Pete Davidson Comes Out of His Basement With Judd Apatow’s Help
Pete Davidson Comes Out of His Basement With Judd Apatow’s Help
To view Pete Davidson through a Zoom window at his home in Staten Island is to gaze into one of the most famous basements in show business. The sleek subterranean space, with its shiny modern appliances, is where Davidson has spent the last several weeks sheltering in place and where audiences have watched him, in recent at-home episodes of “Saturday Night Live,” perform catchy pop songs about his monotonous quarantine experience.
In fact, Davidson, 26, the happily shambolic stand-up and “S.N.L.” cast member, is glad to be where he is, all things considered. “I’m very proud of my man cave,” he said in his gravelly delivery during a recent video conversation. “It’s all I got.”
Certainly, he could use some peace and quiet. At “S.N.L.,” where he completed his sixth season, his tenure has been productive but intense and tumultuous. He has made his greatest impact there in short, acerbic monologues at the Weekend Update desk: speaking openly about his efforts to maintain his mental health and sobriety; riffing on his relationship with the pop singer Ariana Grande and its collapse; making amends with the targets of previous segments, as when he apologized for insulting Representative Dan Crenshaw, Republican of Texas.
Davidson has shown a similar, unsparingly candid style in stand-up specials like “Alive From New York,” which was released on Netflix in February. But the comedian — who has dealt with depression and borderline personality disorder — has also given fans legitimate reasons to be worried about his welfare: In 2018, he posted troubling remarks on Instagram, prompting widespread concern on social media and a check-in from police.
He is now trying to tie together these many strands in “The King of Staten Island,” a fictional comedy-drama based on his life. Directed by Judd Apatow, the film stars Davidson (who wrote it with Apatow and Dave Sirus) as Scott, a shiftless Staten Islander living with his widowed mother (Marisa Tomei). While he is striving to find purpose and butting heads with his mother’s new boyfriend (Bill Burr), Scott is, like Davidson himself, coping with mental health issues and still mourning the death of his father, a firefighter who died in the line of duty. (Davidson’s own father, Scott, a member of Ladder Company 118 in Brooklyn Heights, died responding to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.)
Apatow, who has balanced bawdy comedy with grown-up sensitivity in movies like “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” was supremely aware of the delicacy of this material — not to mention the leading man supplying it — after he and Davidson met on the 2015 Amy Schumer comedy, “Trainwreck,” which Apatow directed.
“Collaborating on this was fraught with the possibility of failure, and I didn’t want to hurt Pete,” Apatow said. “You’d hate to ask Pete to share something so personal and make the worst movie ever. That was scary, but in a way, it was the motor behind the whole thing: Can we figure out how to be funny and authentic and explore these issues?”
“The King of Staten Island” was planned for a theatrical release on June 19 and would have received splashy premieres at SXSW and the Tribeca Film Festival. But amid the pandemic, those events were canceled and Universal will instead give the movie a video on-demand release on June 12.
Davidson is still intensely proud of the film and its therapeutic benefits. He described the movie as a welcome opportunity to “just really lay it all out there and be able to heal and move on from it, instead of, every day, feeling sorry for myself,” he said. “Now we can put that in the past.”
Speaking in a joint Zoom conversation — Davidson from his basement and Apatow from his home in Los Angeles — the two collaborators talked about the movie and how it harnessed Davidson’s penchant for extreme candor and helped him cope with long-unresolved feelings. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
How were the seeds sown for all of this — not just “The King of Staten Island” but Pete’s “S.N.L.” career — when you met on “Trainwreck”?
PETE DAVIDSON The second I met Judd, everything started rolling.
JUDD APATOW Amy Schumer really is the source of it all. When we were working on “Trainwreck,” I said, who should I know? Who’s funny? And the first person she mentioned was Pete. So we asked him to do this cameo. It was a couple hours of Pete and Bill Hader improvising, and Bill was so taken by Pete that he said I’m going to recommend you to Lorne Michaels.
DAVIDSON It was a real good moment for old Petey. It was like going to Six Flags and they’re like, the line is 15 hours for this ride. And then one guy just goes, “I can take you to the front.”
When people would pay you these compliments or make these kinds of promises, were you skeptical of their sincerity?
DAVIDSON Early on, I felt like a lot of people were nice to me because of my dad dying. It was really hard to gauge if I was actually funny. Once all this stuff started happening, it helped me validate that everything I’m doing isn’t a Make-A-Wish type thing. It might actually be something I could do.
Did the two of you bond because you’d both gotten into comedy so young, as a way to escape the lives you were living?
