The Weeknd Talks ‘The Idol’ Controversy, New Live Show, Music

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It is an interesting time to be Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd.

Last summer, he was criss-crossing North America on his “After Hours Til Dawn” stadium tour while simultaneously doing reshoots for his HBO series, “The Idol.” This summer, he’s watching the reactions to the deeply controversial show while criss-crossing Europe on the second leg of the tour, which will move to Latin America and Asia into next year. He’s also doing press for the Emmy campaign for his HBO concert documentary released earlier this year, “The Weeknd: Live at SoFi Stadium.” All the while, he’s been recording, as he always is. Despite, and because of, the polarized reactions to the first episodes of “The Idol,” the show has scored big ratings and even bigger conversation.

As if filming the show in between stadium concerts last year weren’t hard enough, the tour itself faced no shortage of obstacles. Originally scheduled for 2021 and postponed due to the pandemic, the July 8 opening date in the Weeknd’s hometown of Toronto was abruptly postponed, just minutes before the doors opened, due to a freak nationwide outage of the Rogers wireless system that rendered the stadium’s ticketing and concessions inoperable, so that show was moved to the end of the tour. And in the first ten minutes of the tour’s original closing date at Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium, with camera crews shooting both the documentary and elements from “The Idol,” the Weeknd suddenly lost his voice and had to postpone that show as well.

Yet they regrouped, playing not one but two make-up dates in both Toronto and L.A. last fall, filming the latter for “Live at SoFi Stadium.” It captures both the musical and visual scope of the first incarnation of the tour, with a setlist that spans the artist’s entire career while he performs on one of the biggest stages ever created for a music tour: a vast production that sprawls across the entire floor of the stadiums, with a huge, ruined city on the main stage and a wide catwalk leading to a giant, elevated moon on the other side. Its colors are mostly black and red and the lighting is ominous, and while he’s accompanied by a team of masked dancers who are almost more scenery than actors, he doesn’t really interact with them. It’s almost all Weeknd, all the way.

This summer, he’s bringing to Europe not just a revamped version of the show — for details, see below — but the backdrop of “The Idol” as well. As has been well-documented, the show, a dark portrait of fame and manipulation, features Lily-Rose Depp playing Jocelyn, a famous but troubled pop star lost after the death of her manager mother and the Weeknd portraying Tedros, a cult-like Svengali who captivates her both sexually and creatively. He’s utterly loathsome and often ridiculous, wearing cheesy tracksuits and sporting a comical rat-tail, but as the show evolves — director Sam Levinson, who also helmed “Euphoria,” has allowed no advance screenings have been allowed for the last episodes — it seems there must be more to it, especially the Weeknd’s seemingly one-dimensional character. The show’s graphic depictions of sex, violence and psychological manipulation come with trigger warnings at the beginning of each episode, and with good reason.

On Friday, Variety caught up with the Weeknd via Zoom from Stockholm, during a day off from the tour, to talk about all of the above — and although he rarely gives details about his future plans, he did give some hints about what his next chapter, following 2020’s blockbuster “After Hours” album and last year’s “Dawn FM,” will look like.

How does it feel to be back on tour?

It feels great. I usually overthink before my tours, and I overthink while I’m onstage, because the wheels are always turning — especially on the last leg [of the North American tour]. But this one I feel very free and in control, and I’m having much more fun.

Why is this tour so much more fun?

The performances are mostly in the daytime, so I get to see the audience. It’s easier to connect with their eyes and feels a bit more intimate, so instead of a performance, it feels like more of a conversation with them. Every night I’m changing up the set — I never do that, it’s usually very formulaic — so I’m spicing it up and going into deep, deep, deep cuts and older songs. I’ll rehearse it the day-of, and if the band is down, we’ll just throw a mini-set in there.

Courtesy HBO

The entire show is basically just you and the set. Don’t you feel alone up there on that huge stage?

No, and I’d thought I would. I guess from the audience’s perspective it feels that way, because I’m just a little dot in the middle of the stadium. But I can see a lot of faces and I’m making a lot of connections out there. And I’m feeling so much positive energy because I haven’t been to these cities in years, since before the pandemic, so I feel how happy they are to be there. It’s been a long journey for the for the fans and myself in Europe, and we’re finally here.

I’m also I’m having much more fun because I’m in my tourist era right now. Usually when I tour I just stay in the hotel, but now I’m walking everywhere, taking in the sights. When I went to in Copenhagen, I went to this fair called Tivoli, I think it’s the fair that inspired Disneyland. It was amazing, the photos don’t do it justice.

