In 2009, two years after graduating from the Conservatoire de musique et d’art dramatique du Québec in Montreal, François Arnaud co-starred in Xavier Dolan‘s first feature as a writer-director, I Killed My Mother. Made for under a million Canadian dollars, the film excelled on the festival circuit, even going to Cannes. Arnaud won a Vancouver Film Critics Circle Award for his performance. Soon after, the trilingual Canadian actor (he speaks English and French, of course, but also Spanish), was cast in Neil Jordan’s epic Showtime series The Borgias as Cesare Borgia, the eldest son of the real-life, less-than-model, 15th-century Pope Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons).
Since The Borgias ended—much to the dismay of its fans—four years ago, Arnaud has kept busy with indie films like 2016’s Jean of the Joneses, and arcs on television shows like Blindspot. Starting tonight, he’s back on the small screen, this time as the lead in NBC’s new supernatural Charlaine Harris drama, Midnight, Texas. He hasn’t, however, forgotten his roots: he has three independent films slated for release, including Permission with Dan Stevens and Rebecca Hall, Origami, and the just-wrapped She’s in Portland.
MICKEY SUMNER: I’m suddenly really nervous about interviewing you.
FRANÇOIS ARNAUD: Really? I’m nervous about getting interviewed by you.
SUMNER: Let’s be nervous together. Where are you? What’s going on?
ARNAUD: I’m actually in bed right now. I just forced myself to get up so I wouldn’t sound like I was in bed, but my honesty betrayed me.
SUMNER: Let’s try and give an honest interview seeing as we live in the age of #fakenews. I’m lying on the floor with my baby. He might ask you some questions.
ARNAUD: Okay, cool. [laughs]
SUMNER: You play a psychic in Midnight, Texas, right?
ARNAUD: I play a medium actually. There’s a bit of a difference. He has psychic powers, but mediums talk to the dead. They have access to spirits in the other world. But he won’t read you or tell you your future.
SUMNER: I’ve known you for a few years François, and I know you go pretty in-depth. Did you go to any mediums?
ARNAUD: I did. I met a few psychics in Albuquerque, but my favorite one was Psychic Ana. I was too scared to have her give me a reading. I’m a completely skeptical atheist—I don’t believe in the supernatural—and yet, I don’t really want it to get too close to me. So it was a fun role because I had to see it from a completely different perspective. I tried to really give Ana the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t know if I believe that she sees what she sees or reads what she reads, but I wholeheartedly believe that she believes it, and that she’s not performing a scam voluntarily. My point of view is that she might just be a hyper-intuitive person who connects with people.
SUMNER: But you’re not a believer in the supernatural or the afterlife or ghosts?
ARNAUD: I don’t know. There’s this recurring nightmare that I have, which is like sleep paralysis. I wake up and I can’t move. I think I’m actually awake. My eyes are open and I can’t move and I just try my best. Sometimes I can’t breathe either. I have this regularly.
SUMNER: They do say that that has something to do with the supernatural.
ARNAUD: Exactly. This horror documentary called The Nightmare keeps popping up on my Netflix. I watched the trailer and it’s about people who experience exactly the same thing, and they tie that into some sort of evil presence in the room. I have goosebumps right now as I’m telling you this. I never made it to the end of the trailer. In spite of my disbelief, I don’t want to get too close to any of it.
SUMNER: Maybe you’re in massive denial, François. Maybe you have access to the spiritual realm and you’re just in denial.
ARNAUD: For the moment, I’ll embrace denial. But for the role, I had to completely change my perspective on it. I had to put myself in a position where the character has no choice but to believe. Otherwise I can’t imagine the battle that would have happened with the creative team constantly—the skeptical voice in the room. [laughs]
SUMNER: I’m sure they would’ve loved that. So you’ve never seen a ghost?
ARNAUD: I have never seen a ghost, no. Or I’ve buried it deep in my subconscious.
