[This interview contains spoilers for Dune.]
Dune star Sharon Duncan-Brewster is still over the moon about her trip to the planet of Arrakis. In Denis Villeneuve’s latest critically acclaimed sci-fi film, Duncan-Brewster plays Dr. Liet Kynes, a mysterious Imperial ecologist who oversees the transition between House Harkonnen and House Atreides as the stewards of Arrakis. For Dr. Kynes’ introduction scene, Duncan-Brewster put a great deal of pressure on herself since she was not only acting with Atreides and Hollywood royalty (Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin), but she was also following in the footsteps of the late great Max von Sydow, who played Kynes in David Lynch’s Dune (1984).
“These are the big boys and girls of Hollywood, and I had all of these scenes where it’s normally just me on my own, standing my own ground and addressing all of these very talented individuals,” Duncan-Brewster tells The Hollywood Reporter. “This was also the one scene that stuck in my head as, ‘You’ve got to get this right, Sharon.’ The one thing I didn’t want to do was try to be a female version of Max [von Sydow]. No one could ever touch what he did because he’s the wonderful actor that he was.”
Duncan-Brewster is also opening up about her character’s powerful sendoff after helping Paul Atreides (Chalamet) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) flee the Sardaukar.
“What a way to go. What a way to praise your purpose and whoever it is that you serve. And with a smile,” Duncan-Brewster shares. “I remember doing loads of reshoots for my hand going down. There was a metal plate embedded about a meter down underneath the sand, and it vibrated, so I couldn’t stop laughing. It was like being tickled for some reason. This was one of my main moments in the film and I was like a little giggly child.”
At the end of the film, the audience is left with a bit of ambiguity regarding her character as a Kynes-like figure appears to be riding the giant sandworm, Shai-Hulud.
“All I can say is that I don’t know what that is, and I actually haven’t asked the question about it,” Duncan-Brewster says. “The wonderful thing about it is that it can mean whatever the audience member wants it to mean. I really like the fact that Kynes could be dead, or is dead, and what we’re seeing is something otherworldly. As it should be. If you’re going to go on your way, go on your way in style. So I really do genuinely look forward to seeing what happens next because, oh my gosh, it’s going to be amazing.”
Prior to Dune‘s number-one opening at the domestic box office and Dune: Part Two‘s announcement, Duncan-Brewster sat down with THR to discuss Dr. Kynes in further detail, including her lasting memory from the ornithopter rescue mission and the one drawback of the stillsuits. She also looks back at her time on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which was also shot by Dune cinematographer, Greig Fraser.
Well, congratulations on Dune. It’s a masterpiece in my book.
I am glad to hear it, and I hope that is exactly the effect. To be honest with you, I’ve never known anything like it. I know things that come close from my childhood, from my younger years; they’re the usual suspects when it comes to sci-fi and futuristic films. And this is what I’m hearing from people in Europe and also people here in the U.K. and the States. It is really mind-blowing, and it doesn’t fail to deliver what everyone was hoping for. That’s what everyone keeps reiterating at least. Everyone was hoping that this would be the one that really hits the nail on the head and really honors what Frank Herbert had written in that book. So I’m getting feedback from fans, younger and older, saying, “Yes, yes, Denis has done it!” And they’re still thinking about not only the spectacle of it and the beauty of it, the cinematography, but also the performances and the technology. Certain things couldn’t have been brought to it when the last version came out, so 2021 really feels like the correct time, the right time, to make this movie and give it all that it deserved.
Can you take me through the audition process?
