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Bill Burr on Beating Up Pete Davidson and Stealing Scenes in ‘King of Staten Island’

(from left) Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson)
Photo credit: Mary Cybulski / Un

It didn’t take much convincing to get Bill Burr to join the cast of “The King of Staten Island,” a comedy from Judd Apatow that’s loosely based on Pete Davidson’s upbringing in New York’s least glamorous borough. As a fan of Apatow’s work, Burr wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to collaborate with the director behind favorites like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Trainwreck.” Still, he went along with the formalities for sport.

“Judd was on my podcast,” Burr, who is best known for his stand-up comedy, recalled. “He said, ‘Hey, after this, you want to grab something to eat? I want to pitch this movie to you’ — which is hilarious. It’s Judd, I’m going to say yes.”

In the movie, Burr plays Ray, a firefighter who starts dating the mom (Marisa Tomei) of Davidson’s character, Scott. Scott is responsible for the couple’s meet-cute — a hostile confrontation that later leads to an unlikely romance — but he’s no fan of his mother’s new beau. That’s because Scott has never gotten over the loss off his father, who was also a firefighter, when he was 7.

“The King of Staten Island” was slated to debut in movie theaters, but because most cinemas are still closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Universal Pictures opted to launch it directly on digital rental platforms starting June 12.

Burr says he is less disappointed that audiences won’t be able to see the movie on the big screen than he is that it won’t have a traditional premiere — which would have been a chance to publicly honor firefighters. “The firefighters and everybody really bonded,” he said. “We would just be waiting to go on set, busting each other’s chops.”

Ahead of “The King of Staten Island’s” debut, Burr talked to Variety about his friendship with Davidson, romancing Tomei on screen, and working with international superstar Baby Yoda on an episode of “The Mandalorian.”

Did you audition for “The King of Staten Island”?

Pete called me and said, “Hey man, I’m writing this movie with Judd, and we have a role here we want you to do. Would you want to do this?” I was like, “Yeah it’s a Judd Apatow movie. Yes, I’ll do it.”

You know the business, like six months goes by and Judd was on my podcast. He said, “After this, you want to grab something to eat? I want to pitch this movie to you” — which is hilarious. It’s Judd, I’m going to say yes. No, I’d rather do an independent! We went out, had a couple burgers and he just started telling me the story of the movie. I sat there eating a burger, listening for 10 minutes. It was a great story. And he’s Judd Apatow. So I was like, “Yes, I will do it.”

Did you know Pete before shooting started?

I’ve known Pete for a number of years. He had come out to one of my shows with his mom way back in the day — back in the day for him was a little over 10 years ago — he was maybe 15 or 16 years old. The next morning I was coming down to the casino to go to the airport, and right as I stepped out of the elevator, this woman came up to me and goes, “Hey, Mr. Burr, we were at the show, this is my son. I took him to go do his first stand up show.” He was standing there, this big, awkward, skinny kid.

What’s funny is four or five years later, I ran into him in the club, he’s doing his thing. He said, “Hey, Bill, I don’t know if you remember this, I came out to one of your shows.” I went — Atlantic City. Stars like him, they just have that “it” thing. You remember them. We’ve always been friends [since], but I was always on a different coast than him. So last summer I got to hang out with him, and I felt like it solidified our friendship.

In his stand-up and in the movie, Pete rags on Staten Island and what it’s like to live there. Was he right?

I loved it there. If you’re from Staten Island — because I don’t think that they get the attention that the other boroughs do — they have this mix of pride and self deprecation. That’s what Pete is doing when he makes fun of it. But if somebody who wasn’t from Staten Island were to make fun of it, he would defend it to its death.

Pete’s father was a firefighter. Did that help you in shaping your character?

We went down to the actual firehouse that Pete’s dad worked in. One of the firefighters, John Sorrentino, who knew and worked with Pete’s dad, showed us all this 9/11 stuff. It got really heavy. I remember he said, “It’s been long enough, I can talk about this stuff now.” He just told the whole story of that day, his experience of it. That was definitely one of those things where you’re kind of going like, “Oh my god, what have I got myself into? How am I going to do this justice?”

What was great and brilliant on Judd’s part is that a number of people who were actual firefighters were in the movie, so they made sure that we were hanging out right, breaking balls and how shit goes down in the firehouse. But there was definitely a sense of responsibility, like, “How am I going to do this without looking like an idiot actor who just grew a mustache?”

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Ray Bishop (Bill Burr) and Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) in “The King of Staten Island.” Photo credit: Mary Cybulski / Un

Can you talk about filming the scene where you spar with Pete and he ends up in a kiddie pool?