It must be an exhausting concert to put on — do you even walk offstage once to take a breather?

No. The set’s only a two and a half hours now.

“Only”?

Yeah, but I’m having fun, it doesn’t feel like that. I’m getting offstage like, “Fuck, I feel like I need two more songs.” If it wasn’t for the curfew I think we would go full Bruce Springsteen and just keep running.

It’s a different show — in North America it was very dark and you were wearing black and the dancers were in red, but now everyone’s wearing white and the set is slightly different.

Yeah, it’s in the same universe, but there’s chrome and white — it’s bringing the next phase of the chapter to life, bringing the poster to life. But also, there’s a heatwave over here [in Europe], so we’re not trying to be out here rocking black in the sun. (Laughs) The sun is a big factor in the stadiums — we knew that we were going to be performing in the daytime, and the set that we had in America wouldn’t complement the show, so we’ve got sun rays hitting the chrome, metallic reflections. It’s really catered to daylight, and a little homage to midsummer as well, too.

Every leg will be different, and we’re already like working on the next one, taking notes about where we can spice it up and give every continent their own show.

Are you performing songs from “The Idol” in the sets?

Yeah, I performed a song called “A Lesser Man” in Copenhagen for the first time, which will come out in episode three, and I’ll perform a song called “Take Me Back” [Saturday], which will also drop on Sunday in episode three. And I’m also having Susanna Son [who plays the Chloe character] coming on Sunday to perform “Family” with us. I’m so excited for the world to finally hear this artist, she’s so incredibly gifted and such a scene-stealer.

How did you connect with her?

I saw first saw her in [the 2021 film] “Red Rocket” when we were in casting. I knew right away that she was Chloe, and then at the end of the film, she performs this ballad and I was blown away. Then we met her and found out that she’s actually an incredible songwriter, so musically gifted. She’s one to look out for, for sure.

The music in the show is key, and everybody in it, even characters that aren’t musicians, are actually musicians. I mean, Da’Vine Joy is a trained opera singer, Troye Sivan is an incredible pop star. Everybody’s incredibly talented.

Moses Sumney’s not too bad either.

And Moses Sumney! He has a song coming out this Sunday as well, he has a little moment.

You’ve been releasing songs from the show every week, by yourself and the actors in the show. So “The Idol” soundtrack album that’s coming out next week isn’t really a Weeknd album, right?

It is and it isn’t, it’s very collaborative and it’s also episodic. They’re little EPs, it’s music per episode. So they’re like little mini albums, instead of one body of work.

Around 18 months ago, you said you had an album finished, but the songs were “waiting for characters.” Is this that album?

No, that was for something else. That’s around the corner.

Can you say what’s coming next? Is there going to be new music after “The Idol” and after the tour?

I’m finishing the third part of this of this saga, of this trilogy. The name of it will come out soon, but it’s not called what some fans think it’s called… what they think it’s called is actually a song on the album, but that’s not what the actual album is called. [It’s unclear which speculative title he’s referring to.] So I’m just gonna say that.

If it follows the theme of “After Hours” and “The Dawn,” so it’s… afternoon?

(Laughter) I’m gonna go on the record and say it’s not called that.

Courtesy HBO

Has working on “The Idol” made you look at fame differently? The first half hour of the first episode is almost like “Spinal Tap,” although not funny — well, actually, it is funny in a lot of places.

Oh yeah, it’s funny.

But it becomes a very dark view of fame. Has working on it, not even necessarily playing Tedros, led you to reassess fame or think about it differently or feel differently about it? Because you know what it’s like to have so many people coming at you with so much adulation, and yet there’s so much pressure and so much work and so many ulterior motives.  

Well, my goal was for people to feel that way when they watch it, you know, and that they’ll reassess [fame]. It’s almost educational, that this is what comes with being incredibly famous. You’re surrounded by people who you’re not sure what their true intentions are, even if it seems like they’re good. You just never know. But of course, I’ve been very fortunate to have people around me that I’ve known almost my entire life, which is important, and is a gift.

Nothing is worse than a yes-man, especially when you have a bunch of yes-men around you. And when you see a character like Nikki [Katz, Jocelyn’s hard-edged record-label executive], who’s not a yes-man, she might seem like a bad person, but then you kind of like her for being honest. So it’s a very complicated situation for Jocelyn.

So how do you keep your head on straight when you’re doing so much?

