Last month, the director Sam Levinson and his stars, Abel Tesfaye (a.k.a. the Weeknd) and Lily-Rose Depp, walked into the Lumière Theater at the Cannes Film Festival for the premiere of the first two episodes of their show, “The Idol,” to a standing ovation. The lights hadn’t yet dimmed, but celebrity fuels Cannes, where ovations are cheap. By the time the screening was over, the amped-up crowd was on its feet again and critics were racing out to fire off some of the most scathing reviews to emerge from this year’s event, with pans studded with barbs like “regressive,” “chauvinistic,” “skin-crawling” and “grim disaster.”
“The Idol” centers on a chart-busting pop star, Jocelyn (Depp), who, in the wake of a nervous breakdown, is prepping for a comeback. Surrounded by handlers — the cast includes Hank Azaria, Troye Sivan, Jane Adams, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and the horror-film impresario Eli Roth — Jocelyn has made a lot of money for a lot of self-interested people. One night at a Los Angeles dance club, she meets Tedros (Tesfaye), a smooth-talking enigma with a rattail. Before long, she has invited him back to her mansion and they’re grinding in the shadows, and a mystery has taken root: What in the world is she doing with this guy?
Created by Levinson, Tesfaye and Reza Fahim, “The Idol,” which premieres on Sunday, was already a heat-seeking target by the time it played at Cannes. In April 2022, word hit that its original director, Amy Seimetz, had left the show amid a creative overhaul. For whatever reason, the brain trust at HBO decided to pump up the show’s notoriety in a teaser, released three months later, that trumpeted Levinson and Tesfaye as “the sick & twisted minds” behind “the sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood.” But unwanted attention arrived this past March in a damning Rolling Stone article that, among other rebukes, accused Levinson’s version of being “a rape fantasy.” That teaser has since disappeared from HBO’s YouTube channel.
Levinson, Tesfaye and other “Idol” collaborators have vigorously defended the show and its creators. “The process on the set was unbelievably creative,” Azaria said at a news conference a day after the Cannes premiere, as Adams nodded along. “I’ve been on many, many a dysfunctional set, believe me,” Azaria continued. “This was the exact opposite.”
For his part, Levinson, who is best known for “Euphoria,” yet another HBO show about a beautiful young woman in crisis, said at the news conference that the specifics in the article felt “completely foreign.” But he also seemed to welcome the controversy.
“When my wife read me the article,” he explained, “I looked at her and I just said, ‘I think that we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.’”
On the day after the “Idol” news conference, I met with Levinson, Tesfaye and Depp — whose father, Johnny Depp, was also at the festival this year — for a sit-down at the Carlton Cannes, one of the grand hotels that faces the Mediterranean in this rarefied resort city. We talked about the show while tucked into a private patio corner, just out of earshot of nervously hovering publicists and other minders. During our chat, Levinson and his two colleagues alluded to the negative reviews, but if they were upset by them, they didn’t show or share it.
“I’m still spinning from it,” Levinson said of the premiere. “It was maybe the most surreal moment I’ve had — I don’t really leave my house much.” These are edited excerpts from the interview.
Can we talk about the genesis of “The Idol”?
SAM LEVINSON Abel and I have known each other for quite a few years, and we’ve always wanted to work together. We got on a Zoom because I’d heard he has this project. The genesis was he said, “Look, if I wanted to start a cult, I could. And I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing.”
ABEL TESFAYE I actually don’t remember saying that [laughs]. I think I was just trying to say anything to finally work with you. I’ve always wanted to work with Sam; we’ve been friends forever. It was more about celebrity culture and how much power they have.
How much power they have?
TESFAYE It’s probably hard to believe, but I can’t see myself in that way. I never have. Even when I move around with security, it feels so weird because I don’t ever want to be seen. I feel like I have to be seen — fans want to see who they listen to, who they love. But for me, celebrity culture was always fascinating, and how much power they have on their fans.
Lily, you grew up in a famous family, but it was fame by proxy.
LILY-ROSE DEPP I’ve experienced it by proxy since birth. That’s simultaneously a strange thing and also not strange at all, because I don’t know anything different. My childhood looks nothing like Jocelyn’s, a character who has been working from a young age, and who was a child performer and had a mother who was pushing her. My childhood was never going to be “normal,” but they gave us the best sense of normalcy that we could have.
Did you watch any of the Britney Spears documentaries?
TESFAYE It’s not about Britney at all, but how could we not pull inspiration from Britney, from Madonna, from every pop star that’s gone through any kind of serious pain? I’ve always called Lily one of the creators of the show, because I couldn’t write Jocelyn until we knew who was going to play her. Once Lily got the role, she and Sam worked together on creating the character. What I could provide was the music industry around her — management, labels, touring, everything that I know.