Well, I get this confused sometimes with my [Rogue One: A Star Wars Story] audition, but I didn’t know very much about the film at the time. Dune was only something that I had seen posters of in my childhood. I remember seeing glimpses of it, but I never watched it in its entirety. So I put my audition on tape because I’m based in the U.K. They had flung the net out in their search for certain characters and Kynes was one of them. So I auditioned with Jina Jay’s casting, who cast me in Star Wars as well. I don’t want to mention Star Wars too much, but that’s the truth. But yeah, the audition was on tape, and I left it, as I tend to do. I just tried to forget about it because you’ll go crazy if you start wondering if the phone is going to ring, especially for this job. So I put it on tape and then I did a recall on tape. The first time, I put it on tape and sent it in, so it was a self-tape. But then I went to Jina Jay’s and put it on tape again. And then I didn’t hear anything for ages until I started to get phone calls and little whispers, saying, “The director liked you.” (Laughs.) And I was like, “You’re kidding. Seriously? You’re joking.” And they’re like, “No, no, he really likes what you’re doing. You’re in the mix.” So it was excruciating because, at that point, you’re just trying to really block it out. When you get so close and then find out that it’s not you, it’s heartbreaking. But in this instance, I got the job, and from the beginning to the end, it’s been a dream. It’s such a miraculous piece of work. Everything about it just seems so otherworldly that you stop and pinch yourself. I keep saying and thinking, “Is this really happening?” And now I get on the Tube, the London Underground, and there I am. (Laughs.) I’m there on the posters and I’m starting to get recognized, even with the mask on. We have to use public transport with a mask on by law, so I thought, “No one’s going to really recognize me.” (Laughs.) But now, because I wear the mask in the film, people are starting to do double takes everywhere I go because they’ve seen clips or they’ve seen photographs of me in the stillsuit as Kynes. So there is no escape, but the bonus is that nobody has anything negative to say. Everybody has been full of superlatives and wonderful hopes. As I said before, because most of them still haven’t seen it yet, it’s a nice place to be in right now. It is dream-like.
When did you finally meet Denis?
Well, we didn’t meet until my arrival in Budapest to do costume fittings and to start filming. So we had a couple of days prior to me filming where I went in and had discussions with him. We looked at the script and we talked things through. We talked about Kynes and how we both felt about the character. We then talked about what we wanted to extract and really honor, first and foremost, and then we went into much more detail with regards to just me playing a fully rounded character. But yeah, it was unusual to meet this guy because you hear so many things about him. He’s amazing; that’s what everyone has to say. So it’s only good things, but it’s quite overwhelming to now meet the person who’s chosen your destiny in a way. And then you sit there in front of the person and say, “Okay, here I am. I hope I meet your liking.” And then you ask questions like, “Why me?” But it’s always strange when you do a self-tape because unless you ask the question, you’ll never quite know what it was about your audition piece that won you the role. Whereas if you audition in the room with the director, you tend to have conversations and discuss certain aspects and elements of a character and a story. So it was those sorts of things that I just wanted to make sure I was honoring whilst I was filming. But he’s such a nice guy that I never felt like I couldn’t approach him. He made me feel very comfortable and very welcome, and he’s got a lovely sense of humor. Talking to Denis is never a hard task at all.
Did you read the book in order to understand the essence of Kynes?
Sometimes, a director will tell you not to read the book or not to watch the versions that were around before. But I had the script, and I stuck to that, first and foremost. But at the same time, I listened to the audiobook because I have issues with reading. So I started reading the book, but in the early stages of filming, I was also listening to the audiobook. Prior to that, I did most of my character research just trawling through stuff. There’s so much stuff that’s available with regards to Dune because of the fans out there. So I literally just typed “Liet Kynes” and then ding! There are all of these different wonderful opinions, and people have written all sorts of papers about the many characters of Dune. So that’s what I did first, and I started doing it even before my second audition. But once I was on my way over to Budapest, I had already started listening to the audiobook and reading the book at the same time. So doing both was my way of trying to absorb as much information as possible if a book is involved. But I do tend to try and stick with what the director wants and what’s written in the script because some things are totally different. In this case, not many.
How did Kynes’ accent come to be?
