Dune follows a gifted young man, Paul Atreides, and his travels to a dangerous planet which brings him face to face with evil, unlike anything he’s ever known. Some of the evil Atreides encounters are the Harkonnens, and getting them to life on the big screen took a lot of work and some out-of-the-box thinking.
Of course, the 2021 film wasn’t the first time fans saw the Harkonnens, but the desire to make them into more multifaceted characters than before was seen by director Denis Villeneuve as critical. In fact, he brought it up speaking to Vanity Fair about changes to the movie, which included Stellan Skarsgård’s portrayal of Baron Harkonnen.
“As much as I deeply love the book, I felt that the baron was flirting very often with caricature, and I tried to bring him a bit more dimension. That’s why I brought in Stellan. Stellan has something in the eyes. You feel that there’s someone thinking, thinking, thinking—that has tension and is calculating inside, deep in the eyes. I can testify, it can be quite frightening.“
In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Skarsgård and Dave Bautista discussed how they could channel a more realistic version of the Harkonnens and a few key components in doing so. In Dune, Skarsgård plays Baron Harkonnen and Bautista plays Glossu “Beat” Rabban.
When the interviewer mentions that the Harkonnens can feel almost cartoonish with how incredibly evil they are, Bautista and Skarsgård had this to say, with Bautista pointing to the script.
“It was there, on the page for us in the script, it wasn’t overwritten; they didn’t dive into it too much. Nothing was overplayed and everything was very grounded; also through direction…”
He went on to say that he’s been on theatrical sets before, and while Dune was one of them — it was also simple.
I’ve been on big sets, on big practical sets that had so much going on, they were huge and enormous. The sets on Dune were as well but they were so simplified and stiped of unnecessary gadgets that they just became dark and ominous and it allowed us to immerse ourselves into that world.
Skarsgård said, of Bautista, that he brought human nature to the character.
“I see this monster that you are, but I see in your eyes that you’re a human being, and that is the important thing —to make them human. Not to defend them, not to explain their tragic childhood that made them this way to something like that — it’s just to see the human in them.”
He talks about how that idea was a big part of transforming them into the Harkonnens; they needed to appear human, too.
“That’s why when we were discussing my makeup, it’s important that it was my face. So you saw this monster is human and it is one of us, and you want the audience to know that the bad guy is one of us.”
Bautista chimes in, saying that’s the critical part of all this, selling that the bad guy is one of us.
“That’s what it was; it’s just keeping everything grounded. Evil exists, there are people that are this evil and are this greedy, and they hunger for power this much that they are willing to do things this bad. I think that’s it; it’s really kind of showing the worst in humanity. It’s portraying that and not in a silly way that’s unbelievable.”
You can see Dune in theaters now, with a sequel to follow in 2023.