"I bought a few sheep during lockdown. Nobody told me they'd eat all my plants. How Parisian is that?" I'm discussing the pandemic with the actor Camille Cottin, who during the first coronavirus lockdown, last year, decamped from her apartment in the French capital to do up an old farmhouse in Normandy. Now she's back in Paris, preparing for what will be a huge year.
Already a star in her native France, Cottin is making the leap to major Hollywood roles. Tom McCarthy's Stillwater, in which she stars with Matt Damon, is due for release in the autumn. She is currently polishing her English for her role in Ridley Scott's Gucci biopic, which starts shooting in a few months, with Adam Driver as Maurizio Gucci and Lady Gaga his ex-wife. And she has just signed up for a huge project that she's not yet allowed to talk about.
Before all that comes the fourth and final season on Netflix, later this month, of Call My Agent!, the word-of-mouth hit drama that has found new fans looking to binge during lockdown. As Andréa – tough, ruthless, gay and agent to some of France's biggest movie stars – Cottin's is the standout role in a show that has brought her international attention, including a role in the third series of Killing Eve.
We filmed with concealed cameras, and people did not realise I was an actor. Even in the TV and film industry, people thought I was this senseless bitch
The original idea for Call My Agent!, or Dix Pour Cent, as it’s known in France, came from a famous talent agent, Dominique Besnehard, who thought that what he had seen and lived through in his long career would make for a juicy dramatic comedy about the life of a Parisian talent agency, a little-known metier within the film industry.
The idea took eight years to develop before Fanny Herrero, the showrunner, brought the right tone, witty dialogue, a pacy plot and a clever balance between pure entertainment and knowing references for cinephiles.
Since 2015, the series has won many French TV awards and was nominated for an International Emmy for best comedy in 2016.
Each episode of Call My Agent! features a guest appearance by a star of French cinema. In the first, the actor Cécile de France is being interviewed by a gossip-magazine journalist. She unwisely boasts that Quentin Tarantino has chosen her for his next film. Her agent looks worried; Tarantino hasn't confirmed it yet. Badaboum, as we say in French, the agent gets a text message: she has not been chosen for the part after all. She now looks like a fool, and her agent must find a way to manage the crisis.
Cottin is unlikely to find herself in this kind of predicament, not least because her agent is the Hollywood heavyweight Billy Lazarus, who counts Sigourney Weaver among his clients, and who signed Cottin after Weaver appeared as a guest star in Call My Agent!'s fourth season.
“It was a little surreal to meet Sigourney last January in Paris,” Cottin says. “We were all in awe of her, of course, but then she arrived for rehearsal, and there she was, telling us how much she admired us! When your idol turns out to be a fan of yours, it is rather unsettling.”
Weaver told Variety that, for the first time in her life, she didn’t read the script before agreeing to join the cast. When asked what made her such a fan, she said: “It’s a love letter to the business, to the relationships between actors, artists; it goes behind the scenes to show the problems of actors in dealing with different directors and mood scenes... and it has a lot of affection for the business and for the job of being an agent. The agents in the series are very passionate about their clients. It’s very inspiring.”
Cottin was brought up in Paris and London. “I was 12 when I moved to London with my mother, little sister and stepfather. He worked in finance. Those were the days! I went back to Paris at 17 to study English and American literature at the Sorbonne. My parents knew I wanted to go to drama school, but they wanted me to have a useful degree as well!”
Cottin lives in the none-more-Parisian ninth arrondissement of the French capital, right behind the Folies Bergère, where Josephine Baker rose to glory
She then worked for a theatre company for 10 years, putting on shows that they would perform at the Off Avignon festival every summer. It was not until she was 35, in 2013, that the edgy hidden-camera prank show Connasse (a translation might be “bitch” or “stupid cow”) brought her to her nation’s attention. In six months, Cottin shot 70 90-second comedy sketches of her behaving badly towards members of the public, which were broadcast twice a week on Canal+. Connasse was the perfect format for sharing on social media: the episodes regularly went viral and made Cottin a familiar face in no time.
