×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

How the Weeknd Came to Play Himself in the Safdie Brothers’ Berserk ‘Uncut Gems’

The Adam Sandler crime drama, a hit in Telluride and Toronto, has "real cinephile" the Weeknd singing — and fighting — in "punk"-ier 2012.

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.”

More Film

  • 2020 Oscar Presenters: Zazie Beetz, Timothée

    Timothée Chalamet, Zazie Beetz, Gal Gadot Join List of 2020 Oscar Presenters

    Show producers Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain have announced additional presenters for the 92nd Academy Awards telecast. Zazie Beetz, Timothée Chalamet, Will Ferrell, Gal Gadot, Mindy Kaling, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Anthony Ramos, Mark Ruffalo, Kelly Marie Tran and Kristen Wiig will be presenting statuettes during the evening’s ceremony. Though none are nominated for [...]

  • Palm Springs

    'Palm Springs': Film Review

    There are far worse places to be stuck for eternity than Palm Springs. Like Punxsutawney, the town Bill Murray can’t escape in “Groundhog Day,” for example. So many copycat time-loop movies have come along in the 27 years since that each new imitator can’t help sounding like a broken record, which is what makes Max [...]

  • American cinematographer Robert Richardson (L) and

    Poland to Build $200 Million Cinema Institution in Toruń

    Poland is setting up a new national cinema institution, named the European Film Center Camerimage, to be housed in a new building in Toruń at a cost of almost $200 million, which is scheduled to be completed in 2025. The director of the new body is Kazik Suwala, former office director of the Camerimage Film [...]

  • Into the Deep Review

    'Into the Deep': Film Review

    Documentary filmmaker Emma Sullivan was already there when inventor Peter Madsen’s submarine, the UC3 Nautilus, went missing off the coast of Copenhagen in August 2017, with journalist Kim Wall on board. Sullivan had been filming Madsen, a hobbit-y egotist with electric blue eyes, for 18 months, and until that day, she believed she was making [...]

  • China leads the world in volume

    China Suspends Film Shoots Across the Country as Coronavirus Epidemic Worsens

    The largest film studio on the planet, China’s Hengdian World Studios, has announced it will shut down indefinitely, as productions in other parts of the country also announce they are closing up shop in light of the worsening coronavirus epidemic.  On Monday, the local government management committee in charge of the experimental industrial zone where [...]

  • Kobe Bryant Oscar Win Dear Basketball

    Academy Planning Kobe Bryant Tribute During Oscar Ceremonies

    The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will include a tribute to the late basketball icon Kobe Bryant during the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 9. “We can confirm that he will be acknowledged in the telecast,” an Academy representative told Variety. Bryant will be included in the In Memoriam montage of film [...]

  • Zola Cast at Sundance

    How Janicza Bravo and the ‘Zola’ Cast Brought the Viral Twitter Thread to Life

    Five years after A’Ziah Wells King posted the Twitter thread known as #thestory — a tale of how a trip from Detroit to Tampa, Fla., to earn money stripping quickly devolved into a wild ride, featuring a kidnapping, a shooting, sex trafficking and a suicide attempt — the real-life “Zola” is celebrating the film adaptation’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content