Since breaking out in 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Bel Powley has moved between lighter coming-of-age stories (Carrie Pilby) and heavy, ambiguous dramas (sharing the stage with Brian Tyree Henry and Chris Evans in a revival of Lobby Hero on Broadway in 2015). The King of Staten Island fits somewhere in the middle: Scott (Pete Davidson) slouches toward adulthood, shrugging away any real responsibilities, and Powley plays his kinda-sorta girlfriend, a lifelong friend that wants better for him. Kelsey, Powley’s character, is frustrated by the way he’s extending his adolescence indefinitely, but she stays in his life nonetheless. “Kelsey, I felt, was a really progressive way to look at the girlfriend role. Scott’s got so many issues, but she doesn’t really enable him. She doesn’t really support the way that he’s acting. She really doesn’t put up with it,” Powley says over the phone from London, where she is in quarantine with her own boyfriend. “I grew up watching movies where women did the opposite. She’s very strong and determined. She loves him and knows that he needs to change, but isn’t willing to save him. And I just thought that that was really good.” Powley spoke to Vulture about workshopping the character with Apatow and Davidson, and spending quality with Davidson’s mom.
What brought you to The King of Staten Island?
I just wanted to be a part of it because of Judd and Pete. Pete is a friend of mine, I knew him previously, getting to work with a friend is always a plus. Judd Apatow is one of my favorite directors ever. The idea of working with the two of them was just amazing.
I read an interview with Judd where he compared you to Judi Dench and Daniel Day-Lewis. He said, “She doesn’t even know that she shouldn’t have accepted this job.” I wanted to hear your reaction to that.
Oh my God! That’s so — like, he’s so good. Obviously I should’ve taken this job. He’s Judd fucking Apatow! I’ve always, always wanted to work with him. I’m so flattered that he said that. Honestly, he is the most interesting, incredible director. His way of working is so unusual. It’s so heavily improvised and it’s so collaborative, but he did direct me and I loved being directed by him. But, wow. That’s really nice.
Tell me more about the improv on this film. Had you worked that way before?
No, I really hadn’t. I’d done improv in a theater rehearsal space before, but never on screen. It was really quite freeing and terrifying at the same time. Of course there’s an outline of the script, and we know what’s going to happen in the movie from beginning to end, and what happens in each scene. But what’s written on the page is rarely, rarely what ends up being used in the film. So you get to set, and they’ll set up the kind of wide shot or whatever they’re starting with, and then say, “Let’s just do a pass where you just riff and say what you want.” It’s shot on film, so you do a whole roll of film making up your own jokes, seeing where the scene takes you.
Then Judd has a team of writers who will be writing down a bunch of jokes on their own. It’s a very collaborative process between all of you on shaping the final journey of the scene. It’s also scary because you know, inherently, it’s a comedy. There’s more pressure to be funny. On a film set, you can’t hear people laughing. You have to be brave enough to try stuff out. You can’t be scared to fail. If you’re scared to fail in improv, especially when you’re improvising comedy, then you’re going to get nowhere.
There was a great line in a scene after Kelsey sleeps with Scott [Davidson’s character] for the last time: “Did you just fuck me for shelter?” Was that improv?
I actually would love to take credit for that line, but I think Judd made that line up. It wasn’t me! That is a really, really good one, I liked it.
When you’re working with that much improv, does it make it harder to use the Staten Island accent?
Yes. And that’s the reason why I had to do a lot of work on the accent. A lot more than I usually would for a really scripted movie. I had to be so comfortable in who Kelsey was. The way she spoke, for me as an English person, was a big jump. I really had to know it inside out to have the freedom to make up her words.
I remember seeing you on Broadway in Lobby Hero, another similarly tricky New York accent.
That’s also one of the reasons why I got this job is because I’d done a lot of training for that, which was more of a Queens accent. Obviously it’s the same New York area. I had it down a bit. It was a leg up in my audition, that I could do this New York accent.
What do you think the Kelsey character sees in Scott?
I honestly think it’s more a case of like — not that they were destined to be together, because that’s so cringe — but, yeah. They’ve known each other for so long! They know each other inside out, they know everything about each other’s families. She obviously knows everything about his past and the trauma that he suffered. They’re just unbelievably close. I kind of always imagined that maybe they acted out weddings together as little kids.
I thought it paralleled nicely with how the character sees Staten Island: everyone else sees it as just a lame place they grew up, but she doesn’t see any reason why it can’t be “the next Brooklyn.”
I know. We loved that. This is another way this job was so collaborative: three months before filming, Judd, Pete, and I met up and started deciding who Kelsey was from the ground up. She was just a name when I signed on to the movie. That was one of the things we decided in one of these workshops. In that friendship group, the other guys and Scott are incredibly negative. It was really lovely and sweet and a testament to her goodness that she’s the only one that’s like, No guys, just wait, Staten Island can change.
I read that you spent a lot of time hanging out with Pete’s mom during this. What came out of that time?
Yeah, I mean, I wasn’t just hanging out with her on my own. Pete was living with her while we were shooting, and obviously she lives in Staten Island. She’s called Amy. She would make us dinner. She’s really an incredibly generous, lovely person. She’s so unbelievably proud of her son. She also has quite a big Staten Island accent. At the beginning, I wanted to be around her a lot because it helped me to learn the accent.
I’ve been such a fan of yours since The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Do you see a through line between all your characters? Is there something you think they all have in common?
I don’t. I can’t tell you why I responded to each of these characters or projects. It’s just an innate thing. Someone said to me the other day that I always align myself with emotionally strong, quite ballsy characters. I guess, if you look at it that way, maybe that is a through line. But that’s not something that I’m actively seeking out.
Since The King of Staten Island is so much growing up and coming of age, how do you feel about where you grew up?
I’m such a huge fan of London, which is where I was born and raised and I still live. I will never move anywhere else. I’ve moved away from the small area of London I grew up in because, even if you still like it, you do get tired of the place you grew up in if you spend too much time there.