The Weeknd remembers seeing Avatar for the first time in 2009 — he was 19 and feeling blue. Watching the film was like a ray of light.
“That was probably the darkest time of my life,” the Canadian singer tells . “I was homeless, pretty much. I had dropped out of school. I didn’t know if I was going to succeed as a musician. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to live to see tomorrow. And I remember I somehow got to see the film in theaters. I don’t know how I got in. It was such an escape from my real life that the film is tattooed in my brain.”
Two years after Avatar‘s release, The Weeknd marked a major breakthrough with his critically acclaimed alternative R&B mixtape, House of Balloons. That was followed by a major-label deal, countless No. 1 hits on the pop charts, streaming milestones, awards galore, roaring tours and more.
So, it’s no surprise that he was at the top of James Cameron’s list when the filmmaker wanted a theme song for the follow-up to his epic science fiction film. The Weeknd, with the help of composer Simon Franglen and electronic house trio Swedish House Mafia, crafted “Nothing Is Lost (You Give Me Strength)” for Avatar: The Way of Water. It has been shortlisted for best original song at the 2023 Academy Awards.
“They told me they had one name on the list to do the song and it was me,” The Weeknd says. “It feels kismet and it’s a full-circle moment for me to be a part of something like this, because it is such an important film for me.”
Thirteen years after Avatar, you have now created the theme for this huge sequel. How does it feel?
It’s a gift. It’s a blessing. Jim [James Cameron] and [producer] Jon [Landau] and Simon [Franglen] — they really made me feel like I was the only one that could do this song. And it was a sign. When they reached out, I was on tour. I saw the film in July. Jon and I were in New York at the same time, and he invited me to a private screening where he presented me to the whole universe for Avatar and for the next few films, and I was blown away. And by the way, the presentation was impeccable. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. And when he showed me The Way of Water, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. James Cameron is truly someone we need right now to give us the ultimate cinematic experience. By the end of the film, I was so inspired that the song was pretty much writing itself.
Tell me more about creating “Nothing Is Lost.”
I was honored, but I was nervous. It’s such a big opportunity and the film is so massive that naturally I was nervous. I knew I was going to be working with some special collaborators because I was going to be working with people who had vision and knew exactly what they wanted. And those are the types of artists I always want to work with. Because no matter what, they won’t stop and we won’t stop until the song is absolutely perfect. And that’s what ended up happening. And now we have this song. It’s a labor of love.
What was it like working so closely with James Cameron?
Working with someone like James Cameron, who has such a singular vision, I can bring as much as I can from what I love about music, but I have to hit specific themes of the film. He is a genius, and I just felt honored that I got to collaborate with him. The best part about writing the song was getting notes from James and making sure that all the lyrics and the tones fit the themes of the film. I think I rewrote the song maybe six times to make sure it was perfect.
Was making this new song different compared to your creative process behind “Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey, which was Oscar-nominated?
Oh yeah, absolutely. The song in the film for Fifty Shades of Grey is just so sexy and sexual. Working on this song was fun as well, but that felt a little bit more fun and loose, while this one felt a little bit more scientific. I couldn’t veer away from what [Cameron wanted]. Because the song is so connected with the film, I had to make sure that it didn’t feel like we just plopped in a pop song at the end of the credits. I couldn’t be as vague as “Earned It.”
“Nothing Is Lost” just came out, and it’s been shortlisted for the Oscars. How does it feel?
I feel honored to be part of that list. Any kind of recognition for it feels like a blessing.
What would it mean to be Oscar-nominated again for this song?
It’d be great. But I’m just happy that I got to be part of such a historic film.
How do you feel about awards shows in general? Do the Oscars feel different compared to the Grammys?
Yeah, they definitely feel different for sure.
You didn’t submit your own music for the 2022 Grammys, but you won an award for your work on Kanye West’s “Hurricane.” Do you have any thoughts on winning without really entering into the competition?
Again, I’m just grateful. Any kind of recognition, I’m grateful for it. I’m just happy to be in the conversation.
What did you learn from working with Simon Franglen?
He was doing the score for the film and I actually learned a lot because I’m scoring right now for my own show (The Idol on HBO). I got to learn a lot from him and it was exciting to work with him.
There’s a lot of anticipation for this new show. Is there anything about it you could tell us?
Not yet. Soon enough, though.
Has it been awesome to flex another creative side of yourself through TV production and acting?
Absolutely. It’s just a new muscle that I didn’t know that I had that I want to definitely work out. It’s been fun.
Have you been working on music?
I’ve definitely been inspired. I’ve been in the studio.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in a Jan. stand-alone issue of magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.