If you’ve ever watched excruciatingly funny workplace satires W1A or Twenty Twelve, you’ll know that timing is key when it comes to writer-creator John Morton’s trademark quick fire dialogue, where no one says quite what they think, and a slight pause can have hundreds of potential meanings.
Spare a thought, then, for Lydia Leonard and Prasanna Puwanarajah, who auditioned for Ten Percent, Morton’s London-set remake of the hit French comedy Call My Agent!, on Zoom, subject to the vagaries of “Lydia’s terrible broadband connection”, as the latter puts it. “We auditioned together during that second wave [of the coronavirus pandemic] when we were locked down – that da-da-da of the dialogue on a Zoom delay was kind of painful,” Leonard explains.
It sounds like the sort of politely awkward behind-the-scenes moment that the show – set in a Parisian talent agency in the original and a Soho equivalent in this new version, peopled by stressed-out agents wrangling the demands of their celeb clients, played by IRL stars, while managing their own chaotic lives - skewers so well. Life imitated art when they dialled in for a digital read-through with the rest of the cast (which includes Jack Davenport and Maggie Steed as agency bosses and new faces like Harry Trevaldwyn and Hiftu Quasem as eager-to-please assistants) too.
“Maggie hadn’t got the email with the most up to date scripts, so she was half way through them going, ‘I just don’t know what [is going on]”, Puwanarajah says. “It was like a weirdly meta version of the show.” It was, Leonard says, “a relief when [they] finally got in the room” to film. “It’s very specific, John’s writing,” she adds. “There’s so many ‘right, yeah, right’, especially in those meeting room scenes, when we’re all in - they were really fun, because it’s a fun cast, but took quite a lot of concentration.”
Leonard was already a “really big fan” of the French series, and “absolutely loved Camille Cottin,” who played sharp-tongued, workaholic agent Andréa Martel, the closest equivalent to her character Rebecca. “I had her very much on a pedestal in my mind… I would have just binged the whole lot but when this started becoming a reality, I decided to step away, not because I needed to constantly distance myself, but because John Morton’s scripts are so authored and authentic to their own world.”
She has been with working with the same agent since drama school. The actor-agent relationship is “emotional and multi-faceted” and you inevitably “pick up a lot” about the profession from the other side, she says. “I think I always quite fancied the idea of being an agent and even if you’re not observing them for a role, you obviously notice a lot about the way it works… There’s clearly a lot of juggling, of switching roles, to be doing.”
Puwanarajah, whose character Dan is based on Grégory Montel’s Gabriel in the original, has hopped between representatives throughout his career (he also works as a director and writer, so has dealt with agents “facing the other way”). “I’ve never left an agent in my life, many have left me,” he says, joking about “retirements” (on the agent’s side) and “sackings” (on his). Both his and Leonard’s agents have presumably been pretty busy recently, though. Puwanarajah featured in the sixth series of Line of Duty last year and is set to play Martin Bashir in The Crown’s penultimate season; Leonard will star in the same show as Cherie Blair, and is currently appearing in the second series of Gentleman Jack.
Much of the appeal of Ten Percent and Call My Agent!, Puwanarajah reckons, lies in the fact that an agent’s world is normally “a very secret space… the intricacies of that workplace are not really in the public domain, necessarily. But those secret pieces of chicanery are interacting with celebrity pop culture… you’ve got these people in this kind of secret space, pulling levers and making things happen.”
“Lots of people are quite interested to see behind the curtain, the machinations of this quite front-facing industry, all the actors and the glitz”, Leonard agrees. “The agents are this sort of unseen lubricant to the cogs.” Early episodes see Dan tying himself in knots to avoid letting Kelly Macdonald know that she’s been dropped from a tentpole film because she’s been deemed too old and Rebecca digging herself into a hole when it emerges that two of the agency’s clients, Helena Bonham Carter and Olivia Williams, have been offered the same part. There’s a “plausibility around the storylines”, Puwanarajah says, because “the weirdest things can happen in that space – it’s a particularly strange gargoyle of an industry, so it feels like almost anything that could happen probably has [already] happened.”
Actors, Leonard says, are often “quite easy targets” for satire, but she reckons Morton’s show treats them fairly, “with a lot of heart.” There is, she adds, “a perception that we’re all kind of neurotic show ponies when actually, there are some perfectly ordinary ones out there – present company excluded… I think I’d feel uncomfortable being in a show that was really taking the piss or sending up actors. But [Ten Percent] doesn’t do that.”
Both reckon that the actors playing versions of themselves as cameos had a “harder” job than they did (though Leonard notes that her co-star Davenport had the odd experience of acting opposite his longtime friend Williams). “That’s much more of a leap of faith,” Puwanarajah says. “We just look around and go, ‘Oh, Kelly Macdonald’s in the office!’ Then you’ve got to do as little acting as possible.”
“It was so generous of that brilliant roster of people,” Leonard adds. “They were fans of the [French] show, I suspect, so it’s quite self-selecting. They all came with great energy and a huge dollop of trust, because it’s quite brave. I don’t know if I’d play myself in anything – I think I’d be too scared.” Puwanarajah, meanwhile, jokes “I probably couldn’t get seen to play myself.” Sounds like a potential storyline for a future series.
Ten Percent is on Prime Video from April 28