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Days after arriving in New York City to film The King of Staten Island, Bel Powley was given an insider’s tour of the borough from the king himself, Pete Davidson, who co-wrote and stars in the semi-autobiographical movie. Davidson took the 28-year-old London native to the local mall and movie theater that served as his teenage hangouts. And last Fourth of July, Powley rode in a taxi with her boyfriend (actor Douglas Booth), her sister, and Chris Evans to a party at the Saturday Night Live star’s house. (The guest list also included the cast of Queer Eye, comedian John Mulaney, and seemingly all of Davidson’s extended family.) “They had a bouncy castle in the street,” recalls Powley, sitting down in a rustic-chic restaurant on New York’s Bowery a month before the city would go into lockdown over COVID-19. She’s dressed in a hunter-green boilersuit, looking a world away from her heavy-makeup-and-short-short-loving King of Staten Island character Kelsey.
The film may have served as Powley’s introduction to the city’s southernmost borough, but she was well acquainted with her future costar. Booth and Davidson had become close while filming the 2019 Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt, and the trio hung out frequently when Powley performed on Broadway (alongside Evans) in the 2018 production of Lobby Hero.
Powley texted Davidson as soon as she heard he was working with Judd Apatow—a director whose work she’d long admired—on a dark comedy about finding his way after the death of his father, a New York City firefighter. By that point, Davidson already had her in mind to play the part of his childhood friend-turned-love interest, and she was soon in the audition room. “I came out and was like, ‘Oh my God, that was so bad.’ I was almost crying,” she says. “I called my boyfriend and my agent, like, ‘Oh, I’m so embarrassed.’ But then my phone started blowing up, and Pete was texting me in all caps, ‘Oh my fucking God, that was incredible—you crushed it.’”
Via email, Davidson reiterates his enthusiasm: “Her audition couldn’t have gone better. After she left the room, Judd and I gave each other this look, like, ‘Holy shit.’ We couldn’t believe that we were able to get her for this,” he says. “I believe that by 2023, Bel will have an Oscar.”
The daughter of an actor and a casting director, Powley received wild accolades at age 23 for her performance in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a frank exploration of girlhood sexuality that also served as the debut film of director Marielle Heller. She followed that up with roles in the 2017 biopic Mary Shelley and the 2018 drama White Boy Rick.
Appearing in the first season of the Golden Globe-nominated Apple TV+ series The Morning Show alongside A-list cast members like Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Steve Carell marked one of the most high-profile moments in her career. The King of Staten Island will be another.
“It feels like a really nice progression,” she says. “I did The Diary of a Teenage Girl five years ago, and it was my first-ever film. I’m glad that I’ve taken this time to do indies and learn what works for me and make mistakes. But it feels like the right time now to be doing bigger stuff with bigger sets and bigger actors.” There seems to be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Powley’s star is rising. “Everyone on set loved being around her and was aware that she is a massively talented person destined for a huge career,” Apatow says. “It felt special, like one day we would talk about how incredible it was that she once made a movie with us.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of ELLE.
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