Pete Davidson and Glenn Close Were Made for Each Other

Pete Davidson (“The King of Staten Island”) and Glenn Close (“Hillbilly Elegy”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety‘s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. For more, click here

Even with her seven Oscar nominations and five decades of screen and stage credits, Glenn Close felt butterflies — as, perhaps, many people would — at the prospect of talking to Pete Davidson. “I was nervous when I woke up because you just seem so cool,” she told him. But surprisingly, the 73-year-old screen legend and the 27-year-old “Saturday Night Live” player came to seem like a perfect match.

Close video chatted from Montana, where she lives across the street from her sister (and with her beloved dog, Pip). Davidson joined from his mom’s basement on Staten Island, where he grew up. Both felt a connection to each other’s recent movies. In Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” streaming on Netflix, Close plays Mamaw, the bespectacled matriarch of the Vance family who rescues her grandson from his heroin-using mom (Amy Adams). In the Universal Pictures comedy “The King of Staten Island,” directed by Judd Apatow, Davidson portrays a man dealing with the grief of losing his firefighter dad. Both stories draw on family tragedy, one that’s all too real in Davidson’s case, as his father died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Glenn Close: Hey Pete. One of my dearest friends in the world is from Staten Island. I called him yesterday and said, “What can I ask Pete?”

Pete Davidson: It’s a pretty fascinating place.

Close: When you go over the bridge, it is like going into a time warp. I heard a dog. Is that a dog?

Davidson: Yeah, I’m allergic to all dogs, but except for a poodle. And we got a little poodle, and it shits all over the house.

Close: Oh no. Is it a puppy?

Davidson: Yeah. It’s like four months old, so we’re training it now. I’ve never been able to have a dog, and it’s been the greatest experience ever.

Close: Have you seen “Hillbilly Elegy”?

Davidson: Yes, I did. I saw it twice. You’re fantastic. I can’t believe how good they got it, like when they played the pictures at the end, everybody is identical. Where did you guys film?

Close: Atlanta and Middletown, Ohio, where the Vances moved. When Mamaw went there, she was 13 and pregnant.

Davidson: What’s crazy is all those outfits are now considered really trendy. Like Mamaw is actually a fashion icon.

Close: That’s how I pick roles. I want them to have a place in the gay parade on Halloween, down in the Village. That’s actually how she dressed, with those beaten-up old Adidas and baggy jeans and the huge men’s T-shirts, except I don’t know if a man would have a kitten on his T-shirt. I had a portrait of Mamaw with those great glasses, and I went back to the team that helped me do “Albert Nobbs.” Matthew Mungle designed the very subtle prosthetics, and Martial Corneville did the wig.

You don’t want to have people say, “Oh, there’s Glenn Close with a really bad nose.” You want them to be able to see the character.

Davidson: Mamaw made me want to smoke cigarettes.

Close: I thought you already did. She was known to sometimes be smoking two cigarettes at the same time.

Davidson: That’s how I want to be remembered. You probably get offered a lot of scripts. What made you want to choose “Hillbilly Elegy”?

Close: I had read the book. I heard by the grapevine that Ron had gotten the rights and was developing the script. I’ve always been pretty proactive about stuff like that, so I wrote him a note and I said, “Ron, when you get to casting, think of me.” He came back and he offered me the part.

Davidson: That’s awesome. I’m going to start doing that.

Close: When I started out, I was really bad at auditioning. I would be worse at it now because you’re supposed to memorize the lines and put yourself on video. I mean, I wouldn’t even have a career if I’d had to do that back then.

I want to talk about your incredible “King of Staten Island.” First, let’s talk about the fact that you co-wrote it. Was it your idea?

Davidson: Me and Judd were trying to figure out something to do for a few years, and he pitched a few ideas and we tried to write it, but it was a movie about college. But me and Judd realized that neither one of us went to college, so we had no idea what to write.

And then two or three years ago, he was just like, “What’s something that you know really well that you could put together?” And he suggested the firefighter aspect and met my family.

Me and my writing partner, Dave Sirus, wrote a version of the script, and then Judd — without him, it wouldn’t have been a script. He surgically put it together.

Close: How did that collaboration start?

Davidson: I met Judd on the set of Amy Schumer’s movie “Trainwreck.”

Close: Right. I loved that movie. I’m interested in your background. I came from Connecticut, one of the most boring states in the universe.

