Bill Skarsgard on ‘Castle Rock’ and ‘It Chapter Two’
From show co-creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason and executive producer J.J. Abrams, the Hulu psychological-horror series Castle Rock is an original story set in the Stephen King multi-verse that mines his best-loved works and plays with themes of darkness and light, all while set in this small Maine town that is full of strange occurrences, mysteries and all manner of sin. Castle Rock is a place with a history that is clearly unsettling, and as its mysteries start to unravel, audiences will want to follow all of the twists and turns to its sure to be creepy conclusion.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Bill Skarsgard (who plays The Kid, a mysterious prisoner who’s been locked away in a cage at Shawshank State Penitentiary for an unknown amount of time) talked about the secrecy surrounding this series, his reaction when he finally got to read the pilot script, how he fully got a handle on this mysterious character, being so tightly connected to the mystery of the story, why The Kid was such an incredible role to play, the biggest Stephen King fans on set, and which of the King novels most stand out for him. He also talked about returning to the role of Pennywise for IT: Chapter Two, now that the character has taken on a life of its own, and working with the adult cast, as well as whether he’d like to tackle some lighter material, in the future.
Collider: I’ve watched the first four episodes and absolutely loved the show, even though I’m not entirely sure exactly what’s going on yet. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the rest of the season.
BILL SKARSGARD: Great, thank you! I’m happy to hear that.
When this came your way, how was it presented to you? How much were you actually told about what this would be, before you signed on?
SKARSGARD: All of the things that Bad Robot does are very much kept under wraps, so initially there was nothing. I didn’t get to read anything and I didn’t even know what the show was about. I was reluctant to really engage with it because all I knew was that it was a TV thing that was something Stephen King. I didn’t know if it had anything to do with the IT world, at all. I didn’t know if it was a TV version of Pennywise. I didn’t know anything. For all I knew, maybe this was just The Avengers of Stephen King villains. I didn’t know what the show was, so I was reluctant to engage with it. Luckily, they kept being persistent and finally let me read the pilot. As soon as I read the pilot, I was like, “Oh, this is really good!”
You get to read a lot of shows and movie scripts, and there’s just not a lot of really intriguing good stuff out there. I was reluctant to engage with this, but then I read the script and I was like, “Wow, this pilot is one of the better things I’ve read, in a long time. It’s super mysterious and it’s very intriguing. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m in. This is really cool!” I could really see the potential in this type of story. And then, before I said yes, I met with Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, the creators of the show, and they walked me through their vision for what it is and what they want to do with it. They reassured me that it definitely didn’t have anything to do with the Stephen King thing I had just done and that the character was completely original. They described it to me as what Fargo, the TV show, is to the Coen brothers’ film. It’s a new story that’s set it a familiar world. I was just so intrigued by the character. And then, they told me a little bit about what the character was feeling. I left that meeting being like, “I really want to do this!” Luckily, they felt the same way.
Who your character is and what he wants is such a big part of the mystery of the season. When did you feel like you fully had a handle on who he is?
SKARSGARD: It was interesting ‘cause that was also a big conversation, in doing this. I was like, “Okay, I need to know everything that my character knows, at any given time.” That was really important for me. We sat down with each other and spoke about that. Without revealing too much, the character changes throughout the show, as he realizes things about himself, about the past, and about the mystery. There came a point where I had to sit down with Sam and Dusty and be like, “I need to know everything my character knows here.” The character starts out very damaged and he becomes more and more assertive, as the show goes along, and he goes out into this world, after having been in that cage for a very, very long time. That was the initial thing for me. I needed to wrap my head around the psychology behind someone that’s been isolated for such a long time, and how awkward everything is. Talking is awkward, listening to someone is awkward, and being talked to or just looking at someone in the eyes is a freaky thing for someone who hasn’t done that in a very long time. All of those different things were really important to establish, in the beginning, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of who the character is, initially, when you get to know him. It’s tricky to talk about because I can’t really say anything about the character, other than that. So much of the who the character is and what role he’s playing in the mystery is the whole mystery of the show.
Even though I have no idea what The Kid is up to, I feel like you do know that he’s up to something, so you always have this weird, creepy feeling when it comes to him, especially in the beginning because you have so few lines of dialogue and so much of it is in your face and your eyes. What’s that like to do, as an actor?
SKARSGARD: It was a lot of fun. Every time the audience looks at him, they wonder, “What the fuck is he thinking about? What is he doing?” You can really play around with very small little things because the audience is there. They’re trying to read your face and wondering, what’s the agenda here? What’s he up to? Small things can matter a lot. That being said, I really do hope that the show is one of those shows where you watch the whole show and there is a big reveal, at the end of the show, and then when you rewatch it, you’ll see the show from a completely different perspective. It was an incredible character to play, and I really hope that it all comes together well.
Do you feel like being in IT and playing Pennywise at least gave you some insight into Stephen King’s brand of storytelling that helped you with this?
