The Weekend Australian - Review
THE DEVIL YOU DON’T KNOW
For Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard, playing a character from post-World War II, isolated, rural America was a step into the unknown, writes Philippa Hawker
ill Skarsgard confessed to anxieties about taking on the part of evil clown Pennywise in the 2017 movie version of Stephen King’s It. He shouldn’t have worried about taking over a character made famous by Tim Curry 30 years ago: he got rave reviews.
His concerns about his role in a new Netflix film, Antonio Campos’s The Devil All the Time, were very He was intrigued by the script, he says, “and a little bit intimidated. The character and the world — they were something I hadn’t done before. It was a very American story.”
Skarsgard, born in Sweden in 1990, comes from an acting family whose members have built careers across Scandinavia and Hollywood. His first screen appearance was at the age of nine, in a Swedish movie called White Water Fever. His American CV, apart from It and It Chapter Two, also includes a mutant in Deadpool 2, an agent in Atomic Blonde and an army captain in Anna Karenina, as well as continuing roles in TV series Castle Rock and Hemlock Grove.
But Willard Russell, in The Devil All the Time, felt like a step into the unknown. It involved playing “a very complex and rich character who also had to represent the time and the place where he was from”. The time is postWorld War II America; the place is essentially a couple of isolated rural communities seething with trauma, secrets, corruption, religious fervour and violence.
“I didn’t know if I could pull it off really, you know, being Swedish and everything,” Skarsgard says. He auditioned for the part with video recordings he made at home. “I did it as fast as I could, trying at short notice, to scramble up some sort of accent. And apparently I convinced Antonio that I could pull it off.”
The Devil All the Time, adapted from the bestselling novel by Donald Ray Pollock, is a gothic narrative of dread and despair, full of interconnection and inevitability. Willard is an intriguing figure who, in a way, sets the film in motion. His harrowing experiences, his yearning for goodness, and his complicated relationship with religion are at the heart of everything that happens thereafter. He is devastated by events that take place while he’s serving in the Pacific; he returns home and falls instantly in love with a young waitress, Charlotte (Haley Bennett), who seems to him to be the epitome of kindness. His ambitions are modest enough, but nothing works out as he had hoped. Prayer is no help to him when he most needs it. Desperation sets in. And the shadow of violence is never far away.
He and Charlotte have a son, Arvin (played as an adult by Tom Holland), who inherits a painful legacy from his father: Willard’s presence and influence linger to the very end of the film.
Skarsgard had three or four months to prepare ahead of production, working over Skype with a dialect coach, Rick Lipton, London-based but born in Ohio. Lipton had many other actors to work with: the ensemble cast also includes Holland, Robert Pattinson, Australians Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska and Eliza Scanlen, as well as Sebastian Stan and Riley Keough.
It wasn’t just a matter of finding a regional accent for Willard, who grew up in a small town in West Virginia. It was also about investigating what it meant to be playing a character coming of age in the 1940s and 50s, Skarsgard says, and thinking about how someone from that place at that time would speak, move and see the world.
He talked to Lipton about ideas of masculinity in a rural context and how this affected speech. Then there was the representation of the unsaid. His character “is introverted to an extent, and he’s carrying all of these emotions that he doesn’t know how to communicate”, and that, too, is reflected in the way he talks as well as the way he carries himself.
Skarsgard pondered, too, what it was to be a character in an ensemble drama, where his narrative is one of many: in the end, he trusted his preparation, and decided not to overthink it.
“I’ll just try to tell his story and his journey,
where he came from and where he ends up going, and leave it to our beautiful director to pull it all together, the spiderweb of lunacy and trauma that is this movie.”
The Devil All the Time was shot last year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Skarsgard’s plans were turned upside down: projects put on hold or plans fell through because of rescheduling. He has been working on a Netflix production about a famous Swedish bank robber, Clark Olofsson, who was involved in the hostage situation that gave rise to the myth of the socalled Stockholm syndrome.
But revised schedules made it impossible for him to be in a new film by Robert Eggers, The Northman, an Icelandic saga that stars Nicole Kidman, Bjork and Willem Dafoe in which he would have been appearing alongside his brother Alexander 20 years after they were both in White Water Fury.
Alexander Skarsgard (Melancholia, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Big Little Lies) is one of two older brothers who preceded Bill Skarsgard into acting; the other is Gustaf Skarsgard (Westworld, Vikings). Their father, Stellan Skarsgard, was already a well-known Scandinavian stage and screen performer before his international breakthrough role in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, followed by everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to Chernobyl to Mamma Mia.
“I’m really happy and proud to be from the family that I’m from, you know?” Bill Skarsgard says. “Mostly because they are the family that they are, as opposed to being a part of the industry. That’s obviously less important.” Having actors in the family “helps you get into the industry and exposes you to opportunities”, he says. “But then there’s the downside of it, where it’s hard to break away from it and kind of become your own [person] when there’s such a big shadow to climb out from under.”
Sometimes he feels envious of friends who are the only performers in the family. “They grew up on a farm, or whatever … And it’s almost like a rebellious move to become an actor.” For someone such as this, acting is theirs and theirs alone. On the other hand, he says, it’s good to be able to share what you’re doing with family. “You know, eating at the dinner table, we can discuss our future projects and complain about the directors that we’re potentially working with or the production or whatever it is.”
Willard Russell may be the first character we meet in The Devil All the Time, but his voice is not the first one we hear. Campos, who cowrote the script, uses author Pollock as a voiceover narrator whose leisurely, distinctive tones introduce us to the world and ambience of the film.
A couple of drafts were written without a narrator, Campos says, to see if they needed one, and where the voice might go. And somehow, “we always felt like it was Don … He is from this place. he has the sound of this place in his voice. And he knows these people inside and out. So he speaks with that familiarity.
“The other thing was it just felt right for this movie that we would have a creator playing the narrator, speaking from that position. And thankfully, he said yes.”
Every accent in the film is very specific to the region, Campos says. Pattinson’s character, a manipulative preacher called Preston Teagardin, is from Tennessee, and because he comes from outside the narrow confines of the film’s setting, Campos says, “we took more liberties with that accent. It’s based on Tennessee, but it’s kind of a Pattinson invention.” Pattinson likes to find his own way into his character, “but there’s a method to the madness”.
Pollock recorded dialogue for some of the characters and had friends from West Virginia record some voices, Campos says. “And on top of that there was a key reference, a documentary from the 60s called Holy Ghost People”, about a Pentecostal community in Virginia, “with these amazing testimonials at the beginning, key references for accent and attitude”.
Skarsgard worked assiduously on research and accent, Campos recalls, but there are moments of his performance that have a wordless impact and are “a testament to his acting”.
The primary source, of course, was the novel, which Campos absorbed and learned “line by line, word by word”. He then started to look at material about the region, about serial killers (Clarke and Keough play a couple who prey on male hitchhikers), and about World War II. “It’s fun to immerse yourself in something and get something to obsess about.”
There’s the painstaking work of preparation, and then there’s the alchemy of performance. This is apparent in the figure of Sandy (Keough), a young woman who has just started work as a waitress on the day that Skarsgard’s character walks into a diner and meets the love of his life. Sandy has a fateful meeting at the same moment, in the same place: she catches the eye of Carl (Clarke), another customer, who inveigles her into becoming part of his suite of obsessions: photography, voyeurism and serial murder. Somehow, Keogh finds doubt and vulnerability in Sandy, even as she continues to play her part as Carl’s accomplice. “I can’t say enough about her as an actor and a person,” Campos says. “She complicated the character.” Whatever terrible things Sandy is capable of, “if you don’t feel the humanity in that character, then there’s nothing to hold on to in that story”.
The Devil All the Time,