Meet "Call My Agent!" Star Camille Cottin

The ever-mounting success of Camille Cottin, whom you likely know best as Andrea, the swaggering heartbreaker from Netflix's French hit Call My Agent!, is a sign that intelligent life still exists in the universe. At 42, she's an unlikely age to land her first starring role opposite a Hollywood heavyweight (that would be Matt Damon in Tom McCarthy's sublime Stillwater), but the theater-trained Parisian has already carved out an enviable career in France playing "that woman." Not the femme fatale, the ingenue, or the manic pixie side piece, but the complicated figure who's both fucked-up and funny, vulnerable, sexy, proud, and cool as hell. The kind of multidimensional, fascinatingly imperfect female character who was once rare but who has, thank God, been proliferating in the golden age of television, with its growing ranks of hyper-talented women writer-producers like Michaela Coel, Jenji Kohan, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Call My Agent!'s creator, Fanny Herrero. It takes actors with intelligence and outsize charisma to pull off these roles. Among the international pantheon, Cottin shows strong for France.

Call My Agent! was already finishing its four-season run on the France 2 network when Netflix bought it for international distribution and turned it into an unexpected pandemic hit for the rest of the world. Credit much of the success to Cottin, first among an impeccable ensemble cast of lovingly drawn characters, and fast-moving scripts from showrunner Herrero. Acidly funny, piquantly observed, but with tons of heart, they gave Cottin a lot to work with. "Andrea is tough," Cottin says, "but she's passionate, courageous, clever, and honest. She could be less rough, but she's not doing it out of meanness. She's always full of confidence, but she stumbles, and that's what's likable about her." Cottin is deferential to Herrero's writers' room, which she swears she never bugged or visited. "They knew how we would embody things. I had very, very few comments for them." (During one lunch with Herrero, Cottin was asked if there was anything she would like to see for her character, and Cottin, a mom of two herself, pressed to include a plotline on the lack of legal options for gay and lesbian parents in France.) Now there's a Call My Agent! movie being developed, though rumors of a fifth season or a web of spin-offs are so far just that. "The announcement of Season 5 was quite funny," Cottin says, "because it was made by the production company, and I think the person who made it probably had the desire for a fifth season but hadn't really double-checked with the team. The actors were all sending each other texts like, 'Have they called you?' " They hadn't called.

Maybe they still will, but they'd better get on it, because the actors are busy. In addition to Stillwater, Cottin has just finished filming Ridley Scott's House of Gucci, in which she plays the blond and bereft Paola Franchi, the mistress of Adam Driver's Maurizio Gucci. "Maybe people aren't going to like that character, but she wasn't a gold digger or a marriage breaker. She was a woman in love. It's a sad story."

The era of Zoom interviews has denied the writers of celebrity profiles that all-important moment when their subject swans or stumbles into a hotel lobby bar dressed in ____ or ____ designer, orders green tea, and plays with her hair. Does she wear flats or heels? Does she bite her nails? Cottin showed up for the first of two chats sitting in front of a wall of small paintings of skeletons by her father, the artist Gilles Cottin, in a ponytail and tortoiseshell eyeglasses, having changed out of a Nike hoodie she had worn to exercise into a gray crewneck sweatshirt. Just over her shoulder, the black-and-white checkerboard floor of her kitchen in Paris's Ninth arrondissement was visible, as was her preteen son, who briefly slipped past. Cottin doesn't promise it would have been all that different IRL, though everyone I know, including family, friends, and acquaintances, is upset I didn't get to smell her hair. (She really is the entire world's girl crush.) "I'm always in trousers or jeans," Cottin says. "When I was 15, I could have spent a half hour making myself up, and now it's, like, two minutes. I would have put on some lipstick for you out of respect," she says, but that's about it. "As you get older, you know your face. A little here, a little there, and it's done." She wears pants on the red carpet and has no official relationship to a fashion house, though she is a big fan of Maria Grazia Chiuri at Christian Dior, whose clothes, it so happens, she wears here.

Maybe Cottin should get in touch with the designer, as Stillwater, a contemplative take on the Amanda Knox story [the American who, while studying abroad in Italy, was convicted of the murder of her roommate and ultimately exonerated], should get some awards love. In the film, now set in the French seaport of Marseille, Cottin plays Damon's friend and eventual love interest, a bit of the Good Samaritan. It's a cross-cultural love story, with Damon as a red-state dad showing up for his daughter, who has gotten mixed up in a murder. McCarthy, who also wrote and directed The Station Agent and co-wrote and directed Spotlight, is a moderately closeted Francophile, having spent writing time in Paris and Marseille. "It was the city that inspired the script," Cottin says. She has her own connections to the complicated, largely working-class town. Her mother moved there from Algeria, where she was part of the French expat community called pieds-noirs, who left the country en masse after Algeria's war for independence heated up.

Cottin's character in Stillwater is benevolent and mellow, which is not really how she would have been cast before, even if she resembles it more in conversation than the rapid-fire Andrea or the dithering Connasse, her best known character before Call My Agent! Connasse, which is hard to translate but is about as close to the C-word as you can get in French, was a series of hidden-camera shorts on Canal+ that started in 2013 and became a feature film in 2015. In two-minute bursts, Cottin's high-maintenance Parisian oversharer goes shopping, or rides the metro, or harasses a hairdresser, "saying things we think but do not say," says Cottin. At a sidewalk café she dresses down a fellow diner whose cigarette is bothering her, before taking a drag of her own. She shushes soft talkers, gives unsolicited advice, and asks the waiter for a Coke with no bubbles, "because bubbles are complicated." (In the movie version, she travels to the United Kingdom on the hunt for Prince Harry and ends up trying to literally scale the 30-odd-foot fence at Kensington Palace. It was shot guerrilla-style; the police eventually came.) Cottin's total conviction combined with her witty, understated delivery sold what could have been brutal, mean-spirited, and unfunny in someone else's hands. "I was like a very dark clown," she says. "It was cathartic. At the beginning I was very ill at ease, but then I understood that the crazier I was, the less harmful it was for people I interacted with." They weren't in on the joke, after all, though everyone else was.

Dark clowning skills came in handy when Canal+ bet on Cottin again with their adaptation of Waller-Bridge's Fleabag, called Mouche. They needed someone to play the Waller-Bridge role, tailored slightly for a French audience, which has, Cottin admits, somewhat less tolerance for really messy women. The show did not take off—Cottin has surmised that most of France already saw the original, so what was the point?—but the Waller-Bridge multiverse came calling again for Season 3 of Killing Eve, where Cottin plays a member of the organized crime ring The Twelve and plucks at hit woman Villanelle's mommy issues with aplomb.

Character actors like Cottin are generally under less pressure to look like Barbie dolls than their dramatic counterparts. Somewhat more so in France, where convincingly natural is more prized than cookie-cutter-perfect. (Though let's not put too fine a point on it: There isn't a ton of eccentricity among the country's biggest female stars.) Fortunately, no one ever told Cottin to fix her nose, which is regal, aquiline, and magnificent, but, for an image business, still relatively unconventional. "I started in theater, where the audience is far away, " she says. "They don't really see anything! I was working in very small theaters, just happy to have the opportunity to act, though it was financially not consistent at all. So I did commercials, and they didn't mind that much either." With Hollywood as our frame of reference — the industry that told Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, and Winona Ryder their looks might be a problem — can we say vive la différence?

Photographs and styling by Eliott Bliss. Hair by Perrine Rougemont. Makeup by Christophe Danchaud.

For more stories like this, pick up the August 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download July 16th.

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