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Devon Ross in Irma Vep
Devon Ross in Irma Vep(Film still)

Irma Vep star Devon Ross on TV’s smartest, most confusing show

The actor tells Dazed about her role in the A24/HBO adaptation of Olivier Assayas’s 1996 film of the same name – a sly, supernatural comedy that outdoes Call My Agent!

Devon Ross plays the smartest character on the smartest, most confusing show on TV. Irma Vep, an eight-part A24/HBO miniseries written and directed by Olivier Assayas, is an adaptation of Assayas’s 1996 film of the same name. In the 1996 Irma Vep, a French filmmaker, René, adapts a Maggie Cheung-starring remake of the 1915 serial Les Vampires called Irma Vep; in the 2022 remake, René (Vincent Macaigne, replacing Jean-Pierre Léaud) is writing and directing Irma Vep, an eight-part TV adaptation of Les Vampires, even though René has already directed a 1996 film version also called Irma Vep.

A sly, supernatural comedy that outdoes Call My Agent!Irma Vep is also a deeply idiosyncratic commentary on fame, filmmaking in the streaming era, and Assayas’s eventual divorce with Cheung. In the small-screen version, Cheung’s character is now Mira, played by Alicia Vikander (later episodes address this whitewashing), and her assistant is Regina, a film school prodigy who temporarily takes over as the director of Irma Vep. It may sound fiscally irresponsible to fund such a niche product, but who’s complaining? To quote Paul Schrader on Facebook: “Irma Vep is the entertainment highlight of my week.”

“Regina isn’t afraid to say her opinion, even though she’s just an assistant,” says Ross, 23, on a video call from her home in London, in front of a wall of vinyl records. “She’s low-key smarter than everyone in the room, and knows everything about cinema.” Regina, in the show, represents the Gen-Z cinephile who possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of film history, even if it’s through a handheld device. “That’s a big difference from the original film. We show each other videos on our phones, and (René) maps out shots on his iPhone. It’s the way films and technology have changed.”

Like the original Irma Vep, the miniseries documents a haphazard production that’s hampered by pill-popping colleagues, a disappearing director, and a movie star who’s unsure why they’re adapting Les Vampires in the first place. As the involvement of A24 and HBO suggests (Sam Levinson and Jeremy O. Harris are executive producers – Ross claims not to know their input), there’s a tinge of Euphoria to the theatrics.

Mira, it’s revealed, has a history of sexual powerplay games with her female assistants, a pattern that continues with Regina. When showering, Mira leaves the door open, daring Regina to spy on her; in a later episode, Mira uses magical powers to glide through a wall (it’s a wild show) to gaze at Regina in bed. “Regina definitely has a crush on her,” Ross says. “She was a fan to begin with, and now she’s in this position where she’s giving her looks, and being flirty. She’s never experienced that freedom before.”

Before Irma Vep, Ross had never acted or auditioned. On her IMDb page, she has three other credits: two shorts her mother’s friend cast her in as a child, and a false entry she’s unsure how to remove. To land Regina, Ross recorded a self-tape: a five-minute video describing herself. “That’s how Olivier picked me,” she says. “We did a Zoom after. We didn’t even go through the script. It made me nervous. I was like, ‘But you guys haven’t seen me act!’ I guess Oliver wanted someone who wasn’t an actor.”

Ross, though, isn’t a total newcomer to performance. Her mother, Anna Bauer, was a model, and her father, Craig Ross, is Lenny Kravitz’s long-term guitarist. At 15, she entered an open casting call for models, which led to years of walking runways. What made her stand out? “Oh, God,” she responds, looking mortified. “It’s cool when models do things on the side… I’m excited about moving from modelling to acting.”

While Regina’s passion is cinema, Ross tells me hers is playing guitar; along with recording with Camille Jansen, she has imminent plans to start a rock band. As for heroes, she lists the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed. (Acting-wise, it’s Chloë Sevigny.) The score for Irma Vep, she reminds me, was composed by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. “I went up to Olivier and was like, ‘Can you please introduce me to Thurston?’”

The original Irma Vep was written in nine days and shot in four weeks. For the TV version, though, Ross spent nearly five months in Paris, unable to return home due to COVID. “The first scene I ever did was in the last episode. I was shitting myself… I was used to long hours on set (from fashion) but there were new aspects, like having a camera this close to you, and you can’t acknowledge it.”

Like Sam Levinson, Assayas thrives on spontaneity. But whereas the Euphoria cast reportedly detested production on season two, Assayas’s actors tend to be repeat collaborators. “Olivier doesn’t rehearse. He just wants to shoot it, and whatever happens, happens. Which is great.” The freedom extended to outfits. “Sometimes I’d come to set in my own clothes, and he’d say, ‘Wear that.’”

Regina runs around in, for instance, a hoodie parading McLovin’s fake ID from Superbad. “Regina will wear the same outfit for days. Mira’s always wearing new Louis Vitton, but Regina’s just a normal girl with band t-shirts.” So was Mira’s Metallica top stolen from Regina? “That’s up to your imagination!”

A gag within Irma Vep is that the show’s financier, Gautier (possibly a nod to Éric Gautier, the cinematographer of Assayas’s early films, including Irma Vep), doesn’t care about Irma Vep, and doesn’t expect anyone to watch it; to Gautier, it’s a branding exercise. In the real world, Irma Vep is also for a tiny audience, even tinier than whoever’s familiar with the 1996 film in 2022. It isn’t even for the Letterboxd crowd – Letterboxd is for film, not TV. René, too, frets that his eight-hour script simply stems from a fetish for dressing gorgeous women in bondage gear.

However, those who do watch Irma Vep will dive, like Vikander in her custom-designed catsuit, down its many rabbit holes, such as speculation that Mira is based on Kristen Stewart (Mira’s a franchise-famous A-lister yearning for arthouse respectability), or that Regina was intended to complete a K-Stew/Assayas trilogy (Stewart played assistants in Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper). When Stewart cameos in episode eight, it’s as the celebrity girlfriend of Tom Sturridge, who, I tell Ross, looks suspiciously like Robert Pattinson. She responds, “I have no opinion!”

Then again, Irma Vep’s core metatextual layer involves René conversing with the ghost of his ex-wife, Jade (played by Jade Lee in the present; in flashbacks, it’s literal footage of Cheung from the original Irma Vep). After Irma Vep, Assayas married Cheung in 1998 – they divorced in 2001. In interviews, Assayas confirmed that Jade was offered to Cheung, and that Cheung approved the dialogue. René and Jade’s interactions are thus disarmingly soul-searching – but would they be so powerful without the gossipy context? Throughout the series, fictional journalists are more invested in the actors’ private lives than what they do in Irma Vep, and Regina’s admiration for Mira extends to how she deals with the paparazzi.

On Ross’s Instagram, it’s public information that she’s dating Earl Cave, the son of Nick Cave, and she regularly fields questions about their relationship. How does she feel about this? Is she actually happy answering them? “When you’re an artist, people are interested in your life. That’s natural. It’s up to you how much you want to share. But the art is always what’s important to me.” She adds, “You’ve just asked me about the show – and that’s what I love.”

Irma Vep is available to watch in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV. In the US, it’s streaming on HBO Max