SKARSGARD: Yeah. I think Sam and Dusty did an incredible job. They’re such huge fans of Stephen King and they really did his works justice, in adapting to this. They didn’t adapt anything, but they made this original show based off of Stephen King’s universe and tone, and everything. I was amazed by how well they pulled that off. It’s a testament to their talents, but it’s also just how well they know the works of Stephen King. Way more than I did. I’ve read a few of his books, but I think they’ve read most of his works. I don’t know how many books he’s written at this point, but there’s a lot of them. That’s also part of the fun. The bigger the Stephen King fan you are, the more little bread crumbs and winks, here and there, that you’ll appreciate, that people who are not as familiar with Stephen King will miss completely. They’ve built this Stephen King-esque world so well that all I had to do was play the character that they’d written, as traditionally as I could. It lent itself really well to any works from Stephen King.
Who would you say is the biggest Stephen King fan on set? Is it your showrunners?
SKARSGARD: Yeah, I would have to say so. They’re writers. It’s fun to talk to them about it, as well, ‘cause they really just know his works, in and out.
Of the stuff of Stephen King’s that you have read, do you have a favorite story?
SKARSGARD: Yeah, I really like The Body, the Stand by Me novella. I think it’s great. And I love Misery, IT, of course, and Pet Sematary. They’re all great and they’re very different. He’s very recognizable, in his way of writing. His strength is that he writes characters so well. They’re all really fleshed out characters. That’s always the foundation to his spooky, scary things, as well. You just become immersed in this world and these people that you get to know so well. I think that was really important for Sam and Dusty, as well. They wanted to flesh out the characters, so that you believe these people and you get to know these people, and then horrible stuff starts happening to them.
Now that you’ve played Pennywise for the first IT movie and you got to see the reaction that people had to it, does it feel very different to return to that character?
SKARSGARD: Yeah, it’s weird. It’s a bit strange ‘cause it’s a very different thing now. The first time I did it, nobody knew what I would do with it, so it was just all of this expectation. I didn’t know if it would work, or if people would respond to it. There was a lot of that worry going on about it. But that was also cool ‘cause I was just doing my thing and nobody knew what that was or could tell me how I should do it. I was like, “I’m gonna distance myself from the Tim Curry performance, and then come up with some weird stuff, myself.” I worked really closely with Andy [Muschietti], the director. This time around, because the movie became such a phenomenon, it’s almost like I’m re-adapting myself. The character became very iconic. Pennywise became a star. You see Instagram posts of people dressing up or dressing their kids as Pennywise for Halloween. It’s all over the place. LeBron James was Pennywise. How surreal is that? So, it became this completely universal thing, outside of the thing. That’s not me. I can’t even relate myself to it anymore. And now that I’m going back and doing it, it’s such a bizarre thing. I don’t think I’ll ever really experience anything like it. It’s this dualistic thing of me and the work and the character, and then the thing that it became, but it’s fun. We had the read-through and I’ve done some rehearsals, and I was surprised how much of the character was just there already. I instantly could access him again, like it was yesterday that we wrapped the first one. It was just all there. So, the work and preparation and figuring out the character is almost intuitive, which is pretty cool. It’s a very strange thing, but I’m trying to enjoy the ride, as much as I can.
When you play a character like that, do you like to keep yourself separate from the new cast, or do you not worry about that?
SKARSGARD: It’s a little bit different, depending on what scenes you’re doing, on the day. There are definitely certain scenes, at least for me, where I think it’s important for me to maintain a certain energy or state of mind to be in that space. But off camera, I get to hang out with the entire adult cast now. It’s weird and it’s surreal because some of them are really big stars and they’re coming in to your thing. They’re stepping into the thing that me and Andy and the kids did. They’re joining the band, in a way. They’re excited, and I just had a lot of fun hanging out with all of them. It’s going to be a very different shooting experience with all adults, for sure, but it will be fun. They’re all really cool and talented people, so I think they will bring a lot to the table.
After playing a character like Pennywise, and then doing something like Castle Rock, have you thought about off-setting that by doing a nice romantic comedy or something very light-hearted next?
SKARSGARD: Yeah. I did just finish an independent movie, called Villains, where the synopsis is very dark, but it’s a dark comedy, and the character was really lovable and fun. I got to really play for comedy and play for timing, and all of that, and it was really refreshing. When you do something that’s more heavy on comedy, you don’t take anything that seriously. The work is serious, but the situation doesn’t have to be. Everything is a little bit heightened, and it’s all for finding a rhythm. That’s really fun to do. That’s really enjoyable to do. Whereas when you do dark stuff that’s heavy on the drama, you have to be really, really dark and it takes its toll. I always want to keep doing different things and be versatile. I’ve done these dark, really strange characters, back to back, and I want to do different things and show my other abilities, in doing different types of roles. I do tend to be drawn to bigger characters. When you say rom com and you look at what’s traditionally there, not a lot of that really gets me going, or fires me up. I always want to find a weirdness about it. Not that it would have to be dark, but I like when there’s something strange and something that’s intriguing to explore. That can come in very different ways, of course. Maybe the next thing shouldn’t be quite as dark.
Castle Rock is available to stream on Hulu, starting on July 25th.