Dune Cast On Starring In This Year’s Most Important, Epic Blockbuster
Slack-jawed awe awaits you with Dune, the biggest blockbuster of the year. Just like the cast and crew, it’ll take you to a whole new world.
‘Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.’ Frank Herbert’s words feel like an apt harbinger for box office tragedies, none more so than Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049; unquestionably one of the greatest films of the past 20 years, crippled into the realm of the underappreciated.
Warner Bros. has gone all in on another Villeneuvian vision; grander and rifer than any fantasy since Peter Jackson closed out the Lord of the Rings trilogy. ‘A beginning is a very delicate time,’ and Dune‘s fate rests in sands beyond its control. This fear isn’t lost on its stars; but we must not fear. ‘Fear is the mind-killer.’
Spectacle, world-building and bagpipes aside – they will tear your senses apart – Dune has a mighty cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem and more. I had the pleasure of sitting down with not one, not two, but all of them ahead of the film’s release.
First, a brief outline of the plot: by decree in the time of the Imperium, the Baron Vladimir (Skarsgård) of House Harkonnen is banished from Arrakis, a dangerous desert world with giant sandworms and the galaxy’s most valuable substance – spice – a hallucinogenic drug with medical benefits, capable of improving mental abilities but also vital for interstellar travel.
Duke Leto of House Atreides (Isaac) is subbed in to govern. While believing it to be a trap, he brings his own ruling royals: Lady Jessica (Ferguson), his partner and a Bene Gesserit, essentially a woman with certain superhuman abilities; and Paul (Chalamet), his son and ducal heir of the House, afflicted by visions of a sand-roaming Fremen (Zendaya) and unsure of his own destiny.
Concerns about Dune aren’t unfounded, nor are they limited to Villeneuve’s returns. The source material is a seminal tome notoriously iffy for translating to the screen, whether it’s Alejandro Jodorowsky’s canned mammoth or David Lynch’s cult effort. Star Wars was a mass-marketable spawn of the original space opera, but Dune‘s families, politics and jargon require a deeper understanding to really feel it.
In this regard, Villeneuve nailed it; it’s completely comprehensive. I asked the actors if they had any concerns approaching the project knowing the perils of the text, and if there was one thing unifying them, it’s the director – there’s nobody like him in the biz.
Duncan-Brewster, who plays Liet Kynes, said: ‘I had no fears or concerns whatsoever, because the captain of our ship is Mr. Denis Villeneuve. He is such an extraordinary human being. He works on two levels: a deeply rooted internal level; and he also works from the outside at the same time.’
He continued, ‘I’ve worked with many directors, but on this scale he’s just the one. He knows about structure and he respects everything with regards to character and persona right through to landscape and environments. He’s just the right man for the job.
‘Through his body of work as well, there’s definitely evidence that not only does he appreciate how characters’ arcs and storylines go, he also respects the environment each of them inhabit. So, I had no problem at all with saying yes. Yes, I agree with you, it’s a complicated, complex world, but that’s why he’s the man for the job.’
Momoa, who plays the valiant Duncan Idaho (the highlight of the film, for me) isn’t a stranger to the cultural weight of a role – he’s Aquaman, after all. Yet, ‘I’d say this film probably scared me more than any film I’ve ever been on,’ Momoa said.
‘It wasn’t necessarily the role; it’s more my fear, nerves of failure in front of my peers and idols. Being in front of the camera isn’t really a problem. Denis is my favourite director in the world, these actors on this movie are the ones I look up to. I’m working with everyone I’ve ever wanted to work with.’
Not everyone allowed such worries to emerge. When I asked Isaac if he felt any anxiety approaching the movie, he joked, ‘Now I do! F*cking hell.’
Continuing, he said, ‘Maybe that’s a blind spot of mine, and maybe it’s just because I know how sensitive and vulnerable I am, if I start thinking that way I’ll just freeze up and get paralysed… irreverence. I have to come at it with some sense of irreverence.’
It’s impressive, given he’s been in Star Wars, will soon make his Marvel debut as Moon Knight, and will bring Solid Snake to life in a Metal Gear Solid movie. However, Ferguson echoed a similar mindset on Dune.
‘That’s usually my answer, so I’m glad I’m not alone, because I’ve worked with people who make films for the audience and for the fans, and constantly relating to what the masses are going to think. My answer is, I just never think about it. I would go schizophrenic or do a lot of drugs which is never a good idea.’
Bautista, who plays the fearsome Glossu Rabban, a brute for House Harkonnen, found his first real prestige role with Villeneuve in Blade Runner 2049. It was only a small part, but the perception – at least critically – of him changed, marking a shift to Bautista the actor beyond comparison to his wrestling career.
‘With Blade Runner, it was a hard fight to earn that role. But with Dune, it was a phone call from Denis personally inviting me onto the cast,’ he said.
‘It gauged where I was in my career and validated me… getting a call from someone of Denis’ stature. It meant everything to me. It really gauged where I was at professionally, to show I had that much respect from a director of Denis’ calibre to call me and offer me a part, and I didn’t have to fight for it this time. It’s complete validation.’