DAVIDSON Comedy was all I really had. I grew up watching Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey movies. When I was 16, my mom got me and my cousin tickets to see Dane Cook at Madison Square Garden, and Bill Burr opened for him. Bill Burr was so funny that me and my cousin left the show to get a picture with him. We found him exiting — he was wearing a Green Bay Packers beanie, which is hilarious — and he’s like, [Bill Burr voice] “You wanna picture?”
I was doing stand-up for like four years, hanging out at the [Comedy] Cellar every night, watching [Dave] Chappelle or [Chris] Rock walk in and go for hours. It was the best. I got really lucky when I met Amy.
APATOW I definitely felt like Pete when I was young. I was running around interviewing comedians at 15 years old. I was trying to make contact, I was trying to learn things and wishing people would pay attention to me. I moved to California when I was 17 and never went back.
How did you decide to collaborate on a film?
APATOW For a long time, I thought, what am I not writing about? I’m not writing about sacrifice. None of my characters make any sacrifices. So I wrote a couple of screenplays and I couldn’t crack it. We started working on a script after “Trainwreck.” What happens is, over the course of years, kicking around different ideas, usually it leads to a conversation which is as simple as, should we discuss the real topic we should be writing about? We tiptoe towards something more personal.
What were the screenplays that didn’t make it?
DAVIDSON It was like two completely different movies. One was about a bunch of kids taking off from college to find themselves. Another one was like a music video of my mom having sex with dudes and us trying to pick the right one. On paper it’s really funny and then when you think about it, you’re like, this is horrific. [Laughter] And then Judd was like, what’s the real story? I was like, I have never really been able to get over my dad passing. Telling that story — filming it and digging deep and being in uncomfortable areas that I have avoided for so long, I think that not only helped the movie, but it helped me as a person.
Pete, even though you have talked about your father’s death before, was it difficult to share the personal details that went into the movie?
DAVIDSON It was really hard because it’s stuff I would share with my therapist. But Judd really cares, and the hard work that he was doing to find out about my life made me feel so comfortable. He was like, [Judd voice] “I’m going to need pictures of your dad.” I’m like, oh, no.
APATOW I’m going to need your mom’s home phone number.
DAVIDSON He got my mom’s phone number, my sister’s phone number. All my friends.
APATOW We spent a lot of time talking about all the history and the emotions. When Pete wasn’t around, I would sit with our co-writer, Dave Sirus, who’s one of Pete’s best friends, and go, what was that moment like? In a situation like that, how might Pete react? Ricky Velez, another of Pete’s best friends, he plays one of his buddies, and we brought him on to help us punch up the movie. That was all essential.
And you share the story of your father at the start of the film.
DAVIDSON Yeah, we open the movie with a suicide attempt and then making fun of my dead dad within minutes. [Laughs]
APATOW What I liked about that scene was, Pete has convinced all his friends that he’s over it, when clearly he’s not over it at all. You understand immediately what his issue is.
Pete, being a lifelong Staten Islander is crucial to your character’s identity — sometimes he embraces it and sometimes he resents it. What are your own feelings about your borough?
DAVIDSON It all has to do with muscle memory and associating things with a place. All my troubles have been here, ups and downs with my family. When my dad passed, I was here. But there’s also something beautiful, that I can grow here and become a better person here. Even while we were shooting, we were like, wow, this is here? The ballpark [Richmond County Bank Ballpark] — you can see the entire Manhattan skyline over it. I’ve grown to love Staten Island again.
Are you just saying that so that other Staten Islanders won’t resent you?
DAVIDSON Well, they know where I live, that’s for sure. [Laughter] Me and Method Man are down here. There’s a lot of people who are mad at Vinny from “Jersey Shore.” They’re like, that guy partying, having fun — how dare he. That’s just your gut instinct here. It’s never, this guy worked hard, this guy has something. It’s always, oh, yeah, I bet he’s dating somebody who knows somebody.
We see Scott’s friends end up in some very dire circumstances. Do you think that’s what would have happened to you if you’d never gotten into comedy?
DAVIDSON Oh, yeah, absolutely. When you grow up in Staten Island, one of the easy choices is being a drug dealer. Seventy to 80 percent of my friends, growing up, were doing that. If you had an aunt that had a Xanax prescription, you were the king of Staten Island.
You’ve been candid about the mental health issues you have dealt with during your time at “S.N.L.” Were you worried that these issues would be exacerbated while you were making this movie?
DAVIDSON That was my main fear. I was like, how’s anybody going to insure a movie with me in it? I’m really lucky that Universal believed in the project and in me. Especially with what’s out there about me and how open I am about it, I think that might help a little. If I did have all these issues and I was like, “I’M FINE!,” then maybe that would get a different answer than being like, yeah, here are the issues but I’m happy to work and this is what I love to do.
