How ‘Dune’ Let Rebecca Ferguson Defy Her Fears of ‘Strong Woman Character’ Typecasting

Two years after wrapping Denis Villeneuve's epic, the actress tells IndieWire that she's still passionate about the film that showed her "true equality."
DUNE, Rebecca Ferguson, 2021. © Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Kate, how the fuck are you?,” the “Dune” star asked by way of introduction during a recent Zoom conversation conducted from the guest bedroom of her house in London.

No one would ever mistake Rebecca Ferguson for a shrinking violet. Bawdy and instantly easy to talk to, the Swedish actress was juiced up from rehearsals for her starring role in the upcoming Apple sci-fi series “Wool.” Ferguson said she was still wearing her training clothes and “sitting on a pillow made out of an old cashmere jumper.” She’s not the crafty one, she’s quick to note. Thank her husband for that. “I go, ‘Oh, I don’t want this,’ and I’m ready to give it away,” she said. “And he goes, ‘No, let’s remake it into something!'”

Consider that an appropriate ethos for the star of Denis Villeneuve’s massively ambitious take on Frank Herbert’s sprawling sci-fi novel “Dune.” Ferguson is Lady Jessica, mother to the spectacularly fated Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), beloved concubine of the powerful Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), and a member of the influential and secretive Bene Gesserit sisterhood.

We’ve reached a point where the “strong female character” can be its own sort of typecasting, and it’s a role that Ferguson knows well — maybe too well. She first gained international attention for her work in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise as the conflicted spy Ilsa Faust, but she said that being the brave and fearless beauty can be a trap in its own right.

“I don’t know if I get cast and asked to do roles that we in society see as strong because of who I am,” Ferguson said. “I’m not shy, I speak my mind, I’m not worried for consequences. I have a lot of vulnerabilities, but I have a [certain] type of personality, which I believe people see and it gets brought in. But the issue for me is, then I feel typecast. … I worry that I’m not breaking out of it. So for me, I’m more interested in seeing the strengths of characters who are not on the tip of their toes, on the forefront, battling things. I also always want to analyze what ‘strength’ is; what is it to be a ‘strong character’?”

The actress pointed to “Mission: Impossible” as an example. “We keep on calling Ilsa an equal to Ethan [Tom Cruise]. I want to go further and think, ‘Why is she an equal to Ethan?’ Number one, if you take her out of the story, there’s a hole, that’s a gap,” Ferguson said. “The power [of her] is the power of her voice and that people listen. It’s the response that happens around the character. It’s not only me, it’s how people respond to me.”

DUNE, from left: Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Timothee Chalamet, 2021. © Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection
“Dune”©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

The same can be said of Lady Jessica who, in Villeneuve’s updated telling, finally gets the attention and space that she deserves. While “Dune” and its many sequels and spinoffs focus primarily on Paul and his fraught rise to power, none of it is possible without Lady Jessica, whose steadfast love for her child helps rewrite a generations-old Bene Gesserit plan of crafting a genetically superior new leader for the universe.

In the most famous cinematic telling of Herbert’s novel, David Lynch’s oft-maligned 1984 cult classic cast Francesca Annis in the role of Lady Jessica. Villeneuve made it clear that he wanted a more active Lady Jessica for his film, one more in line with the balanced powers of Herbert’s books. For Ferguson, she couldn’t help but approach the part with a fresh perspective.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” Ferguson said about the 1984 film. “I knew Lynch had made a film. I don’t know if I’d seen it. I came in as a novice and I got Denis’ love project handed to me for an hour and a half [during their first meeting]. And I fell in love with his love for this world.”

After watching Lynch’s version, Ferguson said she was struck by how much Villeneuve had “really changed it, and heightened and activated [Lady Jessica].” The actress loved that, but she also loved that Villeneuve never made it the full focus of the story.

“It’s a focus on it when he talks about it, because it’s a great conversation,” she said. “But I didn’t feel like we had genders on set. And that, for me, is true equality. He just, I think smartly, explained his story, and the story that he explained the heightened story of Jessica. There was no pushing anything [else] down. It was his story and how he believes that it needed to be told for the audience of today. Whether it was raising Jessica or the geopolitical environmental resource [subplot], it’s his version.”

