‘The Idol’: Moses Sumney on Acting Debut, Izaak Being Shirtless

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For Moses Sumney, being cast in Sam Levinson’s controversial HBO series “The Idol” was, as he tells Variety, “strangely cosmic.”

The singer-songwriter — whose two studio albums, “Aromanticism” and “Græ,” were released to critical acclaim — first came into contact with Levinson when he synced Sumney’s song, “Me in 20 Years,” for Rue’s special episode of “Euphoria” in late 2020. Sumney, who had been taking virtual acting classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, then found himself auditioning for the role of Elliot (Dominic Fike) in Season 2 of the series.

“I auditioned kind of on a whim, and it weirdly went really well and went pretty far until I think the powers that be were like, ‘So, I don’t know if he looks 16 years old,’” Sumney says with a laugh. “Then Sam called me and was like, ‘I love you so much as an actor, I’m gonna keep you in mind.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever, sure.’”

Flash forward a year, and Levinson kept his promise. “He was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this show that we’re doing, and I’m writing it right now and I cannot get you out of my mind for it — will you do it?’” Sumney recalls. “I was just like, ‘Well, fuck it. OK, sure!’”

That show was “The Idol,” a drama following pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), who tries to reclaim her career after suffering a nervous breakdown due to her mother’s death — and ends up in the arms of Tedros (Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye), a sleazy club owner leading (and sometimes torturing) a cult-like group of aspiring musicians. Sumney plays Izaak, a seemingly-always-shirtless follower of Tedros who seduces Leia (Rachel Sennott), Jocelyn’s assistant and best friend.

“The Idol” hasn’t been without controversy. A Rolling Stone report that brought forth allegations of a toxic workplace environment after original director Amy Seimetz exited the production and Levinson took over, combined with online backlash to the series’ use of nudity and portrayal of sex, have made it the most talked about show of the summer — for better and for worse.

Ahead of “The Idol” finale on Sunday, Sumney discusses making his acting debut in the series, how he’s handled the negative discourse around the show and why he wanted Izaak to be an “emblem of male objectification.”

So, Sam Levinson calls you and offers you this part. Did he write it with you in mind?

He wrote it for me. Initially, they wanted the character to be called Moses, but I begged them to change it. I was like, I don’t know if this is me, literally — I want to feel like I’m acting, so let’s give him a name.

When did you get involved in the show — was it before or after the reshoots?

I wasn’t on when Amy was there. You could say my part only exists because they redid the show. It’s strangely cosmic. I feel bad for everyone whose work will never be seen, but at the same time, I wouldn’t have been seen if that didn’t happen.

The universe kind of just is — I don’t know if it’s good or bad in anyone’s direction. Things just kind of happen, and I’m grateful.

Izaak mentions that his parents are pastors, and Tedros discovered him at church. Your parents are also pastors — how much of Izaak was taken from your real-life experience?

I think a lot about this show is blurring the line between reality and fiction, and that was a thing that Sam really wanted to play with. The pastor thing made a lot of sense for the character — I think Sam built the character largely based on what he knew about me, but also how he perceived me, maybe? Which is both thrilling and horrifying at the same time.

Whenever you’re faced with how people see you, it’s always like, “Oh, is this my vibe?” I think he pieced it together, maybe, from my online presence, and then what he needed to serve the story. He described Izaak as “the sexiest guy in the room at all times,” which was so deeply flattering, because I’m not exactly the most swaggy person in real life. So it was really funny that whatever physical avatar I’ve built could be perceived as someone who was really suave.

Clearly, Izaak has been “broken in” by Tedros. What kind of backstory did you come up with for how he got involved in this cult?

I wrote a pretty long character background for him, and thought a lot about where he came from. I know that he came from a place of need, and I think he needed someone to see him and believe in him. Tedros was maybe the first to do that, and I think that’s the case with a lot of people in the industry and with Los Angeles — especially people who fall into cycles of abuse.

What direction did Sam give you for the character?

I learned once we started that a lot was up to me, in terms of how to express this character. And then if I made a choice that felt off, Sam would tell me, but I was given the room to decide who he is, how he carries himself, how he walks into a room — I didn’t pick what he’s wearing, now!

He’s not wearing a lot!

Yeah, that wasn’t my choice. But in terms of how he expresses himself, that was me and there was a lot of improvisation. Sam is very collaborative in the way, specifically, that characters are built. The thing with me was, because the character was written for me, I had to find ways to make the character different from me.

HBO

This is your first acting gig — what made “The Idol” the right entry point for you?

