From the gutters of Hollywood, express to Showmax, comes The Idol, a new HBO Original series from Emmy-nominated Euphoria creator-director, Sam Levinson, and Oscar-nominated, Grammy-winning pop star Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, who co-stars alongside Lily-Rose Depp in her breakthrough lead role.
Fresh from scandalising the Cannes Film Festival last month, the 18LSDN The Idol is currently the #14 Most Popular TV Series on IMDb, with The Guardian already calling it “2023’s most controversial show.”
Depp plays mega-star Jocelyn, whose nervous breakdown derailed her last tour. Will her romantic awakening with club owner and self-help guru Tedros (Tesfaye) help her claim her rightful status as America’s sexiest pop idol or take her to the deepest and darkest depths of her soul?
Tesfaye was born to Ethiopian immigrants, left home at 17, was homeless for a while, and started out releasing songs anonymously on YouTube before Blinding Lights became Spotify’s most streamed song of all time.
Both Levinson and Depp, meanwhile, are Hollywood babies. Levinson is the son of Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Levinson, the man behind classics like Good Morning, Vietnam, Wag the Dog, and Rain Man, while Depp is the eldest child of former couple Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis.
So it’s no surprise that fame is a central theme on the show. “I’ve always been fascinated with celebrity and fame, particularly the bubble that many people live in where it’s a totally fictional reality,” says Levinson. “They’re surrounded by myth-makers who are constantly curating a reality that isn’t true.”
He’s full of praise for his lead actress. “She was sensational. And she could sing! There is something about Lily-Rose… When she tapped into this character, there was a fearlessness beyond anything I’ve ever seen. There’s no fear of embarrassment; no fear of how she looks; no holding back.”
Levinson compares the protectiveness Cannes audiences felt towards Jocelyn to our feelings for Zendaya’s character in Euphoria. “It’s similar I think to how we feel about Rue in Euphoria — we feel helpless. It’s a lot like parenthood. I often look at my son and think, ‘I really wish you wouldn’t do that.’ But they have to find their own way. There’s a constant tension in hoping and wishing that they make the right decision.”
HBO filmed a 2021 version of The Idol that was eventually scrapped. Levinson explains, “I had been tied up with Euphoria season two during the first shoot, so I didn’t see footage until Abel and I watched a few early cuts together. This was after the season two finale of Euphoria aired and Ashley had given birth to our son. As co-creators, we’d been so excited about The Idol, but felt the early iteration unfortunately wasn’t delivering what we needed it to. Abel asked me, ‘If we make a few tweaks, do you think it can be great?’ I said, ‘I think it’ll be good. But I don’t think it’s going be great.’ I have so much respect for Abel as an artist. I first saw him perform in 2011 at The Hollywood Bowl. I remember he stood behind the microphone the entire time and never moved an inch.
He was so shy. Then ten years later, I went to Coachella with him, around when we were deciding to redo The Idol. For that performance, he knew he needed to work the audience. His charisma was phenomenal. He was smiling, dancing and I thought, ‘If this guy can go from that night at the Hollywood Bowl to this, I think our show can be better.’ We had to make some tough decisions about how to move forward and, with the support of HBO, we decided to take the show in a new direction; approach with fresh eyes. And I think the story we’re telling is better for it.”
One of the big changes was the location, with Tesfaye’s own house becoming a key set. “When we asked HBO if we could remake the show, we knew we’d have to do it for a lot less money. One night I was with Abel at his house in Bel Air. I’m looking around the place thinking, ‘This is a great set. HBO’s gonna want us to be really scrappy and thrifty. What do you think about us shooting here?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, that works. You’ll have insurance, right?’ (Laughs) I went back to HBO and said ‘We got the main location for free.’”
Another was shifting to a multi-camera approach. “I shot it almost like a reality show to help him feel less aware of the cameras,” says Levinson of Tesfaye. “In version one, he seemed to clench when he was filming, so it was amazing to see him relax and really become the character.”
And another was the tone. “I wanted to bring more comedy to it,” says Levinson. “The industry is such a funny, strange world … I wanted to get even more into the absurdities of it all.”
Levinson is full of praise for HBO. “I count my lucky stars every day that I’m working with HBO. They have real respect for the individual storyteller. They took a huge leap making this show and letting me work alongside Abel— a pop star who’d never acted before! So, we didn’t want to let them down. And I hope people are excited to see what we’ve made because it feels like something that we haven’t quite seen before.”
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