‘Nightmarish’ isn’t one of the first words that comes to mind looking at Bill Skarsgård. Sleepy-eyed and with the gliding facial plains that seem to be the birthright of anyone born in Sweden, the 27-year-old is by most definitions aesthetically pleasing. Soon, though, he will cause you to look behind the bedroom door before you go to sleep; he’ll make you nervy about getting up for a wee in the middle of the night; one day, he’ll probably be giving your children very bad dreams.
While most young actors hope to get their breakout role as someone cool and fanciable, Skarsgård is getting his as the supernatural, murderous clown Pennywise in It. An adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel, ‘It’ centres on an all-American town where children keep going missing. The adults barely seem to notice but a group of pre-teens, one of whom is searching for his missing brother, believe the kids are being stolen by Pennywise and dragged down to his lair in the sewers. Pennywise appears in many different forms, but most of the time he takes the shape of a yellow-eyed clown with a blood-red smile snaking up his chalky face.
Skarsgård has some very big shoes to fill taking on this role, and not just because they’re clown shoes. When Tim Curry played Pennywise in a 1990 television two-parter of ‘It’ he single-handedly changed the perception of clowns from children’s entertainers to almost-definitely-murderers. Looking like the unholy offspring of Ronald McDonald and Nosferatu, he transcended the (not terribly good) series and became a pop culture icon, traumatising even to those who’d never seen the adaptation.
The 2017 It is unquestionably better than the 1990 version, with plotting that slashes some of King’s madder detours and a Stranger Things-esque gang of smart, sweary kids. We’ll have to wait a couple of decades or so to see if Skarsgård’s Pennywise has the lasting impact of Curry’s, but it certainly announces him as one of the more interesting new actors in Hollywood. The son of Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård (Thor, Pirates Of The Caribbean) and brother of Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood, The Legend Of Tarzan), his ascent to stardom is all but a foregone conclusion. You won’t recognise him in It, but you won’t be able to forget him. We spoke with him about the prospect of ruining future childhoods, thankfully while he was out of character.
You’re young, handsome and seem a pretty cheerful person. What made you think, “‘Killer clown who eats children’ is the right fit for me”?
“I was excited just to even audition for [Pennywise]. I’m in my mid-twenties, so the roles I’m usually going up for are characters that might be fun, but they’re all pretty close to me. They tend to look like you and talk like you and are the same age as you. It’s very rare, especially for younger actors, to even get the opportunity to audition for this kind of transformative character. The voice, the movement, everything was just this creation.”
You were born the same year the 1990 TV mini-series was released. Did you even know it? Was it scary to you?
“Oh, I’d say I’m certainly of the generation that was traumatised by Tim Curry’s performance. One of my best friends was completely traumatised by Tim Curry. He was four years old and his older sisters were like, ‘Hey, let’s watch this movie,’ and she forced him to watch It when he was way, way too young to see it. He was terrified of clowns and still is to this day. You could make him have a panic attack when he was 15 just by talking to him about clowns. I’ve never had a phobia like that for anything, but he was my best friend so I saw the impact that the original had on an entire generation.”
You’re obviously unrecognisable in your full Pennywise get-up. What did you think the first time you saw yourself as this nightmare?
“I had some idea of what I’d look like. There were these temp pictures that they’d animated using my face and [had added to], but it’s very different once you see it on you. Finally getting the make-up on for the first time took maybe five or six hours. Every step of the way I was just staring at myself in the mirror, seeing this character come alive. You get all the prosthetics on, then you get all the white on. There are a lot of stages along the way that look nothing like the character and are kind of bizarre. Then the smile comes on and the nose and he starts to come to life. It was a very special thing to go through. I stared at myself for a long time in the mirror, just trying to work through facial expressions.”
You’re the only adult in the main cast. What was it like working entirely with children?
