When Bill Skarsgård set out to audition for the role of Pennywise, the child-eating clown, in a new film adaptation of Stephen King’s It, it seemed to him that every journeyman actor in Los Angeles was up to play the infamous villain.
Then best known for his work in Hemlock Grove, Netflix’s splashy, violent phantasmagoria about supernatural creatures in the small Pennsylvanian town that the series is named after, Skarsgård didn’t expect to land the much-coveted part. Nonetheless, he pursued it with single-minded devotion, even going so far as to drive to his callback audition in full clown-face.
“It was a really fun audition because it was about my interpretation of an existing character,” Skarsgård says. “It’s left up to your imagination to come up with something fun and new. I didn’t expect to get the part, but four or five steps later when I committed to the role, it became real and I was terrified. How do you approach a character in a new way and how do you ensure that it’s something that people will like and respond to?”
Respond to it they did: It enjoyed the biggest opening weekend in cinematic history for a horror film, raking in USD123.4 million in American cinemas alone. Critics praised Skarsgård for his inhuman, malevolent interpretation of Pennywise, as in the Forbes review that described him as, “amusing one moment and absolutely terrifying the next”.
Born in Sweden to a large, famous family of creatives (you likely remember his father Stellan from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise or his older brother Alexander from True Blood), Skarsgård, now 29, is no stranger to life in the spotlight. He acted in Swedish film and television as a teenager before making the leap to productions across the pond, where he has since appeared in films like Atomic Blonde and Assassination Nation.
Yet it was 2017’s It that proved to be his breakthrough performance, catapulting him from supporting actor to star. Reprising his role this month in It Chapter Two (directed again by Andrés Muschietti, who directed the first It), Skarsgård is reflective about the detailed, studied process of developing Pennywise, a character whose legend has proven a heavy mantle since day one on the job.
“The make-up was such a big part of creating and preparing the character because even during the audition process, it was all so conceptual,” Skarsgård says.
“I didn’t know what clothes Pennywise would wear or how the make-up would look. When I got the actual make-up on, that was a pivotal point in preparing for the character. After that, I relearned all of my facial expressions. I sat in front of a mirror making different faces and different grimaces just to see how my face would react and mould with the make-up.”
Indeed the physicality of Skarsgård’s performance is part and parcel of its success. In contrast to previous iterations of Pennywise, which downplay the cosmic villainy of the character in favour of a more human malevolence, Skarsgård’s Pennywise is something otherworldly, a spine-chilling entity seething with mania, sadism and rage.
In his confrontations with children, this predatory Pennywise lurks out of focus or in the shadowed distance, only to lurch into the foreground in a startling, stereoscopic blur. After committing to the role, Skarsgård, a lover of reading, turned immediately to the novel, King’s 1,138-page magnum opus of memory, enduring trauma and the indelible bonds between children.
“It was immensely helpful to have such an expansive book,” Skarsgård says. “For me, preparation was reading the book as carefully as I could and marking all of the pages where Pennywise appears. I used it as a blueprint from which ideas could branch. I communicated with Andrés to find what we could agree was a fun, new approach to the character—something that was interesting to us, something that inspired us to continue down certain routes.”
It is among King’s most celebrated novels, a seminal work of horror published in 1986. Set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine (where King has set other such works as Insomnia, Dreamcatcher and 11/22/63), it follows the chilling adventures of the Losers Club, a self-styled posse of pre-teen misfits who band together to defeat a sadistic killer clown who styles himself in the guise of their worst nightmares.
It has been adapted for the screen multiple times, first in 1990 as a miniseries starring Tim Curry as Pennywise, then again in 1998 under the name Woh, a Hindi-language Indian television series. Yet even as the story of cosmic evil and innocence’s dissolution continues to shock and scare audiences time and time again, Skarsgård believes that its deep, abiding humanity is key to its cementation in our cultural consciousness.
“Ultimately the story is about what it’s like to be a child, but at that age where you’re not really a child, but you’re not grown, either,” Skarsgård says.
“It’s a weird age. At the heart of the story is a coming-of-age story about what it’s like to be an outsider and find your friends. Everybody can relate to that element where, if you look back, there was always that summer when you were 11 or 12, or whatever age it was, where you became best friends with new people. Maybe you met a girl or a boy and then that summer felt like an entire lifetime. And then the summer was over and you never saw them again. That’s part of this story about outsider kids who, for one summer, come together and become best friends. That’s the heart of the story and that’s why it’s so timeless and so relatable.”