SUMNER: Interesting. I met you in Budapest on The Borgias. I just did one season, but how long were you there?
ARNAUD: I was there six months a year for three years. You had a small role but we hung out for quite a bit.
SUMNER: I had a small but important role, François. [laughs] Someone had to clean Holliday Grainger and help her have the affair with Luke [Pasqualino].
ARNAUD: I thought you were brilliant in that part, and I thought you were lovely, and I loved hanging out in Budapest. But we sort of lost touch for a while, and then I remember seeing you afterwards in Frances Ha. You had brown hair and glasses. But it wasn’t the physical transformation that impressed me; you managed to channel this completely different energy from what I knew.
SUMNER: It was my accent.
ARNAUD: I thought, “Oh that girl is really cool. I hope one day she interviews me for Interview magazine.”
SUMNER: Yeah, that’s exactly what you thought. But then we became friends in L.A. when we were doing awful pilot auditions one after the other and we were helping each other learn lines.
ARNAUD: Then I moved to New York and we also both hung out here.
SUMNER: I was really impressed with how thorough you were about learning lines and being very focused and serious about diving into things.
ARNAUD: Don’t other actors learn lines too?
SUMNER: But for every single audition. It served you well because you’re constantly working.
ARNAUD: I get anxious when I’m not working so I try to keep busy.
SUMNER: What are you anxious about? The ghosts?
ARNAUD: [laughs] I guess I feel like if I’m not acting, I’m not an actor anymore. It’s not like a musician, who can play in their living room and feel fulfilled—I don’t know how fulfilled you feel playing in your living room, but as an actor, you need a different context. You need a stage or a set. You need a group of people to validate this thing that you’re doing. So that’s why I keep busy. I try to find meaning or value in most things and be as diverse as possible.
SUMNER: It’s continuation of exploring different parts of yourself, which makes for a very interesting life. You’re not one-note.
ARNAUD: I feel like I’m getting closer and closer to myself with time, not only in terms of my career choices, but the choices I make within one role or performance. I used to compose characters that were farther from me, but I find now that I like to craft a subtle composition, a subtle change in your essence. That’s why I loved you in Frances Ha so much, because that’s exactly what I try to achieve. It doesn’t have to be need to be a huge physical or vocal composition—especially for the camera. I’ve been wanting to do stage, which I haven’t done at all.
SUMNER: You come from a theater background, right?
ARNAUD: Yeah, I went to Conservatoire de musique et d’art dramatique for three years, which is a national theater school.
SUMNER: When was that? How old were you?
ARNAUD: I was 19 when I got there and 22 when I graduated in 2007. Ten years ago.
SUMNER: I still feel like I’m 19. We’re old now!
ARNAUD: There’s just something about being in your 30s; you’re not the new kid on the block anymore. You can’t justify your mistakes. I felt for a really long time, “When I grow up I want to be an actor.” And now I’m like, “Oh, this is it now. This is my life.”
SUMNER: You’re grown up and you’re an actor.
ARNAUD: I’m an actor, but it sort of has to feel serious on a different level. I have to be happy with the choices I make now; it can’t just be in hopes of creating a better future for myself. It has to bring me fulfillment. I have to find a way to be happy today.
SUMNER: I think that’s true for any artist. It’s an important realization. Some artists go through life not realizing that they have to be happy today. They’re always thinking about the next job or the next thing: “I’ll get this, then I’ll be happy.” Then you’re miserable. I want to talk about New Mexico because I’ve been a few times and I fell in love with it. You were living in Albuquerque for Midnight, Texas, is that right?
ARNAUD: Yes. We lived in Albuquerque for five months. Albuquerque is interesting. There’s a whole dark side to it that I guess a lot of people have seen in Breaking Bad. The first time I stayed downtown and it was a hard reality to witness on a daily basis. There were a lot of drug problems that were very present and visible. But there’s also a real poetry to the landscape and some interesting culture. I moved to another neighborhood called Nob Hill, and there was a great independent movie theater that would show European films and old films, like, a block from my house. I live in New York, so I don’t have a car, but I had to have a car in Albuquerque and there were so many amazing hikes and mountains and waterfalls to explore. It’s pretty high in altitude so you’re always slightly dizzy. A glass of wine will make you drunk. There’s something in the air that lends itself to absorbing those grand landscapes. It’s America, but not the America that I knew.
