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Dune
Chia Bella James/Warner Bros.

How Timothée Chalamet Channeled The Blockbuster Pressure of Leading Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ Back Into His Role – Venice Q&A

The 78th Venice Film Festival kicks off tomorrow with one of its strongest line-ups in recent memory. And among the films taking their world premiere bows is Denis Villeneuve’s long-gestating adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic Dune. The grand scale of the novel outfoxed directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky (whose version never got to set) and David Lynch (who disowned his version citing producer and financier interference), but Villeneuve’s version promises to be definitive.

An epic tale of warring families, inhospitable landscapes and giant creatures, Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune splits the complex 400+ page novel in the middle, focusing the action in this first half on establishing the dense lore, and specifically on the young Paul Atreides, the 15-year-old son of a ruling house whose fate the series tracks.

For Timothée Chalamet, who plays Paul, it was a dream project: a step into the blockbuster big leagues to confirm his status as one of the most popular young stars of the moment, and more importantly, a chance to work with Villeneuve, whom Chalamet had followed since his earliest work.

In fact, as Chalamet tells me a few days before the start of the festival, he set up a Google news alert when he heard Villeneuve was directing the movie and set about contriving as many opportunities as he could to bank face time with the director. As Villeneuve has subsequently claimed, there was no other actor in his mind for the role, and the deal was struck after an animated meeting in Cannes between the two. But carrying the fate of a project of this scale on his shoulders came with its own set of challenges.

The movie premieres on Friday on the Lido ahead of a release in October. Chalamet has been living in London, already at work on his next blockbuster lead in Paul King’s Wonka. On a Zoom call, Chalamet talks Dune and Villeneuve, as well as his lightning trajectory since 2017’s Call Me by Your Name, and how he channeled his fear on the set of one of the year’s most enormous productions into playing Paul Atreides.

DEADLINE: In a few days Dune will premiere at the Venice Film Festival. You first met Denis Villeneuve about the role in May 2018 and started shooting in the early half of 2019. It was always going to be a long journey, but the pandemic stretched it even further. How does it feel to have finally arrived at this moment?

TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET: You know, I like to think that with every film I’ve done, whether it’s Call Me by Your Name or Beautiful Boy, The King, or Little Women, the character you play is almost a piece of your flesh. And that’s always true, but simply from the perspective of how long the shoot for Dune was, and also the arc that Paul Atreides is on, as well as the huge love and almost biblical connection that so many people have for the book and the original film, it really felt… tectonic, if that’s the right word for it. Just getting to this finish line feels like: phew.

And independent of what the film is now, and what it has become, the experience of making it was I was put in such a safe environment, which you can never take for granted as a human, as an actor, but especially when you’re just starting your career, and when this is the first film of this size you’ve ever done.

To get to work with Denis on it, to get to work with someone of his caliber, let alone on a book that he considers the book of his youth and one of the things he has connected to the most… When he would have it in his hands on set, his body language would become that of a fan; of a kid who had fallen in love with the book at home in Montreal. And when all the kids around him were wearing hockey jerseys with their favorite players’ names on the back, this was a kid wearing a jersey that said ‘Spielberg’ on the back.

For it all to come together, especially with the added challenge of the pandemic, it has all combined to make this moment feel especially spicy [laughs].

Timothee Chalamet in Dune

DEADLINE: The entire ensemble will show up in Venice.

CHALAMET: Right. And I just can’t believe it; Jason Momoa has the number one film on Netflix right now with Sweet Girl, which I just watched. And since we shot, Zendaya has had all this success with Euphoria and Malcolm & Marie. Just to be part of this cast, period, let alone as one of the title characters, it’s really the shit you dream of.

And let me not forget, too—and I know I’ve told you this before—that The Dark Knight was the movie that made me want to act. That movie had a score by Hans Zimmer, and he has done the score for Dune. And it’s almost not what you’d think. It’s totally appropriate and excellent for the movie, but he has somehow managed to do something subversive, in my opinion. It’s a pinch-me moment all over.

DEADLINE: So, take me back to the start. Is it true you had a Google alert set up to track the latest news on this project before you were ever cast?

CHALAMET: Yeah, it’s true [laughs]. Not right away—Legendary had the rights and was developing it—but as soon as Denis got involved, I set up a Google alert and that’s when I got the book.

In total honesty, I think my understanding of Dune at that point was from a graphic novel I’d seen at Midtown Comics when I was shopping for Yu-Gi-Oh! cards when I was about 10. The year you and I first met, when I was there at Deadline Contenders with Call Me by Your Name, that would have been 2017 or early 2018, and Denis was there with Blade Runner. I remember I was trying to put myself in front of him as much as possible and set up a meeting with him. We had a night at the BAFTAs where one of my good friends, Stéphane Bak—who’s also an actor—saw Denis across the room and was like, “Hey buddy, he’s right over there.” So, we went over to talk to him. I kept trying to put myself in front of him, but I didn’t really get a sense of the possibility [of working with him].

I was about halfway through the book when I got the call that he was going to be the president of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, and I was in London prepping The King. He asked me if I could come out there, so I quickly busted through the second half of the book as best I could. So, like, the first half of my copy is properly annotated and full of my thoughts, and then the second half I just raced through. And then I had that meeting with him, and it was such a joy.

I’m struggling with this even now, as I’m working with Paul King [on Wonka], because he’s another guy I have huge respect and admiration for, and it’s hard to feel on a level. Not that you ever are, because as an actor you’re a cog in the machine, and you’ve got to be humble to the vision of the director. But with Denis, he was pacing around the room, throwing ideas around, in some fancy suite in Cannes, and all I could think was that a year before I was just sat on a stoop on 9th Street in the East Village or something.

