Actors Who Almost Played Pennywise

Pennywise is horror fiction royalty. Few characters from literature, TV, or film have worked their way into audiences' hearts and nightmares so completely as Stephen King's evil dancing clown, first in the author's novel and then a subsequent miniseries and set of feature films. What's more, he's just getting started — an "IT" prequel series may be in development at HBO Max. That means Bill Skarsgård could reprise his role as the shape-shifting creature or pass the greasepaint to another talented actor. 

The list of actors who almost played Pennywise is a pretty thrilling and surprising bunch. For every obvious name, like Malcolm McDowell, there's one that makes your head spin, like avant-garde darling Tilda Swinton or "Oz" and "Fringe" star Kirk Acevedo. Taken as a whole, the actors who almost played Pennywise offer a fascinating glimpse into the Hollywood casting process. They present many tantalizing "what if?" scenarios. Let's take a closer look at the actors who almost played Stephen King's killer clown. 

Malcolm McDowell

Malcolm McDowell embodies evil. Seriously. The 78-year-old British character actor has been a go-to bad guy for decades. He played the maniacal head of Water & Power Corporation in 1995's "Tank Girl." He spearheaded a school rebellion in "if....," was a malicious principal in "Easy A," and was Rob Zombie's personal choice to play Dr. Loomis in 2007's "Halloween" reboot. However, none of those parts is McDowell's most iconic contribution to cinema. That would be Alex, the charming and dangerous delinquent protagonist of Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange." 

It's no wonder McDowell was on the shortlist for the 1990s TV spin on Pennywise. According to The Hollywood Reporter, director Tommy Lee Wallace considered McDowell but awarded the role to Tim Curry instead because he "[turned] what a clown is upside-down, so he's not particularly lovable" and "gave Pennywise a gravelly Bronx accent, like an old-time Catskills comic." Though McDowell has given transformative performances, "old-time Catskills comic" doesn't sound like anything in his wheelhouse. McDowell projects gravitas as opposed to disarming charm. It's easy to imagine his Pennywise terrifying audiences but harder to imagine children trusting him. Wallace made the right call.

Ben Mendelsohn

Ben Mendelsohn is an expert heavy, an actor who can go for a rival character's throat by simply whispering. He mesmerized as a violent patriarch in "Animal Kingdom" and did underrated work as Orson Krennic in "Rogue One." Audiences are so used to seeing Mendelsohn play villains that some movies use that to their advantage in unique ways. In "Captain Marvel," Mendelsohn's Talos appears to be evil but that's merely a misdirection. The character proves deeply sympathetic, and that's before he slurps a milkshake down in meme-worthy fashion.

Mendelsohn was considered for the role of Pennywise in director Cary Fukunaga's "IT" duology, a project the "True Detective" helmer would leave. At the time, Mendelsohn had offers to play both Pennywise and the previously mentioned Orson Krennic. Mendelsohn, however, may have bowed out of playing Pennywise due to a rumored pay cut. Fukunaga and Mendelsohn's Pennywise would've been much different than Tommy Lee Wallace and Tim Curry's interpretation. "The main difference was making Pennywise more than just the clown," Fukunaga told Variety. "After 30 years of villains that could read the emotional minds of characters and scare them, trying to find sadistic and intelligent ways he scares children, and also the children had real lives prior to being scared."

That means Mendelsohn wasn't the right fit for Andy Muschietti's more traditional take on "IT." Still, Mendelsohn eventually landed a Stephen King adaptation, joining HBO's "The Outsider" in 2020.

Roddy McDowall

In the 1980s, Roddy McDowall was a minor genre superstar. The English-born actor and former child star parlayed his family-friendly appearance in Walt Disney Pictures' "The Black Hole" into two adult thrillers: 1982's "Class of '84" and the all-time horror classic "Fright Night." Following McDowall's hysterical, indelible work as the fake vampire hunter and TV horror host, Peter Vincent, who wouldn't want to see him play a monster, too?

Tommy Lee Wallace did. As confirmed by The Hollywood Reporter, McDowall auditioned for the 1990s miniseries version of "IT" and was up for the role of Pennywise. While he doesn't seem like a natural fit, it's worth remembering McDowall played both the sympathetic Cornelius and vengeful Caesar in the original "Planet Of The Apes" series. McDowall had range, and imagining a Pennywise that's soft-spoken and terrifying is a bone-chilling thought experiment. Even though McDowall's take never made it to the screen, it still seems plausible. That's the mark of an excellent actor. 

Will Poulter

Of all the actors on this list, Will Poulter is the only one who was actually cast as Pennywise.

Really. Poulter was Cary Fukunaga's choice for Pennywise in his canned "IT" reimagining, and it isn't hard to imagine why. By 2015, the young British actor had racked up a bevy of standout, off-kilter roles. He broke through with 2007's "Son of Rambow," playing a badly-behaved youth who dreams of recreating "First Blood." That led to a scene-stealing turn as the TLC-spouting Kenny Ross in "We're The Millers" and more notably, the antagonistic role of Gally in "The Maze Runner." Taken in tandem, Kenny and Gally point to why Poulter's Pennywise could've worked. The actor is funny but not glib, frightening but not difficult to empathize with. It's as easy to imagine him befriending a child as it is putting them into peril. That's Pennywise 101.

