Entertainment

/

ArcaMax

From king to dark prince: Austin Butler and Denis Villeneuve on their new 'Dune' villain

Josh Rottenberg, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

When director Denis Villeneuve's sand-swept sci-fi epic "Dune" hit theaters in 2021, fans of Frank Herbert's original 1965 novel quickly noted one key character who was missing in action: Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. A foil to the hero Paul Atreides, the scheming nephew of the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) wasn't even mentioned.

A "Dune" devotee himself since his teenage years, Villeneuve never had any intention of giving short shrift to Feyd-Rautha, who serves as a kind of dark mirror to the messianic Paul, played in the film by Timothée Chalamet. Quite the opposite. "The idea in the first film was to try to stay as much as possible on Paul's perspective, to let the reality unfold through his eyes," he says. "This was why I brought in Feyd-Rautha as late as possible. I loved the idea of keeping some major firepower for the second film."

In "Dune: Part Two," which hits theaters March 1, Feyd-Rautha finally receives his much-anticipated introduction, with Austin Butler — hot off his Oscar-nominated turn in "Elvis" — stepping into the role. Memorably, if campily, played by a spiky-haired, winged-codpiece-wearing Sting in director David Lynch's misbegotten 1984 adaptation, Feyd-Rautha here is transformed into something far more disturbing: a ghostly, hairless killer whose psychotic ruthlessness matches his ambition to rule the desert planet Arrakis.

One of the Great Houses vying for dominance in the sprawling "Dune" universe, the Harkonnens are a cunning and savage people who prize strength above all, with Feyd-Rautha plotting to replace his older brother Rabban (Dave Bautista) and perhaps the Baron himself. In the second "Dune" installment, we see much more of their violent, dystopian planet of Giedi Prime, which orbits a black sun. Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser present the Harkonnen world in stark black-and-white, a contrast to the noble Atreides' verdant home planet of Caladan and the desolately beautiful Arrakis inhabited by the fierce and resilient Fremen.

"The goal was to capture that feeling that you are in a different space and time," says Villeneuve, who worked with returning screenwriter Jon Spaihts to distill the novel's expansive narrative to its essence. "I really wanted to dive more into the Harkonnen culture and Feyd was my principal vehicle to be able to go deeper."

A would-be heir to the throne who killed his own mother, Feyd-Rautha, bald and eyebrow-less with black teeth and eyes like a shark, is particularly bloodthirsty in his pursuit of power. Among the film's major set pieces is a gladiator battle in which Feyd-Rautha, who seems to take a kind of sexual pleasure in inflicting pain, shows off his knife-wielding abilities and his coldheartedness — a pivotal moment in his rise to consequence.

 

The Times spoke with Villeneuve and Butler over Zoom from Paris about the challenges of bringing one of sci-fi literature's most famous baddies to life on the screen, the thrill of playing against type and why baldness is sexy (at least if you're a Harkonnen).

Q: Denis, "Elvis" was not even out yet when you cast Austin. What had you seen of his work that gave you the confidence he could play a character like this?

VILLENEUVE: I had first seen Austin in [Quentin Tarantino's 2019] "Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood," and I was impressed with the way he handled that kind of wannabe dark and villainous character [of Manson Family member Tex Watson]. Then [director] Baz Luhrmann shared with me some clips from "Elvis" and I was absolutely blown away. To portray such an icon as The King and be able to disappear into the character — I needed that kind of actor. Feyd needed to be that kind of charismatic figure with a strong sex appeal. And I knew Austin had that.

Did I know that Austin would be able to go that dark? I was wishing. But when we started to do the first camera tests, it was an explosion of joy for me because it was beyond my expectations.

...continued

swipe to next page

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus