After years of having to deal with Béatrice Dalle’s drug habit, Isabelle Adjani’s pointless telephone calls, Rupert Everett’s “enormous” financial demands and hundreds of other such problems, Dominique Besnehard felt the need to get it all off his chest.
One evening, after a particularly difficult day at the office, Paris’s best-known talent agent sat with two colleagues to write the script of a show that would recount their travails at the heart of French cinema.
Thus was born Dix Pour Cent, the French series about a Parisian talent agency first broadcast on the state-owned channel France 2, then bought by Netflix and brought to a global audience under the name Call My Agent!
The comedy-drama has become a worldwide hit, earned critical acclaim and helped to challenge a few stereotypes about the French, notably that their supercilious nature is a bar to self-deprecating humor — a notion undermined by the guest stars, ranging from Juliette Binoche to Jean Dujardin, who hold themselves up to mockery by playing themselves in story lines that inevitably involve them foisting troubles upon long-suffering agents treated as managers, fixers, child-minders, therapists and agony aunts.
Years of having to deal with Béatrice Dalle’s drug habit, Isabelle Adjani’s pointless telephone calls, and Rupert Everett’s “enormous” financial demands.
With the series in its fourth season and a British remake in the pipeline, Besnehard has co-authored a book about Artmedia, the French talent agency where he worked for 22 years until 2007 and on which Call My Agent! is based.
Artmedia, Une Histoire du Cinéma Français is the true story of the agency known as ASK in the series and the facts often bear a striking resemblance to the fiction. Besnehard tells, for instance, of receiving telephone calls at 4am from anguished stars, having to eat two lunches, one after another, to avoid saying “non” to famous actors demanding to see him straight away, hours listening to accounts of the twists and turns of their love lives, and tensions with his financial director over his notoriously high expenses, such as when he insisted on flying to Russia with Sophie Marceau, his client, for the inauguration of a luxury goods boutique.
“The reality was very similar to what you see in the series,” Besnehard says as we talk in the modern, spacious office in central Paris that is home to the production company that he set up after leaving Artmedia and which makes Dix Pour Cent (the French title being a reference to the standard 10 percent commission fee for agents).
He says the character of Gabriel Sarda — an artistic, whimsical agent more interested in culture than finance, played by Grégory Montel — is based on himself. Andréa Martel, the agent played by Camille Cottin, who puts as much determination into securing roles for her clients as she does into seducing her female lovers, is based on Elisabeth Tanner, who started as Besnehard’s assistant before going on to assume a senior role in Artmedia, he says.
Besnehard, 67, is a large man with small glasses, unkempt grey hair, a teasing glint in his eye, the corpulence of a teddy-bear and a slightly effeminate lisp. He entered the agency in 1985 after a career as a casting director, and ended up with dozens of stars on his books, including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Eric Cantona and Kristin Scott Thomas.
“They’d say, ‘We’re going to Dominique,’ ” he says. “I felt flattered and proud.”
It was not always easy, though. “Being an agent, if you do it well, is all-consuming,” he says. “You are the recipient of all the anguishes and all the questions that the talents ask themselves, and I can tell you that actors are always worried. When you have to deal with that all the time, it’s very wearing.”
Consider, for instance, the great actresses on his books, such as Adjani, who, according to Artmedia, Une Histoire du Cinéma Français, is known for calling a dozen people at the slightest sign of a problem, or Jeanne Moreau, who was so fierce that when Besnehard left the agency none of his colleagues wanted to take her on for fear of her temper.
Then there was the hugely talented but self-destructive Dalle, the star of Betty Blue, the 1986 French movie, who was forever in trouble with the law largely because, as she subsequently admitted, she “tried everything” in terms of drugs.
“She’s calmed down now, and she’s had the good sense to kick the habit, but she wasn’t easy to handle in those days,” Besnehard says. “God knows I liked her a lot and I protected her, but it really was quite complicated.”
He had British and American actors on his books as well, such as Everett, who had his awkward side. “I adore Rupert, but he was a diva,” says Besnehard, who recalls the “enormous contract” demanded by Everett for a role in a two-part French television version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 2003 and his repeated clashes on set with Nastassja Kinski, his co-star, and Josée Dayan, the director, while Catherine Deneuve, who was also in the film, strove valiantly to keep the peace.
