‘Dune’ Director Denis Villeneuve on Casting Timothée Chalamet to Lead His Sci-Fi Epic

“I needed an old soul in the body of a teenager."

Article Image
Photo Source: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures

Considering that adapting Frank Herbert’s novel for the screen has long been considered a bad idea, Denis Villeneuve is feeling pretty good about his “Dune.” Part One of the sci-fi duology brought some of the industry’s greatest minds together to create its desert world, one where building-size sandworms roam, a magical substance called spice is mined as a precious commodity, and only the blue-eyed Fremen have mastered the terrain. 

It’s now nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including two for Villeneuve as a producer and co-screenwriter. 

“That is what’s beautiful about the award ceremonies for me: It puts a spotlight on people who are usually kept in the shadows,” Villeneuve says of the Oscar recognition for the film’s costumes, hair and makeup, production design, and more. “These artists are very important. They are the core of the film process.”

Director Denis Villeneuve and Timothée Chalamet on the set of “Dune” Credit: Chiabella James 

They’re not the only “Dune” practitioners who are at the height of their powers. The film’s actors more than rise to the occasion, particularly today’s preeminent Gen Z heartthrob, Timothée Chalamet; he holds nearly every frame of the film as its hero, Paul Atreides. 

“I was not afraid for a second that he would not be able to carry the weight of the project,” Villeneuve says of the “Call Me by Your Name” Oscar nominee. Aside from Chalamet’s proven talent at holding the camera’s gaze (he “has beautiful, aristocratic features”), the filmmaker had one additional requirement for the role. 

“[Chalamet] is someone at such a young age who already has a very interesting life experience, and it’s something that transpired on the screen,” he says, citing Paul’s coming-of-age journey in the aftermath of his father’s death. “I needed an old soul in the body of a teenager, and he was the perfect actor to bring that.”

It’s an interesting task, though, to direct a movie star in their first epic. Chalamet has garnered acclaim for his grounded character work in projects like “Lady Bird” and “Little Women.” If there was a learning curve for the demands of a special effects–laden blockbuster, he’d be forgiven. He was also in good hands with Villeneuve, who is himself a veteran of indie film. The director insists that “the process for a movie with a $1 million budget or a $12 million budget is the same process. The difference is in the preparation. It’s what I create around the actor that is different, but the acting itself and the work of the actor are the same.” 

Executive Producer Tanya Lapointe and Director Denis Villeneuve Credit: Chiabella James

As impressive as the world-building of “Dune” is, Villeneuve is aware that it would mean little without characters like Paul. “I’m trying, as I should, to put all my efforts and my attention into the acting,” he says.

Of making a character-driven film within the context of a high-stakes space adventure, the filmmaker explains, “It’s very important for me to create a space around the camera for the actors to focus and feel respected so they don’t need to try to protect their own bubble. I am there to protect them. Then, there’s something very playful about the way I approach it. I try to create a relationship with actors I’m working with where they trust me, so I can have the chance to bring them into the zone that I want, while the art is still safe. It’s all about the relationships.”

Now in the early days of preproduction for “Dune: Part Two,” Villeneuve anticipates revisiting its returning actors in a new light. 

“I don’t have to create friendship between them. It’s there. That’s huge,” he says. “It will allow me to go much deeper into the relationships between the characters and keep the scope alive.” Unfortunately for those looking for intel on what’s to come, Villeneuve is tight-lipped: “The truth is, I don’t like to talk about projects when I’m about to work on them. Creativity is a very fragile process, and I like to protect that space.” 

This story originally appeared in the Mar. 17 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.