“I watched the miniseries,” recalls actor Bill Skarsgard about the original 1990 It adaptation. “I did it during the casting process before I booked the job, but I watched the whole thing, and…it’s cute. It’s very dated, you know?”
Inspired by Stephen King’s original 1986 novel, the upcoming Andy Muschietti directed It has many hardcore genre fans feverishly speculating about what to expect from the latest adaptation. Although nostalgia may have some fans recalling the original miniseries a little more fondly than the project actually turned out, there’s no denying that Tim Curry’s performance as the infamous Pennywise has become one of the most memorable horror icons in film history, spawning countless cosplay costumes, artist renditions, and inspiring children around the globe to fear clowns for years to come. Following in Curry’s footsteps is a challenge, to say the least, but Skarsgard believes that he and director Muschietti have crafted something truly special that will leave audiences howling for a second installment.
“I worked really hard to create my own interpretation of the Stephen King character,” says Skarsgard about his take on the 2017 version of the role. “Tim Curry’s performance is understandably iconic, still, but the whole [miniseries], to me, at least, felt like something that might be worth a remake of, or rather, a re-adaptation, is kind of how I want to see the film. It’s not a remake of the TV show or the original miniseries, but it’s a re-adaptation of Stephen King’s book.”
This is an important distinction in the eyes of It’s star actor. He’s not trying to recreate the original film that we all grew up with or outdo Curry’s legendary performance, but instead go back to the source material and create something new from King’s original work.
Set in the 1980s, the original novel, simply titled “It”, follows a gang of close friends who refer to themselves as ‘The Losers Club’, and spend their time like any kids in a small northern town without much to do would – skipping rocks, swimming in rivers, telling jokes, and fending off bullies who wish to punish them for being less popular than others. Slowly, each kid in the gang begins to have vividly surreal encounters with a mysterious creature, each strange circumstance involving a strange clown, who knows their innermost fears and brings them horrifically to the surface. Once the crew realizes that they’re all seeing the same clown, they start to unravel the mystery of this little town, and begin to understand that what they’re dealing with is much more than a figment of their shared imaginations – it’s evil itself, manifested into various forms, and it’s coming for them, one by one. Their only choice is to be brave and go up against their attacker before he desecrates their town completely and leaves a trail of bodies in his wake.
“I think it’s almost 1200 pages, but I used the book because what was in the script is not much at all about who this character is,” says Skarsgard about his choice to draw more inspiration from the novel than from Chase Palmer’s screenplay. “I read the book and I took a lot of notes on anything that describes Pennywise in any way, or describes ‘It’ in any way, so and there’s a lot of like great chapters, where It, like the entity, is the narrator. You hear his thoughts and what he thinks and all these things, and so there was this huge source material to go from, like, ‘Oh, what is this saying, why is he here, what does he think like, what does he like, what doesn’t he like?’ — I could use all of those things to come up with my own interpretation and my own version of what It is, and then also what Pennywise is in terms of his embodiment.”
One of the most petrifying aspects about this tale of terror is the fact that this demented, monstrous clown isn’t just going after anybody – he’s going after kids. Helpless children whose parents won’t believe them are forced to go up against an entity that both haunts them in the darkness of their homes at night and in the daylight, leaving them with no safe space for them to run to, and no authority figures left to trust. One of the scariest scenes is when Pennywise hides out in the sewer drain and preys on Bill’s little brother Georgie, who lost his paper ship in a rain storm. Pretending to be a playful clown, Pennywise suddenly turns on Georgie, pulling him into the sewer, and, depending on which version you’re dealing with, either rips his arm off or swallows him whole.
When it comes to working with the kids in the film, Skarsgard wanted both and the childrens’ performances to come across as believable for viewers to create effective scares, but also didn’t want to frighten his fellow actors, who were much younger than he.
“[Muschietti] tried to keep [the kids] separate from me, because we thought that that might be a good idea, so we kind of have this tension between Pennywise and the kids,” explains Skarsgard about keeping the fear palpable on set. “So the kids are already shooting the film for like a month before they started doing the scene with Pennywise, and at first, I’m working with this actor Jack Grazer who plays Eddie in the film, and it’s a very intense, physical scene where I am the evil clown and I’m really going after it. Those scenes can sometimes be pretty intense, and I think the scene itself was kind of intense for Jack. It’s kind of a lot but after the first take I tried to make sure he was okay, and he was like really excited, he was like, ‘Yeah that was great man! That was amazing! I love what you’re doing with the character!’ and he was really excited about it, and I was like ‘Okay, I’m not actually dealing with like young kids here, like these are little actors’.”
According to Skarsgard, the only real time that working with such young co-stars became a bit worrisome was when he was acting alongside Jackson Robert Scott, a.k.a. ‘Georgie’, to film the famous sewer scene.
“The only difference in the cast I think was working with Georgie, who, his name’s Jackson, and he’s seven years old, and that was different because he was way younger than the other kids. So, for him, that was the difference between, we just had to work with him a little bit differently because shooting that storm drain scene, he was noticeably affected by the sight of me being in the storm drain, I’ll just put it that way. (Laughs) But we’re good friends in real life!”
When it comes to Skarsgard’s interpretation of the role, he says he and Muschietti worked very hard to create an unpredictable, animalistic and utterly frightening version of Pennywise that’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
“Essentially, what you end up seeing in the film is my own deepest fears,” muses Skarsgard about the depth of his villain. “Ultimately, it’s essentially, what’s the most weird and disturbing thing that we could come up with, and it was important for me that there was something absurd about the character, that there was something just like, inexplicable, like why is he sounding like that? Why is he doing this? It’s that kind of unpredictable absurdity to the character that will catch people off guard, this kind of shock factor of like, you will never know what this guy is gonna do next. You have no idea what he’ll do, or how he will do it, and there’s no way of kind of predicting his behavior.”
In the book, ‘It’ isn’t just Pennywise the clown, but can actually morph into several different forms according to whoever he is haunting at the moment. Whatever that person fears the most is what It becomes in order to terrify them in the most distinct way possible.
“I didn’t want the clown to be completely separate from the entity,” says Skarsgard about his decisions regarding the character’s behavior. “I wanted It to really kind of shine through Pennywise, as opposed to Pennywise just being the clown, so there’s a lot of what the entity was I wanted to be in the background of who Pennywise is at all times.”
We may not see every little detail on screen that Skarsgard has conjured up in his brain about his version of Pennywise, but if we were to look through his notes, we would see a fully realized character, the little snippets of which will appear on film in small mysterious glances at the clown.
“I think that at the end of the day, that’s what acting is all about, is that you almost create this infinite universe for the character that you’re playing, and then you’re compromising it into this story that you’re doing. So, whatever character you play, you kind of explore endlessly more than the page, and then you use that exploration to do the performance that’s in the film. I hope that there’s a lot of those little things that if people watch the film a couple of times, they’ll see and kind of read into and understand my Pennywise more and more each time they watch it.”