It was the opportunity to work with Sam. I’ve been reading scripts for a long time and thinking about parts, and I think there is really a limited range of roles for Black men specifically. I saw in this that I could bring something to Izaak that felt like a departure from how we usually see Black men on screen — down to the way he dresses, down to the way he expresses intimacy, down to the timbre of his voice when he’s in bed with Leia. I could see a lot of opportunities to do something that felt different and unique.

I love that I could play a character that was an aspiring singer, because I have a specific set of tools that lend to that. I love that he gets into movement. I also saw an opportunity to explore a part of my voice that I don’t explore a ton in my own work — a lower and more soulful R&B place, more explicit.

And most importantly, I love that I get to be hot. Like, that’s fucking cool as fuck! I was a little alarmed when we got to costume the week before, and we’re trying on all these different shirts with Natasha [Newman-Thomas], our wonderful costume designer, and she’s like, “OK, the note I’m getting is less clothing.” And then it just evolved to no shirt at all. And I was like, “This is horrifying, I’m never gonna eat a bagel ever again!” But also, my work for people who know it is so cerebral and emotional, it was really cool to just be dumb and hot. Like, what a dream.  

How did you physically prepare for the role?

When I booked “The Idol,” it was like, “Oh shit.” I was like, “OK, I have to be hot in this show so my body has to be on point.” So I started running everyday — I’m not a runner, I’ve never run before in my life — and being pretty obsessive about exercising at least twice a day, five days a week. We shot a lot of the show at the Weeknd’s house — thankfully, he has this massive gym that nobody was using, it actually was a room for extra camera equipment. So whenever we went to lunch or we had a scene that I wasn’t in, I would go to the gym and work out and then go back to the makeup chair like, “Sorry, I had to sweat a little.” It was just a lot of exercise and eating protein.

Since Izaak is an aspiring singer, you contributed a song to the soundtrack, “Get It B4.” Did you write it specifically for the show?

I didn’t exactly write it for the show. But one thing that was really crazy, when Sam called me about the role he was basically like, “Hey, I’m making a show that’s about music, and it’s about sex.” And I was like, “That’s crazy, because I’ve been exploring making music also about sex, or at least sensuality.” So “Get It B4” comes from a batch of songs that I had already been working on before “The Idol” came along, in which I’ve been like, I want to explore bass and drums, I want to explore rhythm, I want to explore a more R&B sound. I was like, I feel like a sexy guy would maybe sing this in his underwear. I took a little bit of a break from doing music and as I approach exploring it again, I’m interested in doing more stuff in that direction sonically.

I have to ask, did you read the Rolling Stone report alleging a toxic workplace environment? Did it line up with your experience at all?

I mean, look, the only thing I can really say about that is I wasn’t there the first time they shot the show, so I wasn’t privy to a lot of the things, including the reasoning provided in that article for why it was re-done. I don’t necessarily think that everything is true, but I’m more focused on the fact that a lot of people worked on this show. And the thing that’s interesting and beautiful about the cinematic arts, film and television, is that it really takes a village. And so I think there a lot of really wonderful, beautiful crew people, camera people, makeup, hair, costume, lighting, grips, gaffers, cast that gave their all to be a part of this. And I think the thing that was unfortunate about that article was like, maybe it didn’t consider that a hypothetical takedown affects a lot of different people’s lives who are not responsible. 

How would you describe the vibe on set?

There were things that were crazy to me, but some of them were normal and some of them weren’t — and I didn’t have a grasp on what was normal and what was not because I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I shot a movie [“MaXXXine”], so that kind of helped me be like, “OK, some things are different, but some things are the same.”

As much as I’m like, “This is my first show,” I’ve been on a bunch of shoots; I direct as well. And, I don’t know — nothing ever goes right. Everything goes past schedule, nothing is ever delivered on time, everything is crazy. And I think that a lot of the chaos of the set maybe came from the cinéma vérité feel that they were going for, and a lot of improvisation.

It wasn’t just like, actors get in front of the camera and improvise — there was a very lyrical approach to what we would shoot and when, and I think sometimes that just makes things maybe feel a bit longer or a bit unorganized. I think that was the chaos of what was being captured, like the chaos of the industry.

How have you dealt with all the negative discourse online surrounding the show?

I don’t have Twitter, so that helps. And nobody’s really said anything bad about me. I think we’re in a moment right now that forgets this show is pushing buttons in a way that HBO kind of always has. It was funny being in Europe the past few weeks [for fashion week], basically since the show came out, because people are like, “Oh my god, I love it,” and I realize how different the European — especially the French or Italian — reaction is compared to the American one. It’s definitely a great way to learn how to rise above and let things go as an actor. You don’t really have a lot of control over what ends up on screen, and you also don’t have control over how people are going to react to things. So I think if anything, I’m learning how to let go and not take things personally and keep it pushing.

