“I have a little bit of the crazy eyes,” deadpans Bill Skarsgård, a hint of a smile crossing his face. “So I can do creepy pretty well.” Dressed in a leather jacket, his hair slicked back, the 27-year-old Swedish actor sinks into the couch of a West Hollywood hotel suite, having just survived an intense panel interview involving a large group of foreign reporters.
His remark is quite the understatement, considering his most memorable part to date has been the bloodthirsty, deeply repressed rich-kid vampire at the center of Netflix’s supernatural horror series Hemlock Grove. Roman Godfrey’s hypnotic gaze had the power to compel a sheriff’s deputy to put his gun in his own mouth, and to make a classmate forget he’s just brutally assaulted her. Even now, though he’s been perfectly friendly and engaged, Skarsgård has that look, especially when he sits still or holds prolonged eye contact. It’s the Resting Murder Face of a brooding, exquisitely chiseled maybe-psychopath, just one bad day away from a homicidal rampage.
Now, take that person, and add clown makeup.
That’s what director Andrés Muschietti and his producers requested of Skarsgård when they asked to bring him in for a second audition for their new adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel It. They were considering him for the title role, a killer clown who terrorizes a group of children by taking the form of their worst nightmares before devouring them. Skarsgård says the scenes he’d initially read for Pennywise were completely open to interpretation. They didn’t specify gender, race, or age, which made it the most fun audition he’d ever been on—and clearly one of his most impressive, given his callback.
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“I had my girlfriend put on the makeup the morning of, and then I drove through Hollywood in full clownface,” he recalls, cracking another almost-smile. “I was like, This is really humiliating—the epitome of the Auditioning Actor in L.A. But I’m happy I stuck with it.”
Evidently, so was Muschietti, who ended up casting him. “Bill has this incredible balance between childlike features [and] something that can be very disturbing—a very, very intense look,” the Argentinian filmmaker says over the phone a week later. “I wanted him to bring that to the equation. I said, ‘In post-production, I might twist one of your eyes to the side so your eyes are looking in different directions,’ and he says, ‘Oh, I can do that’—and he just did it, right there in front of me.”
Slated to hit theatres September 8, It will mark Skarsgård’s first major Hollywood lead. Expectations are high, especially considering the film’s first few troubled years in development, which concluded with a major overhaul in 2015, when original director and writer Cary Fukunaga and co-writer Chase Palmer left the project amid creative clashes with New Line Cinema. The fact that the 1990 miniseries starring a chilling Tim Curry already exists doesn’t help, either. But both Muschietti and Skarsgård (as well as King himself, who has given the film his blessing) are confident their final result will unnerve even the biggest cynics.
“One of the concepts we discussed was making It an unpredictable monster,” says Muschietti. “Tim Curry [was] such an iconic character, but [his] performance was pretty even… I believe in planned accidents, so I basically gave Bill the freedom to go mad. He pushed himself to the limit, to the point where, each take, he would do something different. He was surprising me at every point.”
Adds Skarsgård, “The energy of the character is that he doesn’t make sense to people. You never know what he’s going to do next, and that unpredictability is unsettling.”
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After he got the part, Skarsgård says he read King’s 1,200-page book cover to cover, taking copious notes and highlighting clues about his character’s origins and m.o.—for example, a passage Muschietti has referenced repeatedly in the press about Pennywise “eating children because that’s what we’re told monsters do.”
Upon meeting his young costars—including Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) and Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special)—he actively avoided them, especially when in full clown regalia, to preserve the full traumatizing effect of Pennywise on the kids. He needn’t have bothered: After shooting their first encounter, in which Skarsgård strangles actor Jack Dylan Grazer, the then 13-year-old congratulated him on a “frickin’ awesome” take, adding that he loved what he was doing with the character, man.
Still, Skarsgård admits he sometimes had to psych himself up. “I had a few sleepless nights and these really terrifying feelings of anxiety where I was like, Holy shit, I’m taking on this iconic character. What if I can’t pull it off?”
It’s not a baseless fear: His performance will almost certainly be compared to Curry’s Pennywise, which has become a horror classic in its own right. But as the fourth member of the Skarsgård clan to make a name for himself, after his father Stellan (Good Will Hunting, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and brothers Alexander (True Blood, Big Little Lies) and Gustaf (the History Channel’s Vikings), Bill is already familiar with what it takes to pull oneself out of the shadows of one’s forebears.
“When I started working in Sweden, there were people that really wanted to hate me,” he says of his earliest work, from when he was as young as 10. “Kids in the fuckin’ schoolyard would be like, ‘You think you’re so cool because your dad is Stellan Skarsgård, huh?’ And I’m like, ‘No? Not at all.’ But I would get into fights over it. [People think] it’s nice to be able to say, ‘This guy didn’t get any of this because he actually deserved it—he just got it for free.’”
Nevertheless, after a few years of acting, and the realization that he couldn’t think of anything that fulfilled him more, Skarsgård found himself fully committed to his career. That meant he had to find a way to navigate the petty criticisms—not exactly an easy task if you’re bad at asking for help. “I’ve always been a pretty independent person—to a fault,” he says. “If I had [a crisis], I could turn to [my family], but I probably wouldn’t, because I’m an idiot.”
Skarsgård has, however, welcomed Muschietti’s mentorship. The director’s guidance on the set of It, and assurance that he liked and trusted his actor’s choices, gave Skarsgård the confidence he needed.
“I just tell myself, Some people might hate what you’re doing, and some people will love it,” he says. “I have to expect both and commit to a performance that, if I was an audience member, I would have liked.”
He continues, “It’s much easier said than done—to actually agree to disagree with the people that don’t like you, and to be able to separate yourself from [the work] you’ve done. But I like what I did, so if you didn’t... that’s too bad.”
Given those crazy eyes, dislike at your own peril.
Photography: Daniel Seung Lee
Styling: Michael Cook
Groomer: Revia Cruze at Exclusive Artists