In HBO's upcoming limited series Irma Vep, French director Olivier Assayas has made a sequel to his 1996 classic film of the same name starring Maggie Cheung. This one stars Alicia Vikander as an American blockbuster actress named Mira who has been hired to play Irma Vep. Similar to the 1996 version, the series is about the making of the show, and offers a glimpse at the film industry then and now.
The unhinged, yet by all assurances talented director in both versions is called René Vidal (played currently by Vincent Macaigne, and by Jean-Pierre Léaud in 1996) is now making a period-set serial, closer to the original 1916 silent film serial Les Vampires—directed by Louis Feuillade and starring the alluring Musidora—on which both versions are based. The original Irma Vep wore a silk bodysuit, and Cheung's more bondage-inspired catsuit was made of latex. The suit worn by Vikander is velvet, going back perhaps to the softness of the original.
All eight episodes were written and directed by Olivier Assayas, and there is an argument with the characters throughout about whether it is a long movie or a TV show, and which is preferable. The director René Vidal professes to being burnt out on both, even while making the show, yet he hires Mira because, as he says, she has a glow. The same is true of Vikander, yet in our conversation she is also thoughtful, open, and surprisingly goofy.
On the eve of Irma Vep’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Vikander spoke with W about diving into Irma Vep, working with Assayas, and dipping back into her ballet roots for the part.
Your character Mira’s Irma Vep is in dialogue with the previous Irma Veps played by Musidora and Maggie Cheung. Is she closer to Musidora’s or something else entirely?
You mean Mira’s version of Irma Vep? Because that’s the difference. Maggie played herself [playing] Irma, and I play an actress who plays Irma Vep. So I need to come up with what Mira’s version would be. Because that’s actually what you’re asking me, right?
You’re asking me what Mira would do, and I’m trying to figure it out actually. I mean I’ve only seen a certain part of that film! Of what Mira does with Irma in The Vampires.
The film-within-the-film you mean?
Mira, the actress that I play, is obviously a bit nervous because she’s taking on a role that a major actress has already played. Because the director, René, has actually already made a version, just like Olivier in real life has made another version.
And there’s that question in the series, do you fear her?
Yes, exactly. I think René in our TV series is telling Mira that he already did this modern take of Les Vampires, but now he’s trying to make [a version] going back to the roots and honoring filmmaking as it was in the beginning. So I guess it’s more of a traditional, classical take on Irma. Because the Maggie Cheung character did a version of Irma that was much more modernist, and this seems like a more traditional way of trying to adapt Les Vampires. It’s period. When you see the film that they’re making, it’s set in 1915.
You just keyed on to something interesting–you’re playing so many roles in this. The actress and the part she’s playing.
I think there’s even more that you haven’t seen yet! There are going to be more layers!
Do you think there are some aspects that are very close to you, since you’re playing an actress? Maybe closer than you’ve gotten before?
Nooo. Well it’s interesting—yes and no. I’m trying to figure it out myself in doing interviews today. So of course as an actress that I play, we are sharing the same world. And maybe with similar styles of film we have done. But I think Mira herself as a person is quite different from me. There will be tons of references because we’re around the same universe. As a person, I can relate to the idea of her. But she’s not very happy. It seems like she’s made a lot of choices based on what other people think she should, rather than what she wants to do. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do things that I really believe in and want to do. And she’s also in a place where she feels quite lost and quite lonely. She’s escaping to Europe to get away, and that was kind of interesting as a European actress myself.
And you live in France part time right?
I live in Lisbon, but I have a house in France, yeah.
And you’re playing someone who doesn’t speak French.
I understand a bit of French. Mira doesn’t understand a word of French!
You’re right, you’ve had such different careers, Mira and you. But one aspect that you do have in common is the balance between films and luxury brands. Did you find that interesting or a challenge?
I’ve personally had a wonderful, seamless, effortless relationship with Louis Vuitton that’s been lovely over seven years. Nicolas [Ghesquière] even made this skirt. What [Olivier] is bringing out is making fun a bit of how [the] commercial intervenes with art in our industry. That it’s in-between them, or has to work side-by-side.
But that’s his point of view and your experience has been more positive?
