Cape Town – Pennywise the dancing clown is one of the most menacing clowns in pop culture.
If you weren’t afraid of clowns before Tim Curry’s portrayal in the 1990 miniseries IT, you probably developed that phobia after watching the show.
Bill Skarsgard had big shoes to fill when it was announced that he will play the menacing clown in the big screen adaption of one of Stephen King’s most popular novels.
Bill sat down for a Q&A to talk about how he transformed into Pennywise the dancing clown.
Were you a horror fan or, specifically, a Stephen King fan before you were cast as Pennywise?
I’ve always enjoyed darker, more mysterious stories, like many of those written by Stephen King. I read his novel IT, which was an inspiration for me while preparing for the role.
Tell me about your audition for Pennywise. I imagine it was very different from others you’ve experienced.
It’s not often that you get these kinds of opportunities to audition for something that’s so out there. I’m in my mid-20s, and at that age there is usually a particular type of part that you go up for. So, I was really excited about auditioning for Pennywise, and I worked hard preparing for that, and exploring what my version of this iconic character would be. I really went for it and did it my way, which was fun. It was the kind of audition that demanded that from me.
How did you prepare to bring Pennywise to life at that audition?
I was renting a house at the time, and there was a shed in the yard, where I would sit by myself and experiment with how Pennywise would sound, look, move, and things like that. Some of those experimentations ended up in the film.
Pennywise is one of the most iconic of Stephen King’s creations. What went through your mind when you found out you’d been cast in the role?
This was a long casting process. After the auditions, I flew back to my home in Stockholm, where I walked around with this feeling that IT was something I really wanted to do. I was deep into the process of finding Pennywise, and I’d even been to the production base in Toronto and met some of the crew working on the prosthetics. But I hadn’t yet been cast! So, it was frustrating – walking around, and not knowing if I would get the job.
I waited for the phone call to let me know I had the part, and when it finally came, it was a huge relief. I could finally relax. It was an amazing feeling.
When you were finding your way into Pennywise, what did you see as your biggest challenge? What aspects did you enjoy the most?
The biggest challenge was to come up with something that would really work for the character, and that would both scare and intrigue audiences. Most of all, I enjoyed preparing for the role, and creating, from scratch, Pennywise’s sounds, laugh, and how he moves. I didn’t want Pennywise to sound or look anything like me. So, there were a lot of things to figure out, all of which were a lot of fun.
Pennywise has a rather unique sense of humour.
I liked the idea that his sense of humour is like no one else’s. Pennywise enjoys fear and suffering, which he finds really funny. And that’s terrifying. I didn’t want him to say corny punch-lines; whenever he does something he finds humorous, the audience will think it is terrifying (laughs).
Pennywise looks like a very physical role. What challenges did that bring?
Playing Pennywise was often physically exhausting. It was the most tiring thing I’ve ever done – there was a lot of noise and screaming and drooling, and I would be messing up my voice. As soon as Andy would yell cut, I’d be on the ground, breathing heavily – and the young actors playing the Losers would walk over and ask me if I was okay! (Laughs)
How did director Andy Muschietti help you create Pennywise?
Andy was an immense help to me. He’s very visual, so he knew exactly what he wanted in terms of Pennywise’s look. I really respected his vision for Pennywise, and we shared ideas about the character. It was important to me to have someone I could trust to go to the places I needed to go to while we were shooting. I was in good hands with Andy.
How did the costume, makeup and hair help you with the character?
Everything about my prep – including the way Pennywise would move and sound – was hypothetical prior to seeing the makeup, costume and hair. Those were huge factors in shaping the performance. There were so many talented people that were involved in creating Pennywise’s look. That’s the beauty of filmmaking – its collaborative by nature.
What qualities do the young actors in the cast bring to their characters? What kind of dynamic do you think they created as the Losers’ Club?
All the kids were great. I didn’t know what to expect going into production, but once we started filming, I didn’t feel like I was working with kids at all. They were all mature, focused and prepared. They also came up with some great ideas.
Andy, who’s a very playful person, really kept his inner child alive working with the kids. He’s one of the most creative people I’ve met, and he breathes that into the crew and the kids. He would really encourage them to believe in themselves, and come up with ideas. It was amazing to see how he handled that, and it made the kids feel like they were heard and appreciated. I think that helped him get great performances from them. That was important because IT is very much about kids, and about being a kid.
Watching these kids in real life spend a summer together and become best friends in the process of making the film, well, that also was kind of amazing. And it shows in the film. You really believe in those young characters because those friendships you see in the film were actually playing out off-screen. They were real.
Off camera, did you spend much time with the young actors, or did you keep your distance?
Initially, Andy wanted to keep me separated from the rest of the cast, to create tension when we eventually did begin working together. But it soon became very clear to me that these kids were total professionals, who were well aware that I was not Pennywise, but a Swedish actor dressed up as a clown.
Because I was wearing all the makeup and a costume, which were great, but uncomfortable, I avoided hanging around with the kids or the crew. I was kind of isolated and tried to stay focused when I was working. Usually, I love the camaraderie on set, but on this one, it didn’t make sense for me to join in on that.
How long did it take for the makeup team to transform you into Pennywise each day, and what was it like when you saw yourself in costume and full makeup for the first time?
The first few times it took four or five hours, but we got it down to about two and a half hours. The first time I had all the makeup on, I just stared in the mirror and began making different faces and sounds, to see how it all worked together.
After playing a clown – or a hyper-realised version of one – do you have any insight into why some people are frightened by them?
I watched some documentaries and read about clowning, and what I eventually learned was that kind of fear – it’s called coulrophobia – wasn’t really a thing until Stephen King wrote the novel IT.
There is obviously something unsettling about a clown. There’s a separation from the person behind the makeup and what you’re looking at.
What do you hope audiences experience when they see IT in the cinemas around the world?
This is more than your typical horror film. It’s a very moving story, and I hope audiences are surprised by the film, and are engaged and moved by these young actors, their characters and their experiences in the story. I also hope that they’re scared out of their minds! (Laughs)
The film opens in cinemas nationwide Friday, 15 September.
(Photos: AP/Warner Bros)