Dune is the story of a hero, Paul Atreides, coming into his own and acquiring the power to shape the destiny of the universe. But as everyone knows, the best heroes are only as good as their villains. Luckily for Paul, he has formidable foes in the form of House Harkonnen, a rival noble house that will stop at nothing to see House Atreides wiped from existence. This evil family is led by the demonic Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and his cruel nephew, Glossu Rabban.
In director Denis Villeneuve‘s new adaptation of Dune (in theaters and on HBO Max this Friday), which tackles the first half of Frank Herbert’s original 1965 sci-fi novel, Timothée Chalamet‘s Paul is up against Stellan Skarsgård as the Baron and Dave Bautista as Rabban. The Baron is extremely evil-with-a-capital-E in Herbert’s book — sometimes cartoonishly so. Villeneuve wanted Skarsgård to play the role with a more subtle sort of menace.
“The Baron, when you read the book, is not the strongest element. He’s a very important character, but I was feeling he was sometimes a bit of a caricature,” Villeneuve says. “I needed to bring tension, threat and a feeling of fear to the Baron — and Stellan Skarsgård on screen can be pretty frightening. I’ve wanted to work with Stellan since I first saw him in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves when I thought to myself, ‘wow, who is this actor?’ Ever since then I’ve tried to see almost every movie he’s in. He’s a phenomenal actor who can play a classic, strong, pure beast. I had a lot of fun with him.”
In Skarsgård’s words, “a cartoon villain is never scary.” But the Harkonnens are evil in a recognizable way.
“Evil exists,” Bautista says. “There are people that are this evil, that are this greedy, that feel hunger for power this much, that are willing to do things this bad. It’s about showing the worst in humanity, and portraying that in a way that is believable. People can connect to this, and recognize these evil people. It’s nothing to overstate.”
Warner Bros. Pictures (2) Dave Bautista as Glossu Rabban and Stellan Skarsgard as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in ‘Dune’
Towards the beginning of Dune, the Atreides are assigned to take over governorship of the desert planet Arrakis from the Harkonnens by order of the Padishah Emperor. As costume designers Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan recently explained to EW, the Atreides show up to their new home dressed in resplendent armor as a demonstration of their might. The Baron shows his power in other ways.
West cites Marlon Brando‘s performance in Apocalypse Now as her go-to reference for the Baron — though Skarsgård needed help from prosthetics to pull off the full Col. Kurtz look.
“That was in the discussion, Marlon Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now, but he looked like that. That was a big difference. All the time on this shoot I would be like ‘oh, I wish I was Marlon Brando,'” Skarsgård says with a laugh. “There were some discussions for a while of having him in armor and stuff, but that only reduces him, I think. This physical presence of that enormous body under that silky nightshirt or whatever it is he has…that’s it. You don’t need to change anything or add anything to that.”
The Baron’s personality is so powerful that it seeps into his surrounding environment. Dune is, after all, a story about how humans live in relationship to natural ecosystems, and the industrial Harkonnen homeworld of Giedi Prime bears the markings of their insatiable greed. The shots of Giedi Prime in the film help differentiate the Harkonnens from the Atreides and particularly from the Fremen of Arrakis, whose clothing and culture is built around living in harmony with their desert environment. The Harkonnens have no such care for nature.
“You need to feel the oppression,” production designer Patrice Vermette says. “As a planet, Giedi Prime needs to telegraph the abuse of mankind over the environment: Extracting all natural resources to their intense limit, to the very last drop. I was inspired by references of places in China and South America where mankind is exploiting resources without thinking of the environment.”
Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures Stellan Skarsgard as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in ‘Dune’
Bautista is one of the few Dune actors who have previously collaborated with Villeneuve. In 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, the actor stole the spotlight as Sapper Morton, a renegade replicant hunted by Ryan Gosling‘s protagonist. The experience made him eager to reunite with Villeneuve.
“That small role in Blade Runner made people see me differently. I owe that to Denis completely,” Bautista says. “It took some doing winning that role and getting him to see me in the role of Sapper Morton. It was quite a process. But I had won the role doing the audition a certain way, and when I got there he changed up everything about my performance. That made it interesting for me, made it fun, because I still have an athlete mentality. I like being coached. If I’m being directed in a way that makes me a better performer, I get hungry for that.”
Bautista continues, “So I was starving to work with Denis again. For years I tracked everything he was attached to or looking at. For this film we waited forever just for auditions to open up. Finally I just got a call from Denis and he offered me the role. I almost broke down in tears because it meant so much to me. It validated every decision I had made in my career.”
If all goes according to plan, this may not be the last time Bautista and Villeneuve work together, either. As mentioned above, this Dune film is only part one of the story. Although part two has still not officially been confirmed, Bautista is definitely eager.
“We’re all just sitting, waiting to proudly be able to say that yes we’re going into the sequel,” Bautista says. “Obviously that’s not been confirmed, but we all know it’s going to happen. We just want the go-ahead to start talking about it. I’m super excited about it.”