Inside the “Dune” dynasty: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Austin Butler, and Florence Pugh dig into the battle for Arrakis

Inside the “Dune” dynasty: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Austin Butler, and Florence Pugh dig into the battle for Arrakis

The first movie was a sensation, but it was only half the story. Now, director Denis Villeneuve and his hand-picked stars break down their epic sci-fi sequel.

Timothée Chalamet is thinking ahead. Fresh off proving his song-and-dance chops with Wonka, the 28-year-old global superstar is ready to show the world what Paul Atreides can really do in the highly anticipated Dune sequel. But his eyes are also on the horizon. Chalamet, clad in all black, shows up to Entertainment Weekly’s cover shoot for Dune: Part Two at a Beverly Hills hotel with Bluetooth speaker in hand, blasting Bob Dylan’s album Blonde on Blonde. The actor is set to play the iconic Minnesota musician in an upcoming biopic, and it won’t be the first time Chalamet has tackled a character with messianic ambitions.

Paul Atreides, after all, is the only man in the Dune universe with the ability to see forward and backward in time. That makes him the Kwisatz Haderach, a messiah figure long prophesied by the female-only mystic order known as the Bene Gesserit, and is perhaps uniquely capable of avenging his family’s destruction in the first Dune film.

Paul isn’t alone in this fight, but he doesn’t yet know all of his enemies. Flanking Chalamet at the early February cover shoot are Zendaya (returning from the first film as the Fremen warrior Chani), Florence Pugh (making her debut as Princess Irulan, heir to the throne of the universe), and Austin Butler (playing Paul’s opposite, the dark prince Feyd-Rautha). These four young stars feel like the future — not just of this franchise, but blockbuster cinema itself.

“They're superpower actors,” Chalamet says of his costars. “They know instinctively how to exist in a movie of this size and really bring a strong presence, while also keeping the naturalism alive and believable. That’s something I feel like I achieved more on this one, where on the first one it was a new skill set for me.”

Like this cast, the first Dune was all about potential. Throughout the 2021 film, authority figures such as Bene Gesserit matriarch Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) identify Paul as having all the necessary traits to change the fate of the universe… but the specifics of why and how he might do this were mostly left vague. Dune: Part Two is about fulfilling those big promises — for director Denis Villeneuve and his hand-picked actors as much as for the characters themselves. If the second film can match the artistic highs and commercial success of the first (which raked in more than $400 million at the global box office, despite the lingering pandemic and simultaneously releasing on HBO Max, and won six of its 10 Oscar nominations), Villeneuve & Co. will have accomplished something most people assumed to be impossible. But that’s not to say it was easy making these dreams a reality.

The Prophet

Paul grows a lot over the course of the first Dune: Torn away from his homeworld, this privileged son of the noble House Atreides watched as his family was exterminated by their longtime enemies, House Harkonnen, in a power play for control of the valuable spice melange. He then learns the hard way how to fend for himself in the hostile environment of the desert planet Arrakis, while also reckoning with his strange, spice-induced visions of a bloody future to come.

But that movie ended before Chalamet could fully embody Paul’s transformation into the revolutionary leader known by Arrakis’ desert-dwelling Fremen as Muad’Dib. So when the time finally came on Dune: Part Two, the actor stopped at nothing to seize his big moment. “My humbling lesson on the first movie was that, even with a great character like Paul, I’m really just a moving part in a greater picture, a greater purpose and story,” Chalamet says.

In order to avenge his family and triumph over the Harkonnens who murdered his father, Chalamet’s character must grow beyond his original name and become the Lissan al-Gaib (which literally translates to “voice from the Outer World” in the Freman language of Chakobsa), a long-prophesied savior who will lead the Fremen to victory and paradise. To do that, he must prove that he can handle the Fremen way of life as well as if he were born to it — and, in a climactic sequence, deliver a show-stopping speech in their language.

<p>Peter Ash Lee</p> Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya

Peter Ash Lee

Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya

Villeneuve recruited linguist David J. Peterson (who worked on Game of Thrones’ Dothraki language) to fully develop Chakobsa. Dune novelist Frank Herbert described this dialect in his books, but didn’t index it as fully as, say, J.R.R. Tolkien did with Elvish. So Peterson crafted a vocabulary and pronunciations that could actually be used by actors including Chalamet, Zendaya, and Javier Bardem (who returns as the Fremen leader Stilgar).

