Though Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is about Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides’ gradual rise to prominence in the galaxy, none of it would be possible without his mother, Lady Jessica. Played by Rebecca Ferguson, Jessica is the lover of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and more importantly, the member of an order of witches known as the Bene Gesserit, and has been subtly orchestrating events so the Atreides’ journey to the planet Arrakis could be the starting point for an entire galactic revolution.
Jessica’s got a lot going on, and Fergusson recently spoke in a pair of interviews (one of which has some spoilers!) on how she and Villeneuve brought this version of the character to life. As a newcomer to the franchise entirely, she wasn’t entirely sure about taking the role when he initially pitched it to her. “You want me to be regal and poised?,” she recalled to Variety, adding that it’s a role she’s done plenty of times before. “I would literally be a teapot for you, but I don’t think that’s the role for me, dude.” It was only after he sold Jessica as “the strongest woman in the world, and her fear for when she creates chaos and has to bring her son in front of death,” that she was won over.
David Lynch’s cult classic 1984 adaptation looms over this new Dune, where that Lady Jessica was played by Francesca Annis. Though it obviously informed Ferguson’s take on the character, she soon made her own distinct version of Jessica. Speaking to Indiewire, she found that Jessica’s inner rebellion and her love were her greatest strength. “Her belief in herself, and her belief and love for Leto are bigger than the quest that she is sent to do. That’s an interesting starting point for a character and a journey.”
As an example of this new Jessica’s inner strength, Ferguson referenced two moments from the film. The first comes before the Atreides’ journey to Arrakis, where her character doing the Litany Against Fear, an iconic quote that belongs to Paul in the books, but is here given to Jessica instead. “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,” Ferguson said. “She can stand in the background and be the most powerful character in the room.”
The second comes at the end when Paul and Jessica join forces with the Fremen. As her son walks past her, Jessica’s face changes from a soft smile to something a little more foreboding. That moment came from Ferguson herself the day they were shooting the scene. “Denis and I were playing with different things, and I remember saying, ‘Just stay on me for two seconds, I want to try something.’” It’s a look that conveys a lot, and Ferguson viewed it as stepping down, as parents eventually have to do. “She knows when to back away and give space. But what we get to feel is, it’s not over, this too shall pass.”
Dune’s future as a franchise is sort of in flux, and she hopes that she’ll get the chance to continue Jessica’s story. “It’d feel really sad and empty and odd to leave the character where is,” she said. Now that she knows what’s in store for her character, she’s chomping at the bit for that to become a reality. She’d even DIY the sequels, if she could. “Let’s just scrape money together and do our indie version of it! “If we don’t get anyone else to be for it, let’s just film it. I have a big garden, guys!”
Dune will release in Australian cinemas on December 2.