the saturday interview

Call My Agent! star Camille Cottin: ‘You are so much more desirable when you don’t give a damn’

As the Netflix smash returns for a final season, its breakout lead talks to Ellie Harrison about MeToo, being the French Fleabag and what her ruthless character Andréa has taught her about not playing nice 

Saturday 16 January 2021 07:00 GMT
‘It is such a relief to withdraw from any kind of seduction in my life’
‘It is such a relief to withdraw from any kind of seduction in my life’ (AFP via Getty Images)

If you were starting a career in showbiz, you'd want an agent like Andréa Martel on your side. In Netflix’s smash French comedy Call My Agent!, she lies, cheats and manipulates anyone who gets in her way, always ensuring that her celebrity clientele remains on top. She parties hard, brazenly pursues one-night stands like she’s hunting down prey, and always looks sharp the next day in a designer suit. Camille Cottin, who plays her, has won fans worldwide for her portrayal of the mega-brilliant mega-bitch at a Parisian talent firm – as ruthless as she is charming. “She is so direct and doesn’t care what people think,” says Cottin, “and that's what makes her sexy.”

Cottin is so convincing in the role that I was a little afraid to meet her, though I needn’t have worried. The actor is all of Andréa’s best bits – mischievous, frank and funny – over Zoom from her apartment in the chic ninth arrondissement of Paris, where she sits in front of shuttered French windows and plays with her tousled hair. She has won awards for her work as Martel, one of four scheming showbiz agents at the same company, who blackmail and spy on each other. But no matter which movie star struts through the agency’s revolving doors – and they all do, whether Charlotte Gainsbourg, Monica Bellucci or Isabelle Huppert – Cottin steals every scene with her withering wit and effortless insouciance. Rebuffing the advances of a male employee, she says: “When I moved on from guys to girls, it was like graduating from the sandpit to the football pitch.”  

Cottin, 42, has only found fame in recent years. The former English teacher became a star in France when she was 35 with her gutsy prank show Connasse, before going on to star in Call My Agent!. Thanks to the latter, a sleeper hit that found a new audience during lockdown, she has also broken out of the French film industry with a role in an episode of Killing Eve and forthcoming Hollywood parts in Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater, alongside Matt Damon, and Ridley Scott’s Gucci biopic with Adam Driver and Lady Gaga.  

The success of Call My Agent! is “like an echo”, says Cottin. “People are only just discovering the show,” she continues, “but it started five years ago” and so it’s bittersweet that it will end on a high with its fourth and final series this month.  

It will be exciting to see what happens to Martel, who we left in series three as a new mother with a potential promotion to managing director. The comedy is at times soapy and slapstick, at others genuinely poignant and political, managing to expose the dark and shallow side of the entertainment industry without taking itself too seriously. Part of its appeal is how it portrays the crème de la crème of French stars as insufferable divas: we see Bellucci spitting out a glass of water at a restaurant and berating the waitress for serving it too cold. Ageism, that unspoken topic among many actors, is dealt with deftly too, as stars flap about their potential younger replacements and consider getting cosmetic surgery to compete with them.  

At first the producers found it a challenge to persuade the French film elite to comply, but the show has come a long way since it began in 2015. Fast-forward to the last season and household names were falling over each other to get a foot in the door of the fictional agency ASK. One plotline featured Jean Dujardin as an actor so method-obsessed that he couldn’t shake off his role as a forest-dwelling army deserter, and ended up living in a tree, tearing apart wild rabbits with his teeth. Now everyone, French or not, wants to be involved – for the fourth season, Sigourney Weaver signed up without even reading the script. 

“She was happy to laugh at herself and depict herself as a big American star who would ask for someone to cut her meat,” says Cottin. “She’s not like that but she wasn't afraid to pretend to be, which is the problem we had at the beginning. Actors were not at ease with exaggerating a side of their personality, fearing what people would think. But Sigourney really jumped into the comedy of it.” 

Andréa, meanwhile, is an extremely refreshing female presence on screen. She is never the object of desire; instead, she is the one who desires. “In this industry there is a lot of seduction,” says Cottin. “When you're an actress meeting a director, having a drink, or even when you're an agent, it’s political. Andréa is interesting because she does not engage in la coquetterie. She never tries to provoke desire or emotion.” And her character inspired Cottin to let go of any concern about feminine wiles. “It is such a relief to withdraw from any kind of seduction in my life,” says the actor, who lives with her husband and their two young children. “Women are brought up with the idea that we should have an effect on the person who is talking to us or watching us. I feel so light without that pressure. It's so freeing. And you are so much more desirable when you don't give a damn about being desirable.”  