As winsome and evocative as the story’s halcyon summer may be, It endures in the horror legendarium not as a bildungsroman, but as a creature feature. Skarsgård is cognisant of Pennywise’s outsized influence on the generation of horror writers that venerate King as well as on our cultural messaging surrounding clowns.
“The clown as a horror monster is a very effective villain,” Skarsgård says.
“The reason why children are scared of clowns is because children know that clowns can arbitrarily select them for ridicule at any moment. The clown makes fun of himself, and at any point, you can be the object of ridicule. I think that’s why children instinctively feel that being in the presence of a clown is fun and goofy, but also a bit scary because what if this clown shifts the ridicule from himself to you?
It’s a groundbreaking idea. I don’t think anyone did that before Stephen King. It changed the culture and how we perceive clowns. It also created the phenomenon of the scary monster clown or the killer clown. It’s a testament to Stephen King and what an insanely creative and original mind he has.”
Some argue that Pennywise is not a corporeal, flesh-and-blood entity—rather he is a metaphorical embodiment of children’s worst fears, a nightmare that doesn’t literally go bump in the night. That reading of the novel highlights its numerous human evils, many of which are arguably more odious than the killer clown: child
abuse, sexual predation and racism, just to name a few.
Mired as they are in the moral quagmire of adult life, the Losers lack adult advocates and thus they cling to the values that the adults in their lives can’t provide: courage, kindness, inclusiveness. Though Skarsgård believes that Pennywise is anchored in reality, he’s interested in the thematic resonance of a more allegorical interpretation.
“There’s certainly a way of looking at the film or the book where the clown might not even be real at all—it’s a manifestation of what these particular children are going through,” Skarsgård says. “Every child has their own internal battle to overcome in order to defeat Pennywise. In the first movie and in the book, it’s very clear that every child has his or her own inner demons and they have to overcome those very real demons in order to defeat the imaginary or fantastical creature in the clown. That’s the heart of the story.”
As the Losers grow closer to one another through their fight against Pennywise, Skarsgård’s version becomes markedly less frightening, sputtering for lack of words and struggling to hold his lurid disguises. Pennywise thrives on their fear, and as the Losers’ courage grows, his power over them diminishes. Yet even though the story hinges on the battle to overcome fear, Skarsgård argues that film audiences remain in thrall to fear—in fact, it’s the very spine-tingling thrill that drives them into cinemas.
“I think it ultimately comes down to a fascination with fear itself,” Skarsgård says. “Humans seem to be addicted to the idea of that tingling sensation of fear. You see it in amusement parks and in the success of horror films, thrillers and true-crime documentaries. And the news. The news is over-sensationalising everything, yet we have an endless appetite for it.
With monsters, I think it’s the same thing. You go into a theatre to experience something and you know you’re absolutely 100 percent safe. But it’s the element of ‘what if’. In the case of Pennywise, the monster is your fears. So if the monster is fear itself, how you overcome your personal fears is how you ultimately defeat it.”
It opens with an infamously frightening scene, one branded into the nightmares not just of horror fanatics, but of anyone who happened to catch the miniseries on television as a child. When six-year-old Georgie Denbrough’s paper sailboat drifts into a sewer, Pennywise appears in the sewer to offer it back to him, only to drag Georgie underground to his death when he draws within reach.
First-edition covers of King’s novel feature an illustration of this moment, with a paper sailboat wedged near the grates of an ominous-looking sewer. Skarsgård cites the scene as integral to the philosophy both of the film and of his performance.
“We talked about this a lot. Why would someone like Georgie not just run away if he saw a clown in the sewer?” Skarsgård says. “That image in itself is iconic and terrifying. But what we reasoned was that Pennywise couldn’t initially be too horrifying or gross because Georgie would just run away. The reason why Pennywise adopts this clown form in the first place is to lure children in. My audition was much creepier than the actual performance, which ended up being more alluring.
We wanted the predominantly adult audience to think, ‘This six-year-old is not seeing what I’m seeing and that’s terrifying.’ It’s terrifying in the sense that child molesters enact on their prey in this way. An adult would immediately say, ‘you should not follow a creepy guy into his car for candy’, whereas a child might be enchanted by that. I wanted to use as much of those real-life terrors as I could. Whenever there’s a child in danger, the horror is very immediate.”
It Chapter Two reassembles the Losers Club 27 years after their first fateful encounter with terror. With Hollywood heavyweights like Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Bill Hader stepping into the story as the adult counterparts to the beloved characters of Beverly Marsh, Bill Denbrough and Richie Tozier, the film promises to unspool the second dimension of King’s novel, wherein the Losers return to Derry as adults when the town is rocked by a wave of gruesome murders.
