By Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times
TORONTO — Maybe it’s the recent announcement of a new Joker origin story, or perhaps just 2017’s general specter of clownish grotesquerie, but something feels perfectly timely about Pennywise.
The villain from Stephen King’s “It” terrified when he was left to childhood imaginations in the author’s 1986 doorstopper. And he is likely to send similar shudders after appearing, in the form of young Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard, in the new Warner Bros. release opening Friday.
One of the great fixtures of modern literary evil, Pennywise, with the help of the 27-year-old Skarsgard, is attempting to jump mediums and give a new generation an injection of fear.
At barely 8 a.m. one day last year, Skarsgard was in a trailer on a soundstage in an industrial section of this Canadian metropolis. As he sat in a makeup chair amid a blur of hands and brushes, he cut a contrastingly banal image, like a beauty-salon visit gone awry.
Foundation was dabbed on him with a tofu-like applicator. Pens etched dark lines on his cheekbones. Powder rose off his face like steam. His nose looked like it had been in an accident at a sunscreen lab.
“It’s a lot easier to have this done early in the morning,” Skarsgard said drolly. “Then you’re too tired to know it’s going on.”
Audiences watching him won’t feel sleepy. Though he appears only intermittently before the film’s climax, Skarsgard’s Pennywise makes a deep impression.
As the embodiment of evil — or is it a manifestation of our fears? — Pennywise terrorizes a small Maine town every 27 years. He’s at it again in the 1989 edition of the film, in events that particularly affect a group of nerdish pre-adolescents known as the Losers’ Club.
Lurking in the town’s sewer system, Pennywise’s face often clenches into a malevolent smile, and his eyes pop with evil curiosity. His voice can be jolly, almost inquisitive, until it gives way to a crushing wickedness; witness how he courts then consumes a young boy who’s lost his toy in the film’s first section.
On the other hand, such lack of definition also gives him a certain elasticity. Pennywise might be a fear of mortality, or a representation of childhood anxieties, or — yes — a concern about certain political figures.
“There’s a quote in the book that goes something like, ‘although a great mocker of emotions, he never felt one of his own,” Skarsgard said.
The actor paused. He now looked fully like the man he was describing.
“It’s a little like a destructive relationship, the force of the character. You don’t even know you’re in it. But when it’s off you, you feel it.”
“There is something inexplicable about Pennywise, and it should be that way,” Skarsgard said from the makeup chair. “Heath Ledger’s Joker is rooted in the real; you can break down the psychology. But Pennywise is not” — he laughs — “a real person.”
Playing the villain in this post-Nolan moment requires a certain brand of subtlety. Too much makeup or too many twitches and it becomes out-of-date, cartoonish. Skarsgard — who will incarnate another character in the burgeoning King universe with Hulu’s “Castle Rock” — says he was on guard against that with this role.
Still, understatement wouldn’t be the word to use here. Said director Andres Muschietti of the character: “Pennywise as a shapeshifting monster requires a certain treatment, a certain vision. I didn’t want to be small in those aspects.”
That can be felt particularly with his emotions, which often veer into boyish glee. Emotional range comes easily for Skarsgard, who hails from a long acting lineage (dad Stellan, older brother Alexander), and he lets it fly in the part. “I did want it feel like he’s having fun. Pennywise enjoys scaring kids and eating them — when people are most scared, that’s when he’s happiest.”
Skarsgard’s face is now almost entirely white, as though a flour bomb has gone off behind him.
“But I also think it’s important that Pennywise is always off-putting and weird and evil. He laughs at the panicking child. I want the audience to say, ‘What’s so funny about that?’”
What Pennywise represents might be murky to some moviegoers. Fears, yes, but of what kind? That he exists merely as a reflection of others can make the character feel nebulous.