Throughout his illustrious career as a writer/director/producer/comedy demi-god, Judd Apatow has made movie stars out of Steve Carell (with The 40-Year-Old Virgin), Seth Rogen (with Knocked Up) and Amy Schumer (with Trainwreck). Now he's anointed rising performer Pete Davidson - heretofore perhaps best known for tabloid coverage of his romantic pursuits - who stars in and co-wrote Apatow's new film, The King of Staten Island.

While the three earlier movies were all constructed to some degree around the lead actor's persona, The King of Staten Island goes even further, constituting a heavily autobiographical exercise for the 26-year-old Davidson, a comedian and Saturday Night Live cast member whose firefighter father died in the 9/11 attacks, when Pete was 7.

In the new film, Davidson plays Scott, a mid-20s layabout living in his mother's basement in the titular New York borough, where Davidson himself still lives (in a house he shares with his mother). Scott also lost his firefighter father when he was a kid (though not in 9/11), and struggles with his mental health – something Davidson has been open about in his own life.

"This is a story I've always wanted to tell," Davidson tells the Herald via a Zoom call (from his basement, where arcade machines line the wall behind him). "These issues that Scott has to deal with in the movie are issues that I deal with in real life. I always wanted to put it out [there] in a healthy, organic way and I'm grateful to Judd for allowing me to do that. Making the film was really therapeutic."

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The film chronicles Scott's resistance to growing up, the long-lasting trauma of his father's death, and how he freaks out when his mother (Marisa Tomei) begins dating a fireman (comedian Bill Burr).

Pete Davidson and director Judd Apatow with crew members on the set of The King of Staten Island. Photo / Supplied
Pete Davidson and director Judd Apatow with crew members on the set of The King of Staten Island. Photo / Supplied

"We just talked for a year," Apatow says (during the same Zoom call) of devising the film's narrative with Davidson. "Slowly we realised [this] story would be a way to talk about all the trauma and grief and emotional issues which have affected Pete's life. He was fearless in talking about it and writing about all those feelings and that's why the movie works."

Apatow was first introduced to Davidson by Schumer during the filming of Trainwreck. Apatow sensed big things for the young stand-up and had him shoot a brief cameo in the 2015 film.

"Mainly because we just wanted to be the first movie he was in," says Apatow. "[Trainwreck co-star] Bill Hader loved him so much that the next day he called [Saturday Night Live producer] Lorne Michaels and said 'You should put this kid on Saturday Night Live' and then he did. So that weird cameo was a big moment for Pete."

Davidson hopes his film can help destigmatise some of the problems he and his character face.

"I've always tried to be as open as possible because I wanted people to know that you're not alone," Davidson says. "A lot of people struggle with depression and anxiety and inner demons. [Rapper] Kid Cudi did that for me. I heard his music and I immediately felt like I wasn't alone so I wanted to put that on screen because it helped me, so I was hoping it could help others."

Pete Davidson and Steve Buscemi filming The King of Staten Island, directed by Judd Apatow. Photo / Supplied
Pete Davidson and Steve Buscemi filming The King of Staten Island, directed by Judd Apatow. Photo / Supplied

There are plenty of laughs in The King of Staten Island, but it's more of a drama than any of Apatow's previous movies, both in tone and aesthetics.

"I wanted it to be authentic," says the film-maker. "I didn't want to chase after jokes if they weren't appropriate to this story or any specific moment. I didn't want it to feel like a comedy. I thought it would work if it was funny, but it should feel like a drama."

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The film's willingness to address mental health is starkly clear from its opening scene, where Scott toys with vehicular suicide. Apatow acknowledges that portraying depression comes with creative challenges.

"I think the hardest part is not giving people easy answers. We try to give people hope, we try to show the hard work it takes to heal yourself, but we were very careful not to say that there's a simple thing you do, and then it's done."

While the film is going into cinemas in New Zealand and some other countries, it has gone straight to video on demand in the US due to the pandemic.

"We had a choice," explains Apatow. "We could've held on to the movie for a year or more and released it when there was a pile-up of big action movies, where maybe we wouldn't have been able to find our audience. I was excited to put it out on VOD because I thought, well, people need this right now. The movie is about sudden trauma and grief and how people heal and how people open their hearts to others. I'm excited that there are territories where it will be in movie theatres. I wish I could fly there and have that experience with everybody."

The King of Staten Island is released in NZ cinemas on July 16.