Sympathy for the Movie Star

Ten Percent, a remake of the popular French series Call My Agent, is a surprisingly tender ode to acting.

Still from 'Ten Percent'
Jonathan Birch / Sundance Now

When the writer and director John Morton first heard—via a call from his agent—that the French comedy Call My Agent was being adapted in Britain, it struck him that there were two directions in which the series could go. The French show has drawn a cult following on Netflix over the past few years for its droll, charming portrayal of Parisian film agents and the movie stars who plague and sustain them. A British version, Morton thought, could easily lean all the way into the current trend for poisonous, venal satire; the more inane vipers hissing and biting at one another to get roles for their spoiled, Botoxed clients, the better.

That incarnation of the show might have killed, but it wasn’t the adaptation that Morton wanted to write. Nor would it have spiritually aligned with the original series, titled Dix Pour Cent in France, in which it’s always clear that despite their backstabbing, bed-hopping, and truth-stretching, the employees of Agence Samuel Kerr do what they do because they passionately believe in the art of cinema. “These stories could so easily have been told with a very cynical voice,” Morton told me over Zoom earlier this month, from his office in London. Instead, the French show “went for something, I think, much more interesting and truer. And—sorry, it’s an unfashionable word—kinder.” It was this wry, curious empathy for artists and their enablers that he most wanted to emulate in a remake.

The result is a show that’s less obviously satirical about the entertainment industry than it is heartfelt. Ten Percent, which is streaming on Sundance Now and AMC+, and, starting Sunday, airing weekly on BBC America, cribs liberally from the French series in spots; the first episode, guest-starring the Scottish actor Kelly MacDonald as a fictionalized Kelly MacDonald whose agent can’t tell her that she’s too old for a starring role in a massive Hollywood franchise, follows the Call My Agent pilot with Cécile de France almost beat for beat. The agency, renamed Nightingale Hart, is also broadly the same: There’s the moody senior partner with secrets (played by Jack Davenport); the ambitious, enigmatic agent snapping at his heels (Lydia Leonard); the eccentric elder doyenne (Maggie Steed); the kindly klutz (Prasanna Puwanarajah). The agents lie delicately and indelicately to their clients; they get into jams; they try ferociously to fib their way out of them. The British show is similarly boosted by a parade of guest stars playing exaggerated versions of themselves: Emma Corrin, Himesh Patel, Helena Bonham Carter, David Harewood, Clémence Poésy.

'Ten Percent' scene set in an elevator
Rob Youngson / Sundance Now

What most clearly defines the British show, though, is its abundant tenderness for the actors who come and go. In casually researching his role, Davenport told me, he directed questions at his own agent over lunch and was struck by what he described as the fascinating “emotional terrain” that agents occupy: “You’re dealing with people whose job is to be vulnerable in public, and whose own vulnerability is what allows them to do that. We’re not all neurotic show ponies. But we’re not widgets.” In one episode, the actor Dominic West stars as himself, finally playing Hamlet onstage in the West End in an outré production featuring selfie sticks, live video footage, and a ’70s glam-rock aesthetic. (Ivo van Hove, call your agent.) The inadequacy that the fictionalized West seems to feel, the fear that he’s both too old and too inept for the task at hand, is enthralling to watch.

In the episode, West is counseled by a character Morton invented for Ten Percent, an alcoholic, washed-up actor named Simon Gould (Tim McInnerny). Throughout the series, Gould pops up as a recurring reminder of his profession’s cruelty, apologizing for his failures, doling out gentle guidance, and then fleeing any opportunities he’s offered for the nearest pub. There might be Simon Goulds in France and the U.S., Morton said, but he thinks that there’s something “very British about that kind of failed character who’s destroyed by the thing that nearly made him great. He’s channeling something in his life that can enable him to do something extraordinary onstage. But it’s that thing that he can’t quite control.” It seems fitting that if the quality defining Call My Agent is a confidently Gallic je ne sais quoi, the most singular characteristic of Ten Percent is a strikingly British sense of inferiority and squandered potential.

Before Ten Percent, Morton made his name in Britain writing workplace comedies, including Twenty Twelve, a mockumentary about the team organizing the 2012 London Olympics, and W1A, a gentle satire about the managerial staff of the BBC. What unifies his work, he thinks, is his fondness for institutions in which people have a remit to try to do the right thing, even if they fail spectacularly. In the first episode of Ten Percent, Puwanarajah demonstrates how deftly an agent has to sidestep his way around the truth. “I can’t lie to her, obviously,” he tells his colleagues about an actor. They reply with a chorus of no’s, shaking their heads. “But obviously I can’t tell her the truth.” They all repeat their no’s, more vehemently. To be an agent, Morton said, is “to be constantly navigating your way along a very thin ledge, [on] either side of which lies lying.” He thinks it’s a fascinating place to investigate dramatically.

What’s most striking about Ten Percent, though, is the free-flowing way it imagines its ode to the acting world. The elements that resonate most are the ones that Morton and his co-writers invented: the shadow of “the Americans” that looms over every British creative institution, for instance, such as when a big U.S. agency launches a takeover bid for Nightingale Hart; or the comedy of errors that arises from, as Morton puts it, the gap between what British people think and what they actually say. More than anything, though, the sympathy the show has for actors and artists feels counterintuitive and compelling. “There’s a cliché about actors being neurotic bobbleheads, which is sometimes applicable but a little bit lazy,” Davenport said. Morton, though, “has this worldview that’s incredibly tender about human frailty. It’s almost like comedy via compassion.” Which, in the cutthroat world of agenting, turns out to have its rewards.