As you probably know, the Weeknd will be headlining the Super Bowl halftime show. Most people are excited to see which hits he’ll perform, but there’s a small, deeply nerdy contingent of folks who are just happy to remind the world that the pop/R&B superstar was great in Uncut Gems.
There are many reasons to recommend 2019’s best movie — Adam Sandler has never been better, Josh and Benny Safdie are among our finest young filmmakers — but one of this electrically tense thriller’s surprising selling points was its cameo from the man born Abel Tesfaye. Currently streaming on Netflix, Uncut Gems is set in 2012, and early on in the film, jeweler/gambling addict Howard (Sandler) is shown a photo by his mistress/employee Julia (Julia Fox) of an up-and-coming artist called the Weeknd. “He’s going to be major,” she tells him, “even though he’s from Canada.” Howard’s dismissive response is “This guy looks stupid,” referring to his crazy hairdo, which got a laugh at my screening because, well, sure, his hair did look kinda dumb.
Nonetheless, Julia’s right: The Weeknd was about to be massive, in short order producing more than a dozen Top 10 singles, including five No. 1 hits. But none of us could have guessed that the Safdies would actually get the Weeknd to play himself in Uncut Gems — later, he shows up in a nightclub where he’s trying to hook up with Julia, prompting Howard to start a mini-brawl. It’s one of the film’s signature moments.
That Weeknd cameo was a long time coming. The Safdie brothers, who had previously made Good Time with Robert Pattinson, had been friends with the singer since their harrowing 2014 drug-addiction drama Heaven Knows What, which is when he reached out to say he was a fan. Uncut Gems was actually a script Josh and Benny had been working on for years, and the Weeknd eventually convinced them to let him read it. After the singer got a chance to look at the screenplay, his response was direct: “I want to be in this.”
Part of the challenge for the Safdies with Uncut Gems was nailing down the time period when the story would take place. (Because the plot is built around a pivotal NBA playoff series that Howard has bet big on, the trick was finding the right series and the right basketball star to play himself.) At one point, the brothers thought the film’s main musician would be ASAP Ferg, but after the Weeknd expressed interest — and they got Kevin Garnett for the basketball player — they realized that 2012 would work perfectly since he was just starting to blow up at that point.
But the Safdies were in for a surprise when they quickly discovered how seriously the Weeknd would get about his preparation to play this “character.” As Josh later recalled, “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. … [H]e was like, ‘Yeah, we have to bring back the punk.’ And I said, ‘Well, tell me about the punk!’ And then he’s like, ‘The punk — my hair was kind of becoming its own thing, along with my ego…’ I was excited to get into that.”
That kind of insistence on realism — even getting the hair back to how it was in 2012 — added to the overall texture of Uncut Gems, which feels alive and unpredictable at every moment. When the Weeknd finally sings in the movie, after arrogantly demanding the club owner turn on the blacklight to set the mood, he went with a period-appropriate tune, “The Morning,” which had been a highlight of the previous year’s breakthrough mixtape House of Balloons. (To get into the spirit, the dude even wore the jeans he’d wear back then.) And the Weeknd didn’t simply perform to a backing track — he sang it live, creating a goosebump moment in the middle of the film.
“He did it like four or five times, and it was powerful, man,” said Sandler, who already knew and dug the Weeknd’s music and was excited to see him mentioned in the script — although he had his doubts whether the Safdies could get such a big star, who had never acted, to play the part. (“Every time I read ‘The Weeknd,’ I thought, ‘Is the Weeknd really going to do this?’” Sandler admitted.)
But the Weeknd doesn’t just sing in Uncut Gems — his “character” and Julia start to get friendly in the bathroom while doing cocaine. Incensed that she might be cheating on him, Howard barges in, and the two men scuffle. There weren’t stunt doubles involved — it was really Adam Sandler and the Weeknd going at it. “The Weeknd is stronger than he looks,” Sandler announced during a Q&A. “Because he’s a great singer and has a very vulnerable voice and sounds sweet and everyone loves him, I wasn’t expecting him to have such strong arms and big shoulders. He liked to roll on the ground. He liked to get down.”
When Uncut Gems came out around Christmas 2019, the internet became obsessed with every little aspect of the film — including the inspired randomness of the Weeknd’s old-school cameo. Anybody involved with the movie was suddenly that much cooler, and my timeline quickly turned into an unofficial Uncut Gems fan account.
We’re used to films in which famous people, especially musicians, show up to play themselves, and normally it’s proof that they should stick to their day job. (It’s just awkward to watch, say, Elvis Costello look lost in Talladega Nights.) But the Weeknd brought a grit and charisma to Uncut Gems — it’s a small but important role, and he killed it. He’s as raw and authentic as everything else in that grubby little masterpiece.
Riding the Uncut Gems buzz, the singer picked the ideal time to announce the forthcoming release of his new album After Hours, which featured the ubiquitous hit “Blinding Lights.” The album drop became just another way to celebrate the singer’s acting debut, with the truly creative merging the two projects together through clever online fan art.
But the truth was, After Hours ended up actually being influenced by his work on the movie. In an interview last year, the Weeknd said, “I was making the record when we were filming Uncut Gems. The Safdies and [composer Daniel Lopatin] would come by the studio while I was making it, so we were all inspiring each other.” Even some of the initial After Hours promotion had the same hypnotic, colorful rush as the Safdies’ hallucinatory masterpiece. The album and the film are forever linked.
Is the Weeknd ever going to act again? He’s done voice work on Robot Chicken and American Dad!, but so far nothing else is on the horizon. (And remember: He’s an Oscar-nominated artist because he co-wrote the Fifty Shades of Grey track “Earned It,” which was up for Best Song.) He’ll do what he does best on Sunday during the halftime show. But Uncut Gems will stand as a reminder that he may have some acting chops. At the very least, he’s superb at being himself.