It was an above-ground pool. If I threw him in a kiddie pool, he would have hit the bottom. That was a hot day, and I learned that most umbrellas are just to block the rain, they don’t block out the UV rays, so I cooked the top of my head. Because it was a fight scene, you really have to work out who’s gonna do what so you don’t get hit. Pete was pretty amped up, and also young, so there were a couple of times we clashed heads. I can’t even tell you how light he was. I have a bad shoulder and I was worried, but he felt like he weighed, like, 130 pounds. He’s like 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3. But he has heavy hands. They’ll knock you out.

What was Marisa Tomei like?

She’s an icon. I got to work with an Oscar winner. I’ll be honest with you, it was intimidating. I had so much friggin’ anxiety, going, “Why do I do this to myself? I’m a comedian. I don’t belong in anything.” You know? I’m gonna be opposite Marisa Tomei, and she’s gonna be looking at me going, ‘Why am I working with this stupid bald comedian?’ I was totally in my head. And then after the first day, I just had a good time. The first scene we did was where I meet Pete’s and Marisa’s character. It was kind of weird because I was screaming and yelling. I felt a little like, “Hey, how are you? I’m a huge fan. Ah what the f—!”

You also have the fourth season of your show “F is for Family” coming out. What’s the biggest perk of working with Netflix?

Aside from global exposure, I would say the fact that creatively they not only let you do whatever you want, they say “push it further.” I remember the first season, that was the note we got. I was like, “Is this like a joke?” Usually, the stereotypical industry note is “Tone it down. You’re gonna make us lose advertisers.” But with Netflix, you don’t have to worry about advertisers. They just worry about it being funny.

Is it too soon for comedians to make jokes about coronavirus?

No, nothing is too soon. It’s all how you go about it, it’s all how you carve the turkey. You’re not going to make fun of the fact that somebody’s grandparents died, but you can make fun of the person who thinks they’re too good to wear a mask. Or the person with no medical degree that’s talking to you as though they do have one. Or somehow the CDC hasn’t figured out this virus, but this guy here, somehow he knows about it. I was in New York right after 9/11, and we were doing 9/11 jokes right out of the gate. You weren’t making fun of the people that died, but you made fun of the fear, the paranoia — and being in New York and actually having to be nice to people.

You recently worked with cultural phenomenon Baby Yoda on “The Mandalorian.” Could you have predicted that he would be such a breakout star?

That’s sort of been my career, where I just paratroop into these amazing shows for an episode. I did a couple episodes of “Breaking Bad.” I did a couple episodes of “Chappelle Show,” and I’m doing a couple episodes of “The Mandalorian.” As far as being an actor goes, I’m like a radio contest winner. Okay, we’ll let you wash a dish in this scene.

But no, I think people knew this was going to be something that people were going to be into, but I don’t think we ever know that it’s gonna be that big. There were definitely some people upset when they thought that I dropped Baby Yoda. The robot didn’t tell us he was coming out of hyperspace. I didn’t do it on purpose, the guy didn’t give us a heads up. It’s like, Bob Stanley should have gotten the shit, but Bill Buckner did. Look at me, I’m making sports references, just like my character.

That goes over my head. I’m not a sports person, but I definitely appreciate the reference.

I’m envious of people who don’t watch sports. I always imagine how much more free time I would have if I didn’t give a shit about sports. But I imagine there’s something else — “Real Housewives”? What do you watch?

I’m not a big reality TV person either.

Are you a person who eventually tells the other person what kind of person you are?

Actually, I just started watching “Survivor” and I’m obsessed.

Did you ever see that episode where this guy, who was a former college quarterback, had to do a challenge where you had to throw this coconut or some s— and hit this giant stop sign and make it like turn this thing that lifted that thing up? It was one of the most incredible displays of athleticism I’ve ever seen in my life. I just wouldn’t be good at all the mind games. I wear my emotions on my sleeve.

Does that make it hard to read reviews?

I go on social media, and if people are talking about it, I’ll read until there’s a bad one. Then I just leave it alone because if I don’t, the comedian in me wants to go after hecklers. If you actually get so mad that you respond, you just made that person’s day. Like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe the guy from that thing that I hated, actually, I made him so upset that he had to write me.” You’re not going to win that.

But there is a secret to that. If you want to win, you don’t talk about what they wrote. You make fun of what they look like — if they have a picture. That shuts everybody down. But most trolls are very sensitive people, they don’t have a profile picture. So then they’re holding all the cards. They know I’m a bald weirdo, and they can just hammer me and I can’t get them. That’s why it’s so stupid. It’s such a stupid waste of time. But I’m not a smart guy.