Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, The Danish Girl) is the glue that holds together Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas’ ultra-meta reinterpretation of his 1996 film of the same name. In the eight-episode HBO miniseries, Vikander stars as Mira, a famous American actor who, fresh off a superhero movie, does a career U-turn by taking on the role of Irma Vep in a remake of Les Vampires by an enigmatic director.
That director is Assayas’ stand-in René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), a neurotic, explosive filmmaker haunted by memories of his ex-wife and the original film’s star, the now-reclusive Jade Lee (Vivian Wu). Lee is herself a stand-in for Maggie Cheun, Assayas’ real-life ex and the star of the original Irma Vep. (Like we said, it’s all very meta.) As the Irma Vep series progresses, Mira—whose own name is an anagram for Irma—allows the spirit of master criminal Irma Vep to make itself comfortable within her.
To mark the miniseries’ finale, The A.V. Club talked with Vikander about ghosts, meta storytelling, and the haze that comes from taking a deep dive into characters.
The A.V. Club: Let’s talk about ghosts.
Alicia Vikander: I love it. You know that [Irma Vep] is a ghost story. That’s actually what Olivier called it from the very beginning.
AVC: It’s something that Assayas seems to grapple with in a lot of his work, like Personal Shopper. I really want to talk about the invisible as it related to the series. Do you believe in the invisible?
Vikander: Like wi-fi? No, sorry. [Laughs] Oh, yeah. I mean, I don’t know how everything works. I love letting go and the sense of knowing it must be something larger, whatever it is. I found it very interesting when I did a film and I met a lot of scientists. I asked a lot of questions to prepare for a role, and they all defined themselves as religious. They said, “Well, it kind of goes hand in hand. Science can’t exist without the kind of belief in something unknown or religion or faith, whatever you call it.” I thought that was quite beautiful.
AVC: There are many layers to this series. Your character is playing someone who is taking on a role someone else previously played. And you’re taking on a role previously played by Maggie Cheung. And her ghost is in this series. Did you feel this when you were working on the show?
Vikander: One of the first fears I had was, “Wow, I love the original.” [Cheung] is one of the greatest actresses out there. Then, step by step, I was realizing what the series was as I received episodes in my mailbox. I began to realize the levels and see the reason why Olivier asked me to do it. It is a very different thing. It’s not a sequel. If anyone watches the show and knows who Olivier is, you see how much he’s actually opening up and being very generous, showing his own thoughts or history or anxieties. Maggie was—is—a ghost in his life, in his real life, obviously, because of the relationship they had. This series has a very beautiful ending in our metaverse as well. Maggie did read the scripts and actually gave her blessing to the series before we started shooting, which was pretty cool.
AVC: Did you have a conversation with her?
Vikander: No. She very clearly left the film industry 10 years ago. It was interesting to hear Olivier say that no one in the Western film world knew who Maggie Cheung was when he made [Irma Vep]. He was like, no one. It feels embarrassing to say. He was actually able to use this huge star in Asia. She played a version of herself with her filmography—but [a filmography] that no one knew. So it was like this made-up character because no one had a reference. That’s why he said he never considered having a big Western actress play a version of herself, because that would come with [the audience] knowing who that actress is.
AVC: In one scene, René says ghosts reflect what’s missing or dead inside of us. Were you grappling with any of your own ghosts while shooting the series?
Vikander: Mira-ing? [Laughs] There are a lot of things on paper that you could think of as similar—an actress who has done big blockbuster movies and then smaller art-house movies. I think more and more, though, I realize I’m quite different from Mira. She seems very unhappy, like she’s making decisions in her life that aren’t her own. Zelda [Mira’s agent, played by Carrie Brownstein] is obviously a strong voice but also maybe her idea of what she thinks the world wants her to do.
In this profession, it can be a kind of beautiful relief sometimes, getting to act things out as characters in situations that you wouldn’t come across in real life, getting to act out emotions that you would never get to express in real life. Those things are the thrills of acting, I would say, and that’s very much what this show is about: daring to let go and let this character inhabit you. When I’m shooting a scene, I can almost get a high when I hear that the take is done. I’ve been in this kind of haze, another dimension. But then after [the shoot], I need to leave, to go home, to get a breather—because it can be so intense.
AVC: Even in the series, when they wrap, Mira’s gone—like, poof.
Vikander: But while she’s shooting, she’s more intrigued about letting these characters inhabit her.
AVC: Do you think Mira finds what she’s looking for by the time the shoot is done?
Vikander: Yes. Doing Les Vampires is a journey of her figuring out that she needs to listen to her voice. I think that will give her peace moving forward. I think she knows that even if Les Vampires might not be the biggest hit, it was a very pivotal and meaningful project. She knew why she had to do it and why she needed to be part of making it. Also, Irma was a ghost that needed to pass through her during this time in her life. In a way, Irma made a few decisions for her that hopefully will make her life a bit easier and [make her] not feel not as lonely.