Arnaud Valois went from masseuse to star of French AIDS drama BPM

Not too long before his heart-wrenching turn as AIDS activist Nathan in BPM (Beats Per Minute), this year’s Grand Prix winner at Cannes, French actor Arnaud Valois gave up, packed his bags and relocated to Thailand. “I said to myself, ‘You’re getting a bit frustrated and sad, so let’s stop acting and try to do something else,’” Valois tells me when we meet at the garden of LGBT Center in Manhattan. “So I went to Thailand and I fell in love with the country.”

Valois—a handsome 33-year-old with high cheekbones and a fleck of grey in his hair—moved to Paris from Lyon when he was 19 to pursue drama. Studying at private French drama school Cours Florent, his career started off with a role in Nicole Garcia’s Charlie Says (2006), which marked the actor’s first trip to Cannes when it was chosen to play in competition there. Then the worst happened for a budding young actor: The film was met with boos.

Having trouble landing parts in the following years, Valois decided to settle down in Bangkok for six months, on his own, and learned Thai Massage. He committed to a schedule of yoga with classes from 9 A.M. to 6 P.M., seven days a week. After his Eat, Pray, Love sabbatical, he returned to Paris refreshed, opened up a massage studio and found life to be pleasant and simple.

Then he got a call from a casting director: “They said, ‘Are you still an actor?’ I said, ‘Not at all,’” Valois explains. Writer-director Robin Campillo was looking to make BPM, a film about the ’90s AIDS crisis in France—specifically documenting the militant social activist group ACT UP Paris—and he had happened upon Valois’ Facebook account.  After some cajoling and coming to terms with the significance of the movie—“We have never really had a movie about AIDS in a political way in France”—Valois complied and agreed to read for the part of Nathan, the film’s protagonist.

Campillo instituted weekly unpaid casting sessions that were actually more like workshops. After three and a half months of this, during which the film consumed him, Valois informed Campillo he was quitting, which caused the director to promptly offer him the part.

His character Nathan joins ACT UP with the utmost dedication and doesn’t look back, falling in love with the cause and one of the group’s members, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Valois imbues Nathan with a quiet emotional intensity, upon which his observant and caring style become a contrast to the firebrand Sean. Their relationship develops and shines, yet Sean’s decaying health grounds the film’s latter half in solemnity.

That poignancy on screen was matched in its shoot, as Valois had to watch his co-star rapidly lose weight while committing to 12-hour days of filming. “I was concerned,” Valois says. “It was like mixing fiction with reality. I was seeing my friend and partner losing weight and getting really exhausted.”

Yet after the longwinded and at times grueling journey, the result has already proven to be more than worthwhile: success at Cannes, an international release and rumors of a possible Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film have made Valois’ recent life a whirlwind of good fortune. While he misses his practice as a masseur, Valois is currently considering a few scripts that have come his way. What with his newfound fame back home, even Valois cannot deny that his life has changed: “It’s a bit weird to do a massage and then take a selfie.”