So Poulter got the job, and it was his to lose, even as Fukunaga's involvement with the project faltered. In a 2017 interview with Deadline, "IT" director Andy Muschietti revealed he approached Poulter about staying on as Pennywise, but the actor's enthusiasm for the role had waned. "Will basically expressed a feeling that he had slowly disengaged from playing that character, that was so dark and terrifying," Muschietti admitted. "It was a personal decision I respected, but I was eager and willing to find my own Pennywise, and that's what we did."

Alice Cooper

"IT" is about the terrors of growing up. Before Pennywise menaces the Losers' Club proper, they are set upon by bullies and abusive parents. Derry, Maine, is a terrifying place, and the horrors of childhood live large there.

For children of the 1970s, Alice Cooper was a scary yet alluring figure. The theatrical rock legend was the sort of transgressive musician that made parents clutch their proverbial pearls. His music wasn't dangerous, but listening to it could've felt like crossing a line under the right circumstances. "IT" miniseries director Tommy Lee Wallace was born in 1949, 22 years before Cooper went mainstream with 1970's "I'm Eighteen." He was young enough to get Cooper's core appeal without being horrified by it. So it is little wonder Cooper was in the running for Pennywise. Pennywise is one of horror's least predictable villains. Cooper is one of rock's most surprising frontmen. Casting him would've been a megawatt shot to the audiences' systems. In the end, Cooper wasn't cast as Pennywise, but it's fun to imagine the man who sang "School's Out" menacing the town of Derry all the same.

Mark Rylance

Pennywise is an ageless malevolence, a shapeshifting creature that takes the form of a clown to exploit children's naivety. Any actor cast in the role will be older than the characters Pennywise preys on. That said, Cary Joji Fukunaga and Andy Muschietti's casting process for the "IT" films reveals how wide a net was cast in terms of Pennywise's age. The role originally went to Will Poulter, who was in his early 20s. It wound up going to Bill Skarsgård, a performer in his mid-20s. Before that, Fukunaga had considered both Ben Mendelsohn and the legendary Mark Rylance, who would have been in his mid-50s during the audition process.

Rylance could've made for a fascinating Pennywise. He is the ultimate chameleon, an actor who's at home playing both tech moguls ("Don't Look Up") and big, friendly giants ("The BFG"). Rylance's childlike sensibilities and theatrical background could've yielded a strange but menacing Pennywise the Clown.

In the end, Muschietti went with a younger actor to embody Stephen King's legendary evil. Pennywise stands in contrast to the adults who make the Losers' Club's lives so difficult. You can see why he'd offer Georgie hope — however briefly. Like false hope, Pennywise is one of childhood's many terrors.

Hugo Weaving

Hugo Weaving doesn't need to play another iconic character. The Australian actor gave us one of cinema's great villains in Agent Smith from "The Matrix," a performance so rich and nuanced that Jonathan Groff had zero problems picking up the mantle in the last year's "The Matrix Resurrections." Inexplicably, Weaving followed that up with Elrond in Peter Jackson's "Lord Of The Rings" trilogy. Weaving is more than an actor — he's an institution. When he takes on a role, that role gains instant cinematic gravitas.

Given that, it makes sense that Weaving was considered for the iconic role of Pennywise ... a little too much sense. Pennywise is an astonishing character. His tactics pivot as frequently as his form, and that keeps both the Losers' Club and the audience on their toes. With Weaving, you know what you're getting. His voice is unmistakable. His presence is undeniable. At this point, it's difficult for him to take roles that aren't all-time game-changers. Weaving would've been a reliably great Pennywise but one whose vibe was easy to anticipate. After all, we all know Hugo Weaving and what he's capable of. Ultimately, that's an awesome thing indeed. 

Tilda Swinton

Pennywise in an amorphous evil. His malevolence takes many forms throughout Stephen King's bestselling novel and the 2017 movie. Yes, IT is best known as a clown, but IT also terrorizes Mike by becoming his dead parents. IT takes the form of a mummy, a decapitated boy, and even that of his most infamous victim, Georgie. You could argue that the actor who plays Pennywise should feel equally capable of being anyone or anything. Enter Tilda Swinton.

As reported by JoBlo and later confirmed by NME, the chameleon-like acting titan of "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Michael Clayton" fame was considered for Pennywise. Unfortunately, scheduling issues kept her from auditioning. "She wasn't available," producer Barbara Muschietti claimed, following up that the production team "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."

It's the "we all thought about it" that's telling. Pennywise is a character who lives large in his victims' minds, haunting them into adulthood. It's a testament to Swinton's creative power as a performer that she popped into the producers' heads and lingered there.

Kirk Acevedo

Kirk Acevedo is not the first actor who comes to mind for Pennywise. That's not a dig at Acevedo — the 50-year-old actor is a seasoned pro who has had prominent roles on such shows as "Oz" and "Fringe." What Acevedo isn't is a "name." Pennywise is the most memorable character in "IT" and offers producers an opportunity to cast an actor that entices audiences to purchase tickets. Acevedo is an actor's actor, and that doesn't always intrigue the public's interest.

However, Acevedo has been open about what his Pennywise audition tape did for his career and the frustration he felt when he didn't get the part. "It was one of my proudest moments. I was so close! As a Latino, I wanted to do it for our people," Aecevdo admitted in an interview with Desde Hollywood, adding, "[but] let's put it this way, I've [booked three] jobs thanks to that tape."

Acevedo's experience is an endearing reminder that actors can improve their careers with the right audition, even if it's a swing and miss.