There was a catch, though: Connasse felt so real to audiences that her real and dramatic personas became confused; people were wary of her, thinking she really was this connasse. In one typical episode, she is filmed going to a swimming pool and refusing to follow any of the rules. “Take a shower before swimming? You’re kidding, I do that at home!” she snaps at the pool attendant, before adding: “And you want me to wear a swimming cap? But we all look like dickheads in them.” To one poor bystander she says: “Oh, the water must be glacial. Have you seen how tiny your cock is?” And to a little girl: “I know you have done a wee in the pool, yes, I do.”
“We filmed with concealed cameras and people did not realise I was an actor,” Cottin says. “Even in the TV and film industry, people thought I was this senseless bitch. It felt as if I was the only one who knew I was a professional actor playing the part of a clown.”
That bitchy clown, however, led to Call My Agent! There are certainly elements of the connasse’s unfeeling streak in the single-minded Andréa, but Cottin plays her with so much charm that you end up rooting for her.
Cottin and I are meeting via Zoom. She is sitting in front of a French window in what looks like a typical Parisian Haussmann flat. Indeed, she lives in the none-more-Parisian ninth arrondissement of the French capital, right behind the Folies Bergère, that Belle Epoque cabaret where Josephine Baker rose to glory, dancing, wearing a banana skirt and little else.
The space looks tiny: has Cottin turned a large wardrobe into some sort of stylish but narrow study? “Almost! We have used part of the corridor to create a shoebox-size bureau, with shelves and a sliding door.” She is wearing a pale grey cashmere jumper, with no makeup on and her long, dark-blond hair loose, à la Parisienne. She looks, as only the British would say, effortlessly chic.
The undefinable Gallic charm is one of the reasons Call My Agent! has proved such a hit abroad. It has an energy and passion for cinema that are quintessentially French. Beautiful old film posters from the 1940s and 50s adorn the walls of the talent agency and can be seen in many of the shots, among them The Lovers of Verona, a 1949 film directed by André Cayatte, written by Jacques Prévert with Anouk Aimée, and Devil in the Flesh, a 1947 film with Gérard Philipe and Micheline Presle. Those posters are not just colourful props – they reveal a culture.
The other key appeal of Call My Agent! is, of course, its Paris setting. The talent agency is located at 149 Rue Saint-Honoré, in an imposing 18th-century building in the first arrondissement, a stone’s throw from the Louvre and Palais-Royal. One of the agents, Gabriel (played by Grégory Montel), zips round the city on a red scooter, giving lifts to famous clients such as Monica Bellucci on their way to meet directors. “That was an artistic decision,” says Cottin. “We shot half [the scenes] on location, which is a lot for a TV series. Paris is shown as it is, without cliches.”
For the first series it was difficult to persuade French actors to appear as themselves. 'It's not at all a French tradition,' explains Cottin. 'Self-mockery or self-parody is not something that sits naturally with us'
In the final season, Sigourney Weaver walks in the steps of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche, Béatrice Dalle, Julie Gayet, Jean Reno and many other French stars who have appeared as themselves in the show. For the first series it was difficult to persuade French actors to appear as themselves. "It's not at all a French tradition," explains Cottin. "We tend to think of ourselves as artists, and self-mockery or self-parody is not something that sits naturally with us. However, when they read the scripts and understood that the tone was ironic and tender, joyful and optimistic, they loved it."
Has it been it difficult to say goodbye to such a strong character – and one that has brought her so much success – after five years? “It’s time to do other things,” she says. “It’s important to show that you can play other parts. Although, compared to the production team and the showrunner, actors have it easy on a TV series. It only takes four months of our life every year, and allows us to work on other projects and to breathe between seasons. The series’ creators, however, are often totally consumed by it.” Herrero bowed out after the third season, saying she needed to press pause in her career in order to get a second wind.
