The stars discuss their provocative new HBO series, which explores the seedy underbelly of fame.
Last September, on the final night of filming The Idol, an HBO show about a pop icon and her complicated relationship with a darkly charismatic club owner, Lily-Rose Depp was riding in a golf cart through SoFi Stadium, in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood. The arena was packed with about 70,000 people who were there to see Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd. Depp, who plays Jocelyn, the so-famous-she-needs-only-one-name music star in The Idol, was with Sam Levinson, the show’s cocreator and the award-winning writer and director of Euphoria. For tonight’s performance, Tesfaye, one of the biggest musicians in the world, was going back and forth between personas. For the faithful fans, he was The Weeknd, a character he created at the start of his career; for the scene in The Idol they were filming as he performed live, he needed to be Tedros, the ambitious Svengali whom Jocelyn would be presenting to the crowd.
As the trailer for The Idol was projected onto the huge SoFi screens, Depp rehearsed her lines with Levinson. She was wearing a diaphanous white dress, with her blonde hair in a loose updo. Depp has large eyes and the exquisite bone structure of a model, but as Jocelyn she had applied heavy eye makeup and exaggerated lip liner, which gave her face a masklike quality. “I was a nervous wreck,” Depp said when I spoke to her later. “I was praying to all my guardian angels. I knew we only had two takes at SoFi. I felt like I was going to my wedding—I was so dolled up and in white!” Depp finally worked up the courage to introduce Tedros. “[This is] the love of my life—the man who pulled me through the darkest hours and into the light,” she told the fans, as Tesfaye came out to a huge roar. Despite her nerves, Depp was intoxicated by the power of being in front of a stadium full of adoring people. “It was quite addicting,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave.”
Tesfaye, meanwhile, was experiencing a kind of breakdown. His two characters do not look alike: The Weeknd wears sleek black suits, while Tedros has a rattail and usually sports shiny, ’70s-style half-unbuttoned shirts with aviator sunglasses. “I had to take off the Weeknd outfit, put on Tedros’s wig, shoot with Jocelyn, then go back to being The Weeknd,” he told me later. “It was tough to go from one head to another. Then, after the concert, I lost my voice. No voice came out at all. That’s never happened before. My theory is that I forgot how to sing because I was playing Tedros, a character who doesn’t know how to sing. I may be looking too deeply into this, but it was terrifying. As The Weeknd, I’ve never skipped a concert. I’ve performed with the flu. I’ll die on that stage. But there was something very complicated going on with my mind at that moment.”
Tesfaye’s identity crisis was about more than juggling two characters in one night. “I’m going through a cathartic path right now,” he said. “It’s getting to a place and a time where I’m getting ready to close the Weeknd chapter. I’ll still make music, maybe as Abel, maybe as The Weeknd. But I still want to kill The Weeknd. And I will. Eventually. I’m definitely trying to shed that skin and be reborn.”
More than a year before the SoFi show, Depp was asked to audition for the role of Jocelyn. “I never thought I would get the part,” she said, calling from Prague, where she was on set for her new film Nosferatu, in which she plays the disciple of Dracula—another sinister but seductive man. “I knew there would be many lovely ladies who are more musical than me, but I thought, I’ll give it a go.” Depp borrowed a tight pink satin skirt and a purple tank top from her mother, Vanessa Paradis, the famous French singer, model, and actor. (Her father, as fans certainly know, is Johnny Depp.) “I wanted to wear pop-star colors,” Depp explained. “And I wanted to channel a certain L.A. feeling. I grew up in L.A., and I’m an L.A. girl, and so is Jocelyn. I wanted to capture the style mix of mischief and shine.”
The closest real-life twin to Jocelyn is probably Britney Spears, but Depp also saw shades of cinematic femmes fatales like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim. “Of course I’m a Britney fan!” Depp said. “Who doesn’t love Britney? But I was also thinking about Beyoncé, Mariah, and every huge pop star of our time. I wanted Jocelyn to be the kind of woman who can dominate a room, someone who doesn’t ever shy away from their sparkle.”
For her audition, Depp had to sing a cappella. “I thought, Here’s where I don’t get called back.” She sang a minute of “Fever.” “I was going through the casting tapes, and Lily-Rose immediately stood out,” Ashley Levinson, Sam’s wife and an executive producer of The Idol, told me. “She had the kind of vulnerability and strength that was crucial for the character.” To guarantee that Depp would click with Tesfaye, Sam Levinson insisted on a chemistry test. “We had met socially, but I didn’t know him,” Depp recalled. “Abel is so warm and friendly, but I was very nervous about the chemistry read because I really wanted the part. Like all my favorite on-screen couples, Jocelyn and Tedros complemented each other in the most dangerous way. They had that push-and-pull connection.” After she got the part, and when Levinson was on board to direct, Depp decided to dye her hair. “As a blonde, Jocelyn could be good; she could be evil. You never know. I grew up watching older films, especially French films. Women like Brigitte Bardot have beauty mixed with an ‘I don’t give a fuck’ energy. I wanted that feeling for Jocelyn.”
Interestingly, Jocelyn was not always blonde—the character evolved considerably over time. In fact, the current version of the series, which will air on June 4, is a reshoot and reinvention of the entire first season. Tesfaye had come up with the original premise for the show with his producing partner, Reza Fahim. “Abel came to us with a pitch,” Levinson told me. “He said something that I’ll always remember: ‘If I wanted to start a cult, I could.’ What he meant is that his fans were so loyal and devoted that they would follow him anywhere. That was the germ of the idea for The Idol: what happens when a pop star falls for the wrong guy and no one speaks up.”
