Villeneuve Expands Lady Jessica Role in ‘Dune’ to Make Her More Than ‘an Expensive Extra’

Rebecca Ferguson has one of the most important roles in Villeneuve's upcoming "Dune" adaptation.
Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica in "Dune"
Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica in "Dune"
Warner Bros.

Rebecca Ferguson is no stranger to blockbuster filmmaking thanks to her ongoing role as Ilsa Faust in Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” series, and the actress is set to get a second studio franchise later this year with Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” adaptation. Ferguson stars in the film as Lady Jessica, mother to the protagonist Paul Atreides (played in the film by Timothée Chalamet). In Frank Herbert’s novel, Lady Jessica’s role is primarily that of a mother and supportive figure. Villeneuve was keen to expand the role.

“I didn’t want Lady Jessica to be an expensive extra,” Villeneuve tells Empire magazine in a new interview. “Something I deeply love in the book is that there was a strong balance between the masculine power and feminine power.”

To lean more strongly into the feminine power of the book, Villeneuve worked with his screenwriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts to turn Lady Jessica into more of a “warrior priestess” who is as much a mother to Paul as she is his defender and his trainer. As the book demands, Lady Jessica is a member of a sect of woman called the Bene Gesserit and has superhuman abilities such as mind reading.

“She’s a mother, she’s a concubine, she’s a soldier,” Ferguson told Vanity Fair earlier this year about her expanded role in the story. “Denis was very respectful of Frank’s work in the book, [but] the quality of the arcs for much of the women have been brought up to a new level. There were some shifts he did, and they are beautifully portrayed now.” 

Starring as Lady Jessica means Ferguson has a majority of scenes opposite Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto, a character to which she serves as a concubine in the novel and the film. Isaac tells Empire he was attracted to “Dune” not only because of Villeneuve’s involvement but also because of the story’s anti-capitalist and environmentalist themes.

“It’s about the destiny of a people, and the different way that cultures have dominated other ones,” Isaac said. “How do a people respond when it’s at the tipping point, when enough is enough, when they’re exploited? All those things are things we’re seeing around the world right now.”

Warner Bros. is set to open “Dune” in theaters on December 18.

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