Shooting on the final episodes of Call My Agent! ended just before the first coronavirus lockdown, in March last year, when Cottin, her partner and their two young children, aged five and 10, retreated to their home in Normandy. “We had recently bought this old farmhouse with my sister and mother, and we were in the middle of having it restored. We arrived with another friend, the standup comedian Camille Chamoux and her family, and we all lived in this building site, doing homeschooling, growing vegetables and writing [Chamoux’s show] Le Temps de Vivre, which Camille was lucky enough to perform in Paris in September.”
Despite the bucolic setting and being surrounded by family and friends, Cottin became overwhelmed by a fear of death. “I was terrified by what I heard, read and saw in the news every day: the long queues at the food banks, the sharp increase in domestic violence, the school closures... It was horrid.”
The second lockdown, which started in France at the end of October and lasted six weeks, was very different, as this time Cottin was recovering after catching Covid-19 at French TV festival Cannes Series the previous month. “The festival called to say that I had been in contact with somebody who had tested positive and, sure enough, so did I. I spent a few days bingeing on series at home while my partner insisted on looking after the children. I watched all of Succession; it was glorious.”
She recovered quickly, but then her partner tested positive, and the children, too. “We were lucky. We all had it mildly.” Three months later, however, she has still not recovered her sense of smell. “It’s as if my brain doesn’t naturally make the connection any more. But if somebody mentions a particular odour in a room, for instance, my brain will process the information, switch on and I will eventually smell it. Bizarre, non?”
In Turkey my character has suddenly become heterosexual, which, of course, is a terrible pity, because the fact that she is a lesbian makes her who she is
She worries about her fellow artists, most of them currently unable to work or perform. “We are lucky in France with a very generous system of state aid, but all those film releases that are postponed, all those long closures for theatres, cinemas, concert halls... Will they all reopen? Will the public go back to watching films in cinemas rather than on their small screens? Don’t we need culture and art more than we need shopping?”
Stillwater was to have been released in November but has been pushed back to late 2021. “I’m glad to see that they haven’t decided to release it on a platform. I think we must hold on tight for what has been conceived as cinema and for the cinema, so that it is experienced on a big screen, in a cinema.”
Cottin and I are speaking just a few days after Boris Johnson revealed the existence of a new, more transmissible variant of Covid-19 in London and southeast England. More than 40 countries have suspended flights and trains from Britain. Does she miss London? "It was the early 1990s, and I was following the traditional French syllabus at the French lycée in South Kensington, so London was a backdrop to what remained a very French education. However, I have kept a few English traits, such as a love for nature and the countryside, an attachment to beer and an attraction to a certain idea of freedom, one that knows no label or categorisation." To that list I would add an ironic, very British sense of humour, which has become Cottin's trademark and given her a particular edge in France.
It is no surprise that she was cast in Mouche, the French adaptation of Fleabag, even if, she admits with typical frankness, “it was not necessarily a pertinent thing to do. French rights had been acquired before Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s TV series became a hit. By the time we made Mouche, the public had already watched the original show with subtitles.” And Mouche had lost its relevance. “When an international audience has access to the original TV series and can just add subtitles, you can really question the point of remakes.”
Indeed, it's a question that might be applied to Call My Agent!, which is being remade in Turkey, India, Canada and the UK. Cottin is unconvinced. "In Turkey my character has suddenly become heterosexual, which, of course, is a terrible pity, because the fact that she is a lesbian makes her who she is."
In another life, Cottin would not have chosen to study at the Sorbonne. Instead, she would have remained in London after her baccalauréat and enrolled at Rada or Lamda. “I love British theatre. I love every play by Harold Pinter and Martin McDonagh. And I love British actors: they have an intensity and a playfulness that, combined, is really powerful.”
Camille Cottin is ready for her close-up. Many of us are waiting impatiently. –Guardian
The final season of Call My Agent! is on Netflix from Thursday, January 21st