Yeah, mine has been a lot more positive than Mira’s!
Olivier Assayas seems like such a calm presence, and yet the film directors in his film are the most manic neurotic characters!
It’s lovely because I’ve known him for like six or seven years, and he is like the nicest, sweetest man. But then when I read [the script], he’s wonderfully generous. In the sense that, I suppose like any good writer he’s letting out the beast, in a way. All of the anxieties and worries that you have, he’s letting them out in his characters, which is pretty wonderful and brave.
So you think there are aspects of that within him?
I think we all carry a lot of shit within us, that for reasons would never be able to let out. And of course it’s a comedy and he’s bringing it to the max. But it’s the mystery of not really knowing what could be true and what could be not true. That’s the brilliance of any writer. It’s make-believe, but it comes from somewhere.
The director character in this is so crazy, so many characters are crazy. Your character is fairly sane compared to the rest of them. But something your character says often is that someone is crazy, but in a good way. Do you think that “crazy in a good way” is a necessary quality for film, for art?
I think in life, in general, that sounds like a good thing.
Crazy in a good way?
“Crazy in a good way” sounds like something for people to reference in their own mind that is a bit out there and wild, but positive. Right?
Is it spontaneity?
And liveliness. But I can’t remember, who does she say it about?
Mira says that several times about the Zoe character played by Jeanne Balibar, for instance. How was it working with Jeanne Balibar? What an icon.
She’s incredible. I just loved working with her. And to have Olivier write these long 8-page scenes, which you kind of had every day. Films tend to have scenes that are like one page. And here you have like eight pages of people just talking for each scene. And it’s such a joy.
A joy? Not a burden…
No, it’s what you dream of doing. Because then you get to lose yourself. It’s not [that] the scene began and ended in the same moment, and the film and story is made in the edit. Here, you actually get to be in these characters and in a scene for minutes, and you don’t have to break away, and there’s so much to be discovered. And I think we did that.
And yet you have one director and one writer. This goes back to the essence of what the show is about–did it feel like a film or series?
I mean, I’m still asking myself. How is this not like a TV series?
Do you consider it a TV series or a film?
I don’t even know, we’ve had so many discussions about it now. But as an actor you don’t change your way of working if it’s a film or TV series. I don’t think I go in thinking, “This is the TV version and this is the film version.” But what we did is we shot it like a film, which means we shot it completely out of order. So we didn’t shoot an episode, and then another episode, and then another episode. Because that is sometimes what [TV] tends to do, and sometimes with a new director.
But in the finished version it doesn’t matter to you if it’s TV or a film?
No! I think the limited series format is amazing, actually. You still get a beginning and end, like a film. But you actually get time to be with the characters.
You have a ballet background, which you bring to your Irma Vep, with the way she moves in general, but especially in that lovely nightclub scene where you dance and sing. It’s so beautiful. Would you ever do a musical?
Yeah! That would be fun, actually. I would love that. I mean, I would have to dance. This made me take a class for the first time in fourteen years.
How was that for you?
Super nerve-wracking. I was literally shitting it waking up in the morning. I can’t stretch anymore! I can’t do what I did then, obviously. Angelin [Preljocaj] the choreographer, who is one of the best choreographers right now and works with all the biggest companies in the world, he came in and did this class with me. And I was like, thank you for this honor! I know you just left the Paris company. That’s because Olivier knows him and invited him in, and I did my absolute best. But I also said to him, “It’’s not that I’m a cheat but I feel like I’m using the back door. I don’t even know if I had continued my dance career if I would have had the privilege of meeting you and working with you.” It was pretty amazing.
How was the lockdown for you, in general?
In general it was O.K., because no one close to me had a bad experience, which is great.
So did you discover a new passion or…?
I had a child.
Oh well, that’s quite a hobby.
I was kind of busy.
So you weren’t making sourdough bread.
I was too, though! Oh my God, how embarrassing.
You did some cooking.
I made my own sourdough. I baked two buns in the oven, huh.
What was the best thing you cooked during lockdown? Maybe a challenging recipe.
Ooh, chicken katsu! And Japanese curry. My Japanese friend taught me to make my own chicken katsu and Japanese curry.