APATOW Pete’s one of the producers of the movie as well. When we began the film, we sat down and said, we’re responsible for all of these people here. This isn’t just about you as an actor and a writer. This is your crew. Everyone is counting on you. And Pete took such great pride in being responsible for that. I used to joke with Pete during the production, he’s like, [Pete voice] “How’m I doing?” I’m like, you’re easier to deal with than Paul Rudd. [Laughter]
Did you have to submit Pete to a physical?
APATOW No. I have a long history with the studio and they were very excited the entire time. There were certainly moments where they were like, “How’s Pete doing?” And I’m like, “We’re good.” It wasn’t much more than that.
Pete, was it challenging for you as an actor to have to keep re-engaging with experiences and emotions that were hurtful in real life?
DAVIDSON We joke that this movie’s like if I was 5 percent more of an asshole. But I thought it was like 70 to 80 percent more. [Laughter] You have to just make certain decisions that work best for the movie and not for you as a person. You’re not going to be Iron Man in every single scene, just holding the gauntlet going, “I am Iron Man.” Some scenes you have to be the bad guy. Not even the bad guy — just a misunderstood person who needs to learn a lesson.
In your stand-up and Weekend Update spots, you’re even more direct in addressing the most controversial, headline-generating events of your life. Is that a way of disarming your critics?
DAVIDSON It’s a little bit of that. When you become clickbait and tabloid-y, I always like to get in front of stuff — have it come from the source. The people I look up to, like Burr or Kid Cudi, they always spoke about what they were going through. Nobody was able to attack them.
I would really like people to understand me. It’s cool to get three minutes here and there on Update, but you can’t really tell what type of person that is. I could immediately get off set and be very miserable. That isn’t a definitive depiction of me. What I wanted to do was have an “8 Mile” moment where it’s like, here’s everything — say what you want. And it really felt good to get that out there.
Going forward, are you going to try to keep more of your life to yourself and put less of it in your act?
DAVIDSON I always have to be honest. It automatically shuts down everyone. Also, most people are lying to you and most of it is an act. The reason I’m able to relate to certain people is because of that.
APATOW For some people it’s triggering to see someone so honest. To say, “Hey, I’m really happy today,” and on another day, you’re like, “I’m completely miserable right now.” It’s just not how most people behave. I remember when I worked at “The Larry Sanders Show,” [Garry Shandling’s] whole theory about the show was, nobody tells the truth. Everybody wears a mask. When they do tell the truth, it is a huge deal. And Pete is the exact opposite of that. He totally cracks that theory.
Judd, what is it like for you, as friend and collaborator, to see him put so much of his own life out for public consumption? Is it confusing? Do you ask him to exercise more restraint, or just let him be who he is?
APATOW It’s a very different era, where people are watching your progress from the beginning. You’re not developing in private. If someone said something mean about me, I might just let it fester and never speak about it, where Pete would share that with me. I don’t think Pete’s feelings are different than anybody else. He’s just willing to share them openly, and I think that’s what people like about him.
Pete, how do you approach social media now?
DAVIDSON I allow my friends and family to tell me how it’s going. I let Judd send me good things. I’m the type of person that if I see 19 comments and two of them are bad, I go, This. Sucks. I don’t have the mind capacity or the emotional intelligence to decipher the two and see it for what it is.
“The King of Staten Island” is a movie that you’re both deeply invested in and could be a turning point in both of your careers. Is it a disappointment that it won’t receive a traditional theatrical release?
APATOW With everything that’s been happening in the world, it seemed clear that the movie spoke to it in some way. Pete’s mom is a nurse. His father was a fireman. These are people that spend their lives trying to serve other people. A lot of what we talked about while making the movie is, what does it mean to be willing to do that? We’re seeing every day, anyone in any job where they’re exposed to people is taking a risk. It would be weird to hold onto the movie for another year, when it’s so clear that they should see it right now. As much as we wish it was in a theater, clearly that’s not possible.
DAVIDSON Remember LimeWire? I feel like how I felt days before an Eminem album would come out. I’m going to go on LimeWire and get this.
Pete, this is one of several prominent opportunities you’ve had outside of “Saturday Night Live.” Are you starting to think about a career beyond the show?
DAVIDSON I had a great time doing “S.N.L.” at home. It’s amazing how Lorne always figures out the right thing to do whenever something like this happens in the world. So I’m just really excited to go back and to hang with those guys. I had a great time.
What was it like to show “The King of Staten Island” to your mother?
DAVIDSON It was really emotional. She was in tears the entire time. But she’s the best. She’s just like, “If you need something, I’m here.” Never once has she ever done anything out of character. That was another motivation for me, to make this movie — to give her some sort of a gift, to express myself in a way that I couldn’t show before. That lady’s No. 1. My mom’s definitely a big hero of mine, just like my dad.