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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Bill Skarsgård moves from Pennywise to a different kind of bad clown in Villains

By Jennifer Vineyard
Bill Skarsgard villains

As you'd expect, Bill Skarsgård knows how to clown around — but not just in his now-patented deranged Pennywise persona. Skarsgård is actually as adept at comedy as he is at horror, and in his twisted indie film Villains, he also tries his hand at romance. Writer/directors Rob Olsen and Dan Berk focus on two crime-couples in Villains — a pair of the young lovers on the lam (Skarsgård and Maika Monroe) and a more settled-down, middle-aged twosome (Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick).

Which of these duos turn out to be more dangerous — the desperate or the domesticated? Skarsgård, Olsen, and Berk spoke with SYFY WIRE and shared their thoughts on crime and passion.

How refreshing was it for you to do this?

Bill Skarsgård: So refreshing! I was in the middle of shooting Castle Rock, and I wasn't playing the most cheerful guy, to say the least. I was losing a bunch of weight. I was researching solitary confinement, and what it does to someone's psyche. So it was fun, but really heavy stuff, so I didn't want to do something dark and gloomy next, because I'd been making a career on doing dark and gloomy. And then I read the script for Villains, and I was like, "Oh my god! This is a lot of fun!"

But it was also challenging. In a lot of ways, my character Mickey is a very American role. He talks so fast, although that part wasn't in the script. That's just my sort of interpretation of the character. But the fact that I was feeling excitement and insecurity was a good sign. If it's not challenging, then why the hell are you doing it? And Mickey is kind of part Dan, part Bobby, and part me …

So which of you is the junkie and which is the drifter?

Robert Olsen: We switch off! [Laughs]

Dan Berk: Depending on where we are in life. [Laughs] We've had so many people say to us, "They sound like you guys."

Olsen: We didn't go into it being like, "Mickey is a mixture of us." But I'm sure there is some subconscious part of our brain that went, "This is awesome. And we should be super hot." [Laughs] It's like The Matrix where you have this projected image of yourself …

Berk: … and it's Bill.

I'm so sorry, Bill. They pigeonholed you. You've been cast yet again as a subconscious projection or manifestation.

Skarsgård: [Laughs] But this time of hopes and dreams, instead of fears!


Is the name Mickey supposed to be a reference to Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers?

Olsen: A little bit. We wanted the names to have an endearing quality to them. And obviously we were referencing Badlands, True Romance, Natural Born Killers, all that stuff. That's where this movie came from. We were obsessed with telling the story of these inept criminals that were in love. Some movies ask you to root for people at different levels. Natural Born Killers, they're total murderers. True Romance, they're morally right in what they're doing. And Badlands, that's kind of in between. Our middle-aged characters George and Gloria, in our minds, they were basically if Kit and Holly didn't get caught at the end of Badlands and kept on going. We have references to that sprinkled in there, some of them intentionally, some of them subconsciously.

Some crime couples, their love makes us root for them. Some criminals, we sympathize or excuse their actions on some level because they were unloved. Given the current debate about another criminal clown — not Pennywise, but Joker — is there a kind of moral relativism within the different gradations of villainy, depending on how loved or unloved they are? How do you show someone doing these types of violent things without endorsing their worldview?

Olsen: As you were saying that, I thought it would be a funny short story, to tell Villains through the point of view of the guy who has the heart attack in the gas station robbery.

Berk: He was already having a bad day, and then these evil kids Mickey and Jules came in and robbed him!

Olsen: And then he dies! And his kids are crying, "These monsters! These monsters!" It's very sad.

Skarsgård: It all depends on what perspective you tell. In this movie, you're introduced to Mickey and Jules, and they obviously haven't had the biggest luck in life. There was a little bit more of a backstory in the script for Jules, about how her parents abandoned her, she ended up in foster homes, which only perpetuated that lack of care. Some of that was cut, but there wasn't a lot about where Mickey is coming from. So I wrote a few pages for myself, like where did he grow up? I like weird things, so I picked Rochester, New York. He was probably living on the streets since he was a teenager, and meeting Jules saved him and filled him with optimism.

He says she's the best thing that ever happened to him, and maybe she's really the only good thing that's ever happened to him. It's clear when we meet them that they're in the middle of a very fascinating story. They're running away with a bag that says "Rocco" on it, and it's filled with drugs. So you go, "Hmmm. All right, who's Rocco?" And they're running away from something. I don't think a criminal is bad just because they're a criminal.

Berk: Aladdin is a bread thief!

