How does one remake a remake? The answer still confuses Alicia Vikander.
The actress is currently producing and starring in the new HBO series Irma Vep by director Olivier Assayas, who is recreating his 1996 French film of the same name which featured Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love, Hero) in the titular role. Both iterations follow an actress who is cast in a remake of the 1915 silent film serial Les Vampires to play villainess Irma Vep (an anagram for “vampire”), and finds the character rubbing off on her as she delves into the role—and slips into her famous black bodysuit.
Hollywood has churned out many movies about making movies. In fact, it loves them. (See: Mank, Singin’ in the Rain, Hail, Caesar!) But HBO’s Irma Vep takes that self-referential element to a mind-boggling degree. Vikander, an Oscar winner and Tomb Raider star, plays a successful actress, Mira, whose career somewhat mirrors her own. Meanwhile, Vincent Macaigne plays director René Vidal, an analogue for Assayas: René is filming an Irma Vep series with Mira, but has already made Irma Vep, the hit indie film, in the ’90s (referencing Assayas’s 1996 Irma Vep film) with the actress Jade Lee (who represents Cheung). And both of René’s Irma Vep projects are adapted from Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires. Now read that again.
“I even got lost—still get lost—and it gets worse with every episode,” Vikander laughs on the phone, speaking from Paris, where she’s finalizing the last two Irma Vep episodes and meeting with Assayas and members of the crew. “I think that’s the beauty of it,” she adds.
In a time when the entertainment industry feels like one big reboot machine, Irma Vep is refreshing, with its cheeky self-awareness, and at times, self-mockery. It’s almost as if Assayas is saying, “I know how bizarre this all looks.” It doesn’t shy away from the issues with making reboots, either. René voices his insecurities about recreating an iconic work of cinema. Characters discuss whether the story of Irma Vep is fit for a series, whether it’s bingeable, whether it’s too niche for a mainstream audience. “It’s the kind of conversations that I think, especially for people in the film industry, if you’re doing that, that’s what you talk about,” Vikander says. She credits Assayas’s “brilliant mind” for writing a realistic-sounding script. “He writes like people talk.”
The director is “really daring to go somewhat completely different,” says Vikander. “And I feel like that is not like anything else I’ve seen in this format.”
Irma Vep premiered last month in Cannes (another meta tidbit: the ’96 film premiered in Cannes too) and then debuted on HBO on June 6 with new episodes airing weekly. Vikander, who has seen several versions of each episode in edits, won’t exactly be binge-watching; she doesn’t tend to watch her own work at her leisure. “I live and breathe my projects and love making them…but as soon as it’s out, that’s when I leave it,” she says. But discussing it is a different story; her enthusiasm for Irma Vep, in all its versions, is palpable over the phone.
Here, she talks to ELLE.com about the bewildering meta-ness of Irma Vep and what remakes are even for anyway.
So just to be clear, Irma Vep is a remake about a remake; it’s a show about a film about making another show. Or it’s a show about making a show—
That’s already been made in the series once. From the same director.
Right. Does that ever trip you up, just as a person working on this project?
Yeah, I think that was the joy of it sometimes, getting lost on set. And for me it was even, the crew that you guys don’t see makes me walk around with two crews on set all the time. I’m like, “Are you the real crew or are you an actor?”
It also feels rare for a director to recreate their own work. When you spoke to Olivier initially, what was the intention for this specific iteration of Irma Vep from the start?
To be honest, the first conversation that we had was probably, we had lunch. We talked about film and life, and then he was like, “I have this idea.” I think I was surprised at first. He’s such an incredible, famous auteur and French director. And he was like, “I’m thinking…”
And I’m a huge fan of Irma Vep. So even I almost had the reaction of, “What? What are you talking about?” And he said, “I’m not done.” That is something he even said—so meta—in the series that he was like, “It [the original Irma Vep] kind of happened.” He was waiting for another, much bigger film to happen. And this came about with no money, and with, of course, this admiration he had for Maggie Cheung.
And when he did it back then, she played herself. And it shows the reality of filmmaking in the ’90s, which is different. And the questions that are running around in people’s minds then is quite different from now. And he said, “I just felt like I never knew it happened when it happened, because it was so in the moment. And then it became one of my most celebrated films, and it kind of shocked me.” And that little blip is something that stayed with him, obviously, because of the relationship he had with Maggie then. He’s also, with the series, very, very generous and open to the public, telling people his own very personal story [about their marriage and divorce]. And he said, “I want to recreate, I want to open the door to this world of ideas, of stepping into discussing filmmaking.”
He said, “I want to create an actress this time.” And then he asked me, “Is this something you sound interested in?” And I was like, “Are you asking me to be a part of it?” He’s like, “Yes.” And then I was like, “Yes, I would.” I mean, immediately. Because I would love to work with Olivier. And then he said, “Okay, then I’m going to start writing it.” And then I got the first and second episode. I came in, and I even asked him, “So, where’s this heading?” And he was like, “I don’t know.” [Laughs.]
Of course he was like, “Yeah, I have some bigger ideas somewhere in the back of my head of what I want to tell. But the journey there, I’m getting to know these characters myself. And I want to have the same experience as my audience. I also want to have a series.” He told me that he was going to let himself have the same experience of being where his characters took him, which I thought was very beautiful.
In regard to Maggie, is there a reason why he decided not to cast a Chinese actress for the lead role, like what he mentions in the series? That maybe it was a little too close to home? [Editor’s note: In the series, Renée says he couldn’t cast a Chinese actress in the Irma Vep remake because it would remind him too much of his original star, his ex-wife Jade Lee. Assayas and Cheung were married from 1998 to 2001.]
Yes. And, I mean, in one way, she has a very big part in the series.
Right. Her spirit is there.
