“The Idol” is the altar that Sam Levinson is willing to stake his career on.
At the Cannes Film Festival, Levinson, who co-created the HBO series with Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye and Reza Fahim, addressed the viral Rolling Stone report alleging the series was a disaster behind-the-scenes that glorified “torture porn.” The six-part limited series starring Lily-Rose Depp and Tesfaye hosted its Cannes premiere on May 22, where Levinson and the cast slammed the rumors of on-set chaos.
“We know we are making a show that is provocative. It is not lost on us, but it’s an odd one,” Levinson said during the festival press conference. “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.”
Levinson continued, “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.”
Co-creator and star Tesfaye echoed that the collaborative process led to a series that will “make some people laugh and piss some people off.”
“The Idol” underwent massive reshoots, a casting change-up, and a director switch before launching at Cannes. Levinson stepped in to direct all episodes after Amy Seimetz exited the series despite production being close to wrapping. After seeing the rough cut of the almost-completed “The Idol,” lead star and co-creator Tesfaye “decided to pivot,” according to a recent report, and enlisted Levinson to take over as director after he completed “Euphoria” Season 2.
Upon the Cannes premiere, though, plot details involving revenge porn, rape jokes, and other potentially problematic references set the internet ablaze. Levinson admitted that “The Idol” is a reaction to the fact that “we live in a very sexualized world” and said the show serves as a reflection of how pop culture has been porn-ified.
“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,” Levinson said. “I think with this show and with working with Lily, we had a lot of discussions about who she is as a person, who [her character] Jocelyn 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.”
Lead star Depp added that she “never felt more involved in those kinds of conversations” than when it came to the explicit scenes and nudity. “I felt I was given the privilege in the creation of this character, from the inside out and from the outside in,” Depp said.
She added of the rumors of a chaotic set, “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.”
Co-star Hank Azaria quipped that he was “always trying to put blankets” over Depp, jokingly asking her if she was “cold” in her various states of undress on set. The “Simpsons” alum called the reports of Levinson’s unconventional directing style a misunderstanding of his 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,’” Azaria said. “I’ve been on many a dysfunctional set this was the exact opposite. I felt challenged for the first time in many many years.”
Actress Jane Adams added, “I second that 100 percent. I feel very strongly about it. It’s been one of the best creative experiences I’ve ever had. Can’t we just create? Can’t we have freedom of thought? Can’t things be messy?”
Eric Kohn contributed reporting. “The Idol” premieres on HBO June 4.