Skarsgård: And Robin Hood gives to the poor! So it's all relative. There are psychopaths out there, sure, but most of the time, people are criminals because of a lack of motivation, a lack of opportunity, a lack of chance in life, you know? And that has led them to become criminals, which we as a society think is bad, but a lot of times there is a justifiable reason for why you end up doing one thing or another.

Olsen: Criminality and immorality are not the same thing.


Berk: That's what we were interested in exploring. What we found to be the most fun challenge was how to show love in different lights. Both couples are doing bad things, but one of the couples, their transgressions are cleared away in our minds by their love, while the other couple, for some reason, do not have their transgressions cleared away by love. So we thought it would be fun to find that line and then draw it there. The moral universe that all of those other great crime-couples films exist in, some ask you to be a little more forgiving than others. So we were like, "Wouldn't it be fun to pit a couple from a movie that asks you to love them completely, like True Romance, against a couple from a movie that doesn't afford its characters that same sort of sympathetic context, like Natural Born Killers?"

Olsen: Or even Badlands, because Martin Sheen's character Kit is f**king evil!

Berk: We wanted to dissect why those films display their moral universes the way they did, and then smash them together and see what audiences would think. When our editor watched our first cut, she was like, "I feel the most emotion for Gloria," and we were like, "F**k yes." We think it's because the motives are relatable. Each couple is motivated by their love for one another. And for Gloria, her love was a little bit toxic. It's overly dependent. It's obsessive. It's clearly not a healthy love, like what Mickey and Jules have.

Olsen: Within the couple of George and Gloria, they are not morally equal. George is where their evil comes from. To us, Gloria was someone who was traumatized at a young age and suffered from mental illness, and she attached herself to this guy. The bad things that Gloria does feel like they come from madness, and the bad things that George does come from some kind of anger.

Bill, what was it like shooting the scenes with Kyra when Gloria is at her most mad? There's a Blue Velvet moment when she tries to seduce you, while you're tied to the bed, and she wants you to call her "Mommy ..."

Skarsgård: That was so much fun! That scene was really funny on the page. When I first read the script, I was like, "Wow, this is so weird. This is so strange." And doing it, Kyra was having so much fun, and I was just going, "No, no, no, no, no!" The whole thing is very wacky. And it shows how easy it is to manipulate Gloria, which is what Mickey does to escape that situation. He's about to get raped. The great part of the scene, though, is when you realize she's detached from reality. For whatever reason, she's had to build this fantasy of what life is like, so you feel bad for her. She's clearly a victim. At the end of the day, it's like we're all victims. Nobody decides to become who they are, really. There are all these factors that are out of your control that lead you to end up a certain way, and nobody wants to be Gloria.

Olsen: The way we designed them, you're always kind of teetering in between fearing them or pitying the antagonists. One moment with Gloria might solicit a laugh, and then very quickly you feel an enormous pity for her. And it throws people off balance. You're like, "Whoa, okay. I have to reorient myself now."

Just like Mickey has empathy for his would-be rapist. Is love the answer? Is love enough? Have you seen the Bachelorette spoof with James Corden as Pennywise looking for love?

Skarsgård: Oh, it's hilarious! It's really funny. And all the other candidates are named Tyler! It's just the worst name ever. They're all like, "Pennywise, that guy creeps me out!" And living in a sewer, it's just not good for dating. [Laughs] For me, doing Pennywise in the first one, I was like, "Okay, I'm an entity that feeds off of fear, and I'm the embodiment of ego and narcissism and hate." We all have that within us, some more than others, but we look at it like this cancerous thing, right? So if Pennywise is the embodiment of all that, wouldn't his end goal be to be defeated? So doing the second movie, and maybe it's too subtle, but when they end up crushing his heart, I was thinking Pennywise was going, "Thank God for destroying me."

Olsen: I wish that was a little stronger in the movie.

Skarsgård: I like the idea that I was kind of begging them to do it. [imitates Pennywise's voice] "Do it. Do it." I guess they decided to go more ambiguous!

Didn't you shoot something for him that took place in the 1600s?

Skarsgård: We shot a scene that was cut out of the first movie that was a flashback before he was a clown. The idea was, the entity is taking shapes of whatever provokes anxiety and fear, and this being the 1600s, it was the shape of a demon, a devil. It was really disturbing!

What we need is a Pennywise origin story …

Skarsgård: Where he's getting beaten by his dad? And his mom's going, "Your father was the greatest clown in the country, and you'll never amount to anything, Pennywise!"

Villians is in theaters on September 20.