If you’re an actor in the rare position of becoming internationally famous in your 80s, then it’s rather fitting to achieve it with a role that ripely resembles you. In recent years the world has come to know the veteran French actor Liliane Rovère as Arlette Azémar, the seasoned “impresario” – as she prefers to be known – in the French TV series Dix Pour Cent, AKA Call My Agent!. The show has become a global hit on Netflix, and Arlette has struck a chord as everyone’s ideal disreputable aunt with a repertoire of outrageous stories that she just might tell if the burgundy is flowing. She is the sly, sharp-tongued doyenne of top Paris talent agency ASK, who knows where the bodies are buried, and just when to dig them up.
It is easy to imagine that Arlette is Rovère. You can just see Arlette reading Nietzsche while listening to Charlie Parker and smoking a joint – and if you dip into Rovère’s 2019 memoir, La Folle Vie de Lili, you’ll see that she depicts herself doing just that on the first page. Likewise, it came as no surprise in season two to learn that Arlette had supposedly had a youthful romance with jazz legend Chet Baker – a plotline that also came directly from Rovère’s own “wild life”.
Speaking in French on a Sunday afternoon Skype call, Rovère seems very much Arlette – same chic, “undone” hairdo, same deep raspy voice – the main difference being that she is way more upbeat than her sardonic screen character. Surrounded by shelves of books in her flat in Paris’s 9th arrondissement, Rovère – now 88, her energy manifestly undimmed by a lifetime of late nights in jazz joints – tells me she was surprised that Call My Agent!, with its super-niche in-jokes about Gallic showbiz, was a hit internationally. But she can absolutely see why it was.
“People are fascinated by cinema,” she says, “By the image. When I was young and people asked me what I did, I’d tell them I was an actress and their eyes would light up – it catches their imagination. The series takes you backstage and shows you the other side of the decor – and it’s about a top agency with major clients.”
And of course, the show is full of guest turns by A-list stars – Isabelle Huppert, Monica Bellucci, Jean Dujardin – gleefully queueing up to make fun of themselves. “Well,” Rovère sniffs, “anyone who can’t make fun of themselves had better learn to.”
So how much Liliane is there in Arlette? “Beaucoup,” she says. The writers decanted a lot of Rovère into the character – her love of jazz and movies, her partiality to the odd joint, her romance with Baker. With her office a shrine to pre-New Wave stars such as Gérard Philipe, and her beloved terrier named after revered actor Jean Gabin, Arlette embodies the history of French cinema as an esteemed art: “She’s a lot less commercially minded than the other characters,” says Rovère. “She takes her cinema seriously.” In fact, the character was originally inspired by a celebrated Paris agent named Josette Arrigoni. “She’s a real force in the business,” says Rovère, “but – no offence meant – she’s une petite dame, quite proper, very comme il faut. And I’m…” – knowing smile – “well, I’m not very comme il faut.”
That much is amply clear from her immensely readable, sometimes hair-raising memoir, which copiously spills the beans about Rovère’s tough times and wild years, and contains some disarmingly frank confidences – like the perils of juggling two jazzmen lovers at the same festival, or Baker calming her down with an unspecified “sex act” when she was having a bad trip on mescaline.
But there are also more sombre revelations, like her experience of being raped in Paris in her teens – something that, Rovère says with a stern edge in her voice, did not traumatise her, simply because she refused to let it. “Not for the sake of the two sadists who did it to me. I totally understand if it’s not like that for other people, but I survived.”
The book also recounts Rovère’s unhappy 20-year marriage to the late jazz bassist Gilbert “Bibi” Rovère, whose jealousy and addictions soured their life together. She wrote more than candidly about all of this with the encouragement and the blessing of her daughter Tina, whom the couple adopted in 1971. “She made up my mind to write it. She said: ‘Maman, I want to know everything – write it all down.’ And I did. But I was careful not to be indiscreet, or vulgar. My daughter and I are very close, and she loves her father too. I didn’t want to destroy him in the book.”
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Rovère was born Liliane Cukier on 30 January 1933 – the same day, her memoir recalls, that Hitler became German chancellor. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland; the family was not observant, but young Liliane did hear Yiddish spoken at home. “I still have some Yiddish. I love the sound, and I love the insults, they’re a scream.” What’s her favourite? Without a second’s pause, she replies: “May your arms shrink so that you can’t scratch your arse,” and breaks into a broad grin.
During the occupation, she and her parents were able to escape to south-western France, a resistance stronghold. Her book recounts many close shaves – hiding out with Dominican nuns, she and her brother narrowly escaping an SS roundup – but Rovère doesn’t remember the period as frightening. “It was frightening for the adults – I was a girl and no one told me what was going on. I went to school, I studied, I really wasn’t aware of the significance of what was happening, so it wasn’t traumatic for me.”
For me, Macron is kind of a sociopath. He’s so in love with himself, I doubt he gives much thought to how other people live
Back in Paris after the Liberation, the teenage Rovère – like so many of her generation in France – fell in love with all things American, especially jazz. She became a regular of the Left Bank, and her book evokes a shabbily glamorous microcosm centred around US musicians’ hangouts like the Hotel La Louisiane, and venues such as the renowned mildew-ridden basement club Le Tabou, a milieu where she came to know not just jazz musicians but also literati such as the absurdist playwright Arthur Adamov and the novelist-singer-songwriter-trumpeter Boris Vian.
For Rovère’s generation, the Quartier Saint-Germain was just “le Quartier”: “That’s where I felt at home. Now it’s super-clean and full of swanky shops and restaurants. The restaurants I ate in were really grubby, but they were interesting. It was a village.”
