Everything you need to know about HBO’s The Idol
THE WEEKND’S visuals and music videos have always been somewhat of a cinematic experience, especially during his conceptual After Hours era. Now, he’s taking his onscreen storytelling to the next level, with the help of some of his A-list peers.
The musician, born Abel Tesfaye, is developing, co-writing, and starring in The Idol, a series for HBO. Created with Euphoria creator Sam Levinson and Tesfaye’s creative producer, Reza Fahim, the drama will follow a female pop singer who “starts a romance with an enigmatic L.A. club owner who is the leader of a secret cult,” according to the log line. While it has us intrigued, it’s not without controversy. In fact, The Idol has been hit with a number of damning allegations — seemingly mirroring its confronting plot-line.
Here’s everything else we know about the series so far — including the new trailer and its controversies.
What is The Idol about?
HBO green-lit the show for a six-episode season, dubbed a darker more provocative Euphoria, focussed on the entertainment biz. It was was filmed in and around L.A.
“When the multi-talented Abel ‘The Weeknd’ Tesfaye, Reza Fahim and Sam Levinson brought us The Idol, it was clear their subversive, revelatory take on the cult of the music industry was unlike anything HBO had ever done before. Shortly after, the brilliant duo of Joe Epstein and Amy Seimetz joined forces with the rest of the team, and this dream became a reality,” Francesca Orsi, executive vice president of HBO drama programming, said in a statement.
In July 2022, Tesfaye revealed an exclusive first look at the upcoming show during the New Jersey stop on his “After Hours Til Dawn” tour. The first clip teased the story from the “twisted minds” of Levinson and Tesfaye, following a pop star (played by Lily-Rose Depp) who gets sucked into Tesfaye’s character’s orbit. During a montage of parties, rehearsals, and studio sessions, we get a peek into the young star’s psyche, as she says that “nothing about her is relatable.” Later, when asked if she trusts the cult
Is there a trailer for The Idol?
Following news that The Idol would be premiering Out of Competition at Cannes Film Festival this year, HBO have just released the full-length trailer. The clip begins with Troye Sivan’s character, somewhat aggressively, saying: “When was the last truly-fucking-nasty, nasty bad pop girl?” before the pounding beat of Britney Spears’ Gimme More plays out a kaleidoscopic montage. There’s daring dance routines … and equally risqué club scenes.
HBO’s The Idol Cast
The Idol has tapped a roster of rising actors and a real-life musician for the series. Along with Tesfaye, Depp (The King) will play an up-and-coming pop idol who gets ensnared in a “complicated relationship” with the cult leader. Singer-songwriter Troye Sivan will also join as a series regular, as will K-pop idol and BLACKPINK member Jennie.
Tesfaye isn’t exactly a stranger to the big screen. He appeared in the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems in 2019 as a 2012 version of himself. As for TV, he wrote and guest-starred in an episode of American Dad in 2020.
The Idol news arrives after a big year for Tesfaye, who headlined at the 2021 Super Bowl Halftime Show, broke records on the Billboard charts, and famously called out the Grammy Awards for “corruption” after he and other artists were snubbed from the latest ceremony. Last March, he announced he will no longer submit his music for Grammys consideration. With his new show in the works, might he be gunning for an Emmy instead?
Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy will also feature alongside Moses Sumney, Suzanna Son, Rachel Sennott, Hari Nef, Hank Azaria, Jane Adams, Eli Roth, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Mike Dean and Ramsey.
Is The Idol based on Britney Spears?
While there’s a few parallels between Lily-Rose Depp’s character and Britney Spears, including the pilot episode which sees Jocelyn (Depp) publicly recover from a nervous breakdown, The Idol co-creator Sam Levinson has shared the series isn’t a reflection of the pop singer’s life.
“Look, I was a kid of the ’90s, and she’s one of the greatest pop stars of all time,” Levinson responded during a press junket at Cannes Film Festival regarding the comparisons between Spears and Jocelyn.
“And, no, we’re not trying to tell a story about any particular pop star. I think we’re looking more at how the world perceives pop stars, and the pressure that it puts on that individual. It’s a lot of pressure to constantly have to be on, and to have to be what everyone wishes you to be. I also think that it’s a lonely life.”
In separate interview, Depp also clarified that Jocelyn was based on an amalgamation of iconic characters in cinema and celebrities.
“Of course, there are so many incredible pop stars of today that I have nothing but admiration and respect for — and of course, you can’t help but thinking of when you think of a character like Jocelyn — but we’re definitely not telling anybody else’s story or trying to base her on any real person,” she told Entertainment Tonight.
While not based on a specific person, Depp admitted she was inspired by Sharon Stone’s infamous performance in Basic Instinct.
“We actually drew from a lot of other influences that are not pop stars,” she began. “We thought a lot about Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and the Gene Tierneys and Lauren Bacalls… all of these women that were very inspiring to me for the role.”
