Behind every A-list star is a very hectic agent double-checking contract details, managing schedules, and staving off a PR disaster.
he life and work of agents has been thrown into the spotlight thanks to the series Ten Percent, the English language remake of French series Call My Agent! which revolved around the escapades of Parisian film agency ASK and its top clients.
In the UK version, the action has been transposed from the 1st arrondissement to London’s Goodge Street, and storylines centre around megabucks deals, demanding Hollywood studios, and 4am starts.
We have seen agents on screen before, but the depictions have usually been a little one-dimensional. In Extras and Entourage, they were essentially caricatures; insensitive, venal middlemen. In Friends, Estelle Leonard was an out of touch chain-smoker.
In Ten Percent, now showing on Amazon Prime Video, there is more humanity. The agents legitimately care about their clients.
While it seems more realistic, is it actually an accurate depiction of the day-to-day of being an agent?
Are the days that long? Are the deals so top secret? And how do you tell an actress or presenter they haven’t got the gig because the director thought they were too old?
Joanne Byrne is one of Ireland’s leading celebrity agents.
While Byrne says her ‘bread and butter’ is running her PR firm Presence, she works with some of Ireland’s biggest TV stars including Nicky Byrne, Brian Dowling, Síle Seoige, Lucy Kennedy, and Mairead Ronan.
She also seems to personally know almost every Irish celebrity going. She is responsible for acting as Cupid and setting up Brian O’Driscoll and Amy Huberman. She even offered to handle the media on their big day as a wedding present.
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She thinks Ten Percent is based in reality, albeit with a shiny gloss. “I watched the French version… There will always be poetic license on a TV series because it has to be entertaining but it is based in truth,” she says. “It is an interesting world. And yes, we all have stories. Most of which we can never repeat.”
Working with actors and TV personalities on big shows or films may sound impossibly glamorous. But anyone thinking of going into the industry should be aware that it is not back-to-back champagne receptions and red-carpet parties.
Years of contract negotiations, meetings with directors and producers, attending showcases and hundreds of hours of phone calls have to take place before the carpet is rolled out.
“Those moments usually come at the end of two years of auditioning, contracts, shooting and editing,” says celebrity agent Susannah Norris. There has been plenty of hard slog getting there, so in that regard she says “it can be really satisfying”.
Norris began working at Dublin talent agency The Agency after graduating from college before establishing her own highly-regarded company, Susannah Norris Agency, in 2019. “I didn’t know this was something you could do in Ireland,” she says. “I fell into it; I thought it was a job you could only have in the US or London.” She represents acclaimed actors such as Angeline Ball, Normal People’s Éanna Hardwicke, Mark Huberman and Mary McEvoy.
A large part of the job is managing expectations and preparing actors for the knockbacks, she says. “People think of this ideal start; landing a role the moment they graduate from the Lir, and that is a fantastic dream but those are sort of unicorn trajectories. Around 2pc of actors make their entire living from acting, most people have another side gig along with acting, and 98pc of time you are telling people that they didn’t get the job. It is a hard gig, and you need a thick skin to deal with that level of rejection… I myself couldn’t deal with it.”
Joanne Byrne agrees that breaking bad news is one of the worst parts of the job.
“It is very hard not to take it personally because you are saying; ‘They don’t want you, they want somebody else’,” she explains.
“And at times I have had to say to clients, ‘Teflon up or this is not the business for you’. You have to be prepared for hearing ‘no’, so you can appreciate hearing ‘yes’ all the more.
“I have had to give news to people and they have questioned if they should stay in the business, whether it be singing, presenting or acting.”
Another challenge is dealing with stories that break or are leaked before a celebrity has expected it to. “You are the first port of call and you are ringing someone going ‘You know that thing you thought was private? It is going to be put into the public domain’. That can be really challenging.”
It goes without saying that discretion is therefore a huge part of the job.
These days there are NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) surrounding pretty much every big-budget film going, and actors and producers have to be able to talk freely and openly around agents knowing what is being discussed will not become idle gossip.
“Discretion is huge. It’s huge,” Byrne explains. “I have known about births, deaths, marriages, engagements, divorces, and deals months before anyone else. You have to be hermetically sealed. Louis Walsh always says to me, ‘you have a book in you, you’d just have to leave the country to write it’. Your discretion becomes your reputation.”
In the States and the UK, talent agencies can be vast with hundreds of agents and thousands of clients competing for jobs and contracts.
There have been books, such as Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency by James Andrew Miller, which show how cut-throat and pressurised the industry can be.
In those large agencies there can be plenty of in-house squabbling over talent. In Irish agencies, things are less pressured; there are no Hollywood executives breathing down your neck, and most agents have a more personal relationship with their clients.
Halina Froudist runs the Actors and Movers agency and has been working as an agent in Ireland for 21 years. Originally from Australia, she began her career as an actor but soon realised parts for Australian actors in Ireland were limited. She set up her company and soon other actors started approaching her, asking to join.
“Because my agency is small I wouldn’t be competing with other agents. And because I am an actor, I want to be the one the actors speak to when they phone”.
Froudist, who represents Holt McCallany from Mindhunter, charges 10pc commission, considered the standard rate. However, it is now common for agents to charge 12.5pc for film and TV work, and in the UK that can rise to a 15pc commission.
Her favourite part of the job is being the bearer of good news. “It is the best feeling in the world. The squeal of delight from the actors… and also being introduced to new actors.”
For Susannah Norris it is “when you put opportunities in a client’s way that would not have otherwise come to them”.
For Joanne Byrne it is being there for incredible moments in a client’s life.
She recalls telling Nicky Byrne that he had got the Dancing With The Stars presenting gig while she was in the middle of an intense physiotherapy session. “I gave him that news as I was being pummelled by my physio because my back had spasmed,” she says.
“I was on a physio table, practically naked, asking my physio to stop for two minutes so I could give him the news. You are with people through some incredible moments in their life… I really love it and the moment I don’t love it is the day I stop doing it.”
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