In 1954, her mother, somewhat counterintuitively, thought it might help to put Rovère on the straight and narrow if she went to stay with relatives in New York. Rovère suspects she thought her daughter might find a husband. Instead – where else but at fabled venue Birdland? – she met Chet Baker, the angel-voiced, boxer-faced trumpeter and singer, jazz’s all-time matinee idol. He fell wildly in love with her, while for Rovère: “I didn’t have any doubts – I yielded very easily! I wasn’t in love like he was, but he charmed me – he was handsome, he was young, he was bold, he was famous.” The pair clicked, much to the chagrin of Baker’s wife, who pulled a gun on her rival. “I didn’t think things through much,” Rovère admits about her youth. “I wasn’t what you’d call sensible. Things happened to me, and I’d go along with them.”
She spent two years with Baker, accompanying him on tour in the US, where they became an intensely photogenic golden couple: a famous photograph by William Claxton shows a short-haired, kohl-eyed Rovère in a black dress, Baker laying his head on her breast. She was in her element in New York, where she met her share of musical deities: she played chess with Dizzy Gillespie, while Charlie Parker tried to tell her what pieces to move; Count Basie made a tentative pass at her. Los Angeles, on the other hand, wasn’t her style. It was too clean – “like Switzerland” – and its jazz scene was spoiled for her by the pressure to be cool and radiate a lofty west-coast reserve. “I learned how to do it but it wasn’t my temperament. Today, being cool means something completely different – it just means being straightforward, being nice with people – sympa, you know? It’s not the same thing.”
But Baker’s heroin addiction put a strain on their relationship, which ended after Rovère had to return to France when her visa expired. In her book, she describes the trumpeter as “an adolescent”. “For me, he never really became an adult – he wouldn’t have got stoned the way he did if he’d really grown up. He was so gifted musically, it all came from his ear, he didn’t work at it. I think he was afraid – and I think that was because he didn’t know how he did what he did.”
By contrast, another jazz titan for whom Rovère had a long-running, and mutual, passion was saxophonist Dexter Gordon – with whom she was reunited when the late Bertrand Tavernier cast them both in his 1986 jazz film, Round Midnight. “Ah, Dexter! He was different – he’d get stoned just as much as Chet, but he really was an adult. I was a thousand times more in love with Dexter.”
Rovère herself flirted with heroin but, miraculously, never got hooked. “Jamais, jamais, jamais. My only addiction has been cigarettes, from the age of 16 to fortysomething, then I stopped. I smoke joints, that’s common knowledge – but not 25 a day like I used to smoke cigarettes… I don’t have greedy enzymes.”
Throughout her book, Rovere admits that she was not just naive in her youth, but also strangely unaware of what was going on around her – for example, too sunk in the nightlife of 1950s Paris to notice the tumultuous events then happening in Algeria. In the US, freely moving in African American jazz circles, she also says she managed to be completely unaware of racism.
Although she had a tentative start in showbiz at 20, as a dancer in a Paris revue, Rovère didn’t become a performer until five years later, when her mother suggested she enrol on an acting course. She went on to have a successful stage career, often working with experimentally inclined directors such as Jorge Lavelli, rather than in popular boulevard theatre. By contrast, her cinema work has largely been more commercial but also includes films with auteurs such as Bertrand Tavernier, veteran provocateur Bertrand Blier and the late Chantal Akerman, in her Proust-inspired La Captive (2000).
Rovère came to politics late too, not voting until she was 28, but remaining firmly on the left to this day: her book contains a photo of her in 1969, hawking copies of what was then the French Communist party house journal, L’Humanité. She came to realise that one way or another, you can’t escape politics: “People say to me: ‘Oh, I’m not interested in politics,’ and I always tell them: ‘Well, politics is interested in you.’” These days, she’s vociferous about where she stands: “The more I learn about the system, the angrier I am.” She rages in her book about “Uberisation” and about the way that French politics has been consumed by management culture. She has no time for Emmanuel Macron. “For me, he’s kind of a sociopath. He’s so in love with himself, I doubt he gives much thought to how other people live.” But things could get worse in France: Rovère dreads the possibility that extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen could take power. “I remember Vichy France, and for me, people like that are Vichyites – they would have been collaborators during the war.”
Meanwhile, Rovère has hardly been resting on the laurels of belated fame. She has written a feature script for a thriller set during the occupation, but doubts that it will get made – “too radical, too dark, too expensive” – so is now busy recrafting it as a novel. Apart from the promised fifth season and feature film spin-off of Call My Agent! – about which she’s waiting to learn more, as it is all still being written – Rovère has completed the second tranche of another French show on Netflix, Family Business, in which she is a more conventional comedy matriarch – the grand-mère of a clan of kosher butchers trying to move into cannabis production. And she can soon be seen in 8 Rue de l’Humanité, a comedy about a block of flats in lockdown, directed by the massively popular French actor-director Dany Boon: “I like black comedy, and he doesn’t do black comedy – but I like Dany, and I have a lovely role.”
Rovère happily spent lockdown in her apartment with her cats, writing every day and listening to jazz – the classics like Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, her old friend Bud Powell, and that other piano great Bill Evans, whom she admits she has only lately discovered. Then there is her passion for the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whom she didn’t understand at first – “I tried reading his Ethics. Every word weighs a ton” – but whose thought she says cured her of a lifelong tendency to worry. “He gives you a complete explanation of the world, and he shows you how to deal with your anxieties, all those little worms that gnaw away at you. Try him, you’ll see.”
Given that Rovère seems to have lived several more lives than most of us, you can see why sudden celebrity might not have affected her too much. “I get offered more work, but nothing else has changed,” she shrugs. “I’m still me. I was the same before, I’ll be the same afterwards.” Which, you can imagine, means cool. But cool in the good way – sympa, and none too comme il faut.