That was simply me asking Denis, “What would you prefer? How would you prefer Kynes to sound?” And he stated very clearly, “In this movie, I would like you to sound as if you have an American accent.” I would’ve come at it at any angle. I love doing accents. I love doing different voices. It’s part of me painting a picture. But when a director asks you to do something, I do it. I wasn’t against it, so I went with it.
Dr. Kynes is an Imperial ecologist and “Judge of the Change,” who’s supposed to oversee the transition between House Harkonnen and House Atreides. She’s also part of the Fremen. What would you add to her description? Who is she to you?
I would say that Dr. Kynes is somebody who cares a great deal about her community, her people and the world that she lives in. And with that care comes a loyalty and a sense of duty of protection. It also comes with the understanding and the knowledge that transparency is not always the greatest characteristic to have because it’s a world where there are all sorts of comings and goings and backstabbing. There’s this crazy behavior where people are friends one minute and foes the next. So I think that Kynes is a protective force for a world that protects her, in a way. It’s a reciprocated cycle of honoring truth of spirit and proof of where one begins and where one ends.
She was certainly conflicted regarding her duty to the emperor, her loyalty to her tribe and her virtue.
Yes, absolutely. She was ordered by the Emperor to oversee a balanced passage of rites, a passage of ownership from House Harkonnen to House Atreides, knowing the ongoing wars that have occurred for however many generations, knowing that there’s duplicitous behavior that goes on with regards to the Harkonnens, and then the unknown reasons or understanding of who the Atreides are. The Duke [Oscar Isaac], is he an honorable man? Who is he? Are his intentions pro or anti-Arrakis? And so with just those questions in mind, she also has a certain duty to protect this planet that she lives on and the indigenous people of Arrakis, who also have a spiritual connection to the planet. And we can’t leave out our beloved sandworm, who represents so many things. She is not necessarily torn, but she’s actually tested to the nth degree. How do you interact with all of these different factors and humans and then go about your daily job, which is just ensuring that people understand the ecology and that you’re looking after the environment as best you can? So she’s tested and she’s challenged. But that’s just the pure evidence of how dedicated she is to the planet and everything that should be within it.
What was the first scene you shot?
The first scene that I shot was a scene with Jason Momoa. It was Duncan’s arrival in an ornithopter after things have kicked off to the nth degree on Arrakis and the Harkonnens have literally tried to assassinate everybody. Of course, I heard so many things about this guy. You’ve got people saying, “Oh my God, he’s huge!” and you’ve got women and men going crazy. I’d seen posters of him as Aquaman, and then there he was with his entourage. It was the scene where he accuses me of being a traitor, and I’m ordered to say nothing and to see nothing. But I was just looking at Jason Momoa, going, “Bloody hell, it’s Jason Momoa. I understand now why everyone is making such a fuss about this guy because he is big.” He’s huge. But he’s a wonderfully huge, warm person and personality. So it wasn’t difficult; it was just a little bit overwhelming. Add that to the fact that we were in the middle of Wadi Rum, this beautiful backdrop in Jordan. It was just astounding. So it was breathtaking because of Wadi Rum, and it was a little bit gobsmacking because of Jason being the cool guy that he is. Yes, that was my first day.
And how was shooting the character’s actual introduction in front of Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin?