Jeanne Moreau … was so fierce that when Besnehard left the agency none of his colleagues wanted to take her on for fear of her temper.
Nevertheless, he describes Everett as a “fine person” who stood by Dalle despite her drug problems after they had what he calls an “impossible” six-month affair (impossible because Everett is gay and of conservative demeanor while she is heterosexual and punk).
On the whole, Besnehard says that British and American celebrities tend to be “better behaved” than their French counterparts. Take, for instance, Sigourney Weaver, who features in the latest season of Call My Agent! and who, he says, always responds swiftly when sent a script — unlike “French actors, particularly the male ones, who always take ages to get round to reading anything and who take a long, long time to answer”.
Besnehard says that Artmedia, founded in 1970, set out to terminate such haphazard practices, bringing Anglo-Saxon professionalism to a French talent agency business long dominated by amateurish impresarios. “We probably got above ourselves,” he says. “We wanted to be Americans.”
They never quite managed it, though, at least if Call My Agent! is anything to go by. The series depicts the Parisian agency as noticeably less venal than its Hollywood counterparts — not as interested in ramping up the revenue of its clients as in finding roles for them in culturally uplifting movies.
Besnehard says the depiction is accurate, at least as far as he is concerned. “I wanted films to be produced and I wanted to protect my actors, but I didn’t do hold-ups on salaries. That’s perhaps my left-wing side. Subconsciously, I’d say to myself, ‘They earn so much anyway, there’s no need to get more.’ ”
On the whole, Besnehard says that British and American celebrities tend to be “better behaved” than their French counterparts.
Nevertheless, he often found himself drawn into financial discussions, notably when placing actors in British and American films. “Perhaps things have changed now, but when I was an agent it was always difficult to get decent pay for French actors in England.”
Nathalie Baye, the French actress, for instance, was “very badly paid” for her role in Stephen Poliakoff’s 1997 British film Food of Love, he says, adding that $60,000 constitutes “very bad pay” for someone like her, and “less than $120,700 is not very much”.
He says an actor of Baye’s stature would expect at least $362,000 for a role in a movie in France, while Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu and the like could command $1.2 million. It was no easier in the US, where Baye accepted a role in Steven Spielberg’s 2003 movie Catch Me if You Can, only to be offered “less than for a French film”. He had to secure the services of an American agent to ensure she “obtained what she wanted”, he says.
Besnehard adds that, in his experience, British theater also offers “very modest pay”, well below Parisian standards where well-known actors can expect between $600 and $1,200 a performance.
After 22 years negotiating on behalf of his clients and listening to their woes, Besnehard decided that it was time to make films and programs himself. He left Artmedia in 2007, set up Mon Voisin Productions and embarked on the long and arduous task of selling his idea for a series about a talent agency to television executives.
“They said it would never work,” he says. “The main argument against it was to say that it was a bourgeois-bohemian thing and that the wider public would not want to watch it. They also said that actors would never want to play their own roles and put themselves in danger.”
It took him seven years to overcome the doubters, but when the series was finally broadcast on France 2 in 2015, it almost always attracted more than three million viewers and often more than four, along with an impressive lineup of guest stars from Julie Gayet to Monica Bellucci.
Besnehard has no say over who or what will feature in the British version of Call My Agent!, which is due to start shooting shortly and be broadcast 12 months later. However, he has his view on British talent agents, who he says tend to be distinguished, cultivated, well-versed in theater and coy about their sexuality.
“Rupert Everett and Jane Birkin used to tell me stories about their agents, who were sometimes homosexuals who were very refined but a bit reluctant to talk about that,” says Besnehard, who is himself gay.
“I remember going to London and thinking, ‘It’s the opposite to Paris.’ Me, I have no problem about saying who I am, but you felt that over there it was not the done thing to pour forth about your life.”
There is the teasing glint in his eye as he says this, making it difficult to know whether he intends it as a compliment to the British — or not.
Adam Sage is a longtime Paris correspondent for The Times of London