On September 11, 2001, Pete Davidson’s father passed away. He was a firefighter and first responder working during the attacks on New York City. His badge number, 8418, is inked on Davidson’s left arm. This information you can get from having even the most passive interest in Davidson’s life — by taking a cursory scroll through his Wikipedia page, watching his Netflix stand-up special, Alive From New York, or reading any interview with him that aims to do more than simply spit gossip about his former relationships.
What you cannot get from a shallow dip in Davidson’s career, however, is a portrait of how the grief of losing his father at just seven years old has shaped his entire life. How he deals with that grief through comedy. How he uses it to flame ambition; through working extremely hard and discovering ways to improve, learn, and grow. And also by recognizing that, had his inner drive not been so highly vocational, life could have turned out quite different.
That realization is the crux of his new movie The King of Staten Island, which he co-wrote with comedian Dave Sirus and Judd Apatow, the industry stalwart behind so many beloved classics it’s hard to name them all (but here are a few: Freaks and Geeks, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, This Is 40, Knocked Up, Girls, Bridesmaids, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Wanderlust, etc, etc, etc). The film tells the story of Davidson’s life, but not as we know it — in it, we’re exploring what could have been, had he taken a different route. Had he followed a dream of becoming a tattoo artist, rather than a comedian. Had grief kept a hold on him. Had he not had the support he needed to guide him through it. Had he stayed still for fear of moving forward.
Of course, to capture such nuances in a story — to deal with heavy, human themes and package them with universally-accessible humor (that isn’t as self-deprecating as Davidson’s usual brand) — you need a director and producer like Apatow. Through all the projects listed above and so many more (since Freaks and Geeks aired in 1999, basically) he has taken stories of oft-sidelined characters and provided a platform for their narratives to be heard.
That truth is mirrored off-screen, too. That Davidson scored his gig on Saturday Night Live is, in part, thanks to Apatow. After being introduced via Amy Schumer, Apatow cast Davidson for a cameo role on Trainwreck, which introduced him to co-star Bill Hader, who in-turn introduced Davidson to SNL creator Lorne Michaels. These chain connections and butterfly effects are all at the heart of The King of Staten Island. Yet nobody can really put it all into words better than Apatow himself. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with him about the new film — an excerpt of that conversation you can find below.
So, you discovered Seth Rogen, James Franco and the rest of the Freaks and Geeks gang, championed Lena Dunham on her breakout show Girls, and Pete Davidson getting his gig at SNL is largely thanks to you. What is it that you look for in a person that makes you believe in their talent?
I always come at it as a fan. I’ll see somebody and think, “If they had a movie, I’d want to see it.” It’s not really that much more complicated than that. When I was a kid, I would watch comedians on talk shows and I would just keep track of what they were doing. If, out of the blue, they were suddenly starring on a TV series or had a movie, I would get very excited. Now that I’m a producer and a director, it’s the same thing, except I might call them and say, “Do you want to try to see if we can figure out something to do together?”
We’ve been able to convince people of our theory, which is people are just as excited to discover someone new as they are to see someone that they already love. As a result, we’ve gotten to make movies with people like Amy Schumer, Seth, Jonah [Hill], and Kristen Wiig.
What was it about Pete Davidson specifically that made you want to work with him?
He was insanely funny at 20 years old. That just never happens. He had a fully-formed stand-up persona earlier than anybody does. He is really funny and charismatic, but also, you care about him. You sense that he’s going through something and you instinctively root for him. There’s something very relatable about this very big-hearted person just trying to figure his life out; I think we all feel that way. I think that’s one of the reasons why people are drawn to Pete. They see themselves in him.
He gave an incredibly authentic performance.
Yeah. He’s an excellent actor and he’s very brave. He’s revealing his pain and his struggle. He’s also hysterical. He’s showing how he deals with the world. A lot of the best moments in the movie were invented in rehearsals or while improvising on film, because Pete was so present and willing to go there that occasionally something very special and truthful would happen.
He has a very specific story: His father was a fireman who lost his life on 9/11. In some ways, it feels different than most of the tragedies in our lives. But actually, it isn’t. It is the same. We’ve all lost people suddenly and had to adjust, grieve, and figure out how we move on from it, [how we] heal and honor them. So, telling this story is a way of telling everybody’s story. How do any of us get over these moments in our lives?
Was it a way for Pete to confront his grief too, do you think?
Yeah. I think making the movie was a cathartic experience, as he had to spend three years talking about it constantly with me and the co-writer, Dave Sirus, and then the cast. When you come at it from a lot of new angles and you talk about how to turn it into fiction and storytelling, you slowly melt it. You begin to truly understand all the layers of it and you can release some of it and understand the aspects of it that you didn’t understand before. So, Pete feels like it turned out to be a very positive experience for him to spend so much time thinking about it.
Pete was involved in casting Steve Buscemi, too, right?
As soon as we agreed we were going to make a movie that was about the firefighting community, very quickly we all kind of go, “Man, if we could find something for Steve Buscemi, that would be amazing,” because we knew that he had been a firefighter before his acting career took off. We all look up to him. He’s one of the great actors of all time. And we felt like his warmth and soulfulness would be perfect for the part of Papa — a fireman who’s quietly looking out for Pete and speaks a lot of the wisdom that Pete needs. Pete’s character needs to learn in the movie. In one of the big scenes, when he’s explaining what a hero is, I felt that it was important to have somebody who had been a firefighter making that speech.
