Interview: Bill Skarsgård on Becoming Pennywise in Stephen King’s IT
Can you believe we’re just over a month away from IT hitting theaters? It seems like we’ve been waiting forever to see this adaptation come to life and the light at the end of the tunnel is finally visible. And since we’re so close to finally seeing director Andy Muschietti’s version grace the silver screen, several journalists who went to the set and did additional interviews are now able to talk about what they saw.
Below is the transcript of a round-table interview I participated in where we got to speak with Bill Skarsgård, who plays Pennywise. We got to talk about the audition process, how he interacted with the children on set, and what his thoughts were when the first image of Pennywise was released.
Check it all out below, including two new official stills!
Stephen King’s IT has been rated R for “violence/horror, bloody images, and for language.”
Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Nicholas Hamilton, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, and Sophia Lillis star with Bill Skarsgard, who portrays Pennywise. In addition, creature performer Javier Botet has signed on as The Leper, and Owen Teague plays Patrick Hocksetter, part of a group of bullies who torment The Losers’ Club.
IT hits theaters on September 8th. Andrés Muschietti directs.
The behind-the-scenes creative team includes director of photography Chung-Hoon Chung (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), production designer Claude Paré (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), editor Jason Ballantine (The Great Gatsby), and costume designer Janie Bryant (“Mad Men”).
When children begin to disappear in the town of Derry, Maine, a group of young kids are faced with their biggest fears when they square off against an evil clown named Pennywise, whose history of murder and violence dates back for centuries.
Pennywise is not a man, there’s no humanity there. What was the essence of the character that you were grabbing onto, performance-wise, knowing the other-worldly nature of him?
Bill Skarsgård: There’s this potential backstory that, you know, we were possibly thinking about, which was the Bob Gray aspect of it that Pennywise, the clown, is somewhat based on a real person. Then “IT” has taken that person that actually existed and made him into his own Pennywise, essentially. We did play around with that aspect but, to me, that wasn’t the important aspect of it. Regardless if the Pennywise or Bob Gray character actually existed, the one that I’m playing…IT and the entity that’s taking the shape of someone’s fear but it’s obviously the clown.
There’s somewhere in the book where it says the clown, Pennywise, is IT’s favorite form. It enjoys taking that shape. So, why does he like to take that shape? What does he enjoy about it? All these different things that I had to answer myself in terms of embodying the character.
But then I did play a lot with…I wanted IT, the entity or whatever that is, to really shine through in the performance. So, there’s almost imperfections that this clown, there’s something more awfully wrong with him, which is that he’s, there’s an entity behind it that is not a clown at all and doesn’t look like a clown and has just taken the shape of a clown. So, that was something I explored a lot and, kind of, played up the creepiness and absurdity of the character, that there’s glitches and things that are not completely solid, in terms of who the character is. That was important. I think that was really worth exploring in this version of Pennywise and it’s something I find kind of cool and interesting.
When we meet Pennywise in the film in the 80’s, he’s been around a lot longer, wearing Victorian garb and taking children for a long time. Did you feel like there was a development of the character, that he changed throughout the years or has he always been this same malevolent force?
BS: So, I think Pennywise has not been around forever but I think the entity, IT, has been around for a very long time and there’s somewhere in the book where they see a flashback to a completely different time, to a time before man was around and that’s when IT came to Earth or entered our dimension or [laughs] however you want to put it. So, I think IT laid dormant for millions and millions of years until humans reached the Americas and I think that he’s been around ever since humans have been here, doing the same thing. The Natives probably have experienced being haunted and tormented by this entity as well before the Europeans came and so forth…
So, Pennywise is obviously a much more modern version of what form it has been taking. So you could assume that 5,000 years ago it would’ve been something that terrified people at that time, maybe a spirit or something like that. I think in our version, Pennywise is something that’s maybe been around and maybe drew the inspiration from a real person, in Bob Gray or whoever he was, and created this version of a clown that fit the 19th century, judging by the clothes and appearances and then he really enjoyed that version and is stuck with it. So, that’s kinda how I rationalized to see who or what Pennywise is in terms of the form that he is, where he comes from, and who he is.
That being said, the IT, the entity IT, has always been the same. I don’t think IT ever changes. Partially, I think the story of The Losers’ battling it is, in part, the first time he’s ever changed whatsoever. That’s kind of, a little bit, my arc. If you see the film, I think you’ll discover that there’s a change that happens in Pennywise or IT that’s never happened before.
When you were first auditioning, what qualities did you bring to your performance and how has that evolved after you got the role?
BS: I was in LA and I was renting a house in Echo Park and I got this audition for Pennywise, right? I was never involved in the first rendition or attempt to make it with Cary. Will was originally cast as Pennywise but I was never involved in that movie, so I got in later when the role was open and Andy Muschietti was directing it. I got the call and, being an actor, especially in my age, like mid-20’s, there’s not a lot of truly character performances or parts out there, in terms of weird, creepy, disgusting, or full-on characters, in terms of what Pennywise is. Most auditions that you go up for are much more based in reality and young guys, coming of age stories, love stories, and so forth.
