Cover 'Shang-Chi' star Fala Chen discusses her role in HBO series, 'Irma Vep' (Photo: HBO GO)

The Chinese American actress tells Tatler about working on new HBO series, “Irma Vep”—a remake based on the 1996 movie of the same name starring Hong Kong acting legend Maggie Cheung

Fala Chen certainly made a lasting impression in her first Hollywood role in Marvel’s blockbuster, Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings.

Playing Jiang Li, mother of the film's hero Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and heroine Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), and the love interest of immortal warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung), Chen delivered an outstanding performance with her elegant aura and excellent martial arts skills which she demonstrated in the major opening scene. Despite minimal screen time, she managed to impress the audience with her striking presence throughout, earning widespread acclaim from critics. 

Chen’s latest endeavour, Irma Vep, is an eight-episode miniseries arriving on HBO. Directed by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, the drama is a reboot of his 1996 film of the same name starring renowned Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung. It follows an American actress called Mira Harberg, who is cast in France to star in a remake of the 1915 silent film serial, Les Vampires. Mira finds herself struggling to distinguish between reality and the character she’s playing. Chen’s role is a rising Hong Kong star, Cynthia Keng, who’s handpicked by director René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne) to play Irma Vep (Alicia Vikand)’s provocative accomplice and part of the vampires’ plans in the silent film.

We sat down with the actress and discussed the similarities she shares with her role in Irma Vep, Asian representation in film, and what's next for her.

Read more: MC Cheung on His Metamorphosis—and the New World of Canto-Pop

Tell us about your experience in filming Irma Vep. 

Working with director Olivier Assayas was a very enjoyable experience. He was always willing to engage with the cast and crew on a very personal level, making us feel like a family. 

The entire filming process had given the team many great memories and it’s hard to pick a favourite. But when it comes to the most memorable scenes to film, it had to be the dance scene. I spent quite a lot of time learning the choreography and rehearsing on the giant antique table prior to shooting. The scene turned out beautifully on camera at the end and I was really happy about it. 

Another unforgettable moment was the costume fitting process. The iconic all-black, slim-fitting catsuit worn by Maggie Cheung in the original movie, was reinterpreted as a luxurious Louis Vuitton piece featuring a velvet texture that I also had to wear on set alongside Alicia Vikander. Putting on that costume gave me a strange but wonderful feeling of sacredness, given Irma Vep is such an iconic character in cinema history.

What are your thoughts on your role, Cynthia Keng, and how did you prepare yourself for it?  

There are a lot of similarities between myself and Cynthia. We shared the same Hong Kong background and we both know how to speak Cantonese.

I didn’t do much quote-on-quote transformation which I’ve always been doing for my past roles, because I trusted Olivier and he also allowed me to build the character and bring Cynthia's world to life based on my own interpretation and natural instincts. He’s a very open-minded person to work with, so there are no boundaries throughout the characterisation process of the role. I truly appreciate all of the support and creative freedom Olivier has given to me.

What’s going to surprise people about this HBO remake of the original Irma Vep

This HBO reboot of Irma Vep is a refreshing series that’s unlike any TV drama you’ve watched before. It goes beyond a conventional linear narrative with a story that jumps back and forth along the timeline between different eras.

The drama also sets itself apart with complex characters, where most of the cast, including myself, play two roles in the series. We’re both the actors on set and the characters in the vampire story they are trying to film, constantly taking inspiration from our real set to the character we were playing. With complicated layers of time and filming perspectives, it’s a very unique metadrama that will touch you and make you laugh at the same time. 

There has always been debate about colour-conscious casting in the industry where Asians are often confined to stereotypical roles—and that discussion has also extended to your work. What are your thoughts on Asian representation in today’s world?

In the early years of my acting career in Hong Kong, I never felt like an “outsider” because I always worked in mainstream media. But I did experience moments of being the “token Asian” when I was studying at The Juilliard School in New York City. During that time, I couldn’t help but wonder: ”Why did they cast me for this [Asian] role? Why did I often only get roles written specifically for Asians?” I’m grateful for all the opportunities given to me along the way, but I do feel like the traditional perception about an actor is only capable of doing things based on his or her skin colour needs to be challenged. 

After Shang-Chi, my agents started getting more enquiries about the potential Chinese characters I’d like to play. I really want people to know that I have a lot more to share as a human. Asian representation and visibility in media is still a work in progress in this industry that takes time to improve.

What career challenges are you looking for?

Despite having launched my acting career many years, I always consider myself a novice in the industry. As an actor, you need to give all of yourself to work with dedication and resilience. I look at every new project as a brand new challenge. There are still a lot of genres and roles that I haven’t touched yet, and I’m eager to learn new things to become more dynamic on screen and connect with a wider audience. 

I have quite a few projects in the pipeline that I couldn’t talk about yet—stay tuned! 

'Irma Vep' airs every Tuesday, 9am (EST) on HBO GO, with a same-day encore at 10pm (EST) on HBO.


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