To be honest with you, there were so many scenes where I was the new girl on the block, and somebody could be quite nervous about it. These are the big boys and girls of Hollywood, and I had all of these scenes where it’s normally just me on my own, standing my own ground and addressing all of these very talented individuals. For me, this was also the one scene that stuck in my head as, “You’ve got to get this right, Sharon.” That was the first scene that I’d looked at online to just see what the late, great Max von Sydow had done with the character, and that’s the scene that most people do remember of him. So I wanted to get it right, and at the same time, I didn’t want to appear as if I was just copying what he did because most of the dialogue is pretty much the same, as it sticks to what’s in the book. But yeah, it’s a challenge to just say the lines because I wanted to imbue it with me, a sense of Sharon. I didn’t want to do something that would make people go, “Oh, she’s just trying to do the voice.” I know you asked about the voice before, but the one thing I also didn’t want to do was try to be a female version of Max. No one could ever touch what he did because he’s the wonderful actor that he was. So it was an interesting one, that scene. But at the same time, it was fun because the boys are so cheeky. They kept everything light. The other thing was just finally getting a chance to stand next to an ornithopter. You read about it, and suddenly, you’re next to this gigantic piece of material that we’d climb in and out of and actually has working bits. That’s when I went, “Blimey, gosh.” It was about the backdrops, at first, but then also the set design. Everything was gorgeous, really, and that’s when I felt, “God, yeah, this is so fire.” I had these moments, these waves of, “Yes, this is futuristic. This is sci-fi. Yes, this is about people. This is about family. This is about community, ethnicity, religion, politics.” There were all these waves that slowly, through filming, hit me, but as you watch the film, you do sort of swim through and sometimes dive and submerge into those same qualities and themes.
So how comfortable was your stillsuit in the Jordanian Desert?
(Laughs.) To begin with, they took some time to get used to. They were tight. They were a snug fit. And look, this is just me telling the truth, but the guys had stillsuits that had openings for them to be able to quickly relieve themselves, in the sense of going to the toilet. Whereas for myself and all the women, we had to take the entire thing off to go to the toilet, and that’s quite a tricky thing because they stick to you. So it’s easier to be helped into them by two people, at least. So if there was anything I could leave complaining about, if I dare complain about anything because it really wasn’t that big of a deal… But if you’re going to make the stillsuits again, give us, the women, a little section just like you did for the guys. That’s all. But putting them on and being in the heat was a challenge at first. It was a real test, but I love the heat, so I didn’t complain for long, if at all. You’re supposed to sweat, but sadly, they didn’t work to the degree that they’re supposed to in the story. But I prefer to sweat than to be cold, so I loved it. And once they took your body shape, they actually felt really good. You felt like you were part of the story in a sense. We had every element, and we were out in the desert, taking on the world. So I would say I miss my stillsuit. There you go. I’d put one on now and party in it just for old time’s sake.
How quickly did you realize that the goal is to get Denis to say, “I deeply love it,” about a take?
(Laughs.) “I deeply love it! I deeply, deeply love it!” (Duncan-Brewster imitates Villeneuve.) That’s the thing with him. He really likes this. He actually really does like this. And then I started to hear some of the actors, in no way mimicking or making fun of him at all, just respectfully going, “I deeply love it.”
Rebecca Ferguson is very good at it.
(Laughs.) Rebecca is, yes! She’s got the confidence of a queen, I tell you. She is the queen. She is. I love her for it. Yes, “I deeply love it.” I miss that phrase. The next time I see him, hopefully tomorrow, I will ask him to put it on my phone so that when I wake up in the morning or feel as if I’ve done something wonderful, I’ll just play that on loop through a loudspeaker. Because it does instill some sort of renewed energy within you. You can do anything after you’ve heard that.
What stands out from the filming of the big rescue mission in the ornithopter? What was the highlight for you?
(Laughs.) My man Josh Brolin tended to fart a lot when we were in the ornithopter. So I don’t know if that had to do with motion or with diet, but that’s one of the things that would always pluck a laugh from me. There was always a joke a minute with these boys. At that point, I was pretty shy because I was so shocked to be in an ornithopter, in a capsule where we couldn’t escape, with the wonderful Josh Brolin, who I had posters of in my bedroom as a kid. We were there for many days, so after a while, of course I spoke and of course I laughed and joked. But at first, I was pretty shy. But the farts, I think he’s such a sensitive human being. He understands a lot of what’s going on in other human being’s minds, and I honestly suspect that he was farting for my benefit. I’m going to say that he was just putting people at ease, but we had a lot of laughs in the ornithopter doing that particular scene.