This was all up to you! I got these two scenes and you could do them however you wanted. There was an endless…the ability to interpret the character how you wanted in terms of voice, sound, facial expressions, and everything. That was…just the audition itself was the task. So, it’s kinda rare that you get an audition that you’re this excited about. For me, I worked really hard to do my version of what this character might be like and I had a lot of fun doing that. Then people responded to it, so I think I read for it, one, two, three, or maybe even four times before eventually getting the job. The character changed even in those depths of auditioning. I started having a conversation with Andy and he said things that he wanted to be true with the character and so I started working even during the casting process working with playing around with versions of what this character might be like and then eventually booking the job, that was when the real work began in terms of exploring the characters and the different ways of playing him.
But I really did enjoy the casting process of this one because it was a really fun thing to do where you could really put in a lot of work into the audition itself. I had a lot of fun, the whole way was really fun.
Dread Central: The first image of Pennywise was met with a lot of debate but with the first footage having been released, IT is now one of the most anticipated horror films of the year. What were your thoughts to seeing the reaction to that initial image?
BS: So, it’s weird because I hadn’t even begun shooting it yet when that was released. The tactic behind it was the studio wanted to be in control of the images being leaked, so instead of a someone secretly taking a photo of me in the outfit on set or however they would do it, that being leaked, the idea was to release this in a version we can control. But I did the photoshoot before I started shooting, so I hadn’t shot anything yet, and it was released the day before we started shooting because my first day of shooting was something that someone would potentially sneak a photo of.
So, that was weird. I didn’t like that people saw what the look was before I’d even building the character, you know? For actors, I think, and filmmakers, there’s this thing of whenever something is…before it’s actually released, it’s still yours, you know? In the sense that no one has seen it, no one has an opinion on it, it’s still your thing that you’re working on and exploring and it’s a nice feeling that it’s not out in public. Then, once you finished it, there’s an excitement for when it is time and when you’re ready and separated from the thing and go, “Here!”
So it felt very premature when the photos were released but nevertheless they were and I really tried not to read any sort of debate or what people were saying whatsoever. I didn’t want to engage in any of this because I was shooting it, you know? The last thing I needed getting into hearing what peoples’ thoughts and ideas were about the character that I haven’t even started shooting yet. So, I never really got engaged in any of what people were saying about the look of the character.
Also, those two photos that were released weren’t even doing justice to what the character was either. It’s definitely the look but you kind of need the live footage or the video footage to see how the character really comes off and how he plays. So I still don’t engage in reading comments because I think it’s a wormhole, a bad, black spiral of self-consciousness that’s not really good for you but I’m glad that people responded to the trailer that is out there, where we purposefully kept Pennywise very secretive, you’ve seen little bits of him, but obviously there’s a lot more. At this point, I’m more excited to see how people will react to it.
How did you deal with the children on set? Did you hang out or keep your distance?
BS: That was something that we wanted, me and Andy talked about how we should approach it before shooting. We thought that the best idea is to keep me completely separated from them so that… The kids obviously had to really bond with each other because a key element of the film is friendship and camaraderie, so as soon as they got to Toronto, they did excursions and almost team-building exercises, so they really did become very, very close friends, the best of friends over the length of shooting it, which is kind of amazing because that’s what the film is about, these kids finding each other and becoming friends. I think it shows in the film.
But granted, they shouldn’t be buddies with Pennywise [laughs], so we did keep it separate. We kept me separated from them and essentially the only people I had any contact with was Andy Muschietti and Barbara, the producer, his sister. Those were the only people I really hung out with in terms of anyone in the production.
Then we started shooting and the kids had begun shooting for a month before I had any scenes with them and they were really excited to see the clown and what I would look like and all these things and they were really into it. It was kind of an intense, heavy scene that I first shot. I did a scene with Jack Grazer, who plays Eddie in the film, and it’s a full on, aggressive, intense scene between Pennywise and Eddie. It was my first day of shooting and I was trying to stay focused and in character when we were rehearsing it and Jack was really a trooper. Then we shot the scene, the first take, and I really kind of saved my energy for that scene and we shot it and it’s a lot! He’s obviously terrified in the scene and crying and trying to get away and Pennywise is there in front of his face. Then they shout “CUT!” and I turn to Jack and ask, “Are you okay?” and he goes, “That was awesome, man! That was fucking awesome! You should, like, WOW WOW! I love what you’re doing!” [laughs] So, I was like happy I’m not dealing with little children but actual actors, little actors but actors nonetheless! So it was kind of…after that, the kids are really smart and talented and come up with great ideas for the scene and I think the necessity of keeping me separate from the kids was, you know, as soon as we started shooting it was pretty clear that these kids knew they were making a film and I’m not a murderous clown.
We did separate me from the kid actors but, at the end of the day, they were truly professionals. The only exception was Jackson, who plays Georgie, who’s much younger than the other kids. For him, it wasn’t as clear the separation between fiction and reality.