Is The Weeknd releasing new music for The Idol?
The Weeknd has teamed up with frequent collaborator Future for their latest single ‘Double Fantasy.’ The new record, which features on The Idol’s official soundtrack, was first debuted on weekend one of Coachella during Metro Boomin’s set. Accompanying the studio release, is a music video featuring risqué — but hard to turn away — footage from the upcoming series. Lyrically, ‘Double Fantasy’ opens about being in a relationship and falling in love with the wrong person.
“Baby girl, I can tell that you think that I’m right for you. I already know that it’s not true, but girl, I’ll lie to you,” The Weeknd sings.
See the clip below.
What are the alleged controversies surrounding The Idol?
There’s been a few. While The Idol has been in development since June 2021, series production was reportedly disorganised. Amy Seimetz (The Girlfriend Experience, Atlanta) left The Idol with allegedly 80 of the series filmed. Abel Tesfaye, Sam Levinson and Reza Fahim serve as the series executive producers. An insider told Rolling Stone, American actor/filmmaker Amy Seimetz was given half finished scripts and a tight schedule, insinuating she was set up to fail: “Amy was doing her best in an impossible situation, but she was going to lose this no matter what. Honestly, I think HBO handed her a shit stack.”
Then there were more disturbing allegations after Levinson was brought on board, which saw the Euphoria director basically start the project from scratch. Interviews from 13 cast and crew members with Rolling Stone revealed that The Idol went through multiple re-shoots, costing millions of dollars — with re-writes “dramatically [ramping] up the explicit content.”
Excepts from the script Levinson originally penned allegedly contained “disturbing sexual and physically violent” scenes, including one alleged scene, where Lily Rose-Depp’s character begs to be raped by Tesfaye’s character Tedros after she’s tasked with holding an egg in her genitals. Another reportedly saw Depp’s character beaten by the cult leader, who becomes aroused by her abuse. While these scenes never went to film, interviewees are unsure what the final product will look like due to constant revisions.
“It was like any rape fantasy that any toxic man would have in the show — and then the woman comes back for more because it makes her music better,” a source told Rolling Stone about Levinson’s creative overhaul.
“It was a show about a woman who was finding herself sexually, turned into a show about a man who gets to abuse this woman and she loves it,” an insider shared.
Following Rolling Stone’s investigation, HBO shared a statement: “The creative team has been committed to creating a safe, collaborative, and mutually respectful working environment, and last year, the team made creative changes they felt were in the best interest of both the production and the cast and crew.”
The Idol was filmed at The Weeknd’s home
Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd) has shared some of the production struggles of re-shooting The Idol, including sacrificing his “health and home.” He recently told W Magazine that after seeing a rough-cut of the show, first helmed by Amy Seimetz, he decided to go on a “pivot” and completely re-do it. He believed the dynamic between his cult figure character and Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) was “not as complex” as he hoped. With less money to spend, new director Sam Levinson queried the possibility of filming The Idol 2.0 at Tesfaye’s sprawling Bel-Air property.
“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 told the publication. “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 of confirming the new arrangement, Levinson, his wife Ashley and their newborn son and 5-year-old boy — as well as the entire cast and crew moved into Tesfaye’s home.
“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 explained he and his dog moved out of their own home in order “to stay in character.”
“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 shared, noting it was “weird” when everyone left. He even changed all the furniture and re-plastered the walls as “the soul of Jocelyn’s house is still in there.”
Tesfaye concluded by admitting that while it was an emotional “challenge,” he needed to create The Idol following his original vision.
“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.”
Lily-Rose Depp called The Idol “fearless”
Despite its controversial claims, Lily-Rose Depp defended the series — and called it “fearless.” The model/actor said she’s only interested in participating in projects that “challenge” our beliefs like The Idol does.
“I’m not interested in making anything puritanical,” she told ELLE for their December 2022/January 2023 issue. “I’m not interested in making anything that doesn’t challenge me, or challenge other people, honestly.” She continued by saying, “I think this show is fearless, and that’s something that I’ve been really excited and proud to dive into. I can’t wait for you guys to see it.”
But Depp acknowledged that the nature of the series, and her role specifically, may be subject to criticism and speculation.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword, because when you’re an artist, you make things in the hope that they’re going to connect with somebody,” she shared. “But then it also comes with this thing where people feel like they know you, even though they don’t.”
On production, the 23-year-old said the cast “really clicked” creatively — and that costar, director and “really good friend” Sam Levinson made her feel “incredibly safe and protected.”
“It’s rare for a group of people who don’t know each other and who are all different ages and from different walks of life to mesh so well,” she began.”I think it’s difficult to do this kind of work that can be so vulnerable in so many different ways if you don’t have a lot of trust between you and your collaborators.”
When will The Idol be released?
The Idol will premiere at Cannes Film Festival end of May, before hitting HBO in June 2023.
A version of this article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR.