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Playback: Bill Skarsgard on ‘It’ and Belching His Way Into Pennywise

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Film festivals may be raging from Venice to Telluride to Toronto, but the biggest industry story this week had to be the box office dominance of Andy Muscietti’s Stephen King adaptation “It.” The film raked in nearly $120 million opening weekend and looks to stay strong over the next week, ensuring a whole new generation’s fear of clowns.

Actor Bill Skarsgard got the call to play Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the film, the physical manifestation of an evil entity that has terrorized a small Maine town for centuries. But it was a daunting prospect, not least of all because such an iconic portrayal of the character already existed courtesy of Tim Curry in ABC’s 1990 miniseries adaptation.

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“There was a whole phase there where I was terrified,” Skarsgard says. “Because I’ve never done anything on this scale before, and I’ve certainly never done anything where there were that many opinions of the character beforehand, fans of the TV show, fans of the book — there were so many people who had their opinions of what the character should be. And I never wanted to compete with the Tim Curry performance. I didn’t see a point in trying to emulate that because I don’t think I could do it as well as he did.”

Skarsgard therefore felt the freedom to seek out his own take on the character, and maybe tap into some of the more abstract elements of the novel. In King’s 1,100-page tome, the entity known as It is a trans-dimensional being. That gave Skarsgard unique layers to work with in the portrayal.

“There’s this thing that can take any shape or form, and it’s taken this shape of a clown, but there’s something wrong with the clown,” Skarsgard says. “There’s something off with it. It’s almost like there are glitches in the interpretation of it. I thought that was a fun thing to explore. So there was the wall-eyed look and at times it seems like Pennywise disappears altogether, he shuts down and freezes in a moment and he’s lost. My idea was that was the entity, who lives in this other sort of dimension, tapping in and out of these spaces.”

Skarsgard also studied animal programs to help in developing the character’s physical behavior. He zeroed in on the energy of hyenas and the lower-lip scowl of bears as touchstones. Then he went to work on the voice, which differs drastically from Curry’s more vaudevillian interpretation.

“The voice for me sort of started out with a laugh,” he says. “I was playing around with a laugh, but on the verge of a panic attack and crying at the same time. When I started doing it just by myself, I started to creep myself out.”

He also got there with the help of a lot of soda water, a lot of belching, and a sudden stomach ache. But that’s an anecdote better saved for the actual conversation.

For more, including Skarsgard’s thoughts on the dangers of arbitrarily expanding the world of “It” beyond its breaking point, and his work on Hulu’s Stephen King-inspired “Castle Rock” series, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

Dan Doperalski for Variety
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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