‘Perhaps if I was 20 I would think, Oh my God, maybe I’m going to have an Oscar’

The Call My Agent! and Stillwater star Camille Cottin doesn’t take success for granted

Camille Cottin: ‘You can make a step, you can consider that you’ve been up, and then suddenly you can go down. Nothing is a straight line.’ Photograph: Tania Franco Klein/The New York Times

Camille Cottin: ‘You can make a step, you can consider that you’ve been up, and then suddenly you can go down. Nothing is a straight line.’ Photograph: Tania Franco Klein/The New York Times

 

At some point during the pandemic, perhaps between Schitts Creek and Bridgerton, you may have happened upon Netflix’s French import Call My Agent!, a sweet yet absurd send-up of the global entertainment complex as seen through the lens of a Parisian talent agency where the agents are mostly good-hearted lovers of cinema at the beck and call of their highly demanding clients.

If so, you were one of millions who discovered Camille Cottin, the French actor who played Andrea Martel, the hard-nosed striver with the piercing green eyes who is trying to keep her agency afloat while her personal life falls apart.

The show was one of the few joys of the pandemic, one that prompted viewers to sample additional international series like Lupin and Money Heist, overcoming “the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles” that the Parasite director, Bong Joon Ho, referred to during his 2020 Golden Globes speech.

Until now I’ve mostly been counted for women with a lot of more tension. A bit more in control

The success of Call My Agent! has prompted spin-offs in Britain, Canada and Turkey. And there is now talk of a stand-alone movie that will see Andrea Martel headed to New York.

But Cottin, whose background includes theatre and sketch comedy, completely missed the phenomenon that Call My Agent! became elsewhere while she was in lockdown in Paris with her husband and two young children. Turns out, the 42-year-old was just as miserable as the rest of us.

“I was quite worried in the pandemic, and I was a bit paralysed,” Cottin said. “I wanted to be creative, but I wasn’t at all. Also I had the feeling like I’m never going to work again. I was scared ... Now you tell me during the pandemic everybody watched Call My Agent! I was miles away, imagining that I was buried alive,” she said with a grim laugh.

The cast of Call My Agent!. Photograph: Christophe Brachet
The cast of Call My Agent!. Photograph: Christophe Brachet

Cottin is in a car on her way home from a costume fitting for Cannes film festival. (No, Call My Agent! fans, the fitting did not involve a fussy feathered gown like the one Juliette Binoche awkwardly donned at the end of season two.)

Cottin’s new film, Stillwater, in which she plays Virginie, a working actor and single mother who guides Matt Damon’s remorseful father through an ill-conceived journey in Marseilles, has been getting mostly positive reviews. Manohla Dargis called her “electric” in the New York Times. Vanity Fair called her performance “bright and winsome”.

But this moment in the car is far less glamorous. Her six-year-old daughter is fast asleep, head in mom’s lap. And when the car stops I can see the multitasking Cottin at work, scooping up her groggy child, a poof of pink taffeta in one arm, her video call still on in the other, a bright Parisian sky in the background.

She pauses for a moment to put her daughter to bed before continuing the conversation on the floor of her bathroom, a compromise she made with her child, who asked her not to stray too far. Then her husband, Benjamin, comes home. “The father is here!” she exclaimed. “Virginie would have had to handle that situation alone.”

After a small role in the 2016 film Allied, starring Brad Pitt, Stillwater represents Cottin’s biggest introduction yet to a worldwide audience. It just may be the role that lets her officially cross over from obscure French actor to global sensation. Later this year she will star opposite Lady Gaga and Adam Driver in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, playing Paola Franchi, the girlfriend of Driver’s Maurizio Gucci. And she’s set to reprise her role as Hélène, a high-ranking member of the assassin organisation the Twelve, in the BBC’s Killing Eve.

Cottin first realised she had an audience outside France when Call My Agent! showed up on British television. It was 2019, and she was in Ireland to attend a meeting of casting directors, at the Subtitle film festival in Kilkenny, with her own French agent. Suddenly she was the centre of attention. “They were, like, ‘Oh, could I make a selfie with you?’ and I was, like, ‘What? You’re the James Bond casting director’,” she said, laughing.

Camille Cottin with Matt Damon and Lilou Siauvaud in Stillwater. Photograph: Jessica Forde/Focus Features
Camille Cottin with Matt Damon and Lilou Siauvaud in Stillwater. Photograph: Jessica Forde/Focus Features

That trip and another to London led to her casting in Gucci and to her meeting the producer of Killing Eve. Yet Call My Agent! had no bearing on the decision of Stillwater’s director, Tom McCarthy, to cast Cottin. He hadn’t yet seen the show when he met her. Rather, he hired her based on an audition that he said astonished him and his co-writers, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré.

“You kind of can’t keep your eyes off her when she is on the screen,” he said. “She’s a bit scattered, a bit all over the place. She’s funny, she’s self-deprecating, she’s empathetic. She’s tough. She’s straightforward. And I feel like after watching her for a year and a half in the edit room, every moment with her is very lived.”

To Cottin, Virginie, who is open and nurturing and always looking for something to fix (like Damon’s Oklahoman roughneck), is a near facsimile of herself. “Virginie is the closest character I’ve had to play to me,” she says even though it’s one of the few roles she has played in English. “We have the same energy. And until now I’ve mostly been counted for women with a lot of more tension. A bit more in control.”

There is a disarming ease to Cottin that is evident on initial introduction and belies the icy veneer of her Call My Agent! character. She doesn’t take herself too seriously – McCarthy calls her goofy – and you realise quickly how great her potential for comedy is. It’s a skill she exhibited in her best-known French role, playing the lead in the prank TV show Connasse – or “B*tch” in French. Her exploits included scaling Kensington Palace in search of an introduction to Prince Harry.

A Call My Agent! producer, Dominique Besnehard, describes Cottin as “the pretty, biting, bold one” who in the role of Andrea “is very good at going from harshness to fragility”. To Cottin it’s a character she both admires and understands yet still finds at a remove from her own personality.

“I have much less assurance than Andrea. She is more self-confident and strategic and good at making decisions,” she says. “If I have to make a choice, it will take me too long, always too long. And I will ask everybody his opinion about it.”

Cottin is decidedly not uncertain about her career, but as an actor in her 40s she is more aware that the highs she’s experiencing today may not predict the highs she will see in her future. “Maybe if I was 20 I would think, Oh my God, maybe I’m going to have an Oscar,” she says, laughing, in a mocking American accent.

“It’s never vertical. You can make a step, you can consider that you’ve been up, and then suddenly you can go down. Nothing is a straight line. I see these projects as trips, great trips. I can’t say, ‘Oh, now that I’ve done that I can tell you what’s coming next,’ because I don’t know. And it doesn’t mean that it will happen again.”

“I predict great things for Camille, and not just because of our movie, which I think she’s sensational in, but it’s just her time,” McCarthy says. “You can feel it when someone’s earned a moment in their career, and put in the work, and they’re ready to take control of it.” – New York Times

Stillwater is in cinemas from today

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