Director Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) captures the not-so-quiet ferocity of a group of Paris ACT UP activists battling their indifferent government during the 1990s, at a historical moment where resistance wasn’t just a moral injunction but a vital necessity. At times documentary-like in its observations of the inner workings of a committed activist group, the film is a snapshot of a terror-ridden period and the predominantly young and diverse lives that battled to end it. However, as the allusion to club music in the title suggests, BPM isn’t just a depiction of the fear, anxiety, and sadness wrought by AIDS, but of the intense liveliness of those who fought against the disease.
Chief among those is Sean Dalmazo. Played by the Argentinian-born Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, the young man comes to represent all the horror of the epidemic. An effective member of ACT UP, he’s often seen throwing his body on the line to wake the world up to the callousness of French officials and corporations during the AIDS crisis. A caring lover and firm in his beliefs, Sean isn’t simply an ideologue, but someone who binds his activism to the strongest will to live. He doesn’t have much of a choice. Beneath his incredibly potent sense of life, he slowly withers away from AIDS. Biscayart’s performance renders Sean’s youthful vigor in the face of death, holding his vivacity and its simultaneous diminishment in a passionate, moving tension.
During the New York Film Festival, where BPM had its American premiere, I talked with Biscayart about becoming Sean, acting as a form of therapy, and why more people should think about dying. And our interview began with him telling me how he used to live in New York and worked at the Wooster Group.
What sort of performances were you doing with the Wooster Group?
It was just great. It was a very special context, because it was through a grant which allows you to spend time with a mentor. I was assigned Kate Valk after a very long selection process, and we had the means to spend a whole year together. I would go to the performing garage every day. In the beginning, it was more about observing. I was new, only 21 years old. It was the first time in my life living abroad, having a whole experience in a different language. I was learning English. Everything was new new new. In the beginning I helped them with things, you know, just inputs. Then you start to read the lines with them, and then we did a little piece that showed in London.
I saw a brief clip from your time there, it was some sort of sci-fi performance.
La Didone. It was like a sci-fi opera that we were preparing at the time that was really fun. Yeah, I was really taking notes, learning, thinking about my things, and just enjoying being surrounded by those great, inspiring people. I mean, the way they work is so amazing. I was coming from Buenos Aires, where theater people do theater just when they can, where they have four jobs, then maybe at night they go and rehearse maybe a little piece.
I think it’s mostly like that in New York too!
Well, not the Wooster Group. I was very impressed with how well they got their funding. I know that now the situation is quite different and maybe difficult. But at the time, what I could see, being an outsider and just observing, I was like, “Wow, these guys are spending eight hours a day or more just producing, getting inspired, watching films, creating stuff.” And I was very impressed at how the sound guy and set design guy were working at the same time with the actors, so they were all creating a whole piece that was dramaturgically built with all those aspects at once. In Buenos Aires, you can work with the text, the set, the scene, but if you’re gonna add visual things, that comes maybe a month before opening. It’s never intertwined into the creation. The sound guy was just rehearsing with them. Because they work with technology, with in-ears, you know the way they work. The action isn’t a result of an interpretation of a text. The action, what you see on stage, is the result of many accidents in which they try to put themselves by imitating certain movements that they see on screen from films or from scenes that they liked that got some connection to the material they were working with. It was like Disneyland for me.
From my understanding of the Wooster Group, they can lean toward experimental theater and performance art, and your career has taken you a little bit away from that. What did you take from them in your film work?
Well, a lot of things, but that idea of just not being linear to the interpretation of a text. It’s very simple, but the text is just a means toward something. It’s not the piece of art in itself. And I think when you work in more narrative films or pieces, the tendency is to think that the text has all the answers and that you’re gonna understand what you’re going to do by reading. If you can put yourself in an unforeseen situation where you can be surprised and just take risks and just try to disappear into this bigger machine, then you are you’re own intimate text. I really believe that in that situation you’re going to be surprised and the result is going to be much more interesting for everyone.
Did you have any experiences like this on BPM?
All the time. When I said accidents before, I didn’t mean like you’re falling down, but little moments where you stop thinking that you control everything. And it’s also related to the availability of your body to how open you are. Of course, I think that emotions might come from physical things, from physical gestures. Words can conduct certain things, but some other things have nothing to do with words. And in BPM, which is a very physical experience, the film and the performance, the work that we had to accomplish, it was very important to be in a very immediate contact with the body, with breathing. These guys are dying, and their bodies are very much at risk. And so were our bodies as actors. If you want to embody that kind of instability, that kind of risk of danger, an emergency state, you have to be really fragile.
Seeing your performance and then learning that you’d worked with the Wooster Group, which stresses physicality so much, made a lot of sense.
It was very inspiring.
How did you get involved with BPM?
At that time, I was in Paris because I was starting to rehearse for another film, See You Up There, that I shot before BPM. I knew the casting directors from my first French film that I had done with Benoît Jacquot, Deep in the Woods. So, they were looking for this actor who could play Sean and they called me in. I met Robin, we had a coffee, we talked about another film that he was thinking about doing, and he told me, “Actually I want you to consider this film,” and we started auditioning and then I met Arnaud and the other actors. It was a whole audition process in which Robin was really trying to find the right constellation. He was not just about finding one actor. Good actor or bad, it was just about finding that electricity that he lived back then. So, yeah, it was a very classical situation. Then, after a couple months, he said, “Well, you’ve got the part,” and then we continued looking for other actors until we had them all. Nothing extraordinary, so I can’t tell you, “Well, then he saw me on the street but I was drunk and then he felt that…” No, it was just classical.
I was hoping for that.
I think I should make stories up. To renew my discourse.
It’ll make you more interesting in the papers.
Well, let’s invent one. You can invent it. Make it up.
He was walking on the street drunk…
He was drunk and he was in this wild riot and he was bleeding!
And someone said you look like you could be in this film.
“You’re ready to die!”
“He wrote the role for you!”
[laughs] Exactly. No, Robin adapted the role for me because Sean wasn’t supposed to be a foreign character.
I don’t speak French, so if you have an accent in French I won’t notice it.
Even if you can’t sense it, there’s a melody or intonation that’s not exactly French. So, we just said that my character’s father is Chilean and his mother is French and then I came back to France when I was 15 just to justify it.