Did Steve share any experiences from his time working as a firefighter that contributed to the script?
He did. Half of the people performing at the firehouse had either been firefighters or were currently working as firefighters; we wanted it to be authentic. What would they talk about? How do they behave? How do they treat each other? There is an aspect to firehouses, which is like summer camp. Everyone’s sleeping over. They’re watching TV and they’re hanging around and they’re pranking each other. And then the bell goes off. Then it’s a military operation. They’re very skilled at what they do; they are all about taking care of each other and doing their job properly. They instantly become deadly serious.
That’s really what I wanted to make a movie about, the people who are willing to risk their lives for other people. That’s one of the aspects of the movie that I think resonates at this particular moment. It’s just every day we turn on the TV and we see all the different types of people, not just first responders, but people who deliver things or work in grocery stores. There are so many people who are putting themselves at risk to be there for others.
I know you shot the movie last year, but has that particular message intensified for you now?
As the new reality revealed itself, it became clear that the message of our movie would be meaningful to people right now. That’s why I didn’t want to delay the release. We could’ve held onto it for a year and waited for movie theaters to open, but I personally thought it would be wrong to not give something that might help anyone interested to process what’s happening.
I wasn’t expecting to see Action Bronson pop up. How did he get involved?
He came in and auditioned. We needed someone to play a creepy, semi-dangerous but funny, stoned neighborhood guy. We read a lot of people, but he was the only person that was able to be really funny, but also a little terrifying at the same time. He’s a great improviser. He’s so likable. He nailed the part, which I thought was, in a lot of ways, the hardest part in the movie, because you didn’t want to feel like it was a sketch character. I wanted the audience to believe that he was from this neighborhood and would talk like this. But I also wanted it to be very funny. And he pulled all that off.
The soundtrack is sick, too. Lil Wayne, Kid Cudi, Fabolous. Did Pete’s love of rap and hip-hop influence it?
When we first started, I asked Pete to make me a playlist of his favorite music, and that was really the inspiration for the sound of the movie. He’s also friends with Kid Cudi, who has made a lot of music about his mental health challenges at earlier times in his life. Pete has always felt very connected to that music and it’s very inspiring to him. So, the movie begins and ends with Kid Cudi. The score [by Mike Andrews] also sounds like all of the rap songs that are sprinkled around the movie. It’s a very unique sounding approach to the score. It isn’t a traditional orchestra; it sounds more like layered rap tracks.
Yeah. With a little Creedence thrown in.
Well, Creedence Clearwater Revival was one of Pete’s dad’s favorite bands, so we wanted to put that [track, “Down on the Corner”] in the movie. And then the song “One Headlight” from The Wallflowers was the song that Pete and his dad would listen to all the time when Pete was little. And it’s also the song that Leslie [Mann, Apatow’s wife] and I listened to on the radio as we drove to the supermarket to buy pregnancy kits on the day we found out that Leslie was pregnant with Maude [who plays Davidson’s sister in the film]. So, strangely, that was a big song, but a really important song for both Pete and myself.
Such a beautiful connection! Speaking of Maude, I was just watching an old interview you did on Conan, where you’re talking about her calling you a “Hollywood dick” for dropping your name to bag table reservations. Does she feel differently now you’re giving her bigger parts? And does that family dynamic play out on set?
Well, like most daughters, she challenges me on all of my nonsense. This is the first time I have gotten to direct Maude since 2011 when we did This Is 40. She’s done a lot of work since then. She’s on Euphoria, HBO, and she just was on Hollywood (Netflix). It’s the first time I’ve gotten to direct her, because on previous projects she was very young and I don’t know if it was directing as much as manipulating her. She has what Leslie has — she’s very real and very raw, but at the same time finds a way to be hilarious. It was great to get to direct her with Pete because she’s the one who gets to call Pete’s character out on all of his bullshit, and so those scenes are very electric in the movie.
The tattoos Pete does during the film — were any of them done for real?
No. Although Pete definitely said, “If you want to tattoo me, you can.” And I said, “I don’t think we should do that.” Pete has a lot of tattoos. He loves getting tattoos. He has a lot of really cool friends who are tattoo artists. We spent months trying to figure out what his tattooing style would be. There are a few tattoo artists who were models for that look. His friend, London Reese, who’s an incredible tattoo artist, helped design a lot of the tattoos. And Dave Sirus, who wrote the movie with us, he designed some tattoos.
We were trying to find a level of talent where the audience would think, “This isn’t that good, but I could see that maybe he could get better.” And that was very hard to figure out.
It comes through, though. The scene in which he’s walking to school with Harold and shows him the sketch of an ice superhero… the style is so different to his ink work.
Yeah. Dave drew that as well. We were trying to show that he really cared to do a good job for Harold, that he’s getting better, he’s trying. He’s trying to focus on improving. We wanted to show that his life is hopefully moving in a positive direction, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. We didn’t want it to be a Hollywood ending. The character’s struggle is not over, but hopefully he has more support and is in a better place.
There’s a moment [in the film] where he says, “I think it’ll always be hard.” That was something that Pete improvised on set. And we all thought, “Well, that’s really the idea of the movie.” He’s trying really hard. And it’s going to be hard, but he’s moving in the right direction. Because in reality, it’s always hard for everybody. We’re all fighting through something, most of the time.
The King of Staten Island will be available to stream this Friday, June 12. Find out where you can watch it here.