by Ruby Comer
Several years ago I was in Paris and attended a UNAIDS conference. After an early dinner, at the opulent Hotel George V, I decided to take in a screening at the Paris Independent Film Festival, I Am Jonas. (Since then, the film has gone on to win awards, including Best Director.)
I was blown away at the not-so-typical coming-of-age movie and the riveting performances. Fortunately, I met one of these actors at the after-party, Tommy-Lee Baïk.
When he discovered I was a reporter for an AIDS publication, he perked up, excited to engage in more conversation. We sashayed out of the party and onto the dimly lit banks of the Seine River.
Tommy-Lee or TLB, twenty-six, was raised in the City of Lights, but now lives along the Côte d’Azur in Montpellier. He moved a lot when he was a kid. His “complicated” family forced him to mature quickly. His dad left when Tommy-Lee was six, his mother had mental health issues, and his uncle, who was only ten years older than him, whom he considered a big brother, died of a drug overdose at twenty-one. Then his mother lost her best friend to AIDS. This had a great effect upon him.
To educate himself more on the epidemic, Tommy-Lee watched TV documentaries, and
would engage in conversations with his mom and her friends. He also learned about prevention in high school. It wasn’t until he saw the extraordinary historical French film 120 BPM (120 Battements Par Minutes), sometimes shortened to BPM, about AIDS activism in the nineties, that it all came together. The film was a bombshell for him, a tense encounter, which plunged TLB into activism and AIDS Walks.
Tommy-Lee also stands in solidarity with other causes such as abortion rights, stopping domestic violence, and human rights.
During his tumultuous childhood, Tommy-Lee’s only solace was in summer camp, where he discovered acting. Here, he could “go within,” explore his feelings, and discover his own creativity. He began to attend a university but instead of studying theory, he preferred to gather experience through grass-roots means—auditions, being cast in productions, and learning his craft firsthand. TLB created a web series called Mordred, based on King Arthur, and a series, Poètes, which can be viewed on YouTube.
TLB has had a girlfriend, Alexa, for nearly three years, and they eventually hope to ring those wedding bells. He continues to produce, direct, write, and act, and would even like to extend his talents abroad. Well, this broad would extend her attention!
Ruby Comer: What a riveting performance in I Am Jonas! I see a new star… on… the…. horizon. [He coyly smiles and his face becomes cherry red.] Playing Nathan, what was the most challenging?
Tommy-Lee Baïk: It was dual collaboration between the director and me. I wanted to serve his vision, as well as mine, so I was laser-focused on our relationship.
What was the most important lesson you learned while filming?
I guess it’s not a lesson but more an understanding about the importance of working together as an ensemble and respecting each other’s technique. I learned so much from every actor. I met so many incredible people on set!
How thrilling, Tommy-Lee. And of course, your fellow actor Félix Maritaud was in BPM. Did you mention the impact it had on you?
Yes, I did. That film is a hymn to life and I told Felix. We discussed the issues at hand that the movie provided, like educating oneself about prevention, learning about the disease, and to openly talk about it. Félix was very modest about his role, and said he thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
The film is a side window….[he interrupts].
Oh, just a fun fact, Ruby. I saw the film BPM at the same cinema where we shot the scene in Jonas where I kiss Nic [Nicolas Bauwens, who played young Jonas].
I love hearing back stories like this! Yes, this stunning film is a side window into AIDS history. [I pause.] When you came of age, HIV was manageable by taking meds. Even so, living with HIV is often not fun. How did having sex play out for you?
Well, I was too young when I had sex for the first time. In my complicated life I was precocious, but early on I had to face adult situations. So when I discovered sex, I was quite calm about it. It wasn’t until later that I realized what I was exposing myself to [by not using condoms].
How old were you when you first got tested?
Fifteen years old.
So it seems you caught on quickly. What was that testing experience like?
Oh, Ruby, I was so afraid. I was totally not conscious during my first sexual experiences [about sexual health]. I made mistakes. [He inhales.] While waiting for results I realized the risks I had taken and I imagined the worst outcome. After receiving the results, I promised to myself to be more responsible. Since then I’ve met girls who didn’t care about protection and I always refuse their carelessness.
You respect yourself….
Well, I hope improving myself will set an example for others.
I like that mindset, TLB. What do you do when you are confronted with someone who refuses to listen to reason, or who casts a stigma on those who are living with HIV?
My friends and I talk about it, and it’s very rare that I am confronted with bad reactions. I guess enlightened people surround me. But when I do meet someone who discriminates, I remain calm in the face of [their] ignorance and I try to find constructive dialogue solutions. [He takes a deep inhale.] They are not the enemy, we just need to be patient and educate them. I find it’s best to find a link or bond with that person and that seems to be the key to reaching them.
When you and your girl, Alexa met, how did you guys broach the topic of STIs?
We spoke about it early on. We protected ourselves from the very beginning and eventually we went together to be tested. Alexa is very conscious, just as I am, so it was a natural step in our relationship.
Good news. What inspires you to give back?
Out of my childhood drama, I learned values early on. I’ve been lucky to have met people who I’ve been inspired by. I know what it’s like to fight, to look for a peaceful place within, and I realize everyone else goes through some such journey. Each. Person. Is. Significant.
You have great empathy, my son. What’s Tommy-Lee’s motto, and what makes him rise out of bed in the morning?
Simply—realize your dreams. Go with your passion. I get up each morning with the mindset of wanting to achieve my goals. I love to create! [He says this matter-of-factly with grave emphasis.] It makes me feel…alive! [He lays a power punch in the air.]
And I feel alive when I give to others, too.
I can certainly see that TLB. In your heart of hearts—oh dear I sound like Lucifer Morningstar from the thrilling series Lucifer—what do you desire?
[He acknowledges the connection.] Ruby, I would like each community to find commonalties not only between themselves, but between other communities as well. Each of us is a carrier of a message—whether it be a message of hope or a message of information. It’s important to understand one another and use it in a good way. We need…[Tommy-Lee takes a slow sigh then concludes]…to find bridges between people.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].