Fendi Couture dress; Mikimoto earrings and necklace.
After the meeting with Tesfaye, Levinson was so excited that he couldn’t sleep. Two days later, he had an outline of what the show could be; a week later, he wrote the script for the pilot. HBO immediately said yes. Because Levinson was busy with the second season of Euphoria, he, Tesfaye, and Fahim chose a different team to direct and work on The Idol. But after seeing what they created, Tesfaye decided to pivot. Reportedly, the emotional tango between Tedros and Jocelyn was not as complex as what he and Levinson had envisioned. If that core relationship didn’t work, the show would not be all it could be. “Film and TV is a new creative muscle for me,” Tesfaye said. “I don’t release my music until I think it is great. Why would this be any different?”
Tesfaye has a calm demeanor, and he’s very polite and soft-spoken, but he has an undercurrent of steely determination. “I like when all the odds are against me,” he said. “I’ve always been an underdog—in the beginning, the music business was not easy. I had to fight to get to the top of the mountain.”
Throughout the process of bringing The Idol to life, Levinson and Tesfaye became close. “Sam followed me to Coachella,” Tesfaye recalled. “He stayed in the background, but he watched how I moved and what it was like for me. Sam understood something crucial about how to create this show.” After seeing the first version of The Idol, Tesfaye invited Levinson over to his house in Bel-Air. “Quitting the show wasn’t an option for Abel or me: It was a dream that we had together, and we had to see it through,” Levinson said. “If we were going to reshoot from the beginning, I knew it had to be for less money. Sitting in Abel’s house, looking around at the 40,000 square feet, I said, ‘It’s stunning here—you can’t buy production design like this. What if we shoot it here?’ Abel put down his drink and said, ‘Do you have insurance?’ I said yes. And he said, ‘I’m okay with it.’ ”
Within weeks, Sam and Ashley, their newborn son and 5-year-old boy, and their giant schnauzer—as well as the cast and crew—essentially moved into Tesfaye’s house. “When I married Sam, my mother told me, ‘You’ll never be bored,’ ” Ashley said. “And there we were: producing a show in Abel’s house. I would sing lullabies to the baby so he wouldn’t cry and ruin a scene.”
“The bedrooms were now greenrooms; the bathrooms were for hair and makeup,” Tesfaye recalled. “We built a music studio in the basement so Mike Dean, who helped compose, and I could score the show while we were filming.” Tesfaye moved out of his own home. “I had to stay in character,” he explained. “So I took my dog and we lived in another house. My home belonged to the show; it was a hub of activity. We were trying to blur the line between fiction and reality. We had cameras going all the time.” Tesfaye paused. “It was weird when they all left. I changed all the furniture. I replastered the walls. But the soul of Jocelyn’s house is still in there.”
“Who doesn’t want to play a villain?” Tesfaye asked me with a faint smile. It was many months after filming had ended, and he was sitting at Republic Studios in West Los Angeles, finishing music for The Idol. He was wearing casual clothes: loose pants, a polo shirt, and a baseball cap. His large and very sweet Doberman pinscher, Caesar—named after the leader in Rise of the Planet of the Apes—wandered in and out of the small studio. “I’ve always been the antihero,” Tesfaye continued. “In the beginning of my career, I didn’t show myself at all. I didn’t want to be famous. For the first two years, no one knew what I looked like.”
When he finally appeared as The Weeknd, people loved the music—and his hair, a kind of divine, Frank Gehry–like confection that rose high above his head. “The hair became an obstacle for me!” Tesfaye said. “I went from ‘No one knows who I am’ to ‘Nobody has that hair except The Weeknd.’ I was always trying to hide it. When I finally decided to cut it, everybody said, ‘Don’t do it!’ That gave me more reasons to do it. I was so identified with that hair that I had to cut it. I didn’t want to be known for just this or just that.”
Tesfaye’s intensity and ambition were the driving force behind The Idol. One of the defining qualities of his musical life has been a deep fascination with the power of cinema, especially films with a violent or dark undercurrent. He grew up in an Ethiopian family in a rough part of Toronto, and music was his first passion. “As a child, I loved to hear myself sing,” he said. “But I was really shy and wouldn’t do it in public. I didn’t know if I was good or not. In high school, my love for films was born. I grew up on The Mask and Jurassic Park. Jim Carrey and dinosaurs! Cinema helped me write better songs, but I thought my ticket out of the hood was music.”
Eventually, Tesfaye incorporated elements that can be found in films, creating The Weeknd and inventing scenarios in which that alter ego may or may not be caught up in nefarious activities. In his music videos and performances—for instance, at the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2021—The Weeknd is often on a collision course with a frightening, perhaps deadly, destiny. “The visuals are vital to my career,” Tesfaye explained. “The album I’m working on now is probably my last hurrah as The Weeknd. This is something that I have to do. As The Weeknd, I’ve said everything I can say.”
Tesfaye’s mind went back to the night he lost his voice. “My secret skill is that I don’t panic,” he continued. “When everyone around me is worried, I get very still. But I did panic when I lost my voice. I had to rest and reflect and think about The Weeknd and Tedros and all that had happened with the show. I realized that I need to know that I’ve made the best version of whatever I’m making. It was a challenge to redo The Idol, and, in truth, I sacrificed my health and home to make it work. So, let’s say it comes out and it’s fucking horrible. I still know I did my absolute best.” Tesfaye paused. “From what I’ve seen, the show is great. Everything is a risk: When you’ve done the best you can, I would call that a happy ending.” He smiled. “And I got my voice back.”
Source: W Magazine