The Inverse Interview

In Dune 2, Stellan Skarsgård Retreats Further Into the Dark

Stellan Skarsgård speaks about taking Baron Harkonnen to new depths of evil.

Bald, unusual-looking character with pale skin in a bath smoking, with foreboding expression and dim...
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The Inverse Interview

Baron Harkonnen might be one of the easiest roles for Stellan Skarsgård to slip back into. It’s not because the Dune: Part Two villain is so outrageously evil, or because most of his scenes are shot on darkened sets. It’s because the makeup process to turn him into the bulging, blood-guzzling Baron is so excruciatingly long that by the time he emerges from the makeup trailer, he’s tapped into the Baron’s psychotic mindset.

“There’s no method behind it,” Skarsgård jokes to Inverse in an interview ahead of Dune: Part Two’s release. “It’s the kind of mindset you got to have of going through the makeup process of six to eight hours.”

Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen, whose ambitions for dominion over Arrakis, the desert planet that produces the coveted “spice,” is what leads to the slaughter of House Atreides in Dune: Part One. But unknown to the Harkonnens, there was a key survivor of the massacre: Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), who joins the native Fremen to take down the Harkonnens. Part Two sees Paul and the Fremen wage a guerilla war against the Harkonnen army, slowly dismantling their control of spice production. With the action moving into the desert, the film sees the Baron retreat further into the shadows, while his family members Rabban (Dave Bautista) and Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) carry out his dirty work. But despite his reduced screen time, Skarsgård knows he makes an impact.

“He is such an iconic figure that you only have to show him for five seconds, and then you can leave him, and he lingers,” Skarsgård says.

Inverse spoke to Skarsgård about showing an even darker side to the Baron, his favorite parts of working with director Denis Villeneuve, and what it’s like to yell at Bautista and Butler.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Skarsgård relished playing up the manipulative relationship between Baron Harkonnen and Feyd-Rautha.

Warner Bros.

The Dune movies are made on such a massive scale. There’s so much spectacle. Many of your scenes, though, are shot indoors, in the dark. Does that lend to your performance? And did you actually ever get to be on location with the rest of the crew, or is this just you in this dark space with the other Harkonnens?

No, I was very happy in my dark place because I could just imagine what would happen if you took that fat body with a lot of glue out in the sand. And I didn’t want that. [Baron Harkonnen] needs to be contained, and within that containment, he can play whatever he wants, but he is such an iconic figure that you only have to show him for five seconds, and then you can leave him, and he lingers.

It’s such a big production, you’re stuck in the prosthetics, but is there actually space for you to experiment with the role?

Yeah, definitely. Denis allows that. It’s become my way of acting. I’m trying different ways of approaching a line or moving to get more life. You can’t copy yourself. You do several takes, and if you copy yourself in detail, then it becomes stiff and without life. So you have to make obstructions for yourself.

What kind of obstructions?

It could be anything. It could be that you walk a different path or take a different pause, but it’s something that rocks your rhythm or something like that.

Denis Villeneuve directing Austin Butler and Dave Bautista.

Warner Bros.

Many of the scenes you have in Part Two are opposite Dave Bautista’s Rabban and Austin Butler’s Feyd-Rautha. For Rabban, you end up just berating him a lot of the time, while with Feyd-Rautha you have a dangerous push-pull with you manipulating this psychotic man. Can you talk about the opposing dynamics you have with these two scene partners, and what those dynamics tell us about the character?

Rabban, unlike Part One, I’m tired of him, and he has fucked up so many times while he’s working on Arrakis. I really want to find a new heir. And I think I have him in Austin Butler. He’s fantastic, he’s snake-like, and he’s agile in his way of moving and walking. It is really sexy, in a way. So I was very happy with Austin as my nephew.

The scenes on the Harkonnen home planet of Giedi Prime are so striking. It has this monochromatic look to it, it’s washed out, and it has these inkblot skies that look so unique. Can you talk about filming the Giedi Prime scenes, like playing the Chessmaster in the gladiator scenes?

Yeah. I risk Feyd-Rautha’s life because I have to see if he can take it. Is he really the tough guy that I need? And he is. But it is very risky, and we didn’t film it at the same time, the fight in the arena and us up in the tower. But it is a wonderful, fascistic kind of architecture. Both Hitler and Mussolini would’ve been very happy to have something like that.

Baron Harkonnen watches from the shadows while Feyd-Rautha slaughters his opponents on Giedi Prime.

Warner Bros.

Baron Harkonnen’s worst sins are depicted behind closed doors. What was the biggest challenge of playing scenes that really only show us the aftermath and have us hear the screams, but require the audience to fill in the gaps with their imagination?

The less you show, the better. In general, the audience’s fantasy is much worse than whatever you can show.

Can you talk about Denis’ direction for Part Two? What is his method as a director when he guides you through the scenes?

He, of course, prepared very well, but he doesn’t know exactly what he’s going to do with the scene because if he sees something that he thinks is better, he goes for it. And that gives you a feeling of playfulness, everything is possible. And that’s lovely. And Denis, he’s also very quiet on the set. He’s laughing, and nobody’s running, and nobody’s screaming. Everybody knows what they do. It is an ideal set to work with.

Dune: Part Two opens in theaters on March 1.

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