Normal people

Normal people

May 18, 2023


In French coming-of-age comedy Aspergirl, a mother must fight for custody of her son after she discovers she is autistic. Star Nicole Ferroni and screenwriters Judith Godinot and Hadrien Cousin take DQ into the making of the show and explain how they sought to portray autism on screen.

French series Aspergirl balances comedy and drama in the story of Louison, a single mother who discovers she is autistic at the same time as her 11-year-old son Guilhem is diagnosed. But while Louison feels liberated by the revelation, she is soon put on the back foot when a social worker enters their lives to decide if she should retain custody of Guilhem.

Produced by Patafilm and distributed by France TV Distribution, the OCS series stars Nicole Ferroni as Louison, alongside a cast that also includes Mustapha Abourachid, Suzanne de Baecque, Victoire du Bois and Carel Brown as Guilhem. It is created and written by Judith Godinot and Hadrien Cousin, while Lola Roqueplo is the director.

The 10-part series enjoyed its world premiere earlier this year in the French competition section at French television festival Series Mania, where Brown was named best actor.

Here, Ferroni tells DQ about playing Louison and her portrayal of a person with autism, before Godinot and Cousin discuss their writing partnership and how they sought a balance between comedy and drama.

Nicole Ferroni leads the Aspergirl cast as Louison, who is diagnosed with autism later in life

Nicole, why were you interested in starring in Aspergirl?
Ferroni: I received the first two scripts and I loved it. I thought, ‘I want to see this show even if I’m not chosen.’ I loved the fact that I felt lots of mixed emotions while reading it. It’s very rich, and what I loved about the character of Louison is she’s not supposed to be normal, and for her that reveals how the world is not very normal.
It’s also my first leading role and I was very pleased to have such a complex character. Actors like complex, deep characters that are very challenging to play and also very rewarding.

What is Louison’s relationship with Guilhem like?
Ferroni: In the series, there are two diagnoses – for her son and for her. And they react differently. Guilhem feels like he doesn’t want to be autistic; he wants to be normal like his friends. For Louison, it’s a big relief because she has felt different all her life, and now she feels like she can be herself and live her life how she wants. There are two ways of reacting when there is a diagnosis, and we show them both in our series. It’s something the writers really worked on and studied to make it real.

How did you prepare for your role?
Ferroni: I listened to some podcasts and read some books, but I didn’t want to watch any documentaries or films with autistic people. I wanted to stay away from that so I could create my own character with what I made up in my mind.
There is a subtle way of playing the role of Louison. Normally, autistic women are hidden. What we show in the series is that this kind of diagnosis can come very late in a woman’s life. It happens often – I have two friends who are autistic and their diagnoses came very late, because women are trained to seem ‘normal.’
When the series begins, before the diagnosis, the character is not normal and I had to play it in a subtle way so that she was not normal but also hadn’t been diagnosed. There is a thin line I had to draw to build up the character.
The second part of my education was with the other actors, some of whom are autistic in real life. We started the shoot with a scene with the real autistic actors and, during filming, the director, Lola, set up an atmosphere where they first did what was written [in the script] and then improvised and included things about their own lives.

Louison is diagnosed at the same time as her son, affecting their close relationship

Where do we find the comedy in the story?
Ferroni: The comedy comes from when Louison acts spontaneously, in a completely unexpected way, in certain situations – when she’s shopping, when she goes to her son’s school. But we laugh with her, not at her.

What do you hope viewers take from the series?
Ferroni: I hope that on one hand, it’s an entertaining show that has plenty of emotion and entertains people, but if it can also help autism to be a bit more understood by the audience, I would be very pleased.

Judith, how would you pitch the story of Aspergirl?
Godinot: Aspergirl is the story of Louison, a woman in her late 30s who finds out she has autism right after her son Guilhem throws a tantrum during his first day of secondary school. After meeting a therapist, they think Guilhem is autistic and Louison probably is as well. But just as Louison starts to feel like herself for the first time in her life, a social worker is mandated to find out if she can still have custody of her son. Louison is forced to go back to pretending to be normal.

What are the origins of the project?
Cousin: A writer sent a piece to our producer, a TV show project about an autistic man trying to take care of his two teenagers after his wife’s death. Our producer asked Judith to rewrite it with another screenwriter. They did a few versions of the bible, but something was missing. Then the other screenwriter left and I came along, and we tried to find out how to make the story of an autistic adult into a TV show that was not going to be a procedural.

Judith Godinot

How would you describe the relationship between Louison and Guilhem?
Godinot: They are very close. They understand each other without needing to talk all the time, or with very few words. They respect each other’s space. They are very similar in a lot of aspects, and their link is way stronger than a regular mother-son relationship.

