Much was made of the fact that Abel Tesfaye’s name showed up in the cast list for “Uncut Gems,” the latest film from the brother director team Josh and Benny Safdie. As it’s turned out now that the crime drama is premiering — and triumphing — on the festival circuit, “Gems” has Tesfaye playing the Weeknd … that is, himself. He’s only on screen for a few minutes out of a 130-minute movie, so it’s hardly the ultimate test of his screen presence, should he have bigger cinematic plans in mind — which, apparently, he does. But even as a cameo, his quickie acting debut is, like the rest of the movie, kind of a riot.
That’s riot not quite so much in the sense of “laugh riot” (although his scene is undeniably funny) as much as in the quality of tension and chaos, a condition that follows the movie’s anxious antihero, Adam Sandler, everywhere he goes, including a nightclub where the Weeknd is performing. Suffice it to say that the two icons conclude their short screen time together caught up in a dancefloor-dispersing brawl.
“He’s a friend of ours, and he’s a real cinephile, Abel,” said Josh Safdie, speaking with Variety after the film’s premiere in Telluride. (“Uncut Gems” is also showing at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, well in advance of its December wide release.) “Real cinephile. Like, one of his favorite filmmakers is (David) Cronenberg, and that makes sense, because he’s from Toronto. But he watches a lot of movies.”
So he was all in when the Safdies asked him to play himself… in 2012, when “Uncut Gems” is set. The movie takes place in and out of the diamond district, as Sandler’s shady jeweler character intersects with real people in the worlds of basketball and hip-hop, with no small amount of scamming and increasingly high stakes. The script heralds the Weeknd’s eventual arrival when one character discusses how the then-unknown singer is going to be a big deal — “even though he’s from Canada.” When the singer finally arrives in the movie flesh, he’s performing “The Morning,” a cut from his debut 2011 mixtape “House of Balloons,” released a year before he got to putting out a proper album.
“He was very specific about the kind of character he wanted to play,” says Benny Sadie. Adds Josh, “Because he said he was a relentless punk in 2012. So we were like, ‘Oh, okay, we’ll write that into the movie.’ And we had to make his hair again, because he so iconically shaved his head — well, not shaved it, but cut it all off for his huge mega-album, ‘Starboy.’ And now, with his new album, he’s kind of going with a new thing. But he was like, ‘Yeah, we have to bring back the punk.’ And I said, ‘Well, tell me about the punk!’ And then he’s like like, ‘The punk — my hair was kind of becoming its own thing, along with my ego…’ I was excited to get into that.
“But that performance that he does of ‘The Morning’ is really awesome, and getting him to perform that live was very cool,” says the director. “Originally we were going to maybe do an original song. He and Dan (Loptatin), our composer, went into the studio and made like four or five amazing tracks. One of them we were going to use in the movie. Then we were like, you know what, this should be a time capsule. And he agreed. We vacillated between ‘The Morning’ and a few others, but that was really the one. And then we had to go through the rights because he wrote it with another person — that was seven years ago.”
“That’s a real, live performance,” says Benny. “That was something that he didn’t have to do, but he’s like, ‘I want this to be real.’ It added to the energy of the whole room. Everybody was so excited. You can just feel it bleeding out of the screen.”
“And he’s got an angel’s voice,” says Josh. “He just opens his mouth, and it’s like, ‘That’s inside of you? That is so crazy.'”
As for the fight: “He did that with Adam, the two of them, no doubles, both of them rolling around on the ground,” says Benny. “Everybody wanted to get into it, really get down and dirty with us. It was heavily choreographed, but still, none of that stuff is easy. … We had to make a thick foam version of the floor in this nightclub that was the size of the whole floor. Of course the floor is zigzag black and white. It was a very difficult thing to do, because we like to show violence in wide-ish shots so that you can actually see people falling to the floor and stuff.”
The Weeknd was game for all this because he’s their buddy?
“I think it’s more because he’s such a cinephile,” says Josh. “I think he wanted to be in the moment. We’re gonna work again on a bigger thing, still to be determined. He has a desire for the silver screen —he really, really, really cherishes that. it’s awesome. And he sees such small, esoteric stuff. He’ll hit me up and be like, ‘Have you ever seen this one?’ I’m like, ‘How the hell do you know this, Abel? Who’s your supplier?’ He’s always looking for stuff. I remember when he was living in Paris for a minute. He got close with Gaspar Noe and they were just matching movies all day, all night, hitting me up: ‘Have you heard of this movie “Angst”?’ ‘Of course!'”
Would the “bigger thing” they want to work on with Tesfave involve a considerably bigger acting role? Mum’s the word. “Still to be determined,” the Safdies repeat.
The actual score for “Uncut Gems,” by Daniel Lopatin, is also an attention-getter. Lipton, better known in electronic circles as Oneohtrix Point Never, did the score for the Safdies’ previous film, “Good Time,” as well. “I was a fan of his music,” says Josh, who takes a particular interest in the duos’ soundtracks. “His albums are very conceptual, and he was making basically scores for movies that didn’t exist. So when we met on ‘Good Time,’ after he saw the way we were using a lot of Debussey on our film prior to that, he was like, ‘Oh let’s get deep together,’ and we’ve become very close friends.”