Seemingly well-adjusted on their surfaces but secretly broken in their success, the Losers band together a second time to defeat It once and for all. Much about the film remains under wraps, though Skarsgård warns that a furious Pennywise is out for blood.
“He’s pissed off and angry,” Skarsgård says. “In his own Machiavellian way, he’s definitely out to get back at the Losers Club. This is round two. Bigger, stronger, uncut.” King himself has weighed in on the sequel, taking to Twitter to say: “It Chapter Two: the final confrontation is epic.” As Skarsgård prepared for It Chapter Two, he maintained the methodical, studious approach he brought to the first film, digging deep into the mythology of Pennywise to gain insight into how temporary defeat changed, enraged and challenged him.
“By definition, Pennywise is not human,” Skarsgård says. “He’s a very abstract, trans-dimensional entity. But for my purposes during preparation, I thought, ‘Okay, it’s still a living entity. It’s a creature of sorts. And it must abide by some sort of laws— emotional laws or physical laws. If the entity itself is capable of feeling hunger and hate and anger, I think he’s likely able to feel more emotions.’
In the first movie, Pennywise is mocking or performing the entire way up until the very end, which is the only time he seems vulnerable. His last line of the film is fear. There were many different versions of what that line would be and ultimately I found that to be the most telling ending for him.
You have an entity that’s been feeding off of fear itself for millenniums, then for the first time, he himself feels fear. The second movie is about how this creature is changed by that. If you’ve been around for a million years, or millions of millions of years, and then for the first time you’ve felt that sensation of fear, maybe you become a bit addicted to that fear, the way humans are.”
It Chapter Two shifts the dynamic of the first film with the 27-year chronological jump into the future, forcing the adult Losers to confront their papered-over traumas when a revenge-crazed Pennywise returns to terrorise them once more. Clocking in at a run time of almost three hours, it promises epic horror on a supersized scale, with intimidating stunts and a record-setting volume of fake blood.
Skarsgård, who was kept at a remove from the child actors during the making of the first film to preserve their authentic reactions of fear, was grateful for the new-found adult company, as well as for the bonds that formed between new and old cast members alike.
“A lot of the scenes I had to do were very demanding thanks to the make-up, so sometimes it created a bit of a distance between me and the other actors,” Skarsgård says. “I was doing a scene with Bill Hader and in between takes he was making me laugh non-stop, which is kind of a funny sight with Pennywise cracking up. It was round two for us and they were all fresh into it. It was bizarre having cast dinners with the kids and the adults—seeing the adult version and the child version sitting next to each other. It was surreal.”
Though the addition of acclaimed adult actors certainly raises the profile of It Chapter Two, Skarsgård never mourned the lack of adult co-stars during the making of the first film. In fact, he salutes the young cast for their maturity, professionalism and craft.
“I’ve been surrounded by kids most of my life,” Skarsgård says. “I’ve got a really big family and four younger siblings. The kids were so professional in terms of their acting credentials and how good they were. A lot of them have been doing it for years, but they also intuitively understood what acting is. It felt like more like working with inexperienced but talented actors as opposed to working with kids.”
You have an entity that’s been feeding off of fear itself for millenniums, then for the first time, he himself feels fear.
It isn’t Skarsgård’s only project set in the Stephen King fictional universe—in fact, he starred as a deranged inmate in Castle Rock, Hulu’s 2018 anthology adaptation of stories about crime and punishment set in King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, where works like Cujo, The Shawshank Redemption and Doctor Sleep take place.
In Castle Rock, Skarsgård appeared alongside Sissy Spacek, who famously starred in the iconic, macabre screen adaptation of King’s Carrie, thus keeping it in the family. After two forays into some of King’s most beloved works, one might think to call Skarsgård a quasi-authority in this arena, yet he’s quick to downplay his acumen when compared to the encyclopaedic knowledge that true fans boast.
“I wouldn’t call myself a Stephen King fan in terms of Stephen King fans,” Skarsgård says. “His fans are pretty hardcore. I’ve read a handful of his books and I think he’s incredibly talented. Having a mind that can create so many iconic stories is unbelievable. And how prolific he is! I’m a great admirer of his work, but I’ve met some actual Stephen King fans and I would not hold my ground in a quiz to win their acknowledgment as a true Stephen King fan.”
