Rebecca Ferguson talks Dune, Lady Jessica, and the epic scale of Denis Villeneuve’s films

by W. Andrew Powell
Rebecca Ferguson in Dune

Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, Dune, is realized in epic scale, like we’ve never seen before, in Denis Villeneuve’s incredible film adaptation starring Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica.

Dune premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival, and received rave reviews. It’s a film I loved for the way it perfectly captures the tone and themes of Herbert’s novel, while also standing apart as something that could only have been made by Villeneuve.

Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, and Zendaya also co-star in the film, and it’s a bold vision of a distant future where the one planet–the desert planet of Arrakis–holds the key to interstellar travel thanks to a substance known as spice. While a galaxy fights over who owns this world, and its spice, Paul Atreides is there to follow his fate, and one of the most vital characters in the story is his mother, Lady Jessica.

Sitting down during TIFF with Ferguson, we talked about Lady Jessica, working with Villeneuve and his style of filmmaking, and what she thought about the differences between working on a film like Mission Impossible, versus Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.

Dune opens in theatres on October 22.

Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica
Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica in Dune

First off, Dune was a huge film to make, with sets that were on a scale that even impressed Ferguson, and she’s no stranger to big-scale films.

“The sets were ginormous… so, you know, it took me a couple of days for me to understand the logistics of it. To be honest, I’m also a person–you’d drop me somewhere, and I will not find my way home–so that doesn’t help to be honest, but it’s a compliment I feel to the set designers and to what they did. They created this enormity, which I feel is Denis, isn’t it? It’s the hugeness and the small characters. It’s the landscape and the tiny characters.”

Stepping into the character wasn’t difficult though, thanks to the script, but especially because of Villeneuve.

“I was presented it by Denis, who explained this vision for an hour and a half to me. So I felt like I merged myself and unscrew myself in his world and said yes to playing his Jessica. And then I was directed by one of the best directors.”

Dune also gave Ferguson the chance to work with an incredible cast.

“I have to say I was in awe of Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling, and Josh Brolin, and Oscar Isaac. And I mean, David Dastmalchian and Stellan Skarsgard, and there are many more to that list.”

“I think also doing a film with Denis without knowing the cast, you know it’s going to be good. It was more a matter of unravelling little Christmas gifts. So Timmy, he was the first who was cast. I think I was the second. And then gradually it was sort of a, ‘and look who we have here. Look, who we have here.’ It was… just wonderful.”

Talking about Lady Jessica, and who she is , Ferguson saw one core element to the role, and she feels that Dune also has an interesting reflection on women in history.

“It is about motherhood. It is about the men making the decisions, but overall, the women are the umbrella. Looking at the War of the Roses… the medieval times; the men were out in the battle fields, slashing and having their jolly old time; the women were plotting the household to create stronger alliances. And this is an ongoing theme, isn’t it?”

“But I think what Denis did and what he wanted to do was to defibrillate the fact that these human beings had powers because of necessity of reason. And one of the things that we talked about is the gender neutralness of the Stillsuits and what it represents, which I love. I love that it serves purpose that it just doesn’t look feminine. It doesn’t look masculine. It is just a suit for survival.”

Ferguson also agreed that there’s a certain Shakespearean style to Lady Jessica, that comes across a little like Lady MacBeth.

“I mean, that is Denis. That is how he thinks. That is something that was offered up on the platter of possible resources of knowledge for me when we were doing the role. But it also, and it really does say that it’s a reoccurring resemblance, right? Whether it’s Nietzsche… Shakespeare, wherever we go. It’s the women behind the men. It’s just wonderful being able to take knowledge and research at the same time. She felt new for me; she felt fresh.”

“It felt, you know, unique somehow, even though it’s a remake of a 1965 book, there was something just… because cause I got to modernize the feeling of being an annoyed mom with a kid as well. Does that make sense? You know, it was like… ‘Sit up straight, take your elbows off the table. And yes you are the Muad’Dib, just deal with it.’ Ah, kids nowadays.”

Rebecca Ferguson

Talking about the costumes and the makeup, Ferguson loved what the team brought to the film, and she also loved one outfit in particular.

“To be honest the clothes were magnificent and Jackie [Jacqueline West], the costume designer who is so fiercely intelligent… the reference points that she does for every outfit that I wear goes back to Spanish painters back in God knows when during bull fighting. So I’m wearing a certain outfit because I’m looking at the bull’s head.”

“Donald Moore [the makeup artist], he is so well read and so brilliant… he’s delicious. He’s so smart. He’s old school as well. And there’s not a lot of old school makeup artists out there anymore.”

“I said, ‘I don’t want makeup,’ which is one of the hardest things to create on screen, the non-makeup look… when the light hits, when I cry, it’s ugly. It’s so vulnerable. And I love all of that, but I’ve really loved the pajamas in the desert. I have to say it was by far my favorite; hair out, no makeup and pajamas.”

The entire experience has been so rewarding, Ferguson said, from the start, and even now weeks later doing press for the film.

“I’ve done a lot of interviews for the last two weeks. I’m very tired, but my point is I haven’t had a single person who I felt I might not be able to read well, have lied and said, ‘you’re great.’ It’s amazing.”

“I think that I can feel sincerity… and I get people saying that they read the book and this is their Dune. I get the people who haven’t read the book and said that they’d been thrown into a world where they wanted to read the book.”

“I can’t stop talking about it because of the reaction from the audience and because of my love for Denis. I feel very emotional beause it’s fucking epic. I’m sorry–it just is. I’m so proud and really love it. I love everyone in it.”

Making Dune also gave her the opportunity to do something fresh, and she continued to praise Villeneuve for what he brings to filmmaking.

“So my process changes because I’m working with new directors, [and] new directors ask of new energies. Tom [Cruise] has such an energy and rush about him that with Mission [Impossible], it’s a huge film with huge sets, with huge stunts and huge energy. And it does just go, go, go all the time… and character-driven as well, but there’s no stillness. You know, you’re never really breathing, which is why they’re so amazing.”

Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac
Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac

“Denis’ process is finding that complete stillness and finding the drama within character and just dropping them in a set that could eat them up. He finds the juxtapositions of scope and scale. So that just becomes a very different process, you know, and Dr. Sleep, I just ate kids, you know.”

Finally, I asked Ferguson whether she could talk at all about who Lady Jessica will be in the films, with that hope of course that there will be a second part to Dune.

“Do you know what Andrew, I’ve been joking around in interviews because that’s kind of how I get along. I jump between jokes and reality, but I’ve said to a lot of people that I haven’t read the book and I realized that that kind of quirky fun became quite ignorant. And that is not how I meant it.”

“I do read; I obviously read them. I feel like it’s what you have to do. It is my job to read a book. But I haven’t read past the bit where this film finishes. I do not know the story of the book from the sixties. I have seen the film, so I know as she goes. I also know that [Villeneuve] he’s very true to the book. And I don’t know–I think my life just continued after this. I went straight into Mission [Impossible].”

“There’s a lot of scripts that reading takes time and it’s quite a dense piece of material, and I don’t know if we’re gonna film it or not. So I have to find a moment where I’m just going to sit down and read it and hope [because] I really, really want to do the next one.”

“We have to.”

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

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