"This was [Pete's] way of talking about heroes and how important they are — and we see that every day now," Apatow tells EW.

By Derek Lawrence
May 08, 2020 at 12:18 AM EDT
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King of Staten Island

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It's Pete Davidson's turn to get the Judd Apatow bump.

Over the past two decades, no one has fostered comedic talent like Apatow. You can point to his work on television, whether it was discovering James Franco and Seth Rogen for Freaks and Geeks or championing Lena Dunham with Girls. Or you can look at the movie stars he's made, between The 40-Year-Old Virgin with Steve Carell, Knocked Up with Rogen, and Trainwreck with Amy Schumer. Now he's putting the spotlight on Davidson with The King of Staten Island.

Directed by Apatow and co-written by him, Davidson, and Dave Sirus, the film stars the Saturday Night Live breakout as Scott, a burnout still living at home and investing all his time into watching cartoons and smoking weed with his friends. Scott has never quite been able to cope with the loss of his firefighter father as a child, and those issues bubble to the surface in new ways when his mom (Marisa Tomei) starts dating Ray (Bill Burr), who happens to be on the job, just like his dad. The story is a personal one for Davidson, as his own father, Scott Davidson, was a firefighter and died on 9/11.

While most high-profile summer films have been postponed, Universal recently announced plans for King of Staten Island to stick with its original release date of June 12 and be rolled out via video on demand instead of waiting for theaters to reopen.

To coincide with the Thursday night launch of the Staten Island trailer, EW had an exclusive chat with Apatow about planting his flag early on Davidson, feeling "terrified" of taking on someone else's experiences, and paying tribute to all the people risking their lives to help others.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What's the origin story behind The King of Staten Island? Why was Pete someone who you wanted to build a film around?

JUDD APATOW: When I was working with Amy Schumer on Trainwreck and we were casting, I asked her if there was anyone I should know about and she said, 'There's this guy Pete Davidson who's 20 years old and ridiculously funny." And we cast him in the movie in a cameo because we just wanted to plant our flag and say, "We knew he was funny before anybody else." When I don't have anything great for someone, sometimes I just try and put them in the movie somewhere, because I believe in them but don't have a great part yet. And then he was so funny that Bill Hader said to him the next day, "I'm going to tell Lorne Michaels he should put you on Saturday Night Live," and then Pete auditioned for Lorne and got Saturday Night Live.

With you launching Pete in this way, there are obviously parallels to you doing the same for Amy, Steve Carell, and Seth Rogen in their big film breakouts. What is it about helping take these smart and interesting comedic voices to the next level that you're drawn to?

I just think when people are young that they have a lot to say. They haven't burned through all their ideas, and they're usually very passionate about certain stories from their lives. And it's always really funny to help people define how they would work as a leading man or a leading woman. It's very different when somebody is on their 35th movie, so it's just exciting for me to be on the ground floor.

In addition to directing, you co-wrote the film with Pete and Dave Sirus. Was there a balance of wanting to pull from Pete’s life and experiences but also not wanting to turn this into Pete essentially playing Pete?

The movie is an imagining of what Pete's life might have been like if he never found comedy. Comedy really was his savior, it gave him direction. And in the movie he's someone who is flailing about, not sure what he should do with his life. He wants to be a tattoo artist but he really hasn't tried that hard. A lot of what we discussed was how when you have a loss in your family it brings up all of these issues that take a long time to work through. By writing this movie and thinking through his life, he hopefully had a cathartic experience trying to let go of a lot of the obstacles that have complicated his life.

Considering how personal this movie is to Pete, with the elements of his father, did you feel any extra responsibility taking that on and doing it justice?

I'm always terrified of asking someone to use their life in a movie and having it come out terrible. I'm terrified when I make my movies that have experiences from my life. I'm nervous for Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon [Apatow produced their film The Big Sick]. I'm nervous for Amy Schumer. But I do think that is the best kind of movie. You can tell when people aren't just generating some high-concept comedy idea and are revealing something that is important to them, that is true from their life. There's definitely a responsibility, and I think that's what keeps me on my toes, the terror of humiliating myself and them.

Kevin Mazur / Universal Pictures

You mentioned putting Pete in Trainwreck with a very small role, and this is by far his biggest movie role to date. Even he has joked about how he’s not on SNL to be acting in sketches, he’s there to tell jokes on "Weekend Update." So what was it like working with Pete the actor, someone who is still sharpening his craft?

When we started, I didn't know what the level of his acting would be. I only found out when we were doing auditions and rehearsing. I feel like it's a very comfortable space for him. He is a very strong actor and is very willing to be vulnerable in the scenes. He is very subtle, he's not trying too hard. There's a word we use sometimes, which is "sweaty." Sometimes people are just working it and you feel that effort, and Pete's not like that at all. It's all very authentic.

All your movies have these deep, hilarious supporting casts. Here, you surrounded Pete with everyone from Marisa Tomei to Bill Burr to Steve Buscemi to your daughter Maude. As you mentioned with putting Pete in Trainwreck, is finding funny people for these pop-ins or more extended roles one of your favorite parts of making a film?

I really enjoy casting. I try to build it around the lead. Pete was very involved in all of those choices. Bill Burr was someone who has been a friend and mentor to him for a long time. They already had a special dynamic we could tap into. Bel Powley is a good friend of his, and I felt like their admiration for each other would help with their onscreen chemistry. Steve Buscemi was a fireman before his acting career took off, and we all look up to him, he's one of our heroes. I thought that Maude would be really strong as his sister, who is the opposite of him and dealing with her trauma by trying to excel in life. She's getting great grades and going off to college, and challenges Pete on all of his stuff and all of his issues. Marisa Tomei did a cameo in Trainwreck and is someone I've always wanted to work with. She really is the heart of the movie. A lot of the movie is about someone who has not looked for a relationship because she's worried about her son, and she starts dating for the first time but is really scared of not being there for Pete's character.

So there's all sorts of people who we love in the movie. I loved Moisés Arias since Hannah Montana. He used to always make me laugh so hard. I used to talk about it to my kids, I'd be like, "What is with that guy? He is so riotously funny!" Ricky Velez is a fantastic comedian and one of Pete's best friends. Pamela Adlon is someone who I've been a fan of, her show [Better Things] is brilliant, and we were lucky to get her. It's always so fun to try and surround yourself with the best possible people.

There’s so much uncertainty right now around literally everything, including movie theaters and the film industry. The majority of summer movies have essentially been pushed indefinitely or to dates that could just be wishful thinking. Even if this isn't the release you anticipated for your film, can you find excitement in that Staten Island will be seen now, and maybe at time when people will most connect with it?

We had two choices: We could have waited a really long time to release the movie, or put it out right now on video on demand. Obviously we love showing our comedies in movie theaters and that's something that I plan to do always, but our movie is about some of what is happening right now. Pete wanted to make a movie that was a tribute to his family; his sister is a nurse, his mom has been a nurse her entire life, his father was a firefighter who lost his life on 9/11. And this was his way of talking about heroes and how important they are — and we see that every day now. Nurses, doctors, people working in grocery stores, policemen, first responders, fireman, delivery people, anybody putting themselves at risk for others and helping keep the world running. And this movie is partially about these people who we all look up to.

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King of Staten Island

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