“All the actors went to Fremen school!” Villeneuve tells EW. “I’m not joking. They took weeks to learn the language and came on set absolutely fluent. There was even a dialect coach on set. Everybody took it so seriously, and I was so moved to see Timothée give whole speeches in Chakobsa.”

Chalamet recalls being particularly eager to shoot Paul’s rousing speech to a commune of gathered Fremen — a scene he considers an instant career highlight, thanks to the sheer difficulty and the many years of preparation and anticipation that went into it. “Those five days on set, speaking in a language that was conceived for the films, I was just savoring those days,” he says. “I wanted to bring justice not just to the arc of Paul, but also to Dune. And I knew that those were the days. Even when we rehearsed that scene, we went all in.”

“I remember coming to watch that day, and usually it's all lighthearted, like, ‘Hey, what's up?’” says Zendaya. “But that day I was like, ‘Oh no, he’s serious right now.’”

“I actually felt bad about that,” Chalamet continues. “But it’s true. I thought, ‘I’m in the pocket. Let me just get this done.’ I'm really proud of that scene. That might have been my favorite day on set.”

Asked about this comment the next day, Villeneuve says with a smile, “Of course it was one of Timothée's favorite moments, because he was looking for that since Part One! He was begging for that moment, dreaming about it, for weeks and months — the moment where Paul will finally become the Lissan al-Gaib.”

When it finally happened years later, Villeneuve says he was “amazed by what Timothée brought to life. It’s something to see that shy boy from the beginning bring all the firepower in that scene. I was moved to tears by how magnificent and powerful he was.”

Paul’s power comes from sound, from the words he speaks to the supernatural Voice he can deploy to command others — all enhanced by the almost cosmic tones of the film itself. Sound designers Mark Mangini and Theo Green won an Oscar for orchestrating those multifaceted intonations in the first Dune, as did Hans Zimmer for his stirring score that combines Arabic influences with entirely invented instruments. And there’s more where that came from in Part Two. (You can hear an excerpt of Zimmer’s new soundtrack here.)

“The music really is so striking and so beautiful. It brings such emotion to everything,” Zendaya says. “You look at what Denis and everyone else has created and you're like, ‘Somehow this will become even better when you put music to it.’ And it does! It’s really, really special.”

<p>Peter Ash Lee</p> Zendaya and Florence Pugh

Peter Ash Lee

Zendaya and Florence Pugh

The Warrior

For all its pervasive influence throughout pop culture, Dune is still a product of the ‘60s. In particular, Herbert’s treatment of female characters such as Chani and Paul’s mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) feels more than a little retrograde today. Villeneuve wanted to adjust that while staying true to the author’s vision.

“In the second part of the book, Chani and Lady Jessica are a bit more in the background — which I didn't like, because I am absolutely in love with both characters,” Villeneuve says. “I felt it was more meaningful to give them more substance and presence, their own agendas.”

When the first Dune hit theaters and HBO Max in October 2021, many viewers shared a common complaint: Why wasn’t there more Zendaya? Although the actress had been heavily featured in marketing (and also serves as the opening narrator of the film), she was only on the desert set — most of Dune's Arrakis scenes were filmed in Abu Dhabi and Jordan's Wadi Rum, also known as Valley of the Moon — for a week.

Dune readers knew that Chani would have a lot more to work with in Part Two, since the Fremen become a bigger presence in the story as it goes on. But even the biggest Dune nerds may be surprised by how much more unyielding Chani is in the film. Zendaya certainly was.

“I had been thinking a lot about her,” Zendaya says about the years between filming. “I listened to the book over and over again to see if there was anything that I missed, or things about her that I could hold on to. But something that I really appreciated about what Denis did with Chani is that he does give her her own convictions and heart. In the book, she kind of immediately acquiesces to the fact that he's the messiah and she never questions it.”

Not so here! Despite falling in love with Paul, Chani rejects his takeover of the Fremen movement. She wants to defeat the Harkonnens, but not if it means switching out one white-skinned overlord for another.

“That was more exciting for me to play because it was a little more complicated,” Zendaya says. “It’s harder for her to love this person because of what they represent to her and her having to get over that. It’s constantly something that she's battling inside of herself. That gave me something more to hold on to, and I really appreciated that. It was fun to figure out and live with her a little bit longer because a week wasn't enough!”

For Villeneuve, Chani became a vessel to embody the critique of power that becomes more apparent in Herbert’s later Dune novels.

