From ‘Call My Agent!’ to Hollywood Career

At some point during the pandemic, perhaps between the debut of “Ted Lasso” last August and “Bridgerton” in December, you may have happened upon Netflix’s French import “Call My Agent!” (“Dix Pour Cent” in French), a sweet yet absurd sendup 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 actress 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 content 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. The success of “Call My Agent!” has prompted spinoffs in Britain, Quebec and Turkey. And there is now talk of a stand-alone movie that will see Andrea Martel headed to New York.

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

“I was quite worried in the pandemic and I was a bit paralyzed,” Cottin said in English during a recent video call. “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 added with a grim laugh.

Cottin was conducting this interview in a car on her way home from a costume fitting for the 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 2.) Cottin’s new film “Stillwater,” in which she plays Virginie, a working actress and single mother who guides Matt Damon’s remorseful father through an ill-conceived journey in Marseilles, has just debuted to 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 was far less glamorous. Her 6-year-old daughter was fast asleep, head in mom’s lap. And when the car stopped, I could 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 paused 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, came home. “The father is here!” she exclaimed. “Virginie would have had to handle that situation alone.”

After a small role in the 2016 “Allied,” starring Brad Pitt, “Stillwater” represents Cottin’s biggest introduction yet to American audiences. It just may be the role that lets her officially cross over from obscure French actress 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 Maurizio Gucci (Driver). And she’s set to reprise her role as Hélène, a high-ranking member of the assassin organization the Twelve, in BBC’s “Killing Eve.”

The international community awakened to Cottin’s charms far before all of us in the United States were stuck at home. When “Call My Agent!” showed up on British television, Cottin discovered the show had found an audience across the English Channel. It was 2019, and she was attending a casting director festival in Kilkenny, Ireland, with her own French agent. Suddenly she was the center 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.

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 “Stillwater” director Tom McCarthy’s decision 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 in a recent interview from France. “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 said even though it’s one of the few roles she’s 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 realize quickly how great her potential for comedy is. It’s a skill she exhibited in her most well-known French role, playing the lead in the prank TV show “Connasse,” which means “bitch” in her native tongue. Her exploits included scaling Kensington Palace in search of an introduction to Prince Harry.

A “Call My Agent!” producer, Dominique Besnehard, described 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 said. “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 actress 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 said, 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.”

Besnehard suggested she could have a career like Binoche, taking roles both in France and the United States. “I hope the American people would not monopolize her,” he said.

McCarthy sees a much clearer trajectory.

“I predict great things for Cami and not just because of our movie, which I think she’s sensational in but it’s just her time,” he said. “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.”

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