On the Scene: IT LIVES! Bill Skarsgård Gets Under the Skin of Pennywise

On September 10th, the Screen Actors Guild held an invite-only screening of It: Chapter 2 at the AMC Theatres at Lincoln Square. AQ’s Bryan Reesman was there to take in the festivities, which included a Q & A featuring stars Bill Skarsgård and James McAvoy

Continuing his portrayal of the monstrously evil, alien clown Pennywise in It Chapter Two, Bill Skarsgård invokes an intensity and nervousness that leaps off the screen at audiences. Even with some ostentatious CGI, and a stream of one-liners that occasionally soften some of the scares in the new sequel from director Andy Muschietti, Skarsgård inhabits his role in an eerie, compelling way every moment he is onscreen. (Coulrophobes need not watch it.) This second film takes place 27 years after the teenage Losers Club banished Pennywise from their hometown of Derry, Maine, and the long separated group has to reunite as adults to try to defeat him once again.

The source material, Stephen King’s epic novel from 1986, provided a lot of meat for the director and actors to chew on. Interestingly enough, one short chapter of the book is told through the perspective of Pennywise, and it gave further ideas for Skarsgård to contemplate. “It’s his subjective speaking,” says Skarsgård. “You find this simplistic, primal being that just goes ‘Leave me alone, children. I just want to sleep and eat and sleep and eat.’ The Losers disrupt this ever going cycle of patterns that he’s been doing for millennia. We worked a lot with making Pennywise the way I see him, as a manifestation of these children’s traumas. For them to defeat him, they have to stand up to that trauma and overcome it.”

Indeed, a big part of Pennywise’s power is his ability to invoke and incite childhood and family fears and traumas. He’s not simply a shapeshifting clown with razor-sharp chompers. “There’s also the sense of belief or childhood belief that Pennywise exists in that entity of childhood wonder and in the imaginative mind of a child,” says Skarsgård. “That’s where he flourishes, and the way we chose to interpret him in this film is when they use that mechanism and turn it against him.”

Skarsgård’s co-star James McAvoy, who portrays author Bill Denbrough, notes that after being an eater of worlds, Pennywise arrives on Earth and discovers human beings and finds them to be amazing. “We’re better than deer, we’re better than space aliens because—this is such a Stephen King thing—he loves and he celebrates imagination and storytelling,” says McAvoy of Pennywise. “He finds this whole species that is obsessed with imagination, that has a huge capacity to imagine and is obsessed with storytelling. And he can play on that. He fucks with us so much and makes us all the tastier.”

Hence why Pennywise loves to snack on people’s heads. (By the way, that “tasty” bit is also reminiscent of the vintage King short story The Boogeyman.)

“I had this idea that when we were approaching the second movie: How has Pennywise changed over 27 years and, if possible, how can you make him even weirder and more complicated?” says Skarsgård. “I always try to have this other layer. The last line that Pennywise has in the first movie is ‘fear,’ and then he drops into the void. For me, you have this entity that has gone from world to world to world feeding off of fear. That has been his way of inflicting it onto everything around him, and for the first time he meets a group of adversaries that makes him feel fear for the first time.”

This is why the actor feels that Pennywise want the Loser Clubs to “come home, come home, come home” in adulthood. Skarsgård felt that the “cancerous evil” of  Pennywise feels a strong pull towards the adversaries who are a strong match against him.

There are some fans who love the original 1990 TV mini-series starring Tim Curry as Pennywise. That version was less gory and more about psychological fear. Others prefer this incarnation, particularly thanks to Skarsgård’s unusual vocal work and off-kilter physicality. He felt that it was daunting to fill “the big clown boots of Tim Curry,” joking that his shoes are not that big.

“Obviously, the Tim Curry [interpretation] was an iconic performance, and I grew up with that being one of the most terrifying horror films,” recalls Skarsgård. “There was a long auditioning process of me trying to convince people that I could do this [version].” Luckily, director Andy Muschietti was on board with Skarsgård early on. “He resonated with what I was doing, so we had a shorthand in creative communication.” They were on the same wavelength regards to what the director had “with the reinvention of the character, which is this demonic thing.”

As Skarsgård notes, It is a transdimensional entity with Pennywise being one of the main forms that he takes. The clown seems to have become his favorite form. Skarsgård liked the idea of Pennywise being a form showing cracks in the facade, with a weird voice that indicates something is not exactly right, that this being is not entirely human. That something is a little bit off.

“Something really interesting started coming from that,” notes Skarsgård. “Same thing with the laugh. I wanted the laugh not to be a laugh. I wanted it to be a borderline panic attack, and the laugh I came to is basically something like, ‘Help me, help me.’ I was with a friend of mine and just started laughing that way. [He said] ‘That’s not a laugh, man. That’s a cry for help.’ That was a good start. And then it became this thing it became.”

One way that Skarsgård drew inspiration for the physicality of Pennywise was from his then seven year-old little brother, who had “this really peculiar way of running where he would move his upper body quicker than his legs,” he says. “It was hilarious. I just loved that, and if you watch the movie, he lunges with this chaotic burst [of motion]. There are [also] all these weird animal references. I love watching nature documentaries. Not specifically for inspiration. I just watch them. I would start performing something and think, ‘Oh shit, that’s the hyena I watched the other day.’”

One might wonder if Skarsgård took his work home with him. A twisted character like Pennywise might not be easy to shake him off. The actor has no idea how anyone could continually stay in character as the sinister clown.

“For me, it’s all about conserving energy,” explains Skarsgård. “[For] the scenes I was shooting, it was so fucking exhausting being Pennywise. Everything that I do is maximum energy. It’s all I literally have. After every take I’m panting afterwards and have to reset and gain the energy back. That’s what I wanted with the performances. On set, I was very calm and collected [between takes] and then [bringing] full force energy [on camera]. Going home, my skin was hurting from all the makeup and paint, and usually I would go right to sleep. I figured out a way of leaving it all in the cage, for lack of a better word.”