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Maude Apatow Has Comedy in Her DNA, but Says She’ll Never Stop Fighting to Prove Herself

Maude Apatow
Jenna Greene for Variety

Maude Apatow is the first to admit she didn’t excel at improv in high school.

“We were all standing onstage, and when it would be my turn I would do two exchanges and then I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m getting a call in the other room,’” she reveals with a laugh. “I would always find an excuse to leave. And then I would run offstage because I was so nervous.”

Bear in mind that by this point, Apatow had already proved her improv bona fides in comedies such as “Knocked Up,” “Funny People” and “This Is 40,” having amassed impressive credits before the age of 14, with co-stars from Paul Rudd to Seth Rogen. Those movies were all written and directed by her father, Judd Apatow, and featured Apatow and her younger sister, Iris, playing the children of their real-life mother, Leslie Mann. But Apatow insists the freeform structure of those movies doesn’t come naturally to her. “I’m terrible at improvising,” says the now-22-year-old during an hour-plus phone call from her parents’ home in Los Angeles, where she’s quarantining. Such self-deprecation comes out several times during the conversation, as she frequently stops to apologize if her answers aren’t making sense. (They are.) The most she will allow herself, after careful consideration, is “Maybe I’m not terrible — but I’m not great!” 

Her father, while corroborating the high school story, gently disagrees. “Like a lot of people, it’s much easier to say you’re not good at improv than to say, ‘I’m awesome at improv!’” he says with a free, easygoing laugh that is not dissimilar to his eldest daughter’s. “A lot of Maude’s finest moments are improvisations. Her entire speech in ‘Knocked Up’ where she talks about where babies come from is Maude improvising at 8 or 9 years old. She doesn’t like to declare she’s strong at it, but she’s actually amazing.” 

Those comedic chops are soon to be on full display in Apatow’s highest-profile movie role yet, playing Claire, the levelheaded sister to Pete Davidson’s wayward slacker in “The King of Staten Island,” directed by her father and co-written by him, Davidson and Dave Sirus. Originally scheduled to premiere at SXSW and hit theaters in June, the movie will now be released by Universal on demand on June 12. (Apatow can currently be seen in Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s “Hollywood” miniseries on Netflix as Henrietta Castello, the pregnant wife of David Corenswet’s Jack Castello, who will do anything for stardom. She was also gearing up to shoot the second season of HBO’s “Euphoria,” playing the part of Lexi Howard, the childhood best friend to Zendaya’s Rue Bennett, before production was shut down by the pandemic.) 

“The King of Staten Island” is loosely inspired by Davidson’s own story. He plays Scott, who lost his firefighter father at a young age; in real life, Davidson’s dad died while on the job in the World Trade Center on 9/11, when Pete was 7. Scott is wandering through life with his equally aimless friends, unwilling to commit to a relationship with his sort-of girlfriend (Bel Powley) and left alone with his mother (Marisa Tomei) when Claire leaves for college. When his mother begins seeing her first suitor (Bill Burr) since her husband’s death, Scott doesn’t take it well — it doesn’t help that the new guy is a firefighter. While the film is full of the expected big laughs and quippy one-liners, there is also a heart and humanity to the story that people might not expect from Davidson, best known for his work on “Saturday Night Live.” 

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In “The King of Staten Island,” Apatow plays Claire, sister to Pete Davidson’s Scott. “She’s an incredible actress,” Davidson says. “I felt like she really was my sister.” Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures

Apatow says she was about 16 when she met Davidson, who had been cast in a small part in “Trainwreck,” directed by her father and written by Amy Schumer. She knew that her father and Davidson had been working on another collaboration for a while. “My dad talks to me about everything all the time, so he was showing me parts of the [‘King of Staten Island’] script,” she recalls. While she says they had discussed her being in the movie, she auditioned for the part. “I always want to make sure I can prove myself and that I’m right for it and that it’s not just given to me,” she says. Her father agrees, noting, “I wanted to make sure the chemistry with Pete was correct and wanted to see them together, to see what their vibe was.”

Davidson needed little convincing. “We held a bunch of auditions, and Maude stood out from day one,” he says. “I was always a fan of Maude, and right after we read with her, we were like, ‘Bingo!’” 

Apatow immediately meshed with her on-screen family. “She’s just so easy to love,” says Tomei. “She’s one of those people who’s just so absolutely natural and real. And the set had this family dynamic that was easy to drop into.” Adds Davidson of Apatow, “She’s an incredible actress. I felt like she really was my sister.”

Already familiar with Davidson, Apatow says she didn’t have to fake any affection for him — in fact, the most challenging scenes for her were the ones where they butt heads. Prior to shooting, they worked with an acting coach who would have them improvise fights. “We would argue and explore everywhere this relationship could go,” she notes. “So when we got to set, it felt easy.” 

Making the film was such a positive experience, it’s surprising to hear Apatow did have some reservations about accepting the role. Well, one reservation — that people would cry nepotism. “I didn’t know if I wanted to do it because I knew people would give me s— for it,” she admits. “But it’s so special to me; I don’t know when I’m ever going to work with my dad again, and he’s taught me everything I know. He’s my mentor. Why would I not do it?”

Apatow has been on the receiving end of such comments before, including when “Euphoria” first aired last year. “There were like 8,000 tweets saying, ‘Why the f— is Maude Apatow first in the credits!’” she recalls before adopting a matter-of-fact tone. “Well, because it’s alphabetical and my last name starts with ‘A.’” But rather than focus on the comments, she’s opted to double down on her work ethic. “I definitely get why people would be mad at me, but I will literally spend the rest of my life trying to prove myself and work twice as hard.” 

