NEW YORK CITY: Bill Skarsgård is talking me through how he mastered the sinister, bone-chilling laugh of Stephen King’s evil clown, Pennywise, in horror film It Chapter Two. “I wanted the laugh to sound like someone who is having a panic attack and is almost about to cry,” the 29-year-old Swedish actor explains. Suddenly, he begins cackling, his tall frame – which was seconds before slumped in his chair in the hotel room – rises and his eyes become so intense and fixated on something imaginary on the grey carpet between us. His voice is shaky, crackly, almost gasping for air. You feel like he could either lunge at you or burst into a million pieces at any given moment. It’s scary. “Even doing it out loud evokes a kind of unsettling feeling in myself,” Skarsgård says coming back to reality. “I kind of like it.”

Theatrical, serious and intelligent. It’s fascinating watching the actor come in and out of character; it seems as simple as flicking a light switch on and off. But Skarsgård insists the actual process on the It set – of which he, the human, disappears underneath layers of prosthetics – took more work than what I’d just witnessed. “I would scream and laugh hysterically before takes and reach a certain level of adrenaline to help me get into character for the scene,” he explains. By his own admission, Pennywise was by far the most physically and mentally draining character Skarsgård has played. But when I tell him I can’t seem to un-see Pennywise when I look at him, he almost shudders with distaste. “You see Pennywise in me?” he asks. “I think this is the first time anybody has said that. I don’t like to think too much about being associated with a murderous clown. I thought the makeup was my mask.”

While the wheedling and lethal villain is Skarsgård’s most notable role to date – and he’s brilliant in it, by the way – you might also recognise him from the 2017 mystery thriller Atomic Blonde (with Charlize Theron), the 2016 sci-fi film The Divergent Series: Allegiant (with Shailene Woodley) or Netflix’s supernatural drama Hemlock Grove. The actor has a slew of upcoming films, too, including thriller The Devil All the Time with fellow heartthrobs Robert Pattinson and Tom Holland, and drama Nine Days will see him return to fantastical fare alongside up-and-comer Zazie Beetz. To answer the obvious question, yes.

Skarsgård is related to 43-year-old Alexander Skarsgård, who is his older brother and is best known for his roles in True Blood and Big Little Lies. Both grew up in Stockholm in a family of 10, in which four of the eight children became actors. Their father, Stellan, is also a very famous actor in Sweden and starred as Professor Gerald Lambeau in Good Will Hunting. Post his ICON cover shoot in TriBeCa, NYC, we give the younger Skarsgård some pennies for his thoughts. Here, he discusses his titular character and the vast differences between his native Sweden, where no one locked the doors, and Hollywood, where men in clown makeup is a normal sight on the main strip.

ICON: Unlike Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker – an unhinged man in clown makeup – you essentially had to get inside the head of an evil and maniacal thing. How did you prepare for this role?

SKARSGÅRD: In a way, it’s even more abstract getting into the head of a madman because he’s not a man, he’s a thing. He’s a creature, an entity, so we had to come up with what the rules were for the character or the creature and then kind of humanise it in a way for me to be able to relate to it. He’s kind of the embodiment of evil – everything that’s nasty in people, he is. He’s a bully, he thrives off pain and fear and he’s mean. I used to draw on animals as a reference point a lot, like Jaws. The shark in Jaws is a monster, but it’s an animal. It’s going out trying to eat humans because it’s hungry and that element is in Pennywise as well; he’s hungry and he needs to feed. But what makes him evil and sinister is him taking pleasure out of feeding or pleasure of frightening and tormenting young children. In the first movie, the kids would cry and he would mock the kids crying and I thought that was like pretty much as evil as it gets, when you’re not only making a kid cry but you’re enjoying the fact that you’re making a kid cry. There are those people in the real world who are that bad, but I kind of wanted to go through the character mentally and think, “What is the most monstrous and evil thing I can think of?” and those things kind of came to mind.

ICON: Did you look to other famous clowns in history at all?

SKARSGÅRD: Not really. I watched Bozo The Clown and Ronald McDonald a little bit. There’s kind of a few of those iconic clowns, but the thing we didn’t want to do too much, or at least my entry way into the character, was not make him like this [makes goofy noises] doo-di-doo clown kind of a thing. Because I wanted Pennywise to have this really off thing about him. Also, Tim Curry’s clown [he portrayed Pennywise in the 1990 TV adaptation of King’s novel It) was very much more this villain, old-timey clown. That type of performance was great, but we wanted to do something different for this version. I didn’t go too far into the studying of a clown’s mimicry, but I took little pieces of what I liked and incorporated it into Pennywise.

ICON: At the time of your It audition, you lived with housemates and couldn’t practise Pennywise’s evil laugh in the house, so you had to do it in the car on the way to the audition. Tell me about that drive – in full clown makeup. Were people staring?

SKARSGÅRD: [Laughs] Yeah, that was for the callback audition. I had a version of what became his laugh pretty early on. I wanted it to sound like someone having a panic attack and it’s almost about to be a cry. That amplified became the laugh. Like it’s not someone who’s happy, it’s someone who maybe is miserable and almost having a crazy panic attack with its laugh. Even doing it out loud evokes a kind of unsettling feeling in myself that I kind of liked. But, yeah, I was driving around with this kind of basic clown makeup on and was just trying screams and laughs and everything. If it were recorded, it would have almost been a cliché of an actor’s life in Hollywood; it was so ridiculous. Going to the audition, there was only street parking, so I had to park the car and walk my way into the casting director’s office, which is right by Hollywood Boulevard, so there were construction workers out the front. When they looked at me, they didn’t even flinch. That’s just what Hollywood is, I guess. It’s like, “There’s a man walking around with a clown face laughing to himself” [laughs].

