Horror fans, are you ready for It? The new adaptation of Stephen King’s famous killer-clown novel will be out all over the world soon, petrifying a whole new generation of teens. And it could be a star-making movie for Bill Skarsgård, who plays the titular “It,” the monster clown Pennywise. He’s underneath reams of carefully applied make-up, of course, designed to make him as horrifying as possible. But what he looks like out of make-up, now that’s a whole other story.
Skarsgård very nearly didn’t get the role of Pennywise at all, though. The role was originally taken by British actor Will Poulter, who’d been cast when the film was still attached to its previous director, Cary Fukunaga. When Fukunaga left the project after five years of working on it, Poulter left too. There were reasons for that decision beyond Hollywood politics, however.
Apparently, the prospect of playing a character as horrifying as Pennywise had taken its toll on Poulter. New director Andy Muschietti asked him to come back on board, but found that Poulter wasn’t entirely up for it. “Will basically expressed a feeling that he had slowly disengaged from playing that character, that was so dark and terrifying,” Muschietti told Deadline in 2017.
“It was a personal decision I respected,” Muschietti continued. “But I was eager and willing to find my own Pennywise and that’s what we did.” Who could he get who was both a convincing horror actor and willing to put up with the buckets of blood and gore that he’d be dealing with? Well, the answer soon came in the form of Swedish actor Bill Skarsgård.
Skarsgård was a fairly unknown actor at the time. Nonetheless, he’d appeared in the acclaimed Swedish film Simple Simon, the TV series Hemlock Grove and the blockbusters Allegiant and Atomic Blonde. And he also came from a famous acting family. Bill Skarsgård’s father is Pirates of the Caribbean and Mamma Mia actor Stellan Skarsgård, and his brother is Alexander Skarsgård from True Blood.
Once he’d won the role, Skarsgård soon found himself with some big (clown) shoes to fill. The previous version of It – the 1990 miniseries – had starred Tim Curry as Pennywise, and his take on the character was still the one in most people’s minds. The filmmakers decided that the design for the new version had to be very different. “It’s important that we do something fresh and original for this one,” Skarsgård told Entertainment Weekly in July 2016.
And it turned out that Skarsgård definitely had the skills required to create a terrifying new take on Pennywise. For a start, he had a great menacing stare that came across even under the make-up. The other thing that he could do was a trick few people could pull off – and it even saved the filmmakers some money on digital effects.
“I said [to Bill Skarsgård], ‘In post-production I’m going to deviate your eyes,’ and he said, ‘I can do it,’” Andy Muschietti told Cinema Blend in September 2017. Deviating the eyes is pointing them in different directions, something that not many people can do. “He was here in the morning and he was doing the trick. It’s crazy,” Muschietti added. “What are the chances the guy that you picked for the role could do it?”
And the director wasn’t the only person impressed by Skarsgård. He made such an impression on the young actors who played the children menaced by Pennywise, in fact, that they were soon terrified of him. “Seeing him in person for the first time… he’s 6 feet 4 inches and looming over you with clown make-up and his get-up,” actor Wyatt Oleff told INSTANT just before the film came out. “It was definitely scary at first, until he was really nice and shook our hands and was really cool.”
“Also, seeing him with just a tank top and his clown pants on and his clown make-up from his neck up, holding a cup of coffee was a little helpful to make me not be scared of him… but still scary,” Oleff added. It was good to know that Skarsgård wasn’t attempting any method acting and was nice to the kids! And before too long, other people also started paying attention to what he was like out of character.
It didn’t take long for the media to notice that Ben Skarsgård was, in fact… extremely good looking. “In a shocking turn of events, the dude who plays Pennywise is not at all grotesque, and actually quite handsome. Will wonders never cease!?” wrote Cosmopolitan in July. “Instead of thinking about Pennywise grabbing your ankles as you get out into bed tonight, think about how incredibly good-looking the Skarsgård clan is,” BuzzFeed wrote in the same month.
“You’re kind of getting the rep as the ‘hot clown,’” an Access Hollywood reporter gleefully told Skarsgård on the red carpet in September 2017. “What’s it been like getting that response from fans?” “I don’t know if I’m hot in the film, I hope not!” Skarsgård responded with a laugh. He downplayed things a little by adding, “I have my weird quirks and weird looks in real life as well.”
In the same interview, Skarsgård revealed how long it took for the Pennywise make-up to be applied every day. “The first few times we got through it, it took about five hours,” he said. “We worked it down until about two and a half, thanks to the amazing talent of the make-up department.” So that’s how long it takes to transform a handsome man into a killer clown…
When reviews for the film started coming out, they were largely very positive about Skarsgård’s take on Pennywise. “Skarsgård’s performance builds on Tim Curry’s in the 1990 miniseries version of It,” wrote Variety, “delivering dialogue in an unnervingly lisping, clipped tone best described as a cartoon rabbit before abruptly dropping a couple of octaves to a guttural growl… Pennywise is legitimately terrifying.”
Tim Curry, who himself was already an established star of films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Clue when he played Pennywise, also gave his seal of approval to Skarsgård in a September 2017 interview with Screen Geek. “I like Bill Skarsgård very much, I think he’s very clever,” said the 71-year-old actor. “So I’m fascinated to see it. He’s very good.”
And Stephen King, writer of It and one of the most famous horror writers in the world, released a statement on StephenKing.com saying that he enjoyed the movie. Fans wondered if he would, as King has in the past been notoriously – but often fairly – critical about movies made of his works. But he wrote that he believed that the producers had “done a wonderful job with the production.”
The writer decided against comparing Skarsgård’s performance to Curry’s earlier one, though. Speaking to Yahoo in September, King said, “Pennywise is scary in the book, he needed to be scary in that miniseries, and he needs to be scary in the movie. And he is. They’re both good. I wouldn’t pick one above the other.”
In interviews following the premiere of the movie, Skarsgård was philosophical about his work. He’d built his name with Allegiant and Atomic Blonde, but this looked set to be his biggest hit to date. “It’s a strange thing to come to terms with — that if I really succeed with this, people will have nightmares about this character for a really long time,” he told the Herald Sun.
So what’s next for Skarsgård? Well, with so many reviews praising him, it’s incredibly unlikely that he’ll fade into obscurity after It. The film did incredibly well even before its release, becoming the top pre-selling horror film of all time, so it’s clear that Skarsgård is a bankable actor. He already has a couple more things in the pipeline, in fact. And first up is another Stephen King work!
It was announced in July 2017 that Skarsgård was set to star in Castle Rock, described by Variety as a “psychological-horror drama set in the Stephen King multiverse.” The show is set to premiere sometime in 2018 and could ensure that Skarsgård will appear on our screens for years to come. And without the clown make-up this time, so everyone can appreciate his good looks!