Becoming Pennywise: A behind the scenes look at the monster of Stephen King's It
“Like a demonic animal.”
Under most circumstances, that type of description of an actor usually means trouble on set. But in the case of Bill Skarsgård portraying Pennywise the Dancing Clown, this is a major compliment.
As the movie version of Stephen King’s It heads into its third weekend, the filmmakers have released this behind-the-scenes featurette showing a little bit of how the actor brought the shapeshifting evil presence to life.
In an earlier interview, just as he was about to start filming last summer, Skarsgård talked to EW about playing the monster.
“It’s such an extreme character. Inhumane,” Skarsgård says. “It’s beyond even a sociopath because he’s not even human. He’s not even a clown. I’m playing just one of the beings It creates.”
Anyone who’s turned the pages of King’s epic coming-of-age horror thriller knows this bloodthirsty funster isn’t your average psycho in grease paint. Pennywise is the favorite embodiment of a nameless, shapeless evil that dwells beneath a small town and feeds on the fear – and sometimes limbs – of children.
This manifestation of Pennywise from director Andy Muschietti’s film is elegant, precise — even alluring. He’s in control. It’s a stark contrast to the messy, smeared, and dirty scary-clown trend pioneered eight years ago by Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.
“It’s important that we do something fresh and original for this one. It’s purposely not going toward that weird, greasy look,” says Skarsgård, best known for Allegiant and the Netflix series Hemlock Grove.
The key to this monster? Having fun with it. “It truly enjoys the shape of the clown Pennywise, and enjoys the game and the hunt,” the actor says. “What’s funny to this evil entity might not be funny to everyone else. But he thinks it’s funny.”
As one of the younger members of an acting family that includes father Stellan and brother Alexander, Bill Skarsgård is used to breaking out from long shadows. In the case of It, he’s following in the floppy footsteps of Tim Curry, who did unforgettable work as the monster in the 1990 TV movie.
“One of my best friends is completely traumatized by the original film version of It,” Skarsgård says. “He has a clown phobia, and he was maybe 5 or 6 when he saw it, which is way too young, and he had an older sibling who made him watch it. Now he’s scarred for life.” He laughs. Very Method.
Not everything about that mini-series holds up after two and a half decades, but his Pennywise has proven to be infinite, still curdling blood as an online meme. “Tim Curry’s performance was truly great, but it’s important for me to do something different because of that,” says Skårsgard. “I’ll never be able to make a Tim Curry performance as good as Tim Curry.”
One thing is certain – none of this is going to help the reputation of clowns. “I’ve been doing some clown research,” Skarsgård says. “I’m not sure if there was so much clown phobia before the novel. There’s obviously been this thing where people find clowns are unsettling, but nobody explored it the way Stephen King did.”
Speaking of, when EW reached out to the master himself last summer for comment on the new look of one of his most iconic creations, he was suitably unsettled.
“It’s a scary clown,” King said. “But to me, they’re all scary.”