Late in the film, Paul reveals that he knows about the Fremen warrior Kynes loved and lost. Did you use that detail from the start when building the character?
To build this character, no, I did not. As a human being, I’ve had losses in my life; I’m sure most of us have, sadly. So that sort of thing is already there and I can tap into that with the flick of a finger, really. When building a character, I know there are things that a human being holds close, things that nobody would ever know are bubbling under the surface. So there are some moments when we do see chinks of those vulnerabilities. So it’s there, but it wasn’t my starting board because loss comes out through me portraying this character anyway. If you are expected to be loyal to so many but you only have yourself, that, in a way, is a sense of loss automatically. She never really trusts the connections of her day-to-day life, so it’s already embedded in there for me, anyway.
[The next two questions and answers contain spoilers for Dune.]
“I serve only one master; his name is Shai-Hulud.” And then she smiled as she fell into the abyss. What an amazing moment.
(Laughs.) Thank you for using those scripted words. What a way to go. What a way to praise your purpose and whoever it is that you serve. And with a smile. Yeah, it was something that we talked about, myself and Denis. I remember doing loads of reshoots for my hand going down. Does my hand go down with a fist? Does it open up? There were all of these different discussions that were occurring on our second unit. There was a metal plate embedded about a meter down underneath the sand, and it vibrated, so I couldn’t stop laughing. (Laughs.) I found it hysterical. It was like being tickled for some reason. This was one of my main moments in the film and I was like a little giggly child. (Laughs.) But with regards to the importance of it and how people will remember me as Kynes, I get really shy about watching that particular moment. I didn’t expect it to look that way, but I don’t know what I expected. I’ve died in many ways on screen. I’ve been impaled on a garden rake. I’ve been drowned. I’ve died in so many things on screen that it seems so simple to me. I think that’s what it is. It seems so simple. I don’t want to describe it, but it seems so simple and yet so poignant. That’s what makes it special.
You just spoke about Kynes as if she died, but at the very end of the film, there’s a Kynes-like figure riding Shai-Hulud. What can you say about that?
All I can say is that I don’t know what that is, and I actually haven’t asked the question about it. And that’s because I like surprises; I don’t like disappointments in day-to-day life. (Laughs.) The wonderful thing about it is that it can mean whatever the audience member wants it to mean. I really like the fact that Kynes could be dead, or is dead, and what we’re seeing is something otherworldly. As it should be. If you’re going to go on your way, go on your way in style. That’s how we’d like to remember those who have gone, but I haven’t asked any questions. I don’t know what to expect, so I expect nothing. And I’m not just saying that. That is really the way that I operate. But having seen how well the film has done in Europe, I do believe that there’s going to be a Part Two. Whether I’m going to be in it or not, I have no idea. And whether I’m in it or not, I know it’s going to be wonderful. And if I’m not in it, I will be watching it in the cinema with my popcorn and with absolute glee because I love the world that Denis has created. So I really do genuinely look forward to seeing what happens next because, oh my gosh, it’s going to be amazing.
You touched on the cast poster earlier, but Warners also released a character poster of you as Kynes. What does this sort of thing mean to you at this point in your career?
Besides the Tube and the bus stop, I also saw the cast poster on the side of a bus I went to school on back in the day! I ordered some groceries the other day, and the Dune poster was on the side of the bag. My parents are from Trinidad and Tobago, so I started saying, “Me reach! Me reach! Yeah!” I was in the kitchen jumping up and down. It was weird because all these things have happened. We’d been in Venice. We’d been promoting the film. And I’ve been trying to keep my cool because we’ve got these peaks and troughs a bit. It was released in Europe, then it’s going to be released in the U.K., then it’s going to be released in America. So you have to still retain some energy and adrenaline for the next day. But when I was in the kitchen, taking my shopping out of this bag, I was literally dancing up and down, going, “Oh my God, this is real.” And the words were, “Girl, you reach. You really reach!” Which is more or less saying, “This is it. Congratulations. The dream is real. You have achieved what you always hoped you could do.” The child who dreamt and said, “I want to be in films, I want to tell stories on screen,” was literally jumping up and down with me. I am now very, very excited about what’s happened, and I hope there’s more to come. I really do. Because I do feel I’ve got a lot more to offer. So, to someone out there, “Give us a job, please,” is what I’ll be saying for the next couple of however many weeks or months. (Laughs.) Hopefully, there’s more to come.