Davidson: I saw that. You’re so elegant and wonderful, I always thought you were British. And then I looked it up, and I was like, “Oh, my goodness. She’s from an hour and a half away.”

Close: I grew up a little tomboy in the countryside and lived in my imagination. I find standup comedy one of the most terrifying propositions I could think of — and yet, there are people like you, and Robin [Williams] was a friend of mine. It’s an act of courage in my eyes.

I once went with Robin to one of the clubs he used to work out new material in, in San Francisco. And it was excruciating because he just didn’t have the crowd. He just kept at it. And at the end, he had them. How did you take where you came from to have the courage to do what you do?

Davidson: First, I think we would all love to see Glenn Close do standup. That would be incredible. There’s obviously tons of more courageous jobs, but I do think it is courageous to get onstage in front of people because it is terrifying.

The reason why I think I was able to do it is because a shitty thing happened to me when I was really young. We lost my dad. When I was 16, I always wanted to try it because it was what got me by — Eddie Murphy and Chappelle and Bill Burr. My friends were like, “You should do it.” And it went OK.

In “Hillbilly Elegy,” what do you think about its message about addiction?

Close: I think it was a very honest view of addiction and the terrible difficulty of getting out of that cycle. In my family, my sister was a substance abuser, and because we weren’t close at the time, I really didn’t know what she was going through. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 50. If she had been diagnosed sooner, it would have made such a big difference in her life.

From your point of view, what did you think of how that story was treated?

Davidson: I thought it was spot-on just from people that I know. I’m glad that your sister got a diagnosis. I got diagnosed with BPD [borderline personality disorder] a few years ago, and I was always just so confused all the time, and just thought something was wrong, and didn’t know how to deal with it. Then, when somebody finally tells you, the weight of the world feels lifted off your shoulders. You feel so much better. I hope she feels that way as well.

Close: How long have you been on “SNL”?

Davidson: This is my seventh year. I started when I was 20.

Close: I’ve watched a lot of the “Weekend Updates.” Have you written that? It seems so incredibly spontaneous.

Davidson: Yeah. That’s my favorite thing to do. The worst is sometimes you’re only in one thing, and you’ll be dressed up like a clock, or I had to dress up as Count Chocula, which is a cereal mascot. You’re stuck in the outfit for four hours in your dressing room, just looking at yourself in the mirror.

I have to talk about two of my favorite movies growing up, and still it’s legendary: “101” and “102 Dalmatians.” There’s just so many questions. Cruella is amazing. You were scary hysterical.

Close: I asked to get some of the original dialogue from the animated feature because she said, “Chloroform them! Drown them!” It’s really horrible stuff. I realized the meaner she was, the better she was. I loved that character.

Davidson: Did you take any of Cruella’s wardrobe? It was so fabulous.

Close: I got in my contract that I got to keep all my costumes that I wore in the movie. Then when they found out how expensive they were, they were unhappy that it was in my contract. They wanted to make another copy, another set, for me. I said no.

Davidson: Nope.

One of my favorite performances of yours is “Fatal Attraction,” which if I were Michael Douglas, I would have left my wife. When you were making that movie, did you know how big and influential it was going to be?

Close: No, I don’t think we did. It was a thrilling experience. It was pretty stressful because I was playing a woman who had been incested at a very early age and it made her suicidal. This is from research I did with a psychiatrist. I wanted to know what made people behave like that.

I was on a totally different level with that character. I wasn’t playing an evil person. I was playing a person in distress who had no help — and I loved her. And when they came back and we had to change the ending and made her into basically a psychopath with a knife in her hand, it was profoundly difficult for me to do that. But I learned a very important lesson — how important catharsis is for an audience.

They had been so deeply upset by her that the only way they could feel that the world would come back to any semblance of order was if she was totally wiped away, even though in the original ending she killed herself. Somehow it wasn’t enough of a punishment. It was a fascinating, painful thing to learn.

Davidson: You’ve been nominated for seven Oscars, which is insane and ridiculous. What can we do to get you an Oscar? We have to get the internet to help, because you deserve seven!

Close: Is it better to be wheeled out in a wheelchair and get the lifetime achievement award? You don’t have to make a speech.

It’s beyond me. I don’t know what to say about that. I just have to keep doing what’s good. You’re fulfilled by your work, and that’s the process to me. It’s what feeds my soul, but it really is nice when other people like it. It might be cool to never get one. I wouldn’t mind being wheeled out when I’m old and drooling, and I have a gray wig to cover my bald head.