Swedish actress plays Lady Jessica in Denis Villeneuve's new adaptation of the iconic sci-fi novel
Rebecca Ferguson already knows what’s going to happen when audiences get to the final sand-swept frame of Dune.
Based on novelist Frank Herbert’s beloved 1965 sci-fi opus, eager moviegoers will be clamouring to see the next chapter in the celebrated story that follows Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) after he and his parents (Oscar Isaac and Ferguson) are dispatched to a barren desert planet to mine a plentiful “spice” drug.
Given that she hasn’t quite yet finished the book, Ferguson is among those who will want to know how it all ends when French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve — hopefully — shoots Part 2.
“I call him all the time,” the 38-year-old Swedish actress jokes in a Zoom interview. “I have no idea if he’s even written any (script) pages. I don’t want to jinx it.”
Pausing, she whispers conspiratorially, “Have you read it?”
Following David Lynch’s maligned 1984 version and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted 10-hour-plus adaptation, Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049), along with writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, split the story in two.
At the film’s Canadian premiere last month, Villeneuve raved about his dream project promising that the first film is an “appetizer” for the “main meal” that will be Part 2.
With its sprawling cast — Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem and Zendaya all have significant roles — the storyline finds House Atreides targeted by the planet Arrakis’ former steward Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), who wants to wrest control of the world’s “spice” drug that enables interstellar travel and enhances mental capabilities. Rich with intrigue and shadowy political manoeuvring, the story plays a bit like a Mafia movie set in space.
But Ferguson, who appears as British spy Ilsa Faust opposite Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible films, says Villeneuve had a way of making the big-budgeted film (it cost a rumoured $165 million to produce) feel intimate.
“It’s easy for big movies to have a stress factor to it because there are a lot of people involved,” she says. “But everyone in this gave Denis the freedom to create what he wanted. That had ripple effects … it became a set of humble kindness.”
Despite its status as a world-building sci-fi epic that has enamoured readers for more than 50 years, Dune was a completely new universe to Ferguson. In the film, her character, Lady Jessica, is part of the Bene Gesserit, a powerful group of women with secretive mental abilities who have prophesied about a messiah-like saviour that may be her son Paul.
“It has been around since the ’60s, but I wasn’t raised with the book,” she says. “I was someone who got brought into this new universe and got to fall in love with the character and her choices and the ripple effect her decisions have. It’s new.” She adds, smiling, “And I get to be thrown into it via Denis.”
Propelled by Villeneuve’s heightened fantasy and stunning visuals that include towering spaceships, massive sandworms and ornithopters (they’re like cross between a helicopter and a dragonfly), Ferguson has high praise for Chamalet, but she admits she found herself falling in love with many of the story’s secondary characters, particularly Jason Momoa’s sword-wielding Duncan Idaho.
“He has swagger to him,” she exclaims. “He’s such a cool character.”
When Ferguson first spoke to Villeneuve about Dune, she casually says she was willing to do anything he asked.
“I would play a teacup in the background for him,” she says.
Now that they’ve worked together, she wants to continue their partnership across a number of films. “I’m his muse forever,” she says.
With her Mission movies firmly planting her in a world of kick-ass action, Ferguson has easily flipped between historical drama (The White Queen), thrillers (The Snowman), musicals (The Greatest Showman), romantic mystery (Reminiscence) and dark fantasy (Doctor Sleep).
Before she starts work on M:I 8, Ferguson will produce and star in Wool, an adaptation of Hugh Howey’s best-selling trilogy of dystopian novels for Apple TV+. Still, she says she isn’t drawn to any particular genre.
“I’m only interested in the team — the director, the DOP — and the character,” she says.
Lady Jessica, though, is a multi-faceted part she says she can’t wait to return to. “I loved making this film and being a part of this world,” she says.
But if her wish comes true, and she does get to go back one day to the vast world of Dune, Ferguson has just one request.
“I want to ride a sandworm,” she says, pausing for emphasis. “That’s for damn sure.”
Dune opens in theatres this Friday.