Kiwi actor Jay Ryan was preparing to pack up and move home from Hollywood when a role in the sequel to the most successful horror film of all time breathed life into his career.
When Stephen King's 1986 novel It – about a group of friends tormented by a supernatural circus clown named Pennywise – was adapted into a movie for the second time in 2017, it wasn't simply a hit, it was the most successful horror film of all time.
Given that it only chronicled the childhood sections of the book, updated to take place during the late 1980s, a current day-set sequel with movie stars playing grown-up versions of the characters became an instant and exciting inevitability.
Somewhat less inevitable was the participation of Kiwi actor Ryan, in the biggest project of his career.
Although he is one of Aotearoa's most successful acting exports, having starred in television shows such as Beauty and the Beast and Mary Kills People, the former Go Girls guy agrees that It: Chapter 2 represents a big step up for him.
"Absolutely. I've been working my way up for a long time to finally get a movie," Ryan tells TimeOut during an interview in Hollywood. "But I've also been tied up in TV contracts since the beginning of time. So that's been a real pain in the butt, but also a blessing."
Ryan says he had to take a leap of faith in order to get a decent movie role.
"I kind of went out and said, 'I'm not going to accept TV work for a little bit' and I spent eight months here grinding. I was about to go home, and in the last couple of days I got cast in this. It was kind of the last hour. So yeah, this is definitely a pinnacle and what I've been struggling a long time for. It's been incredible to be paired up against Jessica and James."
That's Jessica as in, Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) and James as in McAvoy (Glass), two of Ryan's It: Chapter 2 co-stars who have also joined him for his chat with TimeOut. They play the adult versions of Beverly and Bill, who are the other two points in a love triangle with Ryan's character, Ben, played as a child by Jeremy Ray Taylor in the 2017 film.
Ryan says his childhood resemblance to Taylor was a factor in his casting.
"The audition scene was very small and I went in and did the scene once. [They said] 'Thank you very much, goodbye'. I was like, 'F***, that's the end of that'. Then the studio asked if I could send in some photographs of me as a kid. I had a headshot from when I was like, 10, trying to be an actor, and I looked very similar to Jeremy when he was in the first film. So it matched up really nicely and it sealed the deal."
Chastain's involvement was somewhat more pre-ordained, and not just because she had a history with It 1 and 2 director Andy Muschietti, having starred in his 2013 breakout Mama. The moment It was released, many online observed that Sophia Lillis, who played the young Beverly, could easily grow up to be Jessica Chastain.
"I got a text from Andy right before he started making the first film," Chastain tells TimeOut. "It was a picture of Sophia and a picture of myself, side-by-side, and he just wrote: 'Whaddaya think?'"
Chastain's casting then brought about that of McAvoy.
"I weirdly found out about it through Jessica," says McAvoy. "We were making X-Men: Dark Phoenix. I'd been to the see the first instalment with Nick Hoult the night before and we were talking about it, and Jess went, 'You know, my friend Andy who I did Mama with, he directed It, he's long thought about you as the older version of Bill'. You take it with a pinch of salt, but a couple of months later it happened. It was great."
The actors say they took acting cues from the kids in the first film.
"I really used Sophia's performance as Beverly as my guidepost," says Chastain. "What I loved about the first chapter is that for Beverly, her biggest nightmare was at home waiting for her. She feels like she's not going to lose a lot, so she's kind of like, 'f** it all'. I really felt that from Sophia's performance."
"I wanted to infuse the adult Ben with that same sweetness, the longing that he has for Beverly in the first film," says Ryan. "Whether or not it comes to fruition for him is, you know, in the pudding, but I think that was one of the sweetest things in watching Ben as a child, relating to that young love."
The first It movie had a somewhat tortuous path to the big screen, but with its huge success, Muschietti had more of a free hand this time around.
"We had more money, so we had a little more space, and more days and more hours," Muschietti tells TimeOut in a separate interview. "So that basically lays the ground to have more fun."
By "fun", he means "scare the pants off the audience".
"The thing I'm enhancing a bit in the second one is the horror element," says Muschietti. "The first movie, everything is balanced. But I would've liked to make it scarier, so I have that chance on the second one."
Muschietti says he also wanted King himself to have more involvement in the sequel.
"Not in a working sense, but I really wanted his feedback, which is something we didn't have on the first one. The first one he left us completely to our ourselves, no interference, so in this one we sent him the draft to get his feedback. He's super-cool, he embraces the adaptation as something that is created by a different artist and it's a different animal. But because I wrote to him, he said, 'Well, maybe you can include this scene and this scene.'"
The fact that the sequel revolves around adults is key to its effectiveness, according to the director.
"The second part is more about fears that grow in you, and basically explode when you're a grown-up," says Muschietti. "It talks about fears that are more related to real-life adults. They are fears that are more real, more profound and deep."
Who: Jay Ryan, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Andy Muschietti
What: It: Chapter 2
When: In cinemas next Thursday