You can say this about the newest version of IT: The creative teams behind the scenes have been thinking outside the box when it comes to casting Pennywise. When Cary Fukunaga was attached to direct the film (he still gets screenplay credit), he had cast Will Poulter – only 22 at that time – as the ancient evil that haunts the town of Derry. Obviously, Fukunaga exited the project and Poulter had to move on, so when Andy Muschietti came aboard several months later, King fans everywhere waited anxiously to find out who would play Pennywise.
Bill Skarsgard, 26 and relatively unknown beyond his last name and a starring role on Hemlock Grove, was eventually brought in to play Pennywise; an inspired choice, to be sure, since one could imagine any number of famous actors tackling the sinister role. And, to hear producer Barbara Muschietti tell it on the set of IT (which I was fortunate enough to be on back in September 2016), she and her director brother did indeed meet with many actors for the role, some of whom are big names.
“We auditioned literally hundreds of potential Bob Grays or Pennywises and it was an amazing process. We got to audition people that don’t audition anymore and a huge gamut of talent; women, younger age, older age, we really went through the spectrum of actors,” said the producer.
One of the other journalists on set jokingly asked if Tilda Swinton was considered, and Muschietti surprised us all by admitting that indeed she had been.
“She wasn’t available. No, no I swear to god. She was not. We had a slot to shoot the movie and she wasn’t available so she didn’t even audition. But of course, we all thought about it.”
Now that would have been a unique interpretation.
So what was it that made Bill stand out? According to Barbara, he simply knocked it out of the park with his take, which is closer to Stephen King’s book than the famous 1990 mini-series interpretation:
“Bill came in and blew our socks off. Because he was doing his very own interpretation of Pennywise, very erudite… very, very familiar with the novel and with Pennywise in the novel, which for us was a huge help. Because we went in the casting process with the book in mind. We read the novel when we were teens, we saw the miniseries much later in the game, so Tim Curry’s performance is extraordinary but that is not necessarily what we link to Pennywise immediately. For us, the Pennywise is the Pennywise in the book which is quite different. I think Bill went for that and he did an amazing, amazing performance and we gave him several tests. Again, because he’s a shape shifter, we wanted to make sure that he could play in different grades, right? And he did. he’s amazing. And what’s even more amazing is that he kept the character very unpredictable, and that’s what scares us the most, when you don’t know what way he’s going to go.”
Will Poulter was still a possibility for the part when the Muschiettis came on board, but scheduling conflicts combined with Skarsgard’s audition kept him from the role.
“He was on the table but there were mostly, to be completely honest, there were scheduling conflicts because he was on The Maze Runner,” said Barbara. “When we started, we started seeing people right away and the moment Bill popped up, I think we knew it was for us.”
Andy added: “I remember I was sort of interested in Will Poulter. He was part of a previous approach, and I had a meeting with him. He wasn’t very interested in doing it at that time. And also his career was starting to take off and I think he got a little scared. So to be honest, I saw a lot of people, but there was very few, a small short list, and Bill was on top of it.”
Talking to Bill about it, it sounds like the producers gave him a lot of free range to do whatever he wanted, especially during the audition process:
“Being an actor, especially in my age, like mid-20s, there’s not a lot of truly character performances or parts out there, in terms of weird, creepy, disgusting, or full-on characters, in terms of what Pennywise is. Most auditions that you go up for are much more based in reality and young guys, coming of age stories, love stories, and so forth… This was all up to you! I got these two scenes and you could do them however you wanted. There was an endless…the ability to interpret the character how you wanted in terms of voice, sound, facial expressions, and everything.”
“For me, I worked really hard to do my version of what this character might be like and I had a lot of fun doing that. Then people responded to it, so I think I read for it, one, two, three, or maybe even four times before eventually getting the job. The character changed even in those depths of auditioning. I started having a conversation with Andy and he said things that he wanted to be true with the character and so I started working even during the casting process working with playing around with versions of what this character might be like and then eventually booking the job, that was when the real work began in terms of exploring the characters and the different ways of playing him.”
Once he was cast, Skarsgard was mostly kept separate from the young cast, a tactical move to help build mystery amongst the group.
Skarsgard: “We thought that the best idea is to keep me completely separated from them so that…The kids obviously had to really bond with each other because a key element of the film is friendship and camaraderie, so as soon as they got to Toronto, they did excursions and almost team-building exercises, so they really did become very, very close friends, the best of friends over the length of shooting it, which is kind of amazing because that’s what the film is about, these kids finding each other and becoming friends. I think it shows in the film.”
“But granted, they shouldn’t be buddies with Pennywise, so we did keep it separate. We kept me separated from them and essentially the only people I had any contact with was Andy Muschietti and Barbara, the producer, his sister. Those were the only people I really hung out with in terms of anyone in the production.
Eventually, Skarsgard had to meet the kids, and after that they all got along famously.
Said Skarsgard: “The kids are really smart and talented and come up with great ideas for the scene and I think the necessity of keeping me separate from the kids was, you know, as soon as we started shooting it was pretty clear that these kids knew they were making a film and I’m not a murderous clown…at the end of the day, they were truly professionals. The only exception was Jackson [Robert Scott], who plays Georgie, who’s much younger than the other kids. For him, it wasn’t as clear, the separation between fiction and reality.”
Though Tim Curry‘s performance as Pennywise in the IT mini-series from 1990 is iconic, his gruff accent is still a point of contention for some fans. No worries that Skarsgard is attempting to imitate that, or any other aspect, of Curry’s take. When asked if he was going to alter the actor’s voice at all, Andy Muschietti said:
“No, it will be left as he’s performing it… It’s a different approach, he’s not sticking to one voice. He has different personas. Because it’s a character that is based also on unpredictability, so he has this stagey persona, the more clowny appearance, but then in certain scenes when he turns into this other, which is harder to grasp, and that’s the “other,” you know, the “It.” And he has a different tone, he has a deeper voice, and a different feel to it.”
Audiences will get chance to see and hear Skarsgard’s take on Pennywise September 8th.