The British actress Lydia Leonard was born in France and lived in Paris until she was five, a detail she used to emphasize in interviews—until recently.
“My French, unfortunately, is appalling,” says Leonard, “but I always thought it sounded a bit boring saying I grew up in Hampshire,” a county on the south coast of England. “I thought it made me sound more interesting that I was born in Paris.”
But now the 40-year-old actress stars in Ten Percent, the British remake of the hit French show Call My Agent, about a team of scheming and skewering talent agents and the stars they represent. Leonard plays Rebecca Fox, a character based on Camille Cottin’s Andréa Martel. So, since the premiere of the show, Leonard has felt a bit self-conscious boasting about her French origins.
It isn’t just the fear that someone might spontaneously ask her to speak the language, maybe recite some Molière. It’s also the pressure she feels following in the footsteps of Cottin, whose success in Hollywood has skyrocketed with her role as Martel. Cottin first defined the “female Don Juan,” a character of equal parts wit, poise, and ruthlessness.
“I thought it made me sound more interesting that I was born in Paris”
Like many fans, Leonard discovered Call My Agent during the pandemic. While the show premiered in 2015, the hit fourth season debuted in October of 2020. Before she auditioned for the British remake, Leonard “had seen a couple of episodes and absolutely loved it.”
“Then I heard that I was in the running for the British one, so I decided to immediately stop watching,” Leonard explains. “It becomes even more daunting and it isn’t helpful.”
Leonard knew the British version would work best if the actress playing the central role found her own way into the character, not one based on Cottin’s. “I think it’s the only way you can do it,” she says. “Taking elements of another person’s performance would not have worked.”
In September 2021, after filming on Ten Percent wrapped in London, Leonard immediately devoured the French original. “I was buoyed by the fact that it is really different and we’re really different.”
This isn’t Leonard’s first adaptation. In 2014, she played Anne Boleyn in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Hilary Mantel’s best-selling novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. And she will step into a 1980s power suit to play Cherie Blair, the wife of former British prime minister Tony Blair, in the next season of The Crown.
For Leonard, the many years of hard work have paid off. In the beginning of her career, she says, “I was very conscious of the attitude that if you hadn’t made it by the time you were 25, you could forget it.” But for her, “the very best parts come when you’re in your 30s and 40s.”
Ten Percent is available for streaming on Amazon Prime in the U.K., and on Sundance Now and AMC+ in the U.S.
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for AIR MAIL