The Weeknd Downplays ‘Ridiculous’ Media Reports on ‘The Idol,’ Hints at His Next Chapter

In a sprawling new cover story in Vanity Fair, the Weeknd talks about the dark rumors surrounding his forthcoming HBO series “The Idol” and speaks broadly of what will apparently be the third iteration of his musical persona.

The series comes at a transitional time for the artist, who spoke of his theatrical ambitions in an expansive 2020 Variety cover story pegged to the release of his blockbuster album “After Hours.” In many ways “The Idol” is a conclusion of that dark, superstar phase of the Weeknd: Although he insists he is not Tedros, the abusive and misogynistic Svengali he portrays in the show — who is manipulating a pop star played by Lily Rose Depp, both career-wise and personally — it’s not worlds away from the nihilistic, sex-obsessed, drug-addled persona that populates many of his songs. In fact, he says he’s closer to Depp’s character.

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“Tedros is that superego that we as men wanna stay away from as much as possible, that’s inside of us and we just gotta kill that,” he says. “Jocelyn is a famous pop star. The people around her and her ethos and her community, they’re all inspired by things I know about the music industry.

“I’m not playing myself,” he continues. “But those characters can live in The Weeknd’s universe.”

The series, which he helmed with filmmaker and “Euphoria” auteur Sam Levinson and his producing partner and longtime friend Reza Fahim, premieres at the Cannes Film Festival in this month and join HBO’s Sunday night lineup starting in June. An earlier iteration of it helmed by Amy Seimetz was scrapped and begun again, reshot at the Weeknd’s palatial Beverly Hills mansion in a cost-saving move. Then, a Rolling Stone article featured multiple insiders eviscerating the show, calling it “rapey” and “twisted ‘torture porn,’” among other colorful terms and reports of a blown $54 million budget. The Weeknd responded with a comic video mocking Rolling Stone. “I thought the article was ridiculous,” Tesfaye says. “I wanted to give a ridiculous response to it.”

“I mean, this isn’t a secret,” he says of the show. “Hollywood is a dark place. Which makes for great art.”

He adds, “I do love a dark story, whether it’s Greek mythology, whether it’s Shakespearean tragedy, whether it’s a fucking Chan-wook Park film. I enjoy what it makes me feel. It makes me react.”

The article turns to Depp, “who Tesfaye describes as the show’s third creator,” it says, to defend against the allegations. “I want to leave people the opportunity to be surprised,” Depp says. “I think it’s interesting that people have so much to say about the show already and they haven’t even seen it.”

In his music, Tesfaye exults in frailty. He’s calmly ruined. “I’ve always had to bet on myself,” he said. “Even before I was The Weeknd, just in life. As soon as I got out of my mother’s womb, it’s been, ‘Bet on yourself. It’s not gonna be easy, you know?’ And I’m fine with that.”

And yet, sinking into a couch in his cavernous living room, he acknowledged some apprehension about this next career leap. “It’s nerve-racking,” he said. We were looking out onto the backyard, where an early evening fog draped over an infinity pool and cabana area. In one set of these seats, Tesfaye and Levinson wrote together after Levinson temporarily moved in. Much of the home is visible over the course of The Idol. As they readied Tesfaye’s television debut, they decided to shoot it there.

“My music was very cult-y in the beginning,” Tesfaye said. “And then it ended up bleeding into the mainstream, which then became the sound of mainstream.”

“There’s a lot of musicians that are not as famous that can fucking outdance and outsing me for sure. But they can’t do what I do as The Weeknd.”

Given those interests, the music of the ’80s continues to enthrall him. “It was hiding what it was saying through all these beautiful melodies,” Tesfaye said, and recalled a line that his character Tedros says in a trailer for The Idol: “Pop music is the ultimate Trojan horse.”

In lieu of accessibility, Tesfaye has succeeded through a self-contained world of his own making. It has grown larger and larger while remaining isolated. “Nobody’s outdancing and outsinging Beyoncé,” he said. “There’s a lot of musicians that are not as famous that can fucking outdance and outsing me for sure. But they can’t do what I do as The Weeknd.”

“I want to leave people the opportunity to be surprised,” says Lily-Rose Depp. “I think it’s interesting that people have so much to say about the show already and they haven’t even seen it.”

The writer of the article hasn’t seen a full episode either, just a few excerpts and the trailers that have been publicly released, but the first one is quoted with Jocelyn and a friend setting up what is apparently the beginning of her relationship with Tedros.

“I think I’m gonna invite Tedros over,” Jocelyn says.

Her friend says, “He’s so rape-y.”

“Yeah, I kind of like that about him.”

“Joc, no, gross. So disturbing.”

Absent from the reports, Tesfaye and others say, is an account of its humor.

“What makes it work is its sense of humor,” Depp says.

Tesfaye also lightens the accounts of turmoil with Seimetz. “I actually really loved working with Amy,” he says, “and I’m sure she’s reading all this being like, Why am I being thrown into this?” He said that logistical difficulties with Seimetz’s schedule and production timelines, as well as a desire not to rush his first show, led to the revamp. “Shows get reshot every day,” he adds. “I know it’s easy for people to be like, Oh, he wanted to be the star.” (A rep said Seimetz couldn’t be reached for comment on the article.)

In an email quoted in the article, Levinson says, “HBO had dedicated a tremendous amount of autonomy and financial resources to the show, and it wasn’t working. We wanted to explore fame and the music business for all its darkness and absurdity.”

And although his recent comments about wanting to “kill” his persona as the Weeknd are hinted at — he’s referenced by his real name through most of the article — they’re not addressed directly. But the article does speak about the character who rode to the Super Bowl halftime stage with hits like “Blinding Lights” and “Can’t Feel My Face” as being in the past, although Tesfaye himself does not.

Speaking of his next theatrical project, an untitled film that sees him costarring with Jenna Ortega and that he cowrote with Fahim and Trey Edward Shults, who is directing. But he’s long spoken of his own desire to direct.

“If I direct, that’s all I’m gonna do,” he says. “I’m not going to be The Weeknd.”

And if that seems vague, well, it’s probably exactly the way this elusive artist wants it.

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