“When Frank Herbert wrote Dune, he was disappointed at how people perceived Paul,” Villeneuve says. “In his mind, Dune was a cautionary tale — a warning against charismatic figures. He felt that Paul was perceived as a hero, when he wanted to do the opposite. So in order to correct that, he wrote Dune Messiah, a kind of epilogue that makes it very clear this story is not a victory, it’s a tragedy.”

When the first Dune film came out, Villeneuve told EW that he wanted to make not just two movies, but a third one based on Dune Messiah, which sees Paul change from a heroic leader to a despotic emperor in his own right. That movie has not been greenlit yet (once again, we’ll have to see how the latest performs with audiences), but even if it never happens, Villeneuve wanted to incorporate some of its ideas into this movie by having Chani voice them: Why is the long-held Fremen dream of turning the sands of Arrakis into a green paradise being sublimated to this noble’s desire for violent revenge? Why are we trusting this man as a savior when we know these messiah myths were planted generations ago by Bene Gesserit like his mother?

“With humility, I hope that this adaptation is closer to Frank Herbert’s original intentions,” Villeneuve says. “I used Chani’s character to do so. I gave her a different agenda, and used her to bring a different perspective to the story.”

<p>Peter Ash Lee</p> Florence Pugh

Peter Ash Lee

Florence Pugh

The Princess

Princess Irulan guides readers through the novel Dune — every chapter begins with a quote from her future histories of the book’s events. This role as narrator was superseded by Chani in the first film, but now the princess has arrived. Before anyone complains about her amount of screen time in Part Two, Villeneuve is quick to guarantee that he has big plans for her in potential future films.

“When I approached Zendaya for Part One, I said, ‘I'm going to introduce your character, and if it is a second movie, then you will be one of the main protagonists.’ And she agreed,” Villeneuve says. “I made the same deal with Florence. Her character is introduced in Part Two, but then if there is an adaptation of Dune Messiah, of course Princess Irulan is one of the main characters in that story.”

Irulan still has an important part to play in Part Two. Although ensconced in privilege as the daughter of Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken), the princess is the first to realize that Paul Atreides is still alive. Trained since birth in the ways of both royal power and Bene Gesserit wisdom, she sees things that escape both her imperial father and her mystic mentors.

“Florence is quite a human being. She has that kind of inner strength that I was looking for,” Villeneuve says. “I didn't want Irulan to be a victim, or to feel like a tool. I wanted her to have her own agenda, and take her destiny in her own hands. I love actors who are good listeners. I love when I can shoot someone listening to others, and you see a whole story happening in their eyes. Florence was absolutely fantastic for that. She was able to capture all the tension that her character is going through in her silences.”

Silence is not necessarily the first trait we associate with Pugh, who earned an Oscar nomination in 2020 for nailing Little Women’s chatterbox Amy March.

“The characters that I've chosen in the past are usually unbelievably vocal, very loud and opinionated,” Pugh says. “I think this might be one of the quietest characters I've ever played. But what I loved about the script is that she's constantly listening and constantly aware. You're not quite sure what she's listening for or what she's looking for, and then it's only towards the end where you realize that she's been on top of it from the beginning.”

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Peter Ash Lee</a></p> Florence Pugh and Zendaya

Peter Ash Lee

Florence Pugh and Zendaya

Irulan also has a distinctive look. Jacqueline West is back as costume designer, and though she usually specializes in historical films (she just earned her fifth Oscar nomination for her work on Killers of the Flower Moon), she was able to bring some realism into the sci-fi spectacle of Dune.

“I learned so much about Princess Irulan from just my first costume fitting,” Pugh says. “You never know what version of a princess you're going to play. I assumed it was going to be lots of decadence and jewels, but just the fact that so much of her style was inspired by Japanese kimonos — I wouldn't have imagined that, but then it makes so much sense.”

Then there’s Walken. The actor has some Dune bona fides: He starred in the 2001 music video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice,” with lyrics (“Walk without rhythm, and it won’t attract the worm”) directly referencing Herbert’s novel. But it’s really his movie star aura, honed by decades of iconic roles, that made Walken the director’s only choice to play the emperor of the universe. Even on set, the other actors could feel his power.

“It was cool to see even legends like Javier Bardem be starstruck by Walken,” Chalamet recalls.

“They were like little boys, all taking turns to be like, ‘Hi, Chris!’” Pugh says.