Apatow was once so active on Twitter that The New York Times published a story about her in 2012 titled, “She’s 14, Going on 140 Characters” and praising her wit on the platform. Writing gigs for the websites Hello Giggles and Teen Vogue followed. Today, she prefers Instagram. “It got very intense on Twitter to read what people think about you constantly, the good and the bad,” she says. “Especially when you’re a teenager and already feeling insecure, it becomes too much.”  

Even before she was cast in her father’s films, Apatow says she knew she wanted to be an actor. She grew up on her parents’ sets and was doing theater in school by kindergarten, something she continued to do through high school both on- and offstage. A theater nerd at heart, she breathlessly recalls seeing Patti LuPone on Broadway in “Gypsy” as a major turning point: “I was 12 or 13, and I thought, ‘Holy s—, a person can do that?’” (Apatow can barely contain her excitement recalling how she got to meet the legend while shooting “Hollywood.”) 

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Apatow, who auditioned for the role of Claire, consults with her father, director Judd Apatow, on the set of “The King of Staten Island.” “I wanted to make sure the chemistry with Pete was correct and wanted to see them together,” he says. Lloyd Bishop/Universal Pictures

Another significant experience was working tech on her high school’s production of “Sunday in the Park With George,” which she watched more than 20 times. “Theater was my life,” she raves. “It’s really a big reason I decided I wanted to do this professionally, finding that community and those friendships who are still my best friends now.” While she had worked with her father on several films, she notes: “I was so young, I don’t think I really realized what was going on. Though I loved every part about being on set.” 

As for casting his daughters, Judd Apatow says, “Like any parent, I thought my kids were more fun to watch than anyone else’s kids. I couldn’t have found them more amusing and funny.” While he says Maude was never pushed into performing, he muses, “I definitely wonder what my children might have chosen to do if all I talked about was dentistry. Would they be dentists? A lot of the discussion in our house is about storytelling and creativity, so I don’t know if we hypnotized them into thinking they should follow suit or if it happened in a natural, healthy way.”

In fact, Apatow says she was always pushing her parents to let her act more. “At 10 years old I was searching Broadway auditions, and my parents always told me I needed to wait until I was older,” she reveals. “I would get so mad at them, and I would scream and scream.” Her father concurs, noting, “Our rule was that you could work with us or with people we knew and trusted.” 

That included a guest-starring role in 2015 in Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” a show on which Judd was an executive producer. “It was important to us that Maude got a great education and reasonably standard upbringing,” he says, “while being able to pursue this here and there until she was done with high school.”

Apatow says she wore her parents down eventually as she got older: Her first job outside her father’s circle was in Chris Kelly’s 2016 semi-autobiographical film “Other People,” in which she plays the daughter of Molly Shannon’s dying matriarch. “I knew her work and was a fan of hers,” says Kelly. “And I liked specifically that she had comedy experience through Judd’s films. And I was working with a casting director, Allison Jones, who loved her and spoke so highly of her.” 

Apatow and Kelly met, and he offered her the part. On set, he continued to be taken by her abilities. “She was put through the wringer on ‘Other People.’ There were hugely emotional scenes day in and day out, and I was constantly impressed by how real she was all the time. You never felt you were watching an actor act. She just so effortlessly seemed to be the person she was playing.”

For Apatow, “Other People” was a breakthrough. “Thinking about it now, working on that movie was kind of the moment I fully knew I wanted to be an actor,” she says. “It was the first time I was on someone else’s set and I felt I had a real responsibility knowing how important this story was.” It was also the first time she enlisted an acting coach — she works primarily with Joanne Baron of Baron Brown Studio — and Apatow says she felt the need to “really step up my game.”

She followed that with a role opposite Asa Butterfield in 2017’s “The House of Tomorrow” and in 2018’s “Assassination Nation,” from writer-director Sam Levinson, who quickly became a fan. “I had a Skype with Maude and found her to be a fascinating and hilarious and neurotic character with this wonderful, expressive silent-movie-star face,” he recalls. “But she wasn’t right for any of the characters, so I wrote a new one for her.”  

When Levinson was working on “Euphoria,” he wrote the role of Lexi, the grounded friend of Zendaya’s wild child, specifically for her. (Apatow still had to audition several times: It’s part of HBO’s process.) She had already decided to take time off from her studies at Northwestern University and was on break when she booked the part. She mulls returning to college at some point – though she would want it to be in New York or Los Angeles so she could continue working. “This opportunity presented itself, and I needed to take it,” she says of the show. “I love Sam; I adore the show. I am so anxious to get back.” 

While Apatow is hesitant to reveal plans for her character in Season 2, Levinson teases, “I think Lexi will surprise the audience and maybe even herself.” He adds, “I normally don’t map out a multiple-season arc for characters, but for Lexi, I always knew where she was going.” 

With things shut down, Apatow is working on her own projects, something she says her parents always encouraged her to do. In the summer of 2017, she and her best friend and writing partner, Olivia Rosenbloom, co-wrote and co-directed the short film “Don’t Mind Alice,” which Apatow also stars in as a young woman caring for the elderly titular character (played by Jo Farkas). The darkly funny film, which debuted at the 2018 Santa Barbara Film Festival, offers some surprising twists. Apatow says she and Rosenbloom are working on the script for a feature film that she will act in and possibly direct, though she says her behind-camera role hasn’t really been discussed yet. 

“I’ve always wanted to make my own work; I’m pretty hungry in that way,” Apatow notes. “The best advice I ever got from my dad was probably to write for myself and learn to create things for myself.” 

As for words of wisdom from her mother? “My mom taught me to totally commit to everything, which sounds like a basic thing, but it’s so important. And whenever I feel hesitant over something in a scene, I hear her voice in the back of my head — and I go for it.”