On the surface, The King of Staten Island presents as a loose biopic of Pete Davidson’s pre-Saturday Night Live coming of age. The comedian plays Scott Carlin, an art school dropout with vague dreams of opening a tattoo parlour-restaurant hybrid. Like Davidson, whose firefighter father tragically died in 9/11, Scott lost his father, also a firefighter, at a young age to a hotel fire, a trauma that has had severe ramifications on his future. Both struggle with their mental health, turning to creative outlets as a way to deal with their pain.
But Judd Apatow’s latest film, co-written by Davidson, is just as much about the many women in Scott’s (and Pete’s) life tasked with the heavy burden of helping to shape him into the man he is today. These queens of Staten Island include Margie (Marisa Tomei), Scott’s embattled mother whose concern for her son has prevented her from moving on with her life until now; there’s his sister Claire (Maude Apatow), whose excitement at leaving for college is dampened by her guilt about leaving her brother behind; and finally, there’s Kelsey (Bel Powley), Scott’s oldest friend and sometimes love interest, and a much-needed source of tough love.
“She's the only one who can see [Scott] clearly for who he is,” Powley told Refinery29 in a Zoom interview ahead of the film’s June 19 VOD release. “She's incredibly observant, and I want to say sensible — that sounds boring, but she is. She's got her feet firmly on the ground. and that's also why she's quite good at self-preserving from him. She knows that she can't really be the one to save him. He's got to do it himself.”
Kelsey is easy to underestimate. She’s the walking embodiment of the “Gym-Tan-Laundry” ethos, a Staten Island native with overly-ironed black hair, bronze contoured cheekbones, and a penchant for blinged-out denim. But unlike her friends, who make fun of their home borough, she wants to change the status quo. An aspiring civil servant, she hopes to contribute to the betterment of Staten Island, rather than stand idly by as Brooklyn takes all the glory. In that same way, she won’t just patiently wait for Scott to grow up. When he proves he isn’t ready for commitment, she tells him she can’t be a part of his life until he figures out what he wants.
“It’s kind of flipped from an old-school rom-com, where it used to be her wanting [to help] him get over his shit, waiting for him, and not [him] realising he was doing anything wrong. Now, from the outset, Kelsey’s like, No you’ve got problems. You don’t treat me right; you need to go deal with your shit and then come back.”
Still, she didn’t escape unscathed. A running gag in The King of Staten Island is that Scott practices his tattoo skills on all his friends, leaving them with amateur ink, badly drawn lines, and in one particularly bad case, Barack Obama with mismatched eyes. Powley confirms that Kelsey was no exception.
“Kelsey did have a couple of tattoos, really shit, ones that we imagined that Scott had given her when they were like 13 or something,” she said. “One is on her breast and I think it was meant to be a dog, but it looked more like a demon. There was also her area code in Roman numerals.”
Best-known for Marielle Heller’s 2015 coming-of-age film The Diary of a Teenage Girl and her role as Claire Conway on Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, Powley’s built her career on playing women who know what they want, and go after it. Off-screen, she’s no different. Casting was the first hurdle. A longtime Apatow fan (her favourite movie is Knocked Up), she was desperate to be in the film, and took matters into her own hands. (Okay, and it helped that Powley is friends with Davidson in real life. The two met through her boyfriend, actor Douglas Booth, who starred with Davidson in 2019’s Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt, and have remained close.)
“When I heard that [Judd] was making this movie with Pete, the first thing I did was text him and say basically, Hey, can I be in your movie? I went in and read with them, which was actually pretty terrifying, because it was an improvised audition. Judd just gave us a scene and said, Don't worry about the words. That’s the gist of it, but just make it up. I came out and I actually thought it had gone really badly, but then Pete texts me, Oh, you killed it. And then they gave me the job.”
Once she got the part, Powley took elocutions lessons to perfect the thick Staten Island accent required to really nail Kelsey’s street cred.
“I’d say there’s one sound that makes everything sound inherently Staten Island,” she said. “People think it’s about the ‘o’ to the ‘aw,’ like [coffee becomes] cawfee. But if you change every ‘d’ to a ‘dj,’ it sounds really Staten Island. So instead of ‘don’t,’ you say ‘djont.’”
If it were up to her, Powley jokes, Kelsey’s look would have been even more intense. Her suggestion for more makeup, really long hair extensions, sharper fake nails, and shorter skirts came from reality TV, which she started bingeing as prep.
“I watched Made in Staten Island,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing. It's a reality show that follows the kids of Staten Island mobsters and there's this one character in it — I can’t remember her name — who has kind of the same straight black hair, contour, and nails.”
Ultimately, Powley’s happy she didn’t give into all her crazy costume impulses. “Kelsey can’t look like a caricature of herself,” she said. That’s actually the reason she so values Apatow comedies: For every rhinestone-encrusted shirt or dick joke, there is a reckoning about past actions, and how characters have hurt others.
“It’s the perfect marriage of comedy and drama and heart. It’s all really hilarious, but it emotes feelings about serious subjects. Our movie deals with grief, mental health issues., [Judd] finds the light and dark in things.”