You just keep going. It was to my detriment a little bit by the end of [the North American leg of the tour]. All that work and pressure, you know… it affects you. As you’ll remember I had a moment where I lost my voice, and that was right before we filmed the concert [for the documentary]. I actually have that footage, which I haven’t seen yet, but it’s definitely inspired a lot of what I’m doing for the film I’m working on now and the album. I just keep going. I always somehow find inspiration, even when I’m at my lowest and I’m down. It’s cathartic, I use it for fuel.

That show was originally supposed to be the last concert of the tour, but then you had to play the rescheduled show in Toronto and then drag the whole huge set across the country again to play the rescheduled dates in L.A.

It felt like a cursed tour! There were so many obstacles that I had to deal with and the only solution was just keep going.

Did that experience come out in “The Idol” at all?

The day I lost my voice was literally the last day of shooting. I was shooting scenes for “The Idol” the night before my L.A. show, shooting for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours. Then we used the stadium [show] to film some scenes and to film [Jocelyn scenes], and then I had to get out of character and perform for almost two hours. Then, that same night, I had to put on the wig and the outfit and put my Tedros mask on and work for another few hours, and then had the [second] L.A. show right after.

Something had to give!

The truth is, it takes a toll on you, on your body. I had been shooting during the entire tour: I’d be shooting “The Idol” in L.A., and then I’d have to fly to Philadelphia to do [concert] rehearsals, play the show in Philadelphia and then fly back to L.A. and shoot more “Idol,” and then fly back to the next East Coast city.

And I’m somebody that, you know, I’ve performed onstage with a high fever, I’ve performed injured and had to take injections like adrenaline shots — I will die on that stage. So to be up there, defeated, where nothing is coming out of my voice… I mean, it was pretty traumatic. My body, my voice, had never failed me like that before. And to deal with that in front of so many people and be not be able to do anything but apologize and hopefully have that same audience come back, it was scary. But the crowd was great, they came back and we played not just one but two shows [in both Toronto and L.A.].

But it’s crazy how much how much I had to work on myself after that moment, how much I had to take a seat and really heal — and in a way that I never knew I had to. Now I have some something very beautiful to show to the world because of it with the with the next project. I’m always changing my mind artistically — I scrap albums left and right. But the way that this film and this album shifted after that incident — for the better, by the way. So I’m excited. I feel like I’m giving you a lot here! (Laughter)

Courtesy HBO

So there’s an album coming, and there’s a film or some video project attached to it. And it would seem there’s a redemption-rebirth-revitalization theme to it.

(Long silence) Uh, I’m not answering any more questions about that! (Laughter)

Have you been discouraged at all by the negative reaction “The Idol” has received from some quarters? Or was that something you expected?

No, no, that very much expected.

I keep waiting for it to shift, like “Dressed to Kill,” the Brian De Palma film (who also directed “Scarface” and “Carrie”), which is very slow in the first half and then suddenly becomes fast-paced and exciting.

Brian De Palma is a huge inspiration for all this, and of course [Paul] Verhoeven [“Basic Instinct,” “Total Recall,” “RoboCop”]. But look, we’re playing with genres with this show, we’re doing exactly what we wanted to do. And none of this is a surprise. I’m excited for everyone to watch the rest of the show.

Here’s a related question: Over the past few years you keep doing all these things to make yourself ugly, between the busted nose and the blood in your mouth for the “After Hours” look and the bloated face in the later phases of it — 

And the old man face! [for the “Dawn FM” cover].

And the creepy mask at the beginning of the concerts —

Yes, that’s like the Phantom [of the Opera], gladiator inspired, of course, and Dr. Doom and then [the late, masked rapper-producer] MF Doom.

… and Tedros’ rat tail. What is it in you that makes you want to make yourself ugly?

This is just make-believe. It’s make-believe!

I guess you did the sexed-up and debauched image before? Not being really a sex symbol but —

I don’t think I’ve ever been a sex symbol.

You don’t think so?

No, definitely not. (Laughing)

OK fine. Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you’d like to say?

No, I’m just enjoying this tour and I’m excited to challenge myself and see how we can how we can change the game with the concert films.

“Films”? Are there plans to document the next two phases of the tour?

(Long pause) We’re shooting the inception of something now, which… which I feel like I haven’t been able to do before. So whatever we’re doing now, we’re capturing the genesis of it. So it’ll be an interesting documentary. Is that too vague?

Not for you!

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