So Dune isn’t the only Greig Fraser-photographed space movie you’ve been in; you were also in the aforementioned Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Can you tell me about your time at Pinewood?
Oh gosh. Well, my time at Pinewood mainly consisted of a lot of costume fittings. I spent more time in costume fittings than I actually did filming. The scene that I did had been reshot a couple of times, and then they brought my character in, as far as I know. So it was more or less two-thirds of the day of filming. But when you arrive at Pinewood, it’s one of those places where you start to see evidence of the great movies that have been shot there, and you do feel part of something extra special. I thought, “All right, this is great British filmmaking and cinematic storytelling.” So there’s that already. But then I just started to think about my lines because there are rewrites, and that’s always a challenge. And then I went to get sewn into my costume, and once I came out, there were all these people in costumes that I remember from my childhood. I was blown away, and I got a little bit scuppered for a while. I thought, “Oh my God, this is Star Wars.” And I was swearing. I was in my head going, “Shite, this is Star Wars.” And I’m supposed to start the scene, and this was my only day of filming. There were all these people shouting as is the storyline, and I thought, “Well, I don’t have any other action. Do I just go?” So I was in unfamiliar territory, but it was a dream. I’ve always wanted to be in Star Wars, even if it was to say, “Yes, Captain,” or to bring a cup of tea. I would’ve happily done that. So it was gorgeous to be in it. And then to see that the scene stayed in with a lot of my lines was lovely because I never expected to have anything like that in a film, especially for one day of shooting.
And Greig, he’s a gangster, man. He’s a gangster! The man loves his pictures. His pictures are just so exquisite to look at and there’s definitely a signature there. What I loved about working with him is he’d say, “How’s it going, Sharon? You all right?” There’s a warmth to him, which just helps the day to day. He’ll say, “What I’m going to do in this one… ,” so he’ll explain what he’s going to do and that always helps with certain close-ups and angles. And that’s the beautiful thing about working on Dune, especially with Denis. Everybody communicates in such a way that is respectful and proactive. It just filters down. It makes every minute a joy. But Greig is a gangster, as is Denis. They’re both gangsters. They’re a winning team, and I would love to see what happens next if Part Two occurs. I hope that they do it together. That’d be great.
If you could walk into Warners, or any other studio, and green light a project for yourself, what kind of story would you like to tell? Let’s manifest some dreams.
Let’s do it, shall we? Let’s do that because the last time somebody asked me this prior to Star Wars, I said, “I want to be in space.” (Laughs.) And then I got all these jobs in space. So I would love to be some sort of action hero, who kicks ass, who’s not just physically capable, but mentally as well. I want to play someone who could be in a courtroom one minute and then kicking ass the next. Or even a superhero. I’d like to display how physical I am. I’m a woman of a certain age, but I’m pretty fit and nimble. So I’d love to utilize that when I can. (Laughs.) So something that’s got a bit of action and a bit of a punch. And then I would love to do some arthouse stuff as well. I’d love to do some really simple storytelling that literally points the camera at the actors and relies on the acting and the vision of the director. I’d love that. So all of the above.
And you joined Enola Holmes 2, which has quite the cast. Can you say anything more?
I can say that I’m in it. (Laughs.) And yes, what an amazing cast. So I’m happy to be on board. I’m excited about what the future holds, and that’s about as much as I can say. But I’ve given you quite a fair bit here, so read everything clearly and it will all become evident and apparent in the end.
Dune is now playing in movie theaters.