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

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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,

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