[She is played by] an actress [Vivian Wu] who is a Chinese actress, but not Maggie Cheung. That’s quite a big part in our series, especially in the later episodes. I mean, in one way [Olivier] tackles my insecurities as well. Alicia Vikander’s insecurities playing another actress, who needs to pretend to be something else, who’s worked with a version of Maggie Cheung in reality. So he very much made that—that is now the story. I’m just playing the character that he’s created who is tackling those issues.
And I’m not playing myself, because he said that the difference when he made it then was, it came out of more of an experiment of [casting] Maggie Cheung—that sadly and shockingly, the world did not know who she was, even though she was one of the biggest actresses in Asia. But that’s what the Western world looked like. … And that meant that he said it was a clean [slate]; she was just an Asian actress [in the film]. And then he could use the filmography, of course, that she had had that was huge. And that is referenced in Irma Vep, the film, that people don’t know about this incredible actress who is one of the greatest ones of her generation.
Whilst now, if I played myself, then the Western world would already have an idea of maybe what I’ve done before, and interviews I’ve done. I understand that it doesn’t create the same… It wouldn’t be the same.
There are a lot of similarities between you and Mira. You portray a successful actress who was also playing a successful actress in the project, and it shows your day-to-day on set, even down to you wearing Louis Vuitton.
Yeah. I would say the biggest strokes are there, but then I think personality-wise, it’s quite different, which was a joy of playing an actress, a woman who is in the same world. But also, I find it very interesting. I mean, I do not have an assistant who follows [me] around everywhere. Even though I’ve seen similarities in the industry of people who have that. And I’m quite intrigued by what that is like.
Did playing this character make you see yourself, your life, your job, or public persona differently?
I think we had moments, all of us on set. Of course, this is a comedy and a satire and things are, you know, they’re extremes; they’re very clear caricatures that are these anecdotes or stories that you’ve heard about people combined into one character. But I just had a conversation with another journalist before ours and he said it’s that kind of thing, when you see in the first episode, Mira is tackling journalists. … I think it goes for your everyday job. You’re in it, and you’re very serious about it. And it doesn’t take until someone else forces you to take a few steps back and look at it, and you’re like, “Yeah, that’s pretty strange. And that’s pretty funny.” I think I had a few of those moments, like, “Yeah, sometimes we take our work so seriously.” And that can be quite funny to see from the outside, whilst I’m fully invested and am that dedicated about it on the other hand.
Obviously, the costume is a huge part of the story. What did it feel like for you, as Alicia, to put it on for the first time?
That’s actually something that Olivier and I talked about way back, that kind of magic about finding your character. And to me, one of the biggest moments is when I go and have my first costume fitting–
In the show or in real life?
No, I would say for myself. With any character, and it’s like you sit at home, you read your script, and my imagination and fantasies start. And you have all these thoughts, and I think movement comes quite early. I like to feel it. And that maybe sometimes comes out of me trying on a costume for the first time. And it’s like, you put something on and a certain personality starts to appear. It becomes more materialistic too, I guess. I think with something as iconic as Irma Vep…to have this very iconic character that we’ve seen in so many films…it’s pretty shocking and wonderful to see that this female villainess has been around for so long. And putting on that costume also makes your body disappear into something. It really made me move in a certain way, immediately when I put it on. And then it was like this kind of magic and discovery in the moment, whilst it was happening. I was thinking, “Oh, this is the Irma Vep that comes through my veins, for this show.”
It’s interesting to see how the suit affects Mira, because it’s a little different from—at least for me as a viewer—how it affected Maggie’s character in Irma Vep. Mira is empowered, but also vulnerable to Laurie, her ex, and gets manipulated by her. How would you describe the effect that it has on Mira?
I thought it was interesting because it’s almost like René—it’s so meta it’s almost hard to describe this—the director in the series, he’s already done a remake, which was Olivier Assayas’s remake with Maggie Cheung, in a more modern latex [suit]. And it was when filmmaking tried to modernize things. It’s like the  remake wanted to take it to the future. I thought it was interesting, it’s almost like René has now decided to realize the more original version of Irma Vep. And Olivier too, maybe. So there was something more about the sensitivity of the 1914 version that inspired me.
And there’s something about silent movies; there’s a certain kind of mime that goes into it that I think is very endearing, too, but also with mystery and a sensual sexuality. So I think, without knowing, maybe that’s what appeared. I give a lot to Nicolas Ghesquière for designing that costume, because he made a modern version of reinventing the old. The old one wasn’t silk, and he made it in silk and velvet. And that’s very different material for making something in latex. That does something to you. I think if anyone put on a latex suit, that will do something for you.
What do you think the series says about sequels and remakes, especially when Hollywood is very saturated with them?
[Olivier] brings up a discussion. … I think Olivier has made this because, and I know he has had a wonderful experience, and me too, working with HBO and A24 who are, of course, broad and make big commercial projects, but have artistic integrity. And I think it’s a beautiful thing to open up to say that we don’t need to work with a formula. You can dare to push boundaries and question things. And also, don’t say your audience is stupid. They get it. They understand. They want to be challenged. They want it. And if you do it well enough, there will be a pair of people coming back. But that is the hardest thing to do. You’re also putting yourself out there saying that’s not easy, and you need to be okay with failing. And you need people who dare to champion it, and not say, “Well, this has worked before, so that we need to copy it and do it again.” … So I think it’s just that, about daring, and that’s what made me so interested in being part of this. Because when he started to explain what it was and send me these episodes, I was like, “Wow. I don’t even know what that is, and he’s explained it. I don’t know what it’s going to become.” [Laughs.] But I trusted him as an artist and a filmmaker.
And I mean, I had the most wonderful experience doing it, and it really paid off. So, in one way, I guess that’s what he’s trying to maybe tell me and tell us all.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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