How IT Changed Bill Skarsgard Forever

Some movie roles change a person. Pretending to be someone else for the length of a movie shoot can let that character into your head, and that's a little scary when you're playing someone like the murderous Pennywise the dancing clown from "It." Actor Bill Skarsgård put on the white and red greasepaint not just once, but twice, for "It: Chapter One" and "It: Chapter Two." Even though his performance was beloved by fans and critics alike, Skarsgård hasn't been the same since he played Pennywise. 

You see, Skarsgård is a little too good at his job. Not only did he have to worry that he was traumatizing his cast mates, but he spent so much time sharing headspace with Pennywise that the character started haunting his dreams. You know, like he does in the movies. That's enough to make anyone feel a little unsettled.

A Bit About Bill

Skarsgård looks a little different without his greasepaint on. He's actually a bit of a heartthrob, which isn't a big surprise given he comes from a family of talented hotties. His dad, Stellan Skarsgård, was most recently the horrifying Baron Harkonnen in "Dune." Stellan is a major Hollywood actor with roles in everything from "Thor" to "Mama Mia!" Bill's brother, Alexander, also starred in a Stephen King adaptation as Randall Flagg in the CBS miniseres "The Stand," though he's more famous for playing Eric the vampire in "True Blood." Brothers Gustaf and Valter are also actors, though they're a little less famous in the U.S. than Stellan or Alexander. 

The youngest acting Skarsgård started his career at the age of nine, and by the time he was 21, he had been given the European Film Academy's Shooting Star award to represent young performers from his native Sweden. His first major American film role was as Matthew in "The Divergent Series: Allegiant" in 2016. Only one year later, he would scare the pants off of audiences everywhere as Pennywise in director Andy Muschetti's "It: Chapter One." 

Getting Into the Mind of a Killer Clown

Pennywise is the embodiment of an ancient cosmic evil that preys upon the children of Derry, Maine, roughly every 27 years. He first appeared in Stephen King's 1986 horror novel "It," before being played by Tim Curry in the 1990 TV miniseries and then Skarsgård in the movie adaptations. He has the ability to shapeshift, change the way reality appears, and hang out in nightmares. The scariest part? Adults can't see him, so they aren't going to believe any of the kids who share their terrifying stories. 

In "It," Pennywise draws the attention of the "Loser's Club," a group of kids in Derry, when he brutally kills Bill's younger brother Georgie, dragging him into the sewers. Pennywise feeds on children both physically and metaphorically, their fear feeding him just as much as Georgie's tasty arm.

Skarsgård really put his all into playing the evil entity. In an interview with The New York Times, the actor explained: 

"Normally when you do a movie, you have those mundane days when it's like, 'Today is the scene where I get coffee.' With this character, there were none of those. Everything I did took 100 percent of my energy. It was by far the most exhausting character I've ever done, physically and mentally."

A big part of that energy was the physicality of Pennywise, which involved lots of big, strange movements. He also smiles in a bizarre way, pointing his lower lip downward to create a menacing grim. The coolest bit though, is that Skarsgård can move his eyes independently, so that wild reverse cross-eye effect is real. Real enough, in fact, that he famously gave co-star Bill Hader a big scare on set. 

He Scared the Crud Out of His Co-stars

Hader wasn't the only co-star Skarsgård spooked. While he had a lot of fun terrorizing his child co-stars, he also worried that he might be traumatizing them a little. To make sure the kids had genuine reactions to Pennywise, director Andy Muschetti made sure to keep them separate until filming started. As a result, the first time they were all acting together, things felt a little too real.

Skarsgård told Dazed that he walked into the scene, in-character, where a bunch of the kid actors were sitting. Muschetti told him to grab one of the kids and walk offscreen. When Skarsgård grabbed a kid, he screamed bloody murder, and Muschetti told Skarsgård to go for a different kid, trying to find one that wasn't quite so scared. Skarsgård explains:

"It was weird because as soon as they said 'cut', some kids were very shaken up about it. I tried to be like, 'Oh, I'm just an actor, this is just pretend,' and they kind of looked at me very suspiciously. It just hit me that it's this strange thing: if I do my job right, and I'm as terrifying as I want the character to be, there are gonna be a lot of people that have this kind of reaction to the performance and the film. It's a strange thing to have to deal with."

The actor was especially worried about his more intense scenes, like one with Jack Dylan Grazer where Skarsgård screams over him, drooling and shaking. Grazer sobs and cries and screams, and for a moment, Skarsgård was worried he had truly shaken his co-star. Instead, Grazer told him how much he loved what Skarsgård was doing. 

"He's turned on a dime and I'm like, 'What are you?' They're like little professionals," Skarsgård said.

Playing Pennywise was like "Being in a Destructive Relationship"

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Skarsgård said that playing a character in a movie was a lot like being in a relationship with them. He describes himself as going into a relationship with Pennywise, figuring out who he is, and devoting time and effort to this other person, or in this case, this thing. It started taking its toll, in ways he didn't exactly notice himself: 

"It's just like being in a very destructive relationship. People don't really realize it until they're out of it. All your friends go, 'You need to dump this piece of s***, he or she is destroying your life.' And then once you're out of it, you see, 'I was so miserable.' But I wouldn't say I was miserable doing Pennywise because I had a lot of fun with it as well."

He clearly had some fun with the role, or he wouldn't have been offering to come back and do a third installment in 2019. Then again, everyone with a nasty ex knows just how hard it can be to leave the past behind. Just imagine having to resist the urge to drunk-dial an imaginary killer dancing clown.

Pennywise Still Haunts Skarsgård's Dreams

Skarsgård didn't have to worry about actually dialing up the sewer-dwelling serial killer, but it was all too easy for him to think like Pennywise. When he finished filming "Chapter One," he went to his childhood in Sweden and realized he didn't have to deal with the character's inner workings anymore — or at least until he would have to go back for "Chapter Two." He said that not having to think about Pennywise anymore was like "an exorcism." 

Except if it was a real exorcism, Pennywise wouldn't keep showing up in Skarsgård's dreams. He told Entertainment Weekly that Pennywise continued to visit him long after filming wrapped:

"I was home, done with the movie, and I started having very strange and vivid Pennywise dreams. Every night, he came and visited. It was in the shape of either me dealing with him, sort of Pennywise as a separate entity of me, and then also me as Pennywise in circumstances that I didn't appreciate. Like, I'm Pennywise and I'm really upset that I'm out in public and people are looking at me."

Everyone's had dreams where they're naked in public or their teeth fall out, but turning into Pennywise in the middle of Starbucks sounds like a special kind of night terror.