Pete Davidson is as surprised as you are. The 27 year-old stand-up comedian, Saturday Night Live star and movie actor has been steeply climbing the comedy ladder since joining SNL in 2014. In addition to an expanding role on SNL, he’s added supporting roles in the movies Trainwreck, The Dirt, The Jesus Rolls and The Angry Birds Movie 2 to his resume, before getting first-billing in 2019’s Big Time Adolescence and last year’s semi-autobiographical The King of Staten Island.
But when it was announced that he would top-line a biopic about legendary punk godfather Joey Ramone, Davidson totally got that some people were a bit taken aback to hear his name above the title. “I’m still in shock that they’re letting me do this,” says Davidson, with his typical self-deprecation, about his first shot at musical biopic glory.
Davidson tells Billboard that his most recent SNL season was the first where he felt he’d finally figured out the “algorithm” to make the show work for him, which also helped him get comfortable with slipping into Ramone’s signature ruby-colored glasses, ripped jeans and leather jacket for his first grab at the biopic ring.
For proof of his music mimic chops, look no further than his two dips into playing Eminem in a pair of musical short films and several memorable performances on the show’s recently concluded 46th season. Even though Slim Shady himself called Pete to give him props, that doesn’t mean Davidson’s not still a bit self-conscious about his ability to slip into character for the movie.
“I’m not like [SNL cast mates] Kate [McKinnon] or Keenan [Thompson] or Chris [Redd] who can do characters and they can disappear into s–t,” Davidson tells Billboard. “Unfortunately for me when I’m out there it’s like,’Oh, that’s Pete.'” That said, Davidson hopes the Ramone biopic will blast through that casual familiarity and help him go full send on portraying one of the most legendary punk singers of all time.
The lanky comedian notes how little prep he did for such musical bits as “NFT” and “Stu” on the most recent season of SNL, while praising co-star Redd for doing the work by reading up and committing to elaborate make-up and costuming. It sounds like things will be very different on the set of I Slept With Joey Ramone, though, as the biopic — based on the memoir of the same name by the late Ramones singer’s brother, Mickey Leigh — has Davidson digging in deeper than he ever has in order to do justice to the towering punk progenitor.
“I’m about to start music lessons and voice lessons and all this other s–t and it’s honestly a dream come true that they’re giving Pete a shot,” he says, referring to himself in the third person.”Hopefully I do it justice and I hope I don’t let anybody down.”
Davidson says he’s definitely “really f—ing nervous” about the gig — but also just as excited. “I’m definitely taking it very serious and I’m doing my research,” he explains, describing his current regimen of singing, drum and guitar lessons. “Because Joey did a bit of everything and we’re following his life, so you’re going to see a bit of that.” In addition to the music lessons, Davidson says he’s been hanging out with Leigh, and talking to everybody he can find from the old days — as well as “the whole Queens crew” from the neighborhood where Joey and Mickey grew up and where the Ramones were formed in 1974.
“It’s a lot, man. It’s gonna be really interesting and I’m excited,” says Davidson, who will re-team with his Big Time Adolescence director and friend Jason Orley, with whom he’s co-writing the script. The Ramones were voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 and received a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy in 2011 (despite never having been nominated for a competitive Grammy).
Sam Brown, president of the production company behind the film, STXfilms (Hustlers, Greenland) says the company is “thrilled and honored” to tell Mickey, Joey and the Ramones’ story. “Whether you’re a hardcore fan or you’ve just been alive in the last 40 years,” he says, “You either have a deep knowledge and appreciation for what those guys did and the mark they left on the world musically, culturally and stylistically — or you’re aware of their music and them being in the highest echelon of rock music and culture gods.”
It’s that high esteem that Brown says has made it a priority to tell an entertaining tale, but also one that is an authentic origin story of how the band came together and operated during their tumultuous 20-plus-year career. Leigh’s memoir is filled with touching, tragic and hilarious stories from the siblings’ years living together at home, and of the Ramones’ rise to punk primacy — though Brown notes that the film will not be a Ramones biopic, per se, but rather a true adaptation of Leigh’s 2010 book, co-written with legendary punk scribe Legs McNeil.
As of early June, Brown says the work to adapt the book was ramping up and he was excited about the “rare” opportunity to tap into a primary source like Leigh to help shape the narrative; all the original members of the Ramones — Joey (born Jeffrey Hyman), guitarist Johnny (born John Cummings), bassist Dee Dee (Douglas Colvin) and drummer Tommy (Thomas Erdelyi) are deceased. Brown says that the team is prepping now for an as-yet-unspecified future start date, which he hopes will be sooner rather than later, but that the combination of Davidson’s love of music, physicality and “rock and roll” attitude — not to mention Pete’s close working relationship with Orley — have combined for a dream project so far.
“Pete and Jason are adamant that they want to build this together,” he says. “And I can’t think of a time where there was a lead actor who could break a story like this with a writer/director, that’s not usually the rhythm of how it goes… Pete is looking at this project in a whole different way than a lot of actors approach these things. He’s invested in the early stages, which points to his desire to hit this performance out of the park.”