Brolin, who plays Gurney Halleck, a mentor of Paul, has an even bigger legacy in the zeitgeist – unavoidable when you kill off half the MCU with a snap of your fingers. Thanos will cast a long shadow over the franchise for years, if not forever, but it’s allowed the star to become rather acquainted with ‘the stress of expectation’.
‘Once you start working you get into a different realm and it becomes a small bubble. You forget all this exists, you forget you’re gonna have to promote it, you forget you’re gonna be asked questions about the relevancy of this movie compared to today. It becomes a very intimate process,’ Brolin said.
‘I think with this, which is different from the MCU – which I really appreciated for what it was – this was much more practical. All the sets were built. It feels like a throwback… not a 70s movie, but it felt like that. The process was very collaborative, creative… you’re ultimately trying to see the vision of the director through, so there’s a lot of trust put into that.’
If you take anything away from Dune, it’ll be wonder. ‘The sets are incredible. The first day I came on the set, I’d never seen anything like it. It was huge, simple and extremely beautiful and absolutely frightening. Half of my character was already on the set, so I didn’t have to do much,’ Skarsgård said.
The star also had to endure eight hours of makeup every day for his transformative role. ‘Everything was really, although large in scale, very simplified. There’s just something to it that makes it so real and grounded. It was easy to be immersed in it. I don’t have to rely on my imagination… when I looked at you, and your prosthetics are so real and amazing, I feel like you’re no longer Stellan, you are the Baron. I like to be in the moment,’ Bautista added.
Chalamet and Zendaya don’t spend much time together on-screen; they’re a dream-crossed pair for the most part. Going forward to the yet-to-be-greenlit part two, they hold the soul of the story. It’s a tremendous undertaking, obviously, with ‘big legacies to carry’ – something Zendaya is au fait with as MJ in the MCU’s Spider-Man franchise.
When we speak, it’s mere days after the No Way Home trailer broke the internet. Zendaya gave a preparatory smile when I mentioned it, seeming to brace herself for prying – I resisted, but even Chalamet couldn’t fight his excitement. ‘Man, how good was that last trailer? I’ve been waiting on that coming up.’
That level of worldwide hype has stood the Euphoria star in good stead. ‘[There’s] a lot of people you want to make proud. But also, [every film] is different in their own kind of respect. Such a different process for each. Everything you do kind of feels like your favourite, but this is also unlike anything I’ve ever done before,’ she said.
‘I always wanted to be in a sci-fi film where I could be on another planet, and for it to come about in my life in this magnificent way where I get to work with yourself, with Denis, with this incredible group of actors and creatives is unreal. If you’re gonna do it, this is how you do it. I just feel extremely humble.
‘Every day I was on-set with everyone, I tried to soak it in, be there in the moment. I’m here in this beautiful rock formation with Javier Bardem and Timothée and we’re kicking it, we’re having dance parties and having fun, but I’m also deep into this character. You literally feel like you arrived on Arrakis. When you’re there, the fear that keeps coming up, or all the ideas and pressures of wanting to fulfil something for a legacy, kind of melts away. You just get to live inside this bubble of creativity.’
Chalamet is still taken aback by the privilege. We must remember, his first big role was in Interstellar, a space epic with brain-breaking scope. I asked him if he ever expected to front a similar movie, to which he quickly said, ‘No, I didn’t.’
‘Last night, seeing the film for the second time, I’m so grateful to be part of two projects… Interstellar had a deeply formative effect on me working on it, but also seeing it – I saw it like 12 times on IMAX when it came out,’ he continued, with Zendaya then chiming, ‘Me too! It’s one of my favourites.’ Chalamet beamed at his co-star and let out a heartened, ‘Aw, nice.’
Comparing Interstellar and Dune, Chalamet continued, ‘Weirdly, I think they do have thematic through lines and sort of warnings about presumption of your planet, and feeding off the greed of your people, and overexploiting your planet.
‘We see the grounded earth in Interstellar, and in Dune, we see people far into the future who have gotten rid of Zooms, and iPhones and machines that think in the likeness of a man’s mind, but are similarly dealing with the effects of greed and the destruction of the environment, and trying to look for a way out.’
He continued, ‘There’s something about space, something Denis, Christopher and other filmmakers much smarter than me could point to, but the space opera and the environment of putting humans in conditions where they’re not surrounded by their humanity is really poignant and beautiful. I’ve never had a more immersive experience than being in Jordan.’
With such a transportive on-set ‘bubble’, Chalamet and Zendaya were able bury their heads in the sand, but they were in agreement over colossal anticipation – theirs, ours, everybody’s – creeping to the fore in recent weeks. ‘I’m more aware of it now than I was on set,’ he said.
If there’s any justice, it’ll be a massive hit and Villeneuve will be returning for Part Two – if not, we’ll just use the Bene Gesserit voice on Warner Bros. Then again, we mustn’t forget: Dune‘s success isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.
Dune hits cinemas on October 21.
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