DEPP I was so nervous about the musical aspect. It’s not what I do and this character has been doing this her entire life. I remember the first time that I had to sing in front of Abel, I was, like, I’m going to blow my brains out. Little by little, we got to know each other more and got comfortable with each other.
LEVINSON We basically moved into Abel’s house, which was our shooting location. We knew that we were going to shoot the entire show in this one place, so we turned it into a live set.
Abel, obviously performing for a live audience is different from performing in a music video, and this is very different.
TESFAYE I never wrote Tedros for myself; it was Sam who planted the idea. I just focused on being Tedros and living as the character and spending all my time with Sam and listening and allowing him to just be my teacher. Tedros is such a dark, complicated, scary, pathetic human — I had to just distance myself from who I am. And it’s scary, you know, it’s a big risk.
So far, the only pathetic thing about him is his hair.
TESFAYE We made sure of it. He’s pathetic. It’s funny, we were in the theater watching Tedros and there are moments where only us three were laughing. People have no idea ——
LEVINSON —— where it goes. The moment that Tedros clicked for me and, I think, for Abel was, imagine you have all of this ambition, all of this drive, this ability to tell a story through music. But none of the talent. So you have to find a puppet, someone to work through. I also think part of what was fascinating is that he’s rolling up to this mansion and it’s a world that he’s never been invited into. She opens this door ——
TESFAYE —— like Dracula, inviting him in.
In the first episode there’s a lot of comedy about the intimacy coordinator who doesn’t want Jocelyn to expose part of her body. What is agency for someone brought up in a bubble?
DEPP I totally respect and love intimacy coordinators. I think they belong on sets, and that it’s important to make everybody feel safe. I’m very comfortable saying, “I’m fine to do this or not this,” but some people aren’t. At the same time, you have to have this nudity rider, it has to be submitted in advance and it has to be signed by this person and the lawyer. It becomes this very structured legal thing when the purpose is to give freedom and safety to the person who may or may not be doing nudity. You literally can’t make a decision about your own body.
Is Jocelyn her own person? She’s surrounded by this apparatus. Abel, is the show inspired by your life in terms of wanting to do what you want to do?
TESFAYE There have been moments where I’ve felt like it is me-against-them. But because of my situation — I own my masters — I’m very fortunate. But what if I didn’t? They would automatically win: 99.99999 percent of pop stars don’t have that and are in Jocelyn’s position. So it’s not autobiographical; it’s like an alternate reality.
LEVINSON That’s part of what we wanted to set up. Here is this machine and we’re not sure how complicit she is. We see how it grinds her down. But that moment of agency is when they’re in bed and Tedros says, “Maybe I should move in for work purposes.” You see this slight smile on her face. That’s her going, I’ve got him. He’s hooked.
DEPP It’s going to be easy for the audience to immediately think, Oh my God, he’s using her. I think that they are two twisted psychopaths who love each other. She’s going to use him, too.
TESFAYE Everything is very intentional. We knew that the reaction was going to be the way it is because of those two episodes.
Much of the early talk surrounding the show has been about the amount of nudity. Lily, were you surprised by how your body was shown?
DEPP No, honestly. Her bareness, physically and emotionally, was a big part of the discussions that we all had. Those were decisions I was completely involved in. There are many women who have felt exploited by the nudity they’ve done and have thought, I didn’t feel great about that. But I’m comfortable performing in that way, I enjoy it. It informed the character. In the conversation around the risqué aspects, there’s the implication that it’s something being consistently imposed upon women. Obviously, that has been true a lot historically.
LEVINSON It also plays into that feeling that the audience has: Oh, she’s a victim. She has to be a victim. I believe people will underestimate Jocelyn as a character because of how exposed she is.
I wondered about all the nudity, and about having a Black man be the villain.
LEVINSON Playing into those stereotypes in the first couple of episodes is important for the journey and the arc and the emotional experience. It has a way of disorienting us because of our knowledge of who we are, and what has happened in the world. I think the audience will slowly begin to see who the true villain of the piece is.
TESFAYE We wanted to make a fun show, as well. It’s a thriller. There are a lot of topics, but it’s really important that it’s entertaining as well.
Do you worry about how the show will be received, given that larger discussions about race, gender and representation are so fraught right now?
LEVINSON That’s what makes it exciting, that these discussions are fraught. I think running headfirst into that fire is what thrills us all.
TESFAYE Someone’s got to do it. No one’s really doing it now. They just need to see the whole show.
DEPP We always knew that we were going to make something that was going to be provocative and perhaps not for everyone. That was a draw for all of us. I don’t think any of us were interested in making anything that was going to be, you know, fun for the whole family.
TESFAYE When I first started making music, it was the exact same thing. It was provocative, and I knew it was going to be tough for people. And a lot of people didn’t like it. Not to compare it, but I feel that this is kind of like that again. This is not going to be for everybody, and that’s fine. We’re not politicians.
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