DUNE, from left: Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, 2020. ph: Chiabella James / © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Dune”©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

At some point, however, this Lady Jessica became Ferguson’s own version. “Her rebelliousness, her belief in herself, and her beliefs and her love for Leto are bigger than the quest that she is sent to do,” she said. “That’s an interesting starting point for a character and a journey. There’s rebellion within her. She will do whatever she wants for her beliefs and her love. That’s power, there’s an enormous strength in that.”

As a devoted member of the Bene Gesserit, Lady Jessica spent years honing a variety of literal powers, many of which she secretly passed on to young Paul. And while “powers” sound like they demand stuntwork, Ferguson is taken with the ones that are less showy, like Voice, which allows for manipulation through how words are spoken.

“In the book, it describes really beautifully how, for her to be able to activate Voice, what she needs to do is to slow down the pace of a single cell in her body,” Ferguson said. “She needs to get to a state of complete calm. That’s why she does the Litany Against Fear. When she does the Litany Against Fear, it takes time, but she gets to a point where she just lets everything pass over it and through her. That’s her character for me, that’s the core, it’s the stillness. … She can stand in the background and be the most powerful person in the room.”

DUNE, from left: Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Timothee Chalamet, 2021. ph: Chiabella James / © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Dune”©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

That’s beautifully conveyed in the last shot of Ferguson in “Dune,” as she and Chalamet and a cadre of new cohorts head out into the desert wildness of Arrakis after their fragile kingdom has fallen. Both heartbroken by her losses and holding a secret that hints at a bold new future, Lady Jessica starts to walk away from the camera until Ferguson pauses and tosses a final, inscrutable glance over her shoulder and straight at the audience. It was Ferguson’s idea.

“Denis and I were playing with different things, and I remember saying, ‘Just stay on me for two seconds, I want to try something,'” she recalled. ‘I gave him that look, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s Jessica, isn’t it?’ This is the moment of letting him go. She knows when to step down or to back away and give space. But what we get to feel is, it’s not over, this too shall pass.”

The same can be said of Ferguson’s experience of making “Dune.” While filming on the project ended in summer 2019, Ferguson said she feels no weirdness about jumping back into the promotional fray. She loves the film so much that she just “kind of wants to promote the shit out of it.”

Like so many other tentpole offerings, the “Dune” release date has shifted multiple times over the past few months, along with its distribution platforms: It will now open day and date in theaters and on HBO Max. While she supports home viewing (“If they don’t feel safe, I hope they watch it and enjoy it at home”), she says it can’t compare with the cinematic version. Even her 14-year-old son — and who is more likely to scoff at things than a teenage boy? — was overcome by the experience.

DUNE, from left: from left: Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, 2020. ph: Chiabella James / © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Dune”©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

“I watched it with my son, and there was a moment where we’re blown away by this enormity of sounds, and he just grabbed my arm,” she said. “I thought he was going to be into the cool scenes with the fights and the war sequences, but this was the moment, and he just went, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so beautiful.’ He would never have experienced that at home. He would never feel that with whatever TV we have. That’s what I want people to feel. We’re built with water. We respond to sound, our bodies are made to interact with each other. This is how it’s supposed to be seen.”

Ferguson paused. “Oh, my God, I have to stop,” she laughed. “I’m like on the barricades now!”

While Lynch’s film packed the entirety of Herbert’s first “Dune” novel into one feature, Villeneuve has long planned for a second film. This “Dune” requires it, ending in the middle of the sprawling narrative with that Ferguson-issued final look. Ferguson readily admits she feels pained over the possibility that a second film still might not happen.

“It would feel really sad and empty and odd to leave the character where she is, at least from my aspect,” Ferguson said. “I know what’s to come. I know the continuation of this story. I know how much more there is in this world. It’s like Denis has said, we’ve been able to introduce you to the characters and their worlds, let’s go and ride the waves. Now we can start living it.”

She’s prepared to make it happen her own way, even if it involves utilizing the scrappy DIY sensibility of that cashmere pillow. “I was like, ‘Let’s just scrape money together and do our indie version of it,” she said. “If we don’t get anyone else to be for it, let’s just film it. I have a big garden, guys!”

Warner Bros. will release “Dune” in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Friday, October 22.

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