I got the 88-year-old actress on the phone to ask her how to live
I am an unrepentant Call My Agent freak. I have seen the Netflix hit about Parisian talent agents, their assistants, and their famous guest star clients (including Isabelle Huppert, Monica Bellucci, and Jean Reno) three times and plan to do it again soon. I adore every character, but my favorite is Arlette, played by Liliane Rovère. She was 82 when the show began, and she’s 88 now. The way she plays Arlette makes me yearn to be old the way most actors make me yearn to be gorgeous. Arlette is not the boss, but the doyenne, the seasoned agent, the one who was there from the beginning, and whose eyes smolder with the lessons of the past and blaze with a hard-earned sixth sense for the future.
Watching the show, I was transfixed by Rovère’s face and how she carried herself. It wasn’t a matter of “looking good for her age,” a phrase which, at 51, I could do without hearing applied to me or anyone else. I don’t want to look good for my age, and I don’t mind not being young anymore, but I would like to do more than not mind it. I would like to really enjoy it, and Rovère actually seems to.
How had Rovère come to embody this hugely desirable state of being? What life events had produced such a person? It is of course ridiculous to think that knowing where someone is born or what their parents did would advance your understanding of their, what would you call it, awesome fucking vibe, but I googled nonetheless. Not a lot there: born Liliane Cukier, she married a Gilbert Rovère who died in 2007, she has a daughter, she had a long career as a working actress that included lots of theater gigs but didn’t take off until Call My Agent. There the well dries up.
I was forced to satisfy my obsession by watching the show which, despite its near perfection, should have had at least 50 percent more Arlette. I kept hitting rewind for another look at her radiant, agenty smile (its warm charm contains a glint of money) or the sound of her girlish giggle. Over and over again, I replayed a scene where she insults two male colleagues — “So long, guys, dick size contests don’t interest me outside the bedroom” — then exits center stage with her constant companion, a Jack Russell named for French actor Jean Gabin, trotting behind her on his red leash. The men are still smarting, but Arlette, her stride purposeful and quick, appears to have forgotten about them the moment she turns her back.
Still, I needed to know more about her. When I found out she had written an autobiography, La folle vie de Lili, I planned to skim it but then read, using Google Translate, all 300 plus pages. It is a document for which phrases like “seen it all” and “witness to history” were invented. Rovère was born in Paris in 1933 to Polish Jews. The first part of her childhood was spent happily in Paris, the next part, hiding from the Nazis in the French countryside. Her parents survived the Holocaust, but much of her family did not, and she grew up in the shadow of this despair.
Playing records for an adult’s party at age 12, she happened to put on Jimmie Lunceford’s swing era jazz record “Blues in the Night,” and the sounds took hold of her and never let her go. Jazz became everything to her. A fixture for several years at Paris’ jazz clubs, at 21, she wound up at Manhattan’s legendary Birdland and fell in love with Chet Baker. When this affair ended in heartbreak, she took up with another musician, Gilbert Rovère, who loved her, jealously, much more than she loved him. Her life hasn’t been easy or perfect, but she did a lot of interesting work, and her self-knowledge is impressive. Here is her description of readjusting to life in Paris post-war: “Once home, I came back to life all of a sudden, nature having given me a gift of beautiful vitality, which stayed with me throughout my life.” If someone else said this, I might be like, yeah, says who, but seeing her light up a screen at the age of 88, I believe it. And still, I wanted to know more — so I got her on the phone from her apartment in Paris.
All the other main characters on Call My Agent are young, meaning, 25ish to 50ish. They are all still worrying. They worry about sex, about children, about success. They are still frantic. When I asked Rovère what it was like acting on the show with a cast that is so young, she said, “I am old, I play with what I have. I use my luggage. What else am I going to do about it?”
Many of the characters on the show were based on real people; Arlette’s was originally based on a legendary French agent named Josette Arrigoni. Are they alike? “No,” Rovère replied, “She is a lady, I am a woman.” What did she mean by this? “She is not into jazz, or smoking joints,” Rovère said. In the end, Arlette, who also likes jazz and joints, was more a reflection of Rovère than Arrigoni. Was it her suggestion to name the dog after Jean Gabin? No, it wasn’t, she said, but it was a great name, because it showed how much Arlette loved old films.
Being an actress is an identity that Rovère seems to have worn both heavily and lightly. “I worked and didn’t work, and when I didn’t work, I had to work, so that I could take care of my daughter and myself: I waitressed, salesgirl, salesgirl, waitress. I preferred waitress.” If I was as good an actress as she was, and I didn’t get consistent, good paying gigs until my 80s, I would be angry. But this isn’t what it was like for her. “I don’t know how to say this, I am not ambitious. I don’t plan.” When she won the top award in acting school, her friend had to elbow her in the ribs to alert her to the fact that her name had been called. “I wanted to act. I never wanted to be a star,” she said.
I shared some meandering thoughts on ambition, like, I tended to be happier when things were going my way, and since they often weren’t, I was often unhappy. Here Rovère broke in: “You must be careful about that.” Her tone was very strong. “You do your best, then you take what you get. I did Call My Agent, and I got a lot more work from doing it. I got a lot more celebrity, more people recognized me on the street,” she said. “But then it will be gone and I will be the same person.” Possibly reading my mind, she added, “You must never get caught up in your own importance.”
What’s impressive about Rovère is not so much that she had a second act — or rather appears to the world to have had one — but that she would have been fine without it. It occured to me that living in a country with free healthcare might have allowed her to panic less about success, but I still thought there must be some kind of key to her magic. “I try to be honest, and not stupid,” she said several times. Was there a memory of stupidity that stuck with her? If she told me maybe I could avoid it. “Ah, you want me to elaborate, I see,” Rovère said. “I won’t.” I understood that one strategy for not being stupid is not to talk too much about being stupid. By not answering, she had given me, and everyone, a good place to start.