“I didn’t have any scenes with anyone that wasn’t a kid. It was strange because we created this sort of separation. The character was very demanding of my concentration and focus. It was certainly the loneliest film shoot I’ve ever done. I was so isolated. I had the little Pennywise tent with my Pennywise squad: the prosthetics guys, the costume supervisor, the contact lens tech. I was in this very uncomfortable make-up and suit. So I very much kept to myself. My co-workers were all kids and they got really tight and became best friends on the shoot… while I felt really isolated and lonely.”
How did the kids react to seeing you for the first time?
“They shot for a month, all the school scenes and the kids hanging out, so they became really close. They’d never seen me. The first time they saw me in full make-up was the first time I had a scene with them. So there was this huge build-up of anticipation for them. That was deliberate. They’d met me once at the read-through, so they didn’t really know me either. We were trying to create some sort of tension that would translate into the movie. The kids are older and they’re very smart, so… I don’t think we fooled them by creating this tension, but it was certainly there and they were very excited. On day 15 of doing scary scenes together the tension had maybe kind of dissipated.”
What was the first movie to really terrify you?
“It’s not horror, but I think it was Jurassic Park. I was five or six. My brother Gustaf is 10 years older than me and the coolest thing in the entire world was to be allowed to sit in his room and hang out with him. One time he was watching Jurassic Park and said I could come watch it with him. I sat there knowing I wasn’t supposed to be watching this violent, scary movie, but I am and it’s amazing. My dad came in and he got really upset. He really let Gustaf have it. I remember I was furious. ‘How dare you be angry at someone for doing something so generous as to let me watch this incredible film! I am having the time of my life!’… I think I understood the difference between real and imaginary, but I had very vivid nightmares about dinosaurs looking in through my bedroom window.”
Did growing up with an actor father and brother and being around movie sets mean that movies held less magic for you? You knew it was all smoke and mirrors?
“A little. I think I always knew what was real and what wasn’t. My dad would always enforce that in us. He’d always tell us that ghosts aren’t real and monsters are fake – and actually, to a certain extent, religion. Then having a dad who for a living would make [films], there was always this clear difference between reality and stories. My little brother Valter is five years younger than me. When he was a little kid my dad’s international career was really kicking off. I was eight when he did this movie called Deep Blue Sea, which had mechanical sharks in it, which as a kid I thought was amazing. Valter was three, so he grew up on film sets and saw all the fake robots and animation. One day he was sitting with his cousin watching a children’s show – maybe Pippi Longstocking, some ’70s low-budget children’s show – and there were cows in the background of the shot. He turned to his cousin and said, ‘You know that all those cows are robots, right? They’re not real.’ For him, the reality of filmmaking was that absolutely nothing onscreen was real.”
How do you feel about the fact that for many children you are going to be a source of trauma? You are going to be causing nightmares.
“It’s so weird. When I was working on this I was thinking, ‘If I really succeed at what I’m trying to do here, I might traumatise a completely new generation’. It’s a very bizarre thing to think about. This movie is not supposed to be seen by kids, of course.”
Neither was the Tim Curry one and how many of us managed to see it anyway?
“Yeah. There’s an age limit that I think is appropriate for the movie. Obviously you need to be old enough to be able to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not. I think the real world is much more terrifying than any Pennywise or other monster could be.”
You grew up in Sweden. Were clowns considered scary there too? Is it just an American/British thing or are clowns a universally horrifying entity?
“The clown thing is strange… I found this documentary. It stressed that up until the novel of It there wasn’t a collective fear of clowns… Then this book was released and it really changed how everybody viewed clowns. It’s amazing. It’s a testament to Stephen King. If you look at the depiction of scary clowns in films, you don’t really see any prior to It. Then in the late ’90s they started popping up all over the place. I really do think Stephen King was the first one to create the idea of clowns as scary and he changed things forever. Certainly this movie’s not going to help these poor professional clowns who are just trying to entertain kids.”
Maybe they should just stop trying to entertain and embrace their frightening nature?
“They should! Maybe they should just start doing seasonal work for Halloween. Reinvent the industry.”
It is out in cinemas now