Josh Brolin and Timothee Chalamet in Dune

DEADLINE: Was that your first time in Cannes?

CHALAMET: Yeah. Well, bizarrely, my sister would do dance camps growing up. Ballet intensive programs in a town called Mougins, which is nearby Cannes, so I spent a lot of time there growing up, but never during the festival, and not on the Riviera. To get to be there for the festival was just nuts. I went to see the Romain Gavras movie, I think, and it was just a huge joy.

I got attached [to the role in Dune] a couple of months after that, and it was nerve-wracking from the announcement, because like I said before, the fans of the book, and the fans of David Lynch version, the computer game, and everything, there’s so much love and strength of feeling. And so much of our pop culture and films and books have been derived from Dune, and all the philosophy in the book. I’ve been shocked to learn how many people have a next-level connection to the book. I compare it to how our generation grew up with Harry Potter, and that one makes sense to me. But it’s cool to see with Dune also, when you actually sit down and read it… It’s not that it’s a quote-unquote “hard read” or anything, but it’s not made to be consumed easily, I think that’s fair to say.

So, I was grateful to be working on something of this size not only with Denis Villeneuve leading it, who between Polytechnique, Incendies and Prisoners had nailed the smaller indie film across languages, and then had nailed Arrival and Blade Runner, but who, in his own words, he didn’t feel he’d made his greatest film yet. But also, to be working with this cast. I don’t know if there’s some nightmare version of a film where a young lead is not supported by the rest of his cast, where every one of them had been the leads in their own huge projects. But on this, everyone was there to support, and I think it’s because we all wanted to be foot soldiers for Denis, and I think we understood the potential, based on the script by Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts and Denis, that this could be something really special.

DEADLINE: I don’t have a connection to Dune; this movie is really my first experience of the story. What strikes me is this is clearly an enormous universe—a broad canvas being painted with various families and factions and politics and mythos—but that ultimately it comes down to very elemental, human themes, and we feel them through this character you play, Paul Atreides. Did those themes help ground the experience for you?

CHALAMET: Yes, and I would give the credit entirely to Denis. He would constantly say on set that he had some opposing drumbeat or something. In my diminished intellectual standing, I didn’t understand it, but it was like some vision for the movie based on how biblical the book is that tries to tackle so much that it doesn’t tackle anything. I think he felt the need to be close to a character in it, and Paul is that guy in the book. He’s a character that is still in formation, like a lump of clay, which makes him a great figure for the audience to mirror off.

It speaks, I think, to Denis’ premonition and his directing ability that there were times when we’d move on from a shot or move on from a scene, and I swear, literally, we’d go back because Denis wanted to get something over my shoulder, or push in on my reaction, just to make sure [it stayed on Paul].

And again, it’s something where I’m pinching myself. I had the best time on Interstellar, and that was one of my favorite films I’ve ever worked on, but it was very much something where I was aware of when I had the opportunity to do real acting. And on a movie like Dune, again, one could think it would get lost in the scale and scope. But I felt every day like my plate was full.

Zendaya and Timothee Chalamet in Dune

DEADLINE: One of those themes is fear, and Paul must overcome his to become the person he needs to be. When you are number one on the call sheet on a project of this scale, and the cast list reads like an address book of Hollywood in the 21st century, and Legendary has injected hundreds of millions of dollars into this production, and it’s all falling on your shoulders, I have to imagine fear is a theme you can readily relate to.

CHALAMET: Oh yeah, and they can bleed into each other for sure—not to diminish the other work that goes in. It’s great when your life experience can inform the role. That’s not at all to say I’m on some crusade in the universe or anything, but definitely… And I had that same good fortune with The King I think. My life is not nearly as significant or as exciting as Paul or Prince Hal, but we all share an unwitting needle in the haystack feeling. On The King that feeling was because I was so new to having a career. On Dune it’s because of, as you say, just feeling the pressure of the hugeness of the project in all those different ways. Those things can absolutely inform each other.

And then there are the moments of glee that come, too, like seeing Jason Momoa running at you at a hundred miles an hour, or just getting to shoot the shit with Josh Brolin, or getting to do a scene with Oscar Isaac. I felt so supported, whether it was Rebecca Ferguson or Charlotte Rampling. When Zendaya came, it was a total breath of fresh air, and she’s one of my favorite parts of the movie. I just got really lucky, and I can’t wait to see them all in Venice.

Denis split the book in half, and the hope is a second movie will get a greenlight. That’d expand Zendaya’s role in the story.

CHALAMET: Definitely, Chani will play a huge role in the next film. I don’t know if there’s a script yet, but just based on the book, along with Lady Jessica [Rebecca Ferguson], they have a lot to do together, let’s put it like that.

Zendaya was incredible in this movie; the moment she pulls the mask down, it felt properly showstopping and powerful. I was hiding behind the camera, counting my lucky stars, because I was there in month two of the shoot, and here was a total powerhouse just coming in for the first time.

And as I said before, this was before I’d seen Euphoria and Malcolm & Marie. She’s doing such incredible work and is just trailblazing her own path, and she’s so, so cool. She also happens to be in the most-watched trailer of the moment, too, for Spider-Man: No Way Home. I cannot wait for that movie, and I was there, by the way, with everybody else, clicking through the trailer frame by frame looking for clues [laughs].

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