SUMNER: What was the America that you knew? More coastal?
ARNAUD: I know the coasts, really. I know L.A. and New York.
SUMNER: I always feel like as an actor, you have to be pretty comfortable with the nomadic life—just packing up and moving to a different country or a different city. Are you happy with that lifestyle? Do you wish you were a little bit more in one place?
ARNAUD: Before I did it, I used to fantasize about that. For the first few years, I found it incredibly inspiring and now I find it very challenging and difficult. It’s hard to carry your home with you. I find myself having to create a home in all these places and then there’s the whole grieving process of abandoning that home when you have to leave it. I very much felt that when we left Budapest after three years. I don’t know how it’ll be for New Mexico. I feel like there’s a desire for a sense of permanence that is growing in me. I just got a tattoo, a year ago. [laughs] Most people get tattoos when they’re teenagers. I thought tattoos weren’t cool anymore; everyone has a fucking tattoo, the cool thing to do is not get a tattoo. And then I got a tattoo. I got a house on my back. It’s really big.
SUMNER: A house? That’s awesome.
ARNAUD: It’s a drawing by Egon Schiele from 1912 called House with Bell Tower. I wanted it really small, but the tattoo artist said it wouldn’t work—the lines wouldn’t age well.
SUMNER: I don’t think tattoo artists like it when you say you want it small. The larger the canvas the better.
ARNAUD: Exactly. So there’s this huge house on my back. It has this welcoming idea because it’s a home, but it also is a very cold, wintery landscape, so it’s a bit of a scary home. I rarely see it, since it’s on my back. [laughs] But for me, to get that tattoo was part of moving into adulthood. Making a choice that is permanent and that I’ll have to stick with.
SUMNER: You got a dog too, didn’t you?
ARNAUD: [laughs] I did get a dog. The dog was part of the same package here.
SUMNER: He’s a bit of a star on Instagram.
ARNAUD: He has a movie star face. I think I should just quit my job and be his manager. He’d be much better at social media than I am.
SUMNER: You don’t think you’re very good at it?
ARNAUD: I just don’t like it very much. Now I’m posting a lot because I have a show coming out, but I hate it. I feel like this job requires so much of yourself, and I feel like I give so much by letting go. I never wanted to be famous or get any sort of recognition for my person or my personality; it has always been for my work. There’s something that bothers me intrinsically about social media, but it’s just expected of you now. It’s almost part of your contract. But that’s not what I’m selling. I don’t want to sell anything.
SUMNER: Yeah, because you want to be able to slip into these characters.
ARNAUD: Yeah, and I’m not in the business to promote myself. I’ll happily promote the show that I worked so hard on—that’s fine. But I feel like there’s a shamelessness about promoting yourself now that I’m really uncomfortable with. People will say, “Look at me being so peaceful on this hike,” but you’re absolutely not being peaceful, you’re focused on looking good because you’re getting your picture taken.
SUMNER: I always question, who is taking the photos? Is it a professional? Who is taking these awesome photos of people looking not very casual in these beautiful settings?
ARNAUD: I sort of admire people who—
SUMNER: Who can do it?
ARNAUD: Who just do it seamlessly. They don’t think, “Oh, people are going to think I’m obsessed with myself.” [laughs]
SUMNER: We don’t live in the era anymore where that’s a thing. Now people are celebrated for being obsessive.
ARNAUD: Right, “#selflove.” I think by promoting self-acceptance and self-love we’ve jumped the horse a little and have gone the other way. It’s just narcissism. Whether social media is the source of that problem or exacerbates it or just merely shines a light on it, I don’t know. I think it actually creates more of it.
