Lily-Rose Depp and The Weeknd explored the dark side of celebrity in the Cannes press conference for HBO’s controversial sexy pop star drama series The Idol, after the world premiere of the first two episodes of the limited series at the Cannes Film Festival Monday night.
Depp stars in The Idol as Jocelyn, a Britney Spears-like rags-to-riches pop star in crisis after the death of her mother. To make matters worse, a former lover has posted an explicit photo of her online, further damaging her reputation. In her vulnerable state, she gets seduced by Tedros, a charismatic leader of an NXIVM-like cult, played by Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye in his TV acting debut.
Tesfaye, who co-created The Idol with Euphoria creator Levinson and Reza Fahim, was joined by Depp, Levinson and several of the series’ co-stars, including Hank Azaria and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who play Jocelyn’s co-managers Chaim (Azaria) and Destiny (Randolph), respectively, and Jane Adams, who gives a series-stealing performance as sharp-tongued label executive Nikki.
The dark drama/entertainment industry satire has been controversial for both its on-screen depictions of sex and debauchery — though tame by the standards of Cannes — and reports of behind-the-scenes turmoil in the making of the show.
The series arrives in Cannes after an explosive Rolling Stone feature about the six-episode limited series included members of cast and crew claiming the production was plagued by last-minute revisions and a chaotic working environment. The story also said that after original director Amy Seimetz was replaced with Levinson, the drama’s perspective changed, from a satire skewering the misogynistic and predatory nature of the music business to becoming something closer to a toxic man’s fantasy. Both Depp and Tesfaye have denied allegations of on-set troubles.
“It’s always a little sad and disheartening to see these mean, false things about somebody that you really care about and that you know is not like that,” said Depp in Cannes.
“We know we are making a show that is provocative. It is not lost on us, but it’s an odd one,” added Levinson, referring to the reports of on-set turmoil. “Because when my wife read me the article. I told her ‘I think we are about to have the biggest show of the summer.’ In terms of the specifics of what was in it. it just felt completely foreign to me. But I know who I am… People can write whatever they want. If I have a slight objection, it’s that they intentionally omitted anything that didn’t fit their narrative. But I think we have seen a lot of that lately.”
Azaria also defended Levinson, saying reports of “on-set chaos” were a misunderstanding of the director’s spontaneous and creative approach.
“It would be like going on the set of Curb Your Enthusiasm or a Judd Apatow movie, where people are improvising brilliantly and saying, ‘Oh, they must not know their lines.’ I’ve been on many a dysfunctional set; this was the exact opposite. I felt challenged for the first time in many, many years.”
“I second that 100 percent,” said Adams. “I feel very strongly about it. It’s been one of the best creative experiences I’ve ever had.” She noted that she was getting “very upset” about the discussions around the “chaos” of the show. “Can’t we just create, can’t we have freedom of thought? Can’t things be messy?”
“I initially wanted to make a dark twisted fairy tale about the music industry and heighten it,” said Tesfaye. “[Sam and I] wanted to really see if we could create our own pop star, using my experiences, using his experiences, using Lily’s experiences from her point of view, to create something special, daring, exciting, fun, to make some people laugh and to piss some people off.”
Tesfaye said he’d never met anyone like Tetros in the music industry “I don’t fuckking think so… thank God,” comparing his character more to a movie monster. “He’s Dracula,” he said.
“It’s about how the world perceives a pop star and the pressure it puts on that individual. It’s a lot of pressure to constantly be on and to have to be what everyone wishes you to be,” said Levinson. “And I also think it’s a lonely life. we can all pretend that everyone is looking out for someone’s best interests, but I think fame really corrupts. I think it is very easy to surround yourself with myth makers, and I think there is something very scary about that.”
Depp reflected on how much life was reflected in art in the series, drawing parallels between Jocelyn’s struggles and her own perspective as an in-the-spotlight celebrity and daughter of superstar actor Johnny Depp and French actress and singer Vanessa Paradis.
“I think it is just about the people you surround yourself with,” she said, “that’s something that we see my character actively doing in the show, struggling with the people she is keeping around her and wondering if they are telling her the truth [it’s] all about surrounding yourself with good people.”
Reflecting on the explicit sex scenes in the film, Levinson noted that “we live in a very sexualized world” and said the series was a reflection of the “pornification” of American pop culture.
“Especially in the States, the influence of pornography is really strong in terms of the psyche of young people in the States. And we see this in pop music and how it reflects the kind of underbelly of the internet in some ways,” said Levinson. “I think with this show and with working with Lily, we had a lot of discussions about who she is as a person, who Joceyln is as a person [and] from that point the sexuality comes out of that character. … I think it is very true to what almost every pop star is doing these days.”
Speaking about the on-set process of shooting these explicit scenes, Depp said she “never felt more involved in those kinds of conversations, and I felt I was given the privilege in the creation of this character, from the inside out and from the outside in.”
Azaria joked that he was constantly protective of Depp on set. “I was always trying to put blankets over her, asking: ‘Are you cold?’” And noted that several of the scenes in the show reminded him of incidents in the film business where young women have been exploited and the best thing would have been to “just stop for a while.”
Randolph defended the show as very “femme forward.”
The six-part series, which goes out on HBO and on the company’s streaming service Max on June 4, received a mixed reception at its world premiere in Cannes Monday night, with critics decidedly mixed and Cannes’ usually enthusiastic gala audience surprisingly muted. But series director and co-creator Levinson, obviously moved by the experience, began to choke up in his thank you speech after the screening.
“It’s the biggest dream come true, I think we were all overwhelmed and moved by the response,” he said, noting that he first heard of the French film festival back when he was 10 years old. “I didn’t know much about world cinema but I knew about Pulp Fiction, [and] that he won an award for this crazy movie that I wasn’t allowed to see. [Through that] I learned about the Cannes Film Festival, I discovered French cinema and world cinema and I had a dream to come here. And last night was one of the most moving and emotional experiences I could ever have.”