Creating a brand new Pennywise may have been the most difficult task the filmmakers behind It faced. Say what you want about the 1990 mini-series version overall, but there's no denying that Tim Curry's portrayal of the murderous clown is downright iconic.
There was one thing the 2017 movie's producers and director knew all along: They didn't want to attempt to recreate Tim Curry's version of Pennywise.
"[We knew] we were going to have to honor and not get close to the Tim Curry performance, which we all remember. I had never seen anything like that on TV. It scared the hell out of me," It Producer Seth Grahame-Smith told GameSpot during group interviews in Los Angeles. "That's an iconic performance, and that's Pennywise in people's minds."
"People did come in [to audition] with very similar takes to the Tim Curry version. It definitely was not the direction we were looking to go in," added Producer David Katzenberg. "We couldn't touch Tim Curry, and we knew that we had to reimagine what our Pennywise was going to look like and sound like."
That's where actor Bill Skarsgard (Hemlock Grove, Atomic Blonde) and It director Andy Muschietti came in. Skarsgard told GameSpot he can't even remember what was going through his head when he first auditioned. "It feels like a lifetime ago," he said. But he recalled that the city of Los Angeles was buzzing about the role.
"The audition itself was something that I was really excited for. The entire city of LA, actors, were just excited about the read, because it was just room for so much creativity. I've never had a role like this," he said. "I spent three days just playing around with different things and voices and facial expressions to figure out something that was unique to me and something that I could enhance."
Muschietti gravitated to Skarsgard immediately, even before the producers came on board with his unique vision for Pennywise.
"I picked him because I saw him in the audition and he blew my mind, basically. Without any direction or anything he brought something that I was looking for, which was the madness, the sense of madness and unpredictability," Muschietti said. "[Pennywise] is bait, basically, disguising himself as something that is sweet and cute, but there's something very, very dark about him. And that's the balance that Bill brings. He's wired like that, and the performance he chose to bring to that first reading already contained that."
"For us, what jumped out about Bill was he was clearly going to commit to it in a total mind, body, and spirit manner. The things that he can do with his face, with his body, that he showed us even early on, the things that he can do with his voice," Grahame-Smith explained. "Andy saw something in him that it took the rest of us an extra beat to see."
Where Tim Curry's Pennywise is instantly recognizable by his gruff New York accent, Skarsgard's take is decidedly more infantile. His face can seem downright cherubic--before his teeth start to come out, at least. That new look is close to some concept sketches Muschietti created early on, the director said. Overall, Pennywise's new appearance and Skarsgard's performance work in tandem to lend the new Pennywise an air of innocence that makes his explosions of violence all the more terrifying.
And there's the drool, my personal favorite new dimension to Pennywise's menace. Lustrous, goopy globs of saliva drip from the clown's mouth constantly. And that was all Skarsgard.
"Just ask Jack Grazer [who played Eddie] if he's really drooling," said Grahame-Smith. "That's the first day we shot with Pennywise--in the kitchen, when he's hovering over Jack, about to bite his face off, and drooling, drooling. And this is how great our kids are: When he was drooling on Jack's face, Jack just went "PTOOEY!" and spit right in his face. These kids are not afraid!"
Skarsgard's Pennywise is terrifying, but not in the same way as Curry's. Skarsgard has his own ideas when it comes to what scares people, and he brought a unique energy to the role.
"What scares me is unpredictability," he said, yelling that last word to make the reporters in the room jump. "You know when you're about to pop a balloon?...It's this tension of explosiveness that's about to happen."
Suffice to say, Skarsgard nailed that particular aspect. See for yourself when It hits theaters this Friday, Sept. 8. Watch out for our full review soon.