I was in a staff meeting around the time Call My Agent! was becoming a hit when a colleague confessed they couldn’t bear to watch. “It makes me too anxious.” No matter how many rave reviews the French drama received, it felt too much like real life. Why would we subject ourselves to more of the quarrels, the toadying, the exasperation, the disappointment, the bumpy camaraderie and hair-raising treachery?
“The word ‘agent’,” Peggy Ramsay, the legendary literary agent declared to that arch-thespian Simon Callow, “is the most disgusting in the English language.” Yet, we do not sit behind large desks barking at assistants in the style of Entourage’s famous LA agent Ari Gold, while selling our clients to the highest bidder for our cut, interrupted only for daily lunch at The Ivy or a red-carpet film premiere or opening night at the theater. Darling — that’s utter bollocks.
But what is our life really like? Next time you hear “I’d like to thank my agent” in an award ceremony speech, spare a thought for us. We play our own part — confidant, sounding board, negotiator, psychotherapist, friend, mother, priest, creative adviser, stooge, counselor, nurse, whipping boy, walker, fall guy. We are the keepers of secrets. We’re allies. We see behind the curtain where actors, writers, directors — outwardly full of charm, confidence and seeming good nature — can let their guard down and their insecurities hang out.
Think of a problem and you can bet I’ve been asked about it. Legal, financial, marital, emotional, gynecological. Nothing is off limits.
“If I book a holiday will I miss out on the job of my dreams?” inquired an ambitious new director. How many times do I have to tell you all, I don’t have a crystal ball.
We are the keepers of secrets. We’re allies.
And then there’s the common cry of: “But what else is coming up?” I know you’d prefer The Crown, but let’s focus on what’s in front of us … Casualty is Bafta-winning after all …
Being an agent involves managing expectations. “Do you think I have the slightest chance at Bond?” a veteran director without a feature film asked. No. The old agent adage comes in handy: “You never know …”
Then there’s marriages. Once I was fired just to throw a client’s wife off the scent because he was actually having an affair with a makeup artist. It didn’t work out — he went to a male agent, got divorced and rarely worked again. I still wonder if it was worth it.
As the show’s title says, 10 percent is the amount agents are traditionally paid, but truth be told it’s often 12.5 or 15 percent. We don’t charge an hourly rate like lawyers. If a client doesn’t work, we don’t get paid. Think of all the time they are not working when we are — that’s what they pay commission for. All the hours of phone calls, sending out scripts, headshots, showreels, travel. No one gets to see behind the scenes — who wants to hear, “I have made 20 phone calls, sent countless e-mails, taken people to lunch, supper, the theater and still you haven’t got the job”. That’s what you pay for. Not to mention the advice, our relationships years in the making, the ability to negotiate, the industry insight and far-reaching tentacles of information. We allow them to concentrate on the creative and we take care of everything else, ten steps ahead sorting out things they will never even know about.
Whatever happens, though, however much we get the blame when it all goes wrong, we are always on the end of the phone. A piercingly self-obsessed client called me for a chat while I had norovirus. Weak as a kitten, I listened to his concerns from the bathroom floor, warning him that I might be indisposed. “Don’t worry,” he replied, “I’ll hold.” He did.
When it comes to awards ceremonies, give a passing thought for the table plan. No matter who you represent, us agents are inevitably exiled to somewhere by the loos. It reminds us of our status. I once turned up to a post-Oscar dinner for my nominated client only to discover I had been forgotten about altogether. There was, as someone regretfully announced, “no place for me”. Did I burst into tears and go home? Never. Without fuss I made my own little place and didn’t eat.
It’s a strange place to sit — present for years at the very heart of a person’s life but still not family. A dear client died some years ago. When the cancer returned for the final time he told only his family and me. In an unspoken agreement I would still send him scripts with the note “The dates might not work” and he’d send me back his thoughts, adding, “You’re right. Now’s not the right time.” I like to think it made him feel a little more normal. I still miss him.
We know that it’s show business. We’re not saving lives. Still, you may roll your eyes, but for us a thank-you goes a long way — especially during awards season. We’ll be sitting in the gods, out for our fifth night that week. And we’ll be back at work the next morning — albeit with a lot of coffee and some good stories — answering yet more questions. “Can you get me out of this series I have committed to for five years, and if not why not? Why did they get that award-winning job and not me? Oh, do you know any good cat-sitters?”