“He is a legend,” adds Villeneuve, “and everybody bows in front of the legend. That kind of charisma transcends the camera. He’s not the president of the United States, he’s the emperor of the universe! You need to feel that commanding power when he walks into a room.”

The Emperor isn’t the only major character who has to immediately make his presence felt in Dune: Part Two. Paul may be a prince with much promise, but he’s not the only one. His dark opposite, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, is waiting in the wings.

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Peter Ash Lee</a></p> Austin Butler

Peter Ash Lee

Austin Butler

The Dark Prince

Though previous literary blockbuster adaptations like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy filmed all their installments at once, the production of Dune: Part Two was contingent on the success of the first. Villeneuve now sees that taking a break in between was the better approach for Dune after all.

“Both movies were made in very harsh conditions, and it's very physically taxing, so to have a break in between them was a blessing,” Villeneuve says. “My first thought was to shoot both movies back to back together, but now I think I would have died. It was really intense, and seeing how the world reacted to Part One was a boost of positive energy to go back into the desert.”

As an example of just how harsh things could get, look no further than Austin Butler’s first week on set. In his debut scene, Feyd-Rautha battles a trio of fighters in a gladiator arena to prove his worth as heir to his despotic uncle, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen ( Stellan Skarsgård). As it happened, the actor also had to prove that he could handle the desert of Dune.

“It was 110 degrees and so hot,” Butler recalls. “I had the bald cap on, and it was between two soundstages that were just these gray boxes of 200-foot walls and sand. It became like a microwave. There were people passing out from heatstroke. And that was just my first week.”

Yet, Butler adds, “It really bonds the entire crew. There’s something so humbling about being in such an uncomfortable environment.”

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Peter Ash Lee</a></p> Austin Butler and Florence Pugh

Peter Ash Lee

Austin Butler and Florence Pugh

The gladiator sequence is also distinct from any other in Dune: Part Two. In order to distinguish the Harkonnen homeworld of Giedi Prime from the desert sands of the planet Arrakis, Villeneuve and his Oscar-winning cinematographer Greig Fraser shot the scene in a ghostly black and white. Mixing monochrome with color photography was a big trend in 2023’s most acclaimed movies like Oppenheimer and Poor Things, but Villeneuve says this concept was written into his script from the beginning. Fraser brought it to life with infrared cameras that make Giedi Prime look totally devoid of color (you can see more of his stunning photography in the official book, The Art and Soul of Dune: Part Two, available March 1).

“I wanted their world to feel binary, fascist, insectoid, without nuances,” Villeneuve says.

What kind of person does such an environment produce? Butler had first read Dune as a teenager and remembered the impression Feyd-Rautha made on him. Like Paul, the Harkonnen prince is the descendant of a great galactic dynasty. But where House Atreides raised their scion with empathy and a strong sense of duty, Feyd-Rautha was taught to take sadistic pleasure in the destruction of his enemies. That’s how you flourish in the light of a black sun.

Butler earned an Oscar nomination last year for embodying the King of Rock & Roll in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, and Villeneuve wanted that rock star quality for the Dune villain he describes as a “psychopath swordmaster mixed with Mick Jagger.” Even a bald cap and pale skin makeup can’t suppress Butler’s sex appeal, which Feyd-Rautha wields like a weapon. But viewers should not expect a Southern accent this time. As perfectly as Butler imitated Presley’s voice, when he plays Feyd-Rautha, he’s on the opposite end of the spectrum with a chilling impression of Skarsgård.

“I felt that because he grew up with the Baron, the Baron would be a big influence on him in many ways,” Butler says. “So then I started thinking about the way that he speaks, and that being linked to the person that you see with the most power from the time that you're a child, who you do end up emulating in some way.”

The Baron exudes power and domination. It was he, after all, who masterminded the destruction of House Atreides in the first Dune, even roping the galactic Emperor into aiding his machinations.

As Dune: Part Two begins, everything seems to be going Baron Harkonnen’s way. He survived a last-ditch murder attempt by the late Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), Arrakis is swarming with heavily armored Harkonnen soldiers, and Feyd-Rautha is ready to make a dramatic entrance on the galactic stage to impress the Emperor (who has no sons of his own). How can Paul and his Fremen allies possibly stand up to such force?

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Peter Ash Lee</a></p> Austin Butler and Timothée Chalamet

Peter Ash Lee

Austin Butler and Timothée Chalamet

The Worm

There’s one thing that Paul Atreides must do above all else: Prove he can ride a sandworm. This is an iconic moment from Herbert’s book, and likely at the top of every viewer’s wish list after the first Dune ended with a glimpse of a worm-riding Fremen..

