One of the most talked-about titles at this year’s Cannes Film Festival isn’t a movie, but a TV show. “The Idol,” a scandalous, sexy and sure-to-be-polarizing series (think “Euphoria” but set in the world of pop music) about the price of fame, premiered the first two of its five episodes at the festival and instantly inspired a thousand hot takes about all that on-screen nudity, bodily fluids and Hollywood sycophants.
But before “The Idol” — the brainchild of “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson and Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye — even made its way to the Croisette, an explosive report by Rolling Stone detailed on-set turmoil, including allegations of a toxic work environment, last-minute script rewrites and budgets gone wild.
At a Cannes press conference on Tuesday, the day after the premiere, Levinson responded directly to the allegations and denied any behind-the-scenes drama. “When my wife read me the article,” he recalled, “I looked at her and I said, ‘I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.’”
He continued, “We know we’re making a show that is provocative. It’s not lost on us.” But as for the allegations in the article, he said, “It felt completely foreign to me. My only slight grievance is they intentionally omitted anything that didn’t fit their narrative. We’ve seen a lot of that recently.”
Tesfaye said earlier in the press conference that he and Levinson were aiming to “create something special, something fun, to make people laugh and piss some people off.”
The show’s star, Lily-Rose Depp, also pushed back against the accusations of chaos and stood by Levinson, saying “It’s always a little sad and disheartening to see mean, false things said about someone you care about. It wasn’t reflective at all of my experience.”
“The Idol” puts the spotlight on Depp, who plays Jocelyn, a pop phenom coming off a psychotic break after the death of her mother. As she tries to get a new album and tour off the ground, she goes to a seedy Hollywood club to blow off steam. That’s where she meets the Weeknd’s Tedros, a modern-day cult leader who reveals larger ambitions for Jocelyn’s career.
“I wanted to make a dark, twisted fantasy about the music industry,” Tesfaye said. “To take everything I know about it and heighten it.”
Levinson, clearly no stranger to provocation, also defended the show’s “revolutionary” use of nudity. A funny scene in the pilot even sends up the need for intimacy coordinators, who were introduced to the entertainment industry in the wake of #MeToo.
“We live in a very sexualized world. Especially in the States, the influence of pornography is strong in the psyche of young people. We see this in pop music,” Levinson said. “When you have a character who has a strong sense of self and a strong sexual self, you end up underestimating her.”
Depp called Jocelyn a “born and bred performer,” so she believes that nudity is important to the genesis of the character. “That extends to every aspect of her life, not just her professional life,” she said. “The way she dresses is trying to tell you something all the time. The occasional bareness of the character physically mirrors the bareness we get to see emotionally.”
Hank Azaria, who plays Jocelyn’s manager Chaim, joked that he became protective of Depp when she was scantily dressed on set. “I was trying to throw blankets on her,” he said.
“The Idol” also references in the first episode the media’s intense scrutiny of young, female music icons like Britney Spears. And the trailer heavily features the Princess of Pop’s 2007 hit “Gimme More.” Levinson denied, though, that Jocelyn is inspired by Spears, whom he calls “one of the greatest pop stars of all time.”
“We’re not trying to tell a story about any particular pop star,” he said. “We’re looking more at how the world perceives pop stars and the pressure it puts on that individual.”
Depp believes the great tragedy about the price of fame is that everyday people imagine they know more about celebrities than they actually do. “Something that was interesting about exploring the character is: What is going on inside her head? Someone who is so watched but not seen… What does it look like when she unravels?”
Depp may be playing someone who is still figuring it all out, but Tesfaye portrays a man with a mission. He described his character as “Dracula,” who is “luring” Jocelyn into his orbit. He laughed when he was asked by a journalist if he’d ever met someone like Tedros in real life. “I don’t fucking think so.”
Levinson chimed in, “If you had, I don’t think you’d be here.”
Matt Donnelly contributed to this report.