As Skarsgård’s star grows stateside, so too does his scepticism about fame and recognition. This comes on the heels of a lifetime spent grappling with his own birthright as a scion of a famous family and with the degree to which he felt his identity was circumscribed by the preconceived notions that heralded his arrival in Hollywood.
“My family is much more famous in Sweden than in the States so I’ve felt that my entire life,” Skarsgård says.
“As a younger man in Sweden, I felt like I had to break out of this shadow or this preconceived notion of who I was and what world I came from. Did I deserve the success that I had or am I actually piggybacking on the success of my family or my father? I never really felt the need to do that internationally, I think partially because my family is much more known in Sweden. There also might be something of a cultural effect to it. Americans can sometimes be more encouraging than Swedes.”
Perhaps as a result of that lifelong attunement to the preconceptions of others, Skarsgård is sensitive to the corrosive influence of criticism. When it comes to feedback, some performers consider criticism a distraction, others an obsession. After an abnormal experience during the making of It subjected him to the vicissitudes of online feedback, Skarsgård arrived at his own conclusion about the value of taking advice.
“I had a surreal experience when I was just starting the first movie,” Skarsgård says. “It was such a buzzy role. The studio decided that they wanted to do a photo shoot of me in character, then released the photos to Entertainment Weekly for them to control the release of the photos. That meant that before I shot one single scene of the movie, the Internet was already reacting to my character, some of it negative.
It was such a weird thing to experience feedback before you’ve even started the work. I had to have this conversation with myself where I said, ‘There will always be people who don’t like what you do. But you have to be able to separate what you do and what you tend to like.’ I tried to think, ‘If I was in the audience seeing this performance, what would I think?’.
My instinct is to play for that guy in the audience or I play for myself in the audience or for people who tend to think like I do. It was reassuring to think, ‘If I can just continue to do what I think is good, what I think is effective and interesting, hopefully there are enough liked-minded people that will respond to what I do.’.”
At home in Stockholm, where he remains based even as film projects increasingly carry him overseas, Skarsgård seeks a quiet life, one replete with privacy and normalcy. “I’m probably much more recognised in Stockholm than I would be in LA or recognised by more people,” Skarsgård says.
“But I’m never bothered by people. People leave me alone. It’s kind of wonderful. My dad and my brothers, they have the same feeling. I’m not bothered that much anywhere I am. Granted, people do come up to me; sometimes they’re nice and sometimes they’re not nice. But most of the time they’re nice and that’s fine. Stockholm is my home. It always has been so it’s nice to go back home.”
For a rising star who places privacy at a premium, the pitfalls of fame loom large in Skarsgård’s mind. Though he welcomes fan interactions, he won’t be caught in tabloids anytime soon. “Fame itself is scary,” Skarsgård says. “People loving their fame is scary. Fame is a powerful force. If you’re not equipped to handle it in a responsible way, it can destroy you. So many people have been, I don’t understand what life would be like if I couldn’t go down to the grocery store and get a carton of milk. That’s where it becomes hard. I really wouldn’t want that in my life.”
As Skarsgård looks ahead to life post-Pennywise, he’s now an acclaimed performer with a number of commended, high-profile roles under his belt—no longer a journeyman actor driving to an audition in DIY clown-face. Though he has a number of film projects in post-production currently slated for 2020 release, his options are more open than before and his stock is rising in Hollywood.
While he’s never been one to have heroes or idols, nor was he the type of child who papered his bedroom walls with posters, he’s inspired by the filmography and careers of versatile actors like Buster Keaton and Montgomery Clift, who carved out lasting legacies for themselves as sensitive shapeshifters.
“The story and the characters are what pull me in,” Skarsgård says. “I’ve tried to be as versatile as I possibly can. I try to be attracted to everything from every different genre, to find something interesting in all these different types of stories.”
When the onslaught of reviews for It Chapter Two flood in, some from critics and some from the fans who built the King canon into an entertainment empire, Skarsgård will stand proud of what he’s delivered—a harrowing reimagination of a totemic cultural touchstone, one that will continue to haunt, fascinate and frighten us for decades to come.
“I try not to read too much into criticism or praise, though I do try to be mindful of it,” Skarsgård says.
“You’re much more susceptible to being emotionally affected by criticism than you are by praise. You can read nine good reviews of the performance that you did, and if the 10th is middling or bad, that can get you down. I try to be mindful of it in both ways. There will always be people who don’t like what you did. There will always be people who love what you do. Hopefully there will be enough people who love what you do that you can continue to do it. I just keep reminding myself, ‘Try to keep yourself proud.’.”
Photography: Michael Schwartz
Stylist: Fabio Immediato
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