SUMNER: I do too, but it’s addicting. I’m totally addicted. Have you ever done a technology detox?
ARNAUD: I have, actually. I do sometimes when I work. I was just shooting this movie up the California coast, it’s a buddy road movie called She’s in Portland. It’s Tommy Dewey and I are best buddies since forever and we drive up the coast. We were shooting in Big Sur, and there were two landslides in the past couple months, and the landline had been cut where we were shooting, so we had no contact. There was no WiFi. It’s an indie movie, but there was a pretty big crew—40 people that needed a call sheet for the morning. We had a house with the producers and director and Tommy and I, and it was amazing because we shot for 14 hours a day and then we’d open a bottle of wine at night and just tweak the script and go with the best ideas. The crew were such troopers.
SUMNER: I love that whole area up there. I saw you in a movie called Jean of the Joneses at the end of last year. I love that movie. It’s so funny and so awesome and the acting was superb. I didn’t even know you were in it and then you appeared.
ARNAUD: I don’t actually know that I saw all of it. I know that it was good because it was good on paper. It was done very quickly—we’d do one or two takes and then we’d move on. The writer-director [Stella Meghie] was very, very confident. She went on to direct a studio movie [Everything, Everything, 2017], so good for her.
SUMNER: Super cool. You also have an indie coming up called Permission. And another called Origami, is that right?
ARNAUD: Yeah, Permission is this movie that we started in New York the winter before last. It just came out at Tribeca. It’s kind of a romantic comedy that deconstructs the tropes of the genre. Rebecca Hall and Dan Stevens play this couple who’s been together forever. They’re about to get married, but they’re pressured into trying an open relationship because everyone thinks it’s lame to not have had sex with anyone else. They fall into that, even though it doesn’t fit their personalities at all, and it basically pushes Rebecca into my arms. My point of view is that we fall in love, but I don’t know if Rebecca would tell you the same thing. [laughs] Dan has kind of a funny, sexy affair with Gina Gershon, who is a trip.
SUMNER: She’s a friend of mine!
ARNAUD: She’s so cool. I hadn’t met her until the Tribeca screening and then we hung out. She has such strong comedic skills.
SUMNER: She’s so funny.
ARNAUD: She is completely fearless. Then Origami is a French-Canadian movie. I haven’t done a French-Canadian movie many, many years. I did a French movie two years ago, which was interesting. But for this one I worked from home in Montreal. It’s a really heavy psychological drama disguised as a sci-fi thriller. It was the opposite of this shoot I just did. I’m not a method actor, but I think there’s a physical response to putting yourself in that physiological state for so many hours of the day, for so long. It wasn’t my decision to stay in character, but after shooting it for five weeks and crying every day and going through psychosis, I couldn’t do anything after. I told my agents that it didn’t matter what the work was, I wasn’t physically able to do anything for at least a month. Then I really withdrew. It wasn’t a decision that I made to get into that character, but afterwards I was completely exhausted. I think the brain can’t tell the difference at a certain point, so the chemical response is one of depression.
SUMNER: It has to take a toll. What did you do for a month when you took it off? Did you go home?
ARNAUD: I actually rented a cabin in the woods. I was by myself for a while, and then I had some people meet me later. It was just a lot of outdoor activities and reading books and watching stupid movies and eating popcorn. That sort of thing.
SUMNER: Okay, I was going to say, being by yourself in a cabin in the woods sounds really depressing.
MIDNIGHT, TEXAS, PREMIERES TONIGHT, JULY 24, 2017, ON NBC. MICKEY SUMNER IS AN ACTOR WHOSE UPCOMING PROJECTS INCLUDE BATTLE OF THE SEXES WITH EMMA STONE, AMERICAN MADE WITH TOM CRUISE, AND TNT’S UPCOMING ADAPTATION OF SNOWPIERCER WITH JENNIFER CONNELLY AND DAVEED DIGGS.