With a pivotal role in 'Castle Rock' and a new chapter of 'It,' the actor is dominating big- and small-screen horror

By Shirley Li
July 17, 2018 at 02:00 PM EDT
Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

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Pennywise showed up in Toronto last month — to Bill Skarsgård’s relief. Yes, relief.

Production had begun on It: Chapter Two, the follow-up to 2017’s horror smash, and the actor who’d embodied Stephen King’s iconic child-devouring, sewer-dwelling monster in the remake was about to do his first camera test. Director Andy Muschietti was back at the helm. Rehearsals had started. And Skarsgård had even comfortably hung out with the new, adult Losers’ Club cast. Still, it had been more than a year since he last transformed into the creature. Would he be able to summon It back out of hibernation?

“I didn’t know what I would have to do to climb back in, or how much I would have to redo,” he says. “The character demands so much of you in terms of focus, concentration, and energy. It’s just soooo much.”

The 27-year-old needn’t have worried. In true Pennywise fashion, the dancing clown resurfaced “instantaneously,” Skarsgård recalls. “I was surprised,” he marvels. “He was there.”

Patrick Harbron/Hulu

Then again, It itself never scared Skarsgård. He likes uncanny roles; it’s why he’s diving back into King’s fictional, tormented Maine this summer on Castle Rock, Hulu’s anthology series set just miles away from the equally nightmare-ridden Derry. Skarsgård stars as an unnamed, unsettling Shawshank prison inmate (above) discovered underground.

To portray a man who’s been literally kept in the dark for who knows how long, Skarsgård lost weight, studied the psychological effects of solitary confinement, and adopted a wounded posture — one he shed only in his trailer on set, where EW stopped by in December. “It’s a fun, transformative character, very mysterious, very weird and creepy,” he said then, still dressed in his drab prison garb. “I tend to like those types of characters where it allows you to be more creative with your performance, because you’re playing something very unlike yourself.” Adds his Castle Rock costar Sissy Spacek, who also knows a thing or two about the King universe: “He’s very enigmatic in this show.”

Just to be clear, though: Playing otherworldly parts in back-to-back King (or King-adjacent) adaptations wasn’t Skarsgård’s plan, and neither was becoming Hollywood’s leading bogeyman. Sure, his biggest roles have preyed on fear, beginning with three seasons as a half-human, half-vampire (okay, üpir) on Netflix’s Hemlock Grove, and even his smaller turns, like his acid-spitting mutant in Deadpool 2, come with a dose of body horror, but it’s coincidence, not strategy. “It has turned out that way, and I do think you have to be mindful of the roles you take so you’re not too limited,” he says, “but I’m not worried.”

Warner Bros. Pictures

The success of It has intimidated him more, despite his thespian pedigree. (You know, as son of Stellan, brother of Alexander and Gustaf, and member of Sweden’s unofficial royal acting family.) When It hit theaters last fall, the film not only became the highest-grossing King adaptation in history, it also broke the record for the highest-grossing horror film of all time. That meant losing Hollywood as a place where he could lie low. “I started my career in Sweden, so America was almost a refuge, in a way,” he says. “I would come over to the States and nobody would know who I was. Now I… guess I can’t do that anymore.” He laughs, then sighs. “It’s strange. I’m trying to roll with it.”

That includes not engaging on social media, though he lurks online using private accounts. (“I do have access,” he admits. “I’m not against it on principle.”) So, yes, he’s seen the fan art/fiction that cropped up after It — even the X-rated material. “My friend sent me a link to this whole website devoted to sexual fantasies with Pennywise, and, I don’t know, man….” He trails off, sounding more amazed than afraid. “Attractions and fetishes come in all shapes and forms, so whatever works for you, you know? But I was definitely not trying to go for sexy in any sort of way. I’m a clown that eats children!”

And one that’s about to become “even angrier” in Chapter Two, Skarsgård teases. He starts shooting the sequel soon, but from there, who knows? He doesn’t, not yet. “I think you should use attention responsibly,” he muses. “I want to use this little bit of momentum that I have to move on to the next step, to be able to really start developing my own projects.” Because unlike Pennywise, Skarsgård doesn’t hibernate.

Castle Rock premieres July 25 on Hulu. It: Chapter Two is in production.

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