ICON: What was your experience like when you first came to Hollywood? Were there stray clowns?

SKARSGÅRD: I came to LA for the first time when I was seven years old and then again when I was 10. I’ve been travelling there since I was fairly young because of my dad, who would shoot movies out here as well. I don’t remember my perception of LA very much – I liked the weather, I liked the mall, the Beverly Center was the coolest thing ever. You know, Footlocker! At that time, you could get sneakers in America that you definitely couldn’t get in Sweden. I had all the Nike out fits.

ICON: Your brother Alexander has said he’s not a method actor when he takes on dark and dramatic roles. Are you a method actor?

SKARSGÅRD: No, I don’t need to stay in character. That approach doesn’t make sense for me. But everyone has different ways of reaching what they need to reach and I’m definitely not method, but I have my own methods. With Pennywise, it was less about character and more about the energy. You need to find a state of energy that is true for the scene that you’re playing. So say you’re doing a really emotional scene, you need to find that energy or that chemical in your body – which is all it is to me at least – and when you trigger it, tears can start. A talented actor can trigger it chemically. In your body you feel like you’re about to start crying, you make yourself start crying and it’s a chemical reaction to it, you feel it in your body. You need to reach that place before you go into the scene and that’s the sort of method that I work with.

ICON: How did this method work with Pennywise?

SKARSGÅRD: He was a very particular kind of character. He’s always so expressive and energetic. I would scream and laugh hysterically before takes and reach a certain level of adrenaline to help me get into character for the scene.

ICON: We’ve seen dark characters get to actors before. Australian actor Heath Ledger and his iconic role as the Joker – and his clown-like villain – is an extreme example of this. How do you get out of that Pennywise headspace when you arrive home at night?

SKARSGÅRD: I also heard it’s kind of a misconception; that’s a romantic idea that Heath died of the Joker performance. From all accounts I’ve heard, he really enjoyed it and he wasn’t method either.

ICON: He reportedly was very immersed in the character…

SKARSGÅRD: Oh, completely, but from actors who worked with him on the set, they were like, “He would talk about his daughter.” We have this romantic idea that “Oh, this man, he went crazy or he went to the darkest place ever and he couldn’t figure his way out.” As the public, we like those types of stories and sometimes they’re true and sometimes actors fabricate that truth in order for them to seem a little bit more remarkable. So you talk about his or her performance as, “Oh, they did all these things,” and that’s what made it so great. Sometimes I feel like some actors maybe want to feel a little bit extra special in that regard. If I go and I have a very particular type of scene, like if I’m hurting someone or if I’m being awful, that doesn’t feel good afterwards. I think the worst is not like a character like Pennywise or those kinds of villainous roles – they’re dark but they’re fun, the character enjoys what they’re doing – the characters that will really get to you are the characters that are depressed or inflicted by pain. Say you play someone who is so depressed that they are about to commit suicide. Like, if that is your day, every day going into that mindset, you’re not going to be a happy person, because your character is not happy.

ICON: Pennywise though…

SKARSGÅRD: Pennywise is enjoying what he is doing, and in the same way Joker is as well; they’re dark but they’re enjoying it. You’re playing a character who enjoys the darkness, so that is what you have to access, and you don’t have to access the lack of self-worth or characters who are paranoid or in their own head and stuff like that. There is a movie that I’m about to start doing and you read the character and he’s very unlikeable: paranoid, insecure, a pathological liar, mentally ill. As a result, he goes into this kind of schizophrenic state. I read that script and I was like, “This is going to be really, really tough for me to do. I’m going to feel like shit doing it because it’s a character who’s losing his mind throughout the whole movie.” That is the state I have to go into, so when I’m coming home from work and I’ve been in that mental state, I think those things will affect how you feel during the production of the film.

ICON: Some creepy things went down in Derry, Maine. You’re from Stockholm in Sweden – what was it like growing up there and in a household with, like, a million people?

SKARSGÅRD: It was great. Stockholm is a wonderful place for a kid. I grew up in what would be called an extremely gentrified neighbourhood, but it used to be a working class neighbourhood. It was very bohemian and we went to school with immigrants and people from different places around the world. It felt like a very diverse upbringing – at least compared to a place like LA, which is the most secluded, segregated place there is. So Stockholm was wonderful in the way that you were exposed to all these different cultures and people. You could attend different classes and we were all just going to the same schools, there were no private schools or none of that. I’m extremely happy that that was my background. It’s healthy for kids to be exposed to all of that, and my family – a big, big family – our home was always the home that you would bring your friends to. That was true for all of our siblings. Sometimes there would be like 10-15 kids hanging out in our rooms, because our parents very much had an open- door policy – nobody knocked and we never locked the doors. Everybody just walked in and out – it was a big party.

It Chapter Two is in Australian cinemas now.

Photography: Michael Schwartz
Styling: Bill Mullen