preparing for the film that I came to truly understand the work of ACT UP, what they did, how they did it, and why they did it that way. They poured all their energy into it – the last of their energy for some because they knew they had little time left – in order to bring about change in spite of the complete and utter indifference to AIDS and AIDS patients. It was fear, rejection, and incomprehension.
I was able to watch a few videos from the time while preparing for the film. I was absolutely shocked by the contempt that public officials showed for AIDS patients and the activists from ACT UP. You can see it in their insanely violent expressions and gestures.
Do you think there is still a taboo around AIDS, even as one million people died from the disease in 2016?
That’s a good question. I think Paris is running a campaign right now to make it an AIDS-free city, with big posters up everywhere. The word “AIDS” is smaller than the word “love.” It’s really tiny. It seems like there is no real prevention campaign to increase early detection or explain prevention methods. I remember when I first started to be sexually active in the 90s and early 2000s, we got booklets and they explained things to us. I feel like we don’t explain anything anymore. AIDS is still there but we stopped talking about it. It’s like a cold, just another normal illness. There is nothing dangerous associated with it anymore, whereas when I was young it really meant death. You had to protect yourself. You had to wear condoms. My early sexuality was an adventure: wear a condom and end of story. It wasn’t even a question. AIDS has become something totally normalized. It’s terrible.
How did you prepare for the part?
I did a little physical training. Robin asked me to lose muscle, so I lost about fifteen pounds of muscle to appear more fragile. My character in the film dates a young boy who contracts AIDS and loses a lot of weight. He didn’t want there to be too much of a physical imbalance between us.
I also did a lot of research. Robin didn’t want us to become talking encyclopedias about ACT UP or AIDS. He wanted us to keep our imagination, our youth, our perspective as thirty-somethings living in the 2010s, and he wanted us to bring all of that to our roles. Since it was his own story, we knew that if we ever did or said anything that sounded off or out of place for the time, he would bring us back on track. It didn’t feel like hard work. Instead I tried to get inspired to prepare for the part.
What do you feel when you play such a strong character?
First you forget yourself. I almost completely forgot who I was for ten and a half weeks of filming. I was so amped up. I turned off on Friday night and started back up again on Monday. I wanted to be with my partners and stay with the technical team the whole time. I didn’t really want to go back to my life. With this type of film, this type of character, this type of adventure, you want to stay with it all the time.
The ending was a little more difficult because we shot all the scenes in chronological order. The final scenes were the strongest of the film. And by then we all felt the fatigue start to weigh on us. It was physical, mental, and from so much concentration. I filmed for forty-two days straight. I think I took two days off while filming. By the end I was ready for it to be done so I could go back to my life. And the harder the scenes were, the more I wanted to get back to my normal life. So for three-quarters of filming I was ecstatic, but the last quarter was hard. It was hard because the story we were telling was hard, but also because it was exhausting.
Were you able to take your distance, or was the end of filming hard?
I wasn’t able to distance myself at all during filming. I think it’s too hard to step away from it at night or during the weekend and then get back into the zone. But once filming was done, I spent five days on vacation in Spain, and I started taking massage clients again right after I got back. So it helped me realign and get back to a normal state. No more driver in the morning, no more hair stylists or make-up artists, no more team of forty people around me. Just me in my massage office with my clients in a very subdued, simple, natural, and therapeutic environment. I didn’t have any “baby blues”! I got back to normal life very quickly.
What was it like to get back in the spotlight following the success of “120 Beats per Minute” at the 70th Cannes Film Festival?
I felt very fortunate. It’s an odd feeling to return to Cannes after a gap of ten years. It was such a warm welcome. We could tell right away, from the first morning, that something totally crazy was happening. We spent four days there to present the film. It was the culmination of all our work. Journalists were in tears, people were stunned. My first experience at Cannes was nothing like that. My second trip was much better. And then there was the closing ceremony. We received three prizes on Saturday: the François Chalais Prize, the International Critics’ Prize, and the Queer Palm. Then on Sunday we won the Grand Prix. After all that, I finally had a little “baby blues” while going back to Paris. It’s not easy to get back to real life after nearly eight days of suspense, excitement, and super-strong emotions. It wasn’t fiction anymore, it was my real life. Returning to reality at that point was a little more difficult. In Cannes, it felt like the film world suddenly came rushing in, while it was much more intimate between us during filming. There was all the press and everything. I started getting scripts right away after Cannes. I felt like I went ten years back in time and all of a sudden I was back in the thick of it again. After a few days I had to say, OK, stop, this is not what I want.
Do you have any film projects or do you refuse to start racing for roles again?
I’m getting a lot of offers. But I really see myself as a masseur and sophrologist. I might do more films, but they will have to be worth me putting my well-being and balance on hold for a few months. I haven’t gotten anything like that yet. I’m not closing that door, but I want to keep a level head and I’ve done a lot of hard work on myself these past years. There is no way I will toss that aside to dive head first back into film, even if things are much different now after the success of my last project and the high quality of the offers I get. I know what I want now and I know how I want to do it. I certainly won’t “start racing for roles again.” If the right project comes along, then why not, because it’s fun to get into that mindset. But acting just to act or take advantage of the media attention to do as many movies as possible—no thanks!
Photos : Boris Camaca
Interview by Saskia Maitrepierre.