Twenty-seven years after the incidents in IT -- the first installment in the modern film adaptation of Stephen King's 1986 novel -- Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) resurfaces to once again terrorize the citizens of Derry. The demented, dancing clown's return from his lair deep inside the town's sewers forces the seven childhood members of the Losers Club -- now, all struggling adults spread across the country -- to reunite and face fears they have long forgotten (or attempted to bury) in the two-plus decades since.
IT Chapter Two, once again directed by Andy Muschietti, sees Bill (James McAvoy), Bev (Jessica Chastain), Ben (Jay Ryan), Richie (Bill Hader), Eddie (James Ransone) and Stanley (Andy Bean) summoned back home by Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) after Pennywise kills a young, gay man that was tossed into the river. The incident (more about that later) sets things in motion for the Losers, who are determined to put an end to Pennywise once and for all.
Once in Derry, each of the adult Losers goes on a journey of self-discovery as the film bounces between two narratives: their current mission, and flashbacks to the summer after their first encounter with Pennywise and what eventually drove them apart. "They all sort of manifest themselves and are supposed to sort of have their own resolve," Ransone tells ET, adding that Richie's humor "is masking a sadness." A smart aleck who was bullied and called the f-word as a kid, adult Richie is confronted with what Pennywise calls "a dirty little secret," which is later revealed to be that he's a closeted gay man harboring feelings for Eddie.
"It's a big departure from the book," Ransone says of the film's gay subplot. While fans of the novel may know that King hinted at something between Richie and Eddie -- or at least that Richie had deeper feelings than he let on -- it was nothing ever explicitly addressed. "I talked to Andy about this because I don't know if that was always intentional from the first draft of the script or how much was implied," the actor adds.
In the final cut of the film, however, the intention is clear: After the Losers' climactic battle with Pennywise leaves Eddie dead, Richie is distraught and later seen finishing a carving on the bridge he started as a kid. "R + E," it reads. When it comes to Richie's revelation, Ransone says it was all on his screen partner to carry that emotional weight. "I just respected Bill Hader as a performer," he says.
Still, the chemistry between the two actors in all the scenes leading up to the final act is undeniable. "I loved working with him for a number of reasons," Ransone explains. "I got to learn a lot of things, like how to stay in a joke exhausted to death and how to open yourself up. I just felt really grateful."
In fact, the two actors previously met each other at an audition for the Michael Mann film Public Enemies. "Then, when I saw him a number of years later, we just fell right into it," he says. And what ends up onscreen is a palpable energy between Ransone and Hader that translates into a layered, intimate relationship between Eddie and Richie. "Intimacy is more important to me," Ransone says. "All real relationships have to be rooted in honesty."
According to Vanity Fair, King "enthusiastically approved" Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman's changes to the story: "The new thread is intended as an awakening of acceptance, a moment of sweetness that points to positive change."
It's positive change that eventually comes out of Richie's tormented youth and the film's traumatic opening scene involving Adrian (played by openly gay filmmaker Xavier Dolan) and his boyfriend, Don, being brutally attacked by a group of homophobic men. It's a sequence inspired by a real-life hate crime and murder of Charlie Howard, a 23-year-old gay man attacked and drowned by several teenagers in 1984. Although a major part of King's original novel, it wasn't included in the 1990 TV adaptation.
But Muschietti felt it was important to add back in for this remake. "It is of relevance," he told Variety. "I probably wouldn't have included it if it wasn't in the book, but it was very important for Stephen King. When he wrote it, he was talking about the evil in the human community. He was talking about how dark humans can get in a small American town… For me, it was important to include it because it’s something that we’re still suffering. Hate crimes are still happening."
"I thought that beginning was so powerful," Hader told Vanity Fair. "Now we're in the world of adults. This is real. This happens, and this is the news now." Ultimately, IT Chapter Two holds a mirror up to life in Derry -- and the real world -- showing how systemic homophobia led to Adrian's death and prevented Richie from ever coming out.