A lot of the reaction has been to the nudity and sex scenes in the show, with some people calling it gratuitous and verging on “torture porn.” What are your thoughts on that perception?

I really wanted Izaak to be an emblem of male objectification in the show, and I was really explicit with Sam about that. Once we started going, I was just like, “Hey, we’ve seen a lot of Lily’s butt. Like, what if we saw a guy’s? You choose who that would be. But based on what you’ve written for Izaak, it might be him.” And Sam was very down with that. I think that my effort in the show is to, as much as I can as an actor, be like, “Yeah, objectify me, too.” And I think that’s part of why Izaak’s character evolved from wearing open shirts to wearing just boxers. And I think you’ll see maybe more of that in the next episode? So I’ll say that.

And then the other thing I will say is I think there’s an opportunity for a really interesting cultural conversation — of course about media and TV, but largely about music — that I don’t think has really spring-boarded from the show, and I’m a little bit disappointed that we’re not having a larger cultural conversation. I mean, of course, we’re having conversations about the male gaze, which is a very worthwhile topic, and one that I like to see happening. But I think there’s always going to be a question about, is depiction endorsement on screen? I’m not going to offer an opinion on that right now, but I do think that is a question the show is proposing.

I also think a question we should ask is about pop stars, especially female pop stars, and sexuality and who owns their sexuality and more specifically, who owns the agency of their sexuality. I think it goes for male pop stars too, and Izaak is kind of contending with that in ways. Izaak has clearly decided that his body is a vehicle to success, whether or not it will be I don’t know, but I do think there is a larger conversation to be had about our brightest and biggest stars, especially of the past 20 years — and I think that as people watch “The Idol,” if they’re uncomfortable with the portrayal of Jocelyn’s sexuality, they should then watch a few music videos. I’m always, like, who are our biggest pop stars, what are they wearing, how are they dancing, how are they moving and how is their sexuality tied to their success?

HBO

You had a brief sex scene in the show. What was that like to film?

Like, in no universe is it normal to shoot a sex scene. That sex scene I shot with Rachel was my first week on the job — I think we shot that a couple of days after I met her for the first time. So it was definitely very like, “Whoa.” It was, like, awkward. I’m also, believe it or not, very body shy. So it was just very exposing to be like, “All right, I gotta put on the little modesty garment.”

I don’t know, it was weird. It wasn’t bad, it’s just fucking strange, you know? The intimacy coordinator was very thorough about, “Is it OK to be touched here?” And that’s helpful going into a scene, knowing exactly what’s OK and what’s not. But I don’t think there’s anything that could ever make that feel like a normal experience.  

The finale is next week. Have you seen it? Have you seen any episodes ahead of time?

I saw the first two before they came out, right before we went to Cannes. After that, I’m with everybody else. I literally do not know what happens.

Though you haven’t seen the finale, is there anything you can tease about how Izaak’s storyline wraps up?

The mic is on, and the vocals are live.

Rumors have been swirling about whether or not there will be a Season 2. Would you be open to that?

I think we need to just see how it all plays out. It feels really early to say if there’s gonna be a second season or not. Is there gonna be another season of any television at this point? I don’t know. Like with the writers strike, and Sam has another show, and everything is on pause — I really don’t know what’s going on. When I signed on to “The Idol,” I thought it was a limited series. And so I have no idea. Now people are like, “There’s only five episodes?!” And I’m like, “It was always only five episodes.”

You’re also appearing in “MaXXXine,” the third and final installment in Ti West’s slasher “X” trilogy. What can you tease about your role?

The mic is on and the vocals are live. No, I’m kidding! Thank god, I am not playing a singer in “MaXXXine.” I have nothing to do with music, which is so cool.

The mic is actually off!

The mic is off, thank god. The underwear is not — well, hmm, we’ll just have to see about that part. But yeah, it feels really good to have auditioned for a movie and gotten it, you know? I am not playing anything close to what people would think or expect. My character couldn’t be more different than my character in “The Idol.”

What do you envision for your career going forward — do you plan on doing more acting? When can we expect more music? 

Beginning to act has made me miss music a lot, so I’m exploring that more. Also, it’s funny that my first interactions with the cinematic arts were as a director — I’ve directed music videos and a performance film, my baby “Blackalachia” — but I’m really grateful to have gotten into acting because it’s widened my perspective a lot.

I also went to school for creative writing — my first discipline is as a writer — so I think I actually want to more explore being behind the camera or maybe putting things on the page and being a more creative voice, because as you can see I have a lot of thoughts. I love acting so much, and I think it made me realize how much being in charge is actually more intuitive for me as someone who has just been an artist my whole life. I’m just used to doing everything. Acting is rich and beautiful, but I’m looking forward to telling people what to do again.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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