In the fourth episode of Olivier Assayas’s HBO remake-slash-update of his film Irma Vep, an actress arrives in Paris from Hong Kong and lands right in the middle of a chaotic French shoot. It’s a sequence that echoes the beginning of the 1996 movie, though this time the actress is Fala Chen instead of Maggie Cheung, and unlike Cheung, Chen is not playing the starring role in this production. Instead, she’s a character named Cynthia Keng, who has been cast as a supporting player in a TV version of Les Vampires. In the remake, Alicia Vikander, a white European actress, plays the lead.
When Chen read the scripts for the series, she was curious about the decision to recast the Irma Vep story in this way. Assayas married Cheung after they made his first Irma Vep; they divorced in 2001 and Cheung largely retired from acting after appearing in his 2004 film Clean. With Vikander now playing the actress playing Irma Vep, what did Assayas hope to achieve by casting Chen, someone whose career, launched in Hong Kong beauty pageants, has in many ways mimicked Cheung’s own? And what of his decision to have Vivian Wu play a version of Cheung named Jade Lee within the series? These aren’t questions Chen has direct answers for, but she pondered the mysteries of her character on a call with Vulture, as well as the eternal question of whether Cheung herself will ever watch the series.
Had you seen the film version of Irma Vep before you heard about this show?
It had been quite a while since I saw it. When I heard about this TV show, I immediately went back to watch, and it was completely different than I had remembered. It was interesting to see, specifically, Maggie Cheung at the center of it, and how indie it was. I was quite young when I first saw it, and I didn’t know the difference between indie film and other cinema. Now I could see the satire of the industry in it. I immediately said I’d love to meet with Olivier because I was very curious about this character. She’s not exactly Maggie’s character, but why did he want another Asian actress from Hong Kong to play another character? Why does she exist in the story? We had a meeting, and he was lovely and open and vulnerable. We immediately connected and I understood what he was looking for.
What did he say about wanting to cast another Asian actress from Hong Kong in the show?
We talked a lot about the changes taking place in Hong Kong cinema, especially that a lot of actors and creatives are going to mainland China. He embedded that in the third episode, with René talking about how they wanted to hire a mainland Chinese actress so they can get the Chinese box office and all of that. Then René insists on hiring a Hong Kong actress, because of his nostalgia and he can’t get over his ex-wife — I guess, in the story, but that’s also kind of the same for Olivier himself. I had a lot to relate to in that, because I started my acting career in Hong Kong but was born in mainland China. Playing someone from Hong Kong now is quite different from when they were shooting the original film with Maggie in 1996, when Hong Kong was at the height of cinematic creations. It was quite interesting to reflect on the changes in that region.
In the show, there’s a tension brought out by the fact that Cynthia is a character who was cast by René in part for her similarity to his ex-wife, but she also wants to be taken seriously as her own person. What was it like to explore that with Olivier?
After I finished the last episode, I wrote Olivier a note, both to say good-bye and that I had started to understand why he created Cynthia Keng. I always thought I knew, but there’s another layer of him wanting to put a character on the edge of, Why don’t you hire another Asian actress or Hong Kong actress to play Irma Vep? Why do we need someone from Hollywood like Alicia’s character? Is it for your personal reasons, that you can’t stand having another character similar to Maggie? Is it economic reasons, and pressure from producers? Is it a commentary on Hollywood and how you need names? Are there any big Asian movie stars being created, are people giving them opportunities to have their own stage? Those are all things I thought after I finished filming this. [Laughs.] I think he’s very clever putting Cynthia in that odd, awkward position.
Did Olivier respond to your letter?
It took him a few months to write me back an email. A very long email; it was very flattering! He was very kind, and said a lot of great things. I hope, whenever I go to France, we can meet up and continue the conversation.
As Cynthia, you’re playing Lily Flower in René’s remake of Les Vampires. She’s this devious, pulpy character.
I think Lily Flower was much easier for me because it’s so theatrical. I just came from theater training [Chen graduated from Juilliard in 2018], so it was a lot of fun to dive into it. I loved the maid look and the catsuit, all those cool looks I had never done before.
It’s very freeing, much more so than the Cynthia character. Cynthia’s so close to myself, and I wanted to challenge myself not to impose my idea of who Cynthia is too much. I wanted it to be more like a documentary, for people to feel that they were peeking into our trailers. Olivier was open to talk and to ideas, but he wrote it in such a precise way. I was afraid I would lose the humor if I tried to change anything. I was following the text to the tee. I like rules, so it was comforting to stick to those rigid forms, so that I could let go and interact with the other actors.
As an actor coming up in Hong Kong, what did Maggie Cheung mean to you, even before doing this show?
I’ve always admired her. I almost had an identical career path as her. She started with Miss Hong Kong. I started my acting career through pageantry. I worked in shows on the television network TVB for many years and so did she. She paved the road for me to see it was possible to go to Hong Kong and pursue a career without having connections. I’m very curious if she is going to watch this, and what she thinks of it. I’ve never met her in real life. I’m pretty sure she knows of me, but I don’t know how she’d feel about the show. That’s probably something Olivier ponders every day too.
She hardly ever makes public appearances anymore. I was surprised when I saw that she had shown up to DJ at a Gucci party recently.
And that was when we had just launched the show. I was texting my manager in Hong Kong because he was working at that event. “Did anyone ask her about Irma Vep?” But he said she was a mystery guest that appeared last-minute, so nobody was ready to see her and she was just doing her DJ-music thing, and then she left after that. No one had a chance to speak to her about Irma Vep.
On the show, Alicia’s character Mira resents the fame she’s accrued from starring in superhero films. You yourself broke out to American audiences with Marvel’s Shang-Chi. Do you relate to Mira’s relationship to franchise movies?
I have a very different relationship because Mira is white. In the story, her character’s doing a lot of mainstream films, getting offers left and right. She’s turning them down, trying to find her passion project. For me, even with a Marvel film under my belt, there’s a lot of resistance I have to push through to find even fun projects I want to do: things that interest me or are meaningful. After Shang-Chi, I got a lot of calls to play an immigrant or an immigrant mom. I’m happy to. I am an immigrant myself. Me and my family have a lot of stories to tell. But that’s not the only story I want to tell. There’s a lack of imagination that’s pretty apparent, especially in Hollywood. I struggle a lot more than Mira, who has her privilege, and the show addresses the privilege of a movie star a lot.
In the seventh episode, which just aired, Mira and Cynthia have a debate about whether escapist movies are art. Mira insists they’re spiritual and almost magical, and Cynthia isn’t sure.
That was a scene that took us almost a whole day to film. Cynthia is the one who is asking a lot of realistic, practical questions. She’s a singer — which I think is because Maggie is pursuing a music career — but there’s something about someone who is not a professional actor questioning what actors do. Is it really making changes? It’s a big question to ask. Olivier likes to open questions and not give answers. Does everything have to have a deep meaning? Not necessarily, but why are we calling them the same art form?
Between Mira and Cynthia, where do your own opinions fall?
I think I’m more toward Cynthia. Because she’s an outsider, she doesn’t belong among that whole crew and is like, “What are you guys doing here? Why do you think you’re so important? Why are we spending millions of dollars on something that you think is important, but is also just an inside joke for you?” There’s a self-awareness that Olivier has, to tackle that head-on.