The Man Behind the Clown: Bill Skarsgard on It and Pennywise

The Swedish actor speaks out on playing Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King’s It.

Before the new film version of Stephen King’s It opened this weekend to record-smashing box office success ($123 million at the U.S. box office alone), Warner Bros. Pictures did an interesting thing: while the unspeakable title monster, personified as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, was the center of the movie’s marketing, the actor playing him, Bill Skarsgard, seemed to be deliberately kept somewhat off the radar — no doubt to preserve the mystery behind his terrifying and spectacular performance as an evil being that feeds off the fear of seven young children who band together to fight It.

Den of Geek was one of a small group of outlets that had a chance to sit for a roundtable discussion with the 27-year-old Skarsgard shortly before It opened. As previously documented, Skarsgard — who is the son and younger brother of actors Stellan Skarsgard (The Avengers) and Alexander Skarsgard (Big Little Lies) respectively — was not initially cast as Pennywise: an earlier version of the film that was going to be directed by Cary Fukunaga (who is still a screenwriter on the finished movie) had originally pegged Will Poulter (Detroit) for the part. But when the project passed from Fukunaga to director Andy Muschietti (Mama), Poulter faded out of the picture and Skarsgard came into view.

“Going into this, I saw the miniseries and I read the novel,” says the tall, wiry Skarsgard as he sits down to face the press. “I saw the miniseries and then stayed away from it as much as possible because I knew that we weren’t doing that again. But the novel was my Bible. I read through it and wrote on the pages and took notes. I would go back to it throughout the whole shoot. It’s a 1,200-page book and there’s so much in there and, especially with the character Pennywise, there are so many little breadcrumbs. There are some purposefully mysterious aspects of what the character is and a lot of room for interpretation.”

One thing that Skarsgard — who’s been seen in the movie Allegiant and the Netflix series Hemlock Grove — wanted to avoid was a rehash of the 1990 miniseries based on the book, in which Pennywise was memorably portrayed by Tim Curry. “For me, obviously, or for all of us as filmmakers going into this, we didn’t want to do the same thing that’s already been done,” agrees Skarsgard. “Obviously I’m much younger and different and a different person and actor than Tim Curry. Tim Curry is Tim Curry and nobody will do Tim Curry as good as Tim Curry. I use my own tools and make this a new take and make it original and make it my own.”

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Skarsgard says that he and Muschietti had a very similar idea of what the character was, and the psychology behind it, but he’s reluctant to reveal just what it was. “I have a slight resistance in telling it,” he says with some hesitation. “It’s a weird thing to reveal because it’s ours. You can read the novel and you can watch the film and then you can have your own interpretation of what he is. Such a huge, important thing for me doing this film was having Andy’s trust in me, and our collaboration in doing the character. We were never in disagreement with the psychology behind him.”

In the book, Pennywise is the main physical manifestation of an ancient entity that may be millions of years old and exists outside time and space as we know it. “There is a chapter that we would go back to where Stephen King writes subjectively through Its eyes, and there are a lot of clues to the mind behind him,” says Skarsgard. “I think that me and Andy had, even going into it, a very similar idea of what the character was. Then reading it reaffirmed our idea of what the character is and the psychology behind him. So the book was great to have around.” (A sequel that adapts the second half of the book, in which the seven main characters return as adults to fight the creature once again, may delve more into the metaphysical nature of It.)

It took Skarsgard roughly two and a half hours to get into his makeup and costume, and the actor admits that it was “strange” seeing himself in the complete outfit for the first time. “It was all abstract to me at first because I hadn’t had the makeup on,” he recalls about seeing early designs for the clown. “I was preparing to do this character but I didn’t know what the outfit would look like. I didn’t know what his face would look like and all those things. So the first time we had a makeup test it took like five hours to get the prosthetic and everything on and I saw every stage. I would just stare at myself in the mirror for those five hours, trying out the faces and how things would read and stuff like that.”

It’s Skarsgard’s physically imposing performance, combined with the conflicting responses that the archetype of a clown can bring forth in both adults and children alike, that make his version of Pennywise the one that is going to reverberate for viewers now and future generations of horror fans. “It’s a weird, beautiful contrast of something cute and horrible, you know?” he muses. “Which is such a key element to what the character ended up being. This cute, horrible thing.”

It is out in theaters now.