Pete Davidson Is an Alternate Version of Himself in Cathartic Comedy ‘The King of Staten Island’

Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson has kept a relatively low profile this past summer, keeping busy filming director/producer Judd Apatow’s latest, “The King of Staten Island.” Not only is this the first time in which Davidson has had a leading role, this film, which uses comedy to explore grief, personal growth, and other weighty issues, is deeply personal to him. Inspired by his own upbringing in the NYC borough of Staten Island, Davidson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Apatow and Dave Sirus, plays a fictionalized version of himself here, reimagining his life as if he never achieved fame and success.

Most everyone familiar with Davidson knows that his father, a firefighter, lost his life on 9/11 when Davidson was only seven years old. In “The King of Staten Island,” he plays a 24-year-old man named for his real-life father, Scott, who is still trying to figure out his life. Scott has plenty of good qualities. He loves his family —  his extraordinarily patient mother, nurse Margie (Marisa Tomei), and his younger sister, college student Claire (Maude Apatow) — and he’s a loyal friend to those in his close circle of childhood pals. However, he still has some arrested development stemming from his father’s death 17 years earlier. Probably to avoid being a 9/11 film and to keep some distance, Apatow and Davidson had Scott’s dad’s death occur during the rescue of someone in a regular building fire.

Although Scott has dreams of being a tattoo artist and opening his own combo tattoo parlor/restaurant, he lacks focus, at least to the outside world. His group of friends mostly consists of other similarly work-averse young men, including Oscar (Davidson’s real-life best friend Ricky Velez), Igor (Moises Arias), and Richie (Lou Wilson). A funny running gag in the film is Scott using his friends as human sketchbooks for his less-than-spectacular tattoo art.

“Just the thought of the Obama tattoo coming back into my mind makes me cringe,” Wilson told Entertainment Voice during a recent phone interview. “I can’t believe I let them do that to me. Still, Wilson was excited to be a part of Apatow and Davidon’s project. ”It’s not often you get to help someone tell their story.”

Friendship is one of the universal themes in “The King of Staten Island,” as we all have those pals to whom we try to offer unconditional support. “There’s a natural humanness that we cultivated together on set between me and Moises, Ricky and Pete,” said Wilson. “Ricky and Pete, already being good friends in life, me and Moises found this foundation that we got to mold ourselves into, and I think what you end up seeing on screen is very natural. I was able to interact with Pete in the same way I interact with my friend whose ambitions I want to support.”

As anyone who has ever watched the extras for films like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” know, Apatow gives his actors plenty of room to improv, and the result is almost always relationships that come alive so seamlessly on on screen, especially ‘bromances” (Hello, Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen), and “The King of Staten Island” is no exception. Wilson, who has been doing improv since age 13, discussed the parameters when it came to the more improv-driven scenes, as Apatow used film as opposed to digital.

“We didn’t have these big cards that we could fill up shooting, like, 15 minutes of improvised stuff. We were improvising in three-minute stints before we had to change out the film. So, improvising for film was an exciting challenge that led to us being even more raw and real, because it’s not like we were getting notes from Judd and things were still rolling. No, we were just interacting and being with each other, so what you see is that.”

Numerous factors start to push out of his comfort zone, the biggest one being Margie’s new romance, her first since her husband’s death, with Ray (Bill Burr). Although Scott is weirded out by the fact that his mom is dating another firefighter, and a strong-willed, somewhat volatile one at that, the older man slowly becomes the role model he never thought he needed. First, he helps take Ray’s kids to school, becoming responsible for someone other than himself for the first time. Eventually, he moves into Ray’s firehouse, learning not only from him, but also from fellow firefighters, including Papa (Steve Buscemi), who knew his father. 

The conclusion that Scott comes to regarding his father, that he was a decent guy with problems, not the saint his mother has built him up to be, is the most poignant part of his journey. There can be no doubt that making this film was cathartic for Davidson.

A turning point for Scott comes when his friends convince him to help them out while they rob a local pharmacy. Although he knows better at this point, he agrees to be the lookout, and what could have been a tragedy spirals into a hilarious mishap that ends with Richie getting pummeled by an old man (legendary “SNL” writer/bit player Robert Smigel).

Wilson discussed this scene, a rare action scene for Apatow. “This was a very different energy… I did have a stunt double, but I ended up doing a lot of those moves myself, so he was on top of me, punching at me. I really loved it. That scene was grounding the film and reminding you that we’re not good friends. We’re not good people for Scott to have around him.” 

While Scott’s guy friends hold them back, he has a role model in his childhood friend, Kelsey (Bel Powley), who has lately become his sex partner. The two share a sweet. Albeit rocky, qusai-romance, and she inspires him as she studies to take her civil service exam. Her dream is to one day make Staten Island as hip as Brooklyn, and the borough is indeed a character in itself.

Wilson discussed what sets Staten Island apart from the rest of New York. “This place has rolling hills and big forests. The feeling of Staten Island is just so different from what I, someone who is not from New York, thinks of as New York. That just makes for a more intriguing and interesting story.”

Other memorable performances include Pamela Adlon as Ray’s fed-up wino ex-wife and Action Bronson as a gentleman with a stab wound who comes to Scott for help.

The King of Staten Island” is available June 12 on Premium VOD.