How does the story evolve across the series?
Cousin: When Louison finds out she has autism, she is thrilled, kind of liberated, finally getting an explanation why she has felt like an alien all her life. For Guilhem, it’s the opposite: he does not want to be different, so he is going to move away from his mother. Louison will try harder and harder to get close to Guilhem, like they were before. But you can’t force something this intimate.

How did you try to balance family drama and comedy with an authentic representation of autism?
Godinot: We knew upfront we didn’t want to make a documentary but we wanted to make sure the representation of autism was close to the reality. So we did a lot of research, and then we found our character. We then tried to create her entourage, emphasising her family being really weird and funny. We didn’t want people to feel like Louison was the weirdo and the world around her was normal and dull. We wanted everything to be a little strange but to make sense, to show how Louison could have evolved almost 40 years with them without being diagnosed. We also wanted to question normality – how can you draw a straight line between Louison’s and everyone’s irrational behaviour? We can only hope it’s working.

Did you do a lot of research, and how did this inform the series?
Cousin: First, we read everything we could find about autism and the feminine aspect of the spectrum in general. There are few books specifically on finding out you are autistic rather late in life when you are a woman. We listened to a lot of podcasts and read every testimony we were able to find about autism and motherhood. We saw every documentary we could find and even a few fictional titles to see how other people deal with the representation of autism and to learn, looking at what has been done and what hasn’t. We wanted to create a character we hadn’t seen before.
Then we met with a few autistic teenagers, who were kind enough to talk to us about their lives; and finally the producer hired a consultant, an autistic woman, who proofread all of our scripts. She gave us advice and insight about how the character was feeling as an autistic woman. She was very specific, which is a good thing. We followed most of what she said, with very few exceptions.

The series is produced by Patafilm for France’s OCS

How did you ensure the audience laughs with the characters, rather than at them?
Godinot: It’s a tough question. We were really careful that all of Louison’s decisions follow a certain logic as the situation is seen through her eyes. She can be annoying sometimes, but the world revolving around her is so frustrating that you can understand why she is the way she is. We believe that if you love your characters and empathise with them, the audience will feel it too. We tried to depict Louison as a free spirit, and we hope people will love this peculiar aspect of her personality, because we do.

How did you pitch the project to OCS?
Cousin: Our producer did it, mostly. We sent them the project bible with the pilot script. Then we explained how we would try to balance the tone and, through the character of the social worker, make the story of Louison a real TV show rather than a movie. They really liked this idea.

How long have you been writing together, and why do you enjoy working in a partnership?
Godinot: We have spent three years working together – we met writing on this show. A partnership is great when you work on a comedy project because you always have someone to laugh at your jokes or tell you when your jokes are not that good. It requires total confidence in each other, of course. Plus, the life of a screenwriter is a rather lonely one; it’s good to have someone to laugh with and complain to.

Hadrien Cousin

How do you work together when writing the scripts?
Cousin: We talk and talk and talk. We start with a summary of the entire season, and then we break the structure of every episode together. We try some lines of dialogue and then we distribute the writing work. Each of us works on a different episode, then we proofread each other. And then we talk again.

Is there a secret to writing as a pair?
Godinot: It’s not really a secret, but respect and complete trust. Because writing is mostly talking when you work as a pair. When you spend so much time with someone, you end up sharing details of your personal life, whether you want to or not. So you have to be able to put your heart out there and to listen to your partner as well. When you talk about it like that, it sounds like a romantic relationship! They have a lot in common.

How involved were you across production?
Cousin: We discussed our scripts with the director and changed some things she was not comfortable with. After that, the director and the producer kept us posted on the evolution of the pre-production phase. They showed us casting samples and we gave notes once the editing of the episodes had started. Sometimes they listened to us; most of the time, not really!

What challenges did you face making the series?
Godinot: Finding the tone was our first challenge because we wanted it to be really funny but not cynical, and realistic but not too sad. We struggled a little bit. Juggling the budget was definitely a thing too. We had to carefully choose our characters because their number was limited, as well as the locations of the series. A new place had to be used a lot. It changed our writing.

Why was this a series you wanted to write – and what do you hope audiences take from it?
Cousin: We know TV shows don’t change the world; people do. We just hope the audience will laugh with our heroine, empathise with her and envy her freedom.

Why might the show appeal to international audiences?
Godinot: Because it’s a coming-of-age comedy about a woman in her late 30 but, most of all, it’s the story of someone who always felt outside the box and decides to stop complying with social demands. And we bet it’s a feeling shared among human beings all over the world.

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