Judd Apatow on Pete Davidson's 'Brave' Work in Their New Film 'The King of Staten Island'

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Illustration by Britt Spencer

"Even though it's all made up, in a weird way it couldn't be more honest."

While Judd Apatow is best known for directing comedies like Trainwreck and Knocked Up, his range of talent as a director encompasses drama as well, which is more than evident in his new film The King of Staten Island, available on demand June 12. "It's definitely a slightly different type of movie for me." Loosely based on the life of Saturday Night Live's Pete Davidson, it features Scott, a directionless, troubled young man trying to finally deal with the loss of his father at a young age (Davidson's real-life firefighter father died on 9/11). "We really tried to honor the story. For the first time I wasn't trying to compress the comedy and make every single line funny." Although the film is fictional, Apatow says it's some of his most honest work. "In a weird way it couldn't be more honest." That's due in part to Davidson's performance and the script (which he co-wrote with Apatow and Dave Sirus). Apatow says there were "a lot of deep conversations." The result: a surprisingly poignant—and yes, funny—performance. "He was brave for allowing himself to be that vulnerable."

What do you think people will be most surprised by about Pete's story and performance?

Most people don't really know him. I think this is the truest representation of who he is as a person and his sense of humor. He's just a wonderful, big-hearted person with struggles we all can relate to. He's a very soulful person. He's clearly a wounded person who has used comedy and dark comedy as a defense mechanism and as a way of expressing his pain through art. But people didn't really know what his struggles were about. I think this was his opportunity to share some of his interior life with people. It's all very relatable, and I think he was brave for allowing himself to be that vulnerable.

You've spent the past few years producing rather than directing. What was it about this project that excited you?

The most exciting part for me was having a partner in Pete. When we were casting Trainwreck, I asked Amy Schumer who she thought was funny, and the first person she mentioned was Pete. So we decided to put him in the movie in a cameo as someone with an injury at the facility where Bill Hader's character works as a doctor. The main reason why we did it was that it's fun to put people in movies that you think are going to be gigantic stars one day. Even if you don't have a great part for them, you just want to plant your flag and say, 'I knew he was going to be the one before anybody.'

We had kicked around another movie idea for a few years. We knew we wanted to do something. A lot of deep conversations followed where we talked about everything that had happened to him and how he felt about it. This story, which is fictional, bubbled up. It's fiction, it's not the truth, but it's also very truthful. So even though it's all made up, in a weird way it couldn't be more honest.

Why do you think comics are often surprisingly good dramatic actors?

Anyone who is great at stand-up is usually very honest and open. They're authentic people. They're very intelligent. Those are skills you need to be an actor or actress. Some of the great performances of all time are from people who started in comedy. Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Truman Show; Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy; Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems and Punch-Drunk Love. In a way, in order to do comedy, you always have to do drama. In some dramas, you don't have to do comedy, but in comedy, you always have to do both.

How do you think 9/11 impacted how New York City is conveyed in movies?

When we were shooting at firehouses, we met an enormous amount of people who had deep connections and losses on 9/11. It felt like it had happened just a few months ago. People in that community were all profoundly affected. At the same time, they are the most wonderful, brave people I've ever met. It changed me being around them.

How do you think the coronavirus pandemic has impacted comedy in a positive way?

It certainly forces everyone to look at comedy from a different angle. We're really getting to see the essence of people. There's a stripped-down nature that reveals us all in new ways.