Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island” is based on what Pete Davidson’s life could have been like had he not become a comedian. But above all else, the comedy is supposed to be a “love letter” to Davidson’s mother, as well as a tribute to his late firefighter father who died responding to the Sept. 11 attacks.
While the comedy doesn’t use a lot of real-life events from Davidson’s life, it does draw from his life in one particular instance. In the film, Davidson plays a young man whose father, also a firefighter, died during active service, and he must get his life together as his mother starts dating a new man — also a firefighter.
“We had a lot of conversations where we discussed what he might be comfortable with and also what his family would be comfortable with, because we didn’t want them to be upset by it,” Apatow told TheWrap. “He wanted the movie to be a love letter to his mom for being there for him and taking care of him and his sister, and it’s a way of him paying tribute to his dad.”
Apatow knew it might be challenging for Davidson to confront such a real-life tragedy in a film, but he said the crew approached it by making sure Davidson felt comfortable and rehearsing the emotional scenes a lot.
“If we knew the scene might be difficult, we were talking about it a month in advance and we would say, how are we going to shoot that? Are you going to be okay that day? Is that gonna be the worst day ever and what might make it okay for you and how can you do your best work?” Apatow explained. “And a lot of it was just rehearsing and talking through the scenes and working through them. And in those moments, I found him to be very emotionally available as an actor. And I think those are the best scenes in the movie.”
“The King of Staten Island” also stars Maude Apatow, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr and Bel Powley. Apatow also wrote the film alongside Davidson and Dave Sirus. Apatow says it was refreshing to see Davidson in such a raw role.
“It was fun because we can have Pete’s character be a little bit more of a mess,” he said. “You know, Pete is a very successful person — as a young man he’s already been on ‘Saturday Night Live’ for many years. He’s made a few movies. He’s had several specials. He’s been doing standup since he was 16. So he’s not someone who isn’t driven. Our movie was an imagining of him if he didn’t find comedy, so that was kind of fun because we could just make him be more of a mess and just be awful and funny and belligerent and a brat, and have him have his life crash in a way that forces him to make adjustments… We also knew that it was deeply personal and about grief and about how a family is affected by loss and how sometimes it, you know, they don’t wholly get over it and they have trouble getting out of the rut.”
Apatow hadn’t directed a film since 2015’s “Trainwreck” and instead focused on documentaries and TV shows. He explained that he just didn’t stumble upon a project that he felt a strong enough connection to — and he’ll admit, he was worried. But when he started work on “The King of Staten Island” with Davidson, he knew this would be the one that would get him back in the film director’s chair.
“There was one or two things that might’ve happened that didn’t come together, and for me, I don’t feel the need to direct unless I’m very passionate about it,” he explained. “I never take jobs just to work… I was hopeful that something would come along, but I can’t say I wasn’t nervous about never finding anything I wanted to do again. It was roughly a year or two, where I thought, ‘this is getting strange, I’m not getting excited about any ideas.’ I did get a little scared. I thought maybe I just told too many stories and I don’t have much more to say, and maybe documentaries are a better way for me to express some of my ideas. But then when I got into it with Pete, I realized that I could tell a story about sacrifice. And that was it. That was a subject that I had been thinking about for a few years.”
“The King of Staten Island” hits streaming on Friday. Watch the interview above.