Slobbering wasn’t originally part of the Pennywise plan.
“This will sound really bizarre,” explains Bill Skarsgård, the gentleman behind the iconic razor-toothed clown in the new big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s It. “But I was just sitting there going through the scenes in different voices – and I was drooling so much that there was this pile of drool on the carpet.”
The saliva made for a wonderfully gross addition to the 27-year-old Swedish actor’s portrayal of the pancake–make-upped monster at the center of filmmaker Andy Muschietti’s frantic, fucked-up and heartfelt take on King’s 1986 novel. In fact, the director says it was Skarsgård’s spirit of unpredictability that got him the job in the first place.
“I had an immediate reaction,” Muschietti says in regards to his lead’s audition. “What really resonated was that weird balance between his childlike features and a very dark performance, which is something that I wanted to bring to the character.”
For Skarsgård, perhaps best known for his work in Netflix’s horror series Hemlock Grove, playing one of the most famous and terrifying clowns in fiction – a cackling blood-thirsty shape shifter who emerges every 27 years to feast on the flesh of children and would give John Wayne Gacy nightmares – is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But with it comes the risks of not only living up to a character that has been memorably portrayed on screen with a mix of freakishness and borderline camp by Tim Curry in the 1990 miniseries, but one that has become permanently enmeshed in horror lore. So to prep for the role, Skarsgård went straight to the source: King’s mammoth, 1,200-page book.
“I tried to find answers in what King originally wrote,” he says. “And there are a lot of bread crumbs and hints that you can interpret in different ways. But for me that painted a clear picture of what Pennywise was – and then the next step was to try and incorporate that into the performance.”
“[Playing Pennywise], there were points where I felt like I was going insane.”–Bill Skarsgård
He must have done something right. Though King himself wasn’t directly involved in the making of the film, he’s said in interviews that he feels Skarsgård’s performance is just as good as Curry’s. “Pennywise is scary in the book, he needed to be scary in that miniseries, and he needs to be scary in the movie,” said the author. “And he is. They’re both good. I wouldn’t pick one above the other.”
The initial thing to capturing the creature, Skarsgård says was working on the voice; he began recording his own personal archive of shrieks and laughs, then listening to the playback and tweaking his delivery until he found the right tone. “When I’ve played characters before, there’s this separation – you want to just be the character and you don’t want to judge what you’re doing at the same time you’re doing it, if that makes sense,” he says. “But here, I needed to have this outside view.”
Then, with the help of a movement coach, the actor gave the character a unique, absurdist physicality – particularly when Pennywise would go into attack mode and lunge toward his targets in succinct shuffles. As Skarsgård explains, that particular move was inspired by his little brother, Ossian. “I don’t know if you’ve seen kids run like this, but they move their arms way too fast, and it looks really, really funny,” he says. “And I just loved the way my brother ran as a kid. It was just out of sync. So I incorporated that into the character, and you get this really explosive effect. It’s really unsettling when it happens.”
Using his younger sibling as an influence is fitting for him, who comes from a long line of Swedish actors, including his father Stellan (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Good Will Hunting) and older brother, Alexander (True Blood, Big Little Lies), both of whom have played menacing antagonists. But the younger Skarsgård says he avoided asking his family for advice on how to best break bad on screen. “Obviously you seek advice if you need anything in life,” he says. “But for this performance I just wanted to figure it out myself.”
Instead, he went to Muschietti, who cut his teeth with the 2013 horror flick, Mama. According to to the director, Pennywise “comes from the concept of unpredictability and madness. And once we agreed on that, it was all Bill building and expressing this concept into movement and behavior. He really brought something different to each scene.”
Those characteristics play out nicely against the story’s heroes, affectionately known as the Losers, a ragtag group of children hoping to save Derry – and themselves – from the murderous entity that lurks in the shadows. It’s a myserious dynnamic that Skarsgård made sure played out in real life as well. “I didn’t hang out with them personally at all,” says Skarsgård. “So they didn’t really know who I was, and they hadn’t seen the makeup or the clown, until the first day of shooting with them. It was one of those really excited/fear reactions from their part. But it was fun, and the kids were little professionals.”
Skarsgård thinks his intensive approach also rubbed off on the young actors. Before shooting one particularly harrowing scene, he walked around the room, making noises and trying to pump himself up – and later saw the kids themselves emulating his process. And he knows he will have to enter that frame of mind once again if/when he returns as Pennywise in It‘s second chapter, which will focus on the adult versions of the Losers. The actor says he just hopes that getting into character won’t be nearly as strenuous as it was the first time around.
“There were points,” he admits, “where I felt like I was going insane.”