“In the book, it’s just written, ‘and then Paul rides the worm,’” says Villeneuve, “with no real clues of how a Fremen will actually jump onto a sandworm, this great beast with high speed and tremendous power. So from the worm behavior that we had created in Part One, I had to figure out how a human being could approach that: What is the Fremen technique? What do the maker hooks like? How do you use them? It required a tremendous amount of [research and development].”

Ultimately, a whole team was dedicated just to designing and filming the worm ride sequence. Led by Villeneuve’s wife, producer Tanya Lapointe, they were quickly christened the Worm Unit.

“They're partners, they have a dialogue without having to be specific or verbal,” Chalamet says of Lapointe and Villeneuve. “You go to the Worm Unit, and you go up this ladder onto a platform. You get on a little slab of worm — I hope that's never taken out of context — that they practically built, like a scale. And then you get two gripping devices.”

“They figure things out before we get there,” adds Zendaya, who did some worm riding herself. “They have already thought about the intricacies of what position your wrists should be in, how your legs should be. So I was like, ‘Okay, if it looks good on them, how do I do what they're doing?’ You try to find the positioning as much as you can.”

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Peter Ash Lee</a></p> Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya

Peter Ash Lee

Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya

As if that wasn’t complicated enough, the actors also had an industrial fan blowing sand in their faces as they figured out their physical position on the worm simulator.

“If it were not for the Worm Unit, I would still be shooting the movie right now,” Villeneuve says. “Some of those shots took weeks to do. It was technically very intense because I wanted a level of realism that has not been seen before, and I wanted to make sure that the audience would absolutely believe in Paul's journey. That was by far the most complex sequence I have ever done in my life.”

The hope is that all of that hard work — the immense logistical challenges and the long hours in the desert sun — will pay off with a new achievement in blockbuster cinema. When it comes to the worm ride in particular, Villeneuve has gotten to see his vision come true.

“Frankly, it's exactly the dream I had,” Villeneuve says. “Every time I see the scene, I’m sincerely moved because it has exactly the visual qualities I was looking for. I wanted it to feel so real, so edgy, and so dangerous.”

If anyone could pull it off, it’s Dune’s — and Hollywood’s — golden children.

—Additional reporting by Devan Coggan


Directed by Alison Wild & Kristen Harding 

Photographs by Peter Ash Lee

Motion - DP: Kayla Hoff; Set Design: Ward Robinson/Wooden Ladder; Steadicam Op: Luke Rihl; 1st AC: Jacob Laureanti; Gaffer: Sebastien Nuta; BBE: Nasser Akkari; Key Grip: Kevin Paniagua; BBG: Riley Prichard; PA: Calie Schepp; Color Correction: Kayla Hoff; VFX: Khimaira Studio; Design: Chuck Kerr; Composer: Hans Zimmer

Photo - 1st Assistant: Hyeonwoo Lee; 2nd Assistant: Andrew Harless; Digital Tech: Tim Mahoney; Set Design: Priscilla Lee

Zendaya - Styling: Law Roach/The Only Agency; Hair: Taije Simon/The Only Agency; Makeup: Ernesto Casillas/Opus Beauty; Dress: Elie Saab; Shoes: Louboutin; Jewelry: Bvlgari

Florence Pugh - Styling: Rebecca Corbin-Murray/The Wall Group; Hair: Adir Abergel/A-Frame; Makeup: Jenna Kristina/Forward Artists; Dress: Standing Ground; Jewelry: Suzanne Klan

Austin Butler - Sandra Amador/The Wall Group; Grooming: Christine Nelli/Kalpana; Coat: LGN Louis Gabriel Nouchi; Shirt: Givenchy; Trousers: Hope; Jewelry: David Yurman; Boots: Vintage

Timothée Chalamet - Styling: Ryan Hastings; Grooming: Jamie Taylor/A-Frame; Wardrobe: Margiela; Jewelry: Cartier 

Video Interview - DP: Eric Longden; Super 8 B-Roll: Matilda Montgomery; Sound: Lalo Guzman; PA: Joseph Farrer, Editor: Morgan Sanguedolce

EW Creative - Photo Director: Alison Wild; Head of Video: Kristen Harding; Creative Director: Chuck Kerr

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