Interview: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart on BPM and Embodying Fragility

Biscayart discusses acting as a form of therapy and why more people should think about dying.

Interview: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart on BPM and Embodying Fragility
Photo: The Orchard

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.

What sort of material did you use to prepare to play Sean?

I saw a great documentary called Silverlake Life: The View from Here. It’s shot by a couple of HIV-positive guys. One films the other who’s in worse health and just follows him toward death. And then the guy who’s filming becomes so ill that he stops filming and then he dies and you never see, of course, him dying because there’s no more camera. And then, some friend or relative finds the footage and then makes the film. It’s a shocking, cruel film. Fiction, of course, can’t go beyond that. It’s like seeing a corpse, almost in the last part of the film. It’s just so terrible. But it was so true, so real. I think that was the only thing that I needed if you want me to talk about inspiration. I also saw The Normal Heart, but I was [mostly] getting inspiration from real things from my past. Like watching television archives. That was very inspiring because I could see the actions that ACT UP carried out back then. We read a book by Didier Lestrade, who was the founder of ACT UP Paris who had also been an activist in ACT UP New York. It is a very good book, told in first person, and then we saw some documentaries about guys from ACT UP. And then, talking to Robin, he lived everything in the film. And the producer and the co-writer. It was just like a channeling function. We just had to absorb everything they were giving us and just try to capture some of that energy that they had.

You mention your method isn’t just to watch people who had interpreted similar characters before. Can you elaborate on what it does involve?

My method is very intuitive and chaotic. As soon as I feel that I can stand and move in the space where I am as a character and I can react to the environment that surrounds me, I can feel that I’ve got a little power to play with. So, I don’t have a process. It changes from film to film. I like thinking about how a character looks, what his gaze is like. Some characters demand a lot of work, others demand availability and, you know, to be like a sponge, where you just respond to what your partners do. In this case, there was a mix of everything. There was also a physical transformation that accompanied my character’s march toward death, so that facilitated a lot of things. Because, of course, I was losing weight, I lost like 15 pounds, so by the end of the film I was getting weaker and weaker. So, of course, fiction and reality, they start having a little dialogue. If you just take that as fuel, you just have to breathe the absence of what you had before that you’re no longer having. In this case, this vivacious kind of life that was maybe all over the top because death was around those guys, and when Sean is dying he’s, of course, not having that anymore. And then, imagination. I mean, playing is just using your imagination to imagine yourself in the future. It’s like, now we are playing. You’re playing the journalist, I’m playing the actor that knows. That’s playing. You’re playing a role. You’re not a journalist 24 hours a day.

I’m always thinking about journalism.

It’s like, “Oh, I’m not an actor!” You played in a film, you were an actor for a certain time. There’s no degree to be something. I think that we are what we do. That’s why we have to start thinking about what we would like to do in life and the future. We should start trying to do it in the present because the present is the only connection to the future and acting is somehow that. When you can imagine yourself in a very different situation, that’s gonna arrive in a couple days, months, when you start shooting the film or doing a role playing in the piece. And I think that that kind of visualization of something is a very powerful tool that you can also apply to life. Because if you think you just put yourself in that situation, your body, even your physical configuration starts gravitating toward that and starts to produce that possibility in the future. Maybe it sounds very existential, but it’s very simple.

It sounds existential to me.

You imagine yourself saying, “Oh, in this scene I will maybe have to do this or that or try to go into that kind of emotion,” and then you just imagine that and you imagine the present moment and then you start playing it. I’m not an acting teacher, so I don’t have enough words to explain my method because it’s not more than a game. If you want to just know the truth.

People do often take acting classes as a sort of therapy, as a way of shifting one’s relation to the world.

I agree with that. Because when you act you start listening to what you feel. And that’s something we’re not used to in society. We’re just adapting, over-adapting, hiding, lying, pretending. And when you’re acting you can’t really do that. You have to be immediatly connected to feelings and instinct and reactions. It becomes a very intimate and personal approach to life. Being present is something that we don’t really train. We are never present. You are thinking about the deadline of this interview. I’m thinking I have to take a flight tomorrow. We are never in the present moment. And when you’re acting you have to be in the present moment. Otherwise, you can’t play.

Now I feel even less present right now because I keep looking at my notes.

Don’t justify yourself! We are always thinking about plans, deadlines, or regretting things that we should have done. The only thing that we have is the present. What is gone is gone. What has yet to happen doesn’t exist.

Since we’ve been talking about your method, I was thinking about Jared Leto’s performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club, where he plays an HIV-positive character. As a method actor, he got really into the role. He lost a lot of weight, as you did for this, but he refused to leave character. Did you find yourself attracted to method acting, or a similar approach for Sean?

I respect method acting as long as it’s respectful of everybody else’s life and integrity, physical and moral integrity. I’m not gonna judge. As long as we accomplish what we have to accomplish, you can do whatever you want.

So, you didn’t find yourself being drawn into the role of Sean in that way?

I really wanted to end the film at a certain point! Because I was getting weaker and weaker and weaker and I love life.

It’s not common to sit with someone on screen who’s in such a long process of dying. How did you channel such an intense experience into Sean?

I think that we should all experience the idea of dying. We would be less scared. I don’t take it as a dangerous thing. I take it as a kind of game. I feel that when I go to bed, I’m dying. We don’t really deem the nighttime as part of our lives. Nothing happens. I think that dying is a matter of letting go. Of course, in this film there is a huge pain in dying. It’s like losing life more than the idea of just dying and withering away. So, it’s like withering too quick and losing all the amazing potential and possibilities that you had before that you can no longer have: dancing, sex, life, light, friends. All that life can give us. So, it was a very emptying process. What I was trying to do was stop acting. To me, the dying part of the film is to stop acting, stop performing, stop creating. Abandon myself and just feel the absence of what Sean was not gonna have anymore. It’s more about that. And it’s, how do you say, dimming. That’s a nice image. At a certain point, you start judging death as the final big thing. You start dimming and then your gaze just goes away. And then you’re closer to a dying star than a bright one. It’s a very physical thing, I guess.

I imagine it must have been very personally affecting for you. I mean, Sean is only five years younger than you are now.

I don’t know, I don’t think about those things, but yeah.

He’s a very young man confronting death.

But I think the fear of losing life, that idea is much more powerful than naming it as dying. And I think that for the film it was much more important to approach it that way. So, it wouldn’t be morbid.

Peter Goldberg

Peter Goldberg is a New York City-based film critic and copywriter whose criticism has appeared in The Baffler, Film Comment, and The Brooklyn Rail.

My copywriting portfolio is available upon request. Contact me at peter at peterfgoldberg dot com.

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