Cottin believes Andréa is somewhat liberated from the male gaze because the character is gay. “She will never be in a man’s bed – well, almost never – but she is out of their reach and out of their control, so that gives her something strong, too,” says Cottin. “Withdrawing the sexual dimension at work helps her to be seen as an equal.”  

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Level playing field: Grégory Montel, Camille Cottin and Assaad Bouab in Call My Agent!
Level playing field: Grégory Montel, Camille Cottin and Assaad Bouab in Call My Agent! (Shanna Besson)

While Call My Agent! plays for laughs, it touches on issues such as inappropriate workplace relationships and the pressures on actors to do nude scenes. There is an obvious resonance in light of the #MeToo movement and Cottin is keen to talk about the French version, known as #BalanceTonPorc (meaning “call out your pig”). In a 2019 interview, she linked France’s reluctance to name sexual predators to the country’s historical shame over Nazi collaboration in Vichy France. When I remind her of this comment, she laughs and shakes her head. “The minute I said that I regretted it,” she says. “That's a very bold interpretation. But something has changed since then.” 

Cottin points to actor Adèle Haenel’s actions as a major turning point in the movement in France, two years after #MeToo began. In November 2019, Haenel publicly accused director Christophe Ruggia of sexually harassing her when she was between the ages of 12 and 15, after she was cast in his 2002 film The Devils. She made headlines again last February for walking out of the César Awards and shouting “shame” after convicted rapist Roman Polanski was named Best Director.    

“What she did was so brave,” says Cottin. “To stand up against the law of silence and help other people speak out. It was really courageous because she knew she would be this figure for a long time. She now has this label as being the girl who opened the gate. Not just Adèle Haenel, the great actress.”  

At this point, Cottin’s five-year-old daughter Anna wanders into the frame to present her schoolwork. “Oh, c’est beau,” coos Cottin. Anna looks into the camera to give a shy wave and a “salut”.  

In this picture of domestic bliss, Cottin is worlds away from her prank show persona in Connasse, the series that made her a household name in France in 2013. The title literally translates as “bitch” and it’s the French cousin of Dom Joly’s Trigger Happy TV, with hidden cameras following Cottin around Paris as she behaves appallingly. In one typically plucky sketch, she sprays deodorant on to the armpits of unsuspecting men riding the Métro. And while filming the movie version of the series in London, Cottin was arrested twice: first for scaling the gates of Kensington Palace and then for interrupting the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. She was banned from the latter, and at the time she told the press she didn’t mind, “so long as they don’t ban me from Topshop”. 

She was the obvious choice to play Fleabag in the French remake, Mouche, in 2019. It’s almost identical to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s hit show – not just scene for scene but, at times, frame for frame – though with some key differences. Kentish Town side streets were upgraded to Paris squares, although Emily in Paris this was not. In the opening scene, Cottin’s Mouche pleasures herself not to a video of Obama but one of the French Socialist Party’s Benoît Hamon. Her director had originally suggested she masturbate over Conservative politician Dominique de Villepin, but Cottin was appalled by the idea. “I will never masturbate over a right-wing politician,” she laughs. “That would be in very bad taste.” 

‘I’ll just wait for this virus to leave us alone and then I’ll ask Phoebe Waller-Bridge out’
‘I’ll just wait for this virus to leave us alone and then I’ll ask Phoebe Waller-Bridge out’ (Canal+)

Looking back, though, she doesn’t think that it needed a remake (the show wasn’t met with the wildly positive reviews of Call My Agent!). “The director wanted to stick to it because it was so perfect,” says Cottin, laughing, “but everybody on the project underestimated the popularity of Fleabag. So by the time we finally released our version, the original had spread everywhere and it was like, ‘Oh, ours was not absolutely necessary.’” Waller-Bridge did, however, give Cottin her blessing in an email exchange. “She said she was really happy I did it and wished me the best,” she says. “She also said we should have drinks in London. So I'll just wait for this virus to leave us alone and then I'll ask her out.”  

Cottin was born in Paris but lived in London as a teenager when her stepfather’s job took the family to England, so she speaks the language well and feels “very attracted to British people and their way of living”. She loves Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel for the rawness and darkness of their work. “Those two are bringing out incredible characters in the way they talk about sex,” she says. “They are liberating the next generation of women.” I suspect that Cottin, whose characters don’t take orders from anyone, is doing the same. 

Call My Agent! returns to Netflix on 21 January

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