Lady Jessica of House Atreides is not only one of the main characters of Frank Herbert‘s 1965 novel Dune, but she acts as a major driving force behind some of the key events that influence the entire empire within the entire book series. After being portrayed by multiple different actors in previous adaptations, this year’s Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve, puts Rebecca Ferguson, of Mission: Impossible and Doctor Sleep fame, in the role of Jessica, mother to Paul Atreides and concubine to Duke Leto. We spoke with Ferguson about playing the character of Lady Jessica, about power, motherhood, and the rebelliousness of her character in Dune.
On working with Villeneuve, who has stated that creating Dune as a film has been a lifelong dream, Ferguson had nothing but praise for the director. “It’s not just being a master visually and a great director. He was given the possibility to create a film that he has seen in his head from such an early stage and obviously, it has developed with his own development,” Ferguson explained.
“He’s such a humble, kind, intelligent human being, who believes in equality, who believes in this world, who has dreams, and who believes in recycling and being kind to the universe. There is no other way of creating a film like this [with] his idea, and that’s what we got to work with. At the same time, we have to be true to a story, you know, if everything is equal, what’s the conflict? You know? So it’s a lovely balance that he managed to portray and to direct for us in an exquisite way.”
Starting the Conversation
Ferguson, who is herself a mother to a 14-year-old son, found kinship her character’s relationship with Paul (Timothée Chalamet) “That [relationship] sort of neutralizes the relationship between these two extreme characters. I love finding the normality of things. As I’ve said before, it’s the kind of ‘elbows off the table’ attitude,” Ferguson explained, going on to highlight one of the scenes between Jessica and Paul in the Ornithopter.
“Basically, I remember the moment when he goes, ‘Why is this happening?’ And I get to actually play like I’m annoyed with him, like, ‘I’ve done this conversation with you so many times, why are you not listening?’ So, yes, I do recognize that and it’s fun, it’s fun embracing those moments.”
Lady Jessica is an important figure not only in House Atreides but in the empire as a whole, as a member of the Bene Gesserit, an order of women with powerful supernatural abilities that they can harness with their voice. The Bene Gesserit have been influencing politics and society behind the scenes for centuries.
“Yes, she’s powerful, and she’s vulnerable, and she has all of these aspects,” Ferguson said, but went on to add, “Power lies in vulnerability as well, it’s not just in badass attitude and kicking ass in that sense. But I think, it is so ahead of its time from the 60s and at the same time it is so not equal.” For Ferguson, there’s no real message to take away from Dune when comparing it to our modern society. Instead, it should do something else.
After seeing the film three times, once with her son, she wants the film to start conversations. “It starts conversations that I believe are interesting to have if you’re an older person to a younger person, that is to talk about the generation going from the 60s up to now, and when it was written, and what evolution has brought us to.”
“There’s so many conversations,” she added. “But it’s [up to] people with knowledge to have those conversations with the youth of today because many of them will go in and just enjoy it because it’s a cool film. But [the conversations] then need to be activated. And, you know what, these men are making these big decisions around that huge stone table, and the women are the ones who can literally, with a snap of the finger, kill anyone. But they don’t, because that’s not how the world works. So there’s a lot to take, a lot to learn.”
Freedom of Complexity
Jessica is undeniably a complex character, as a member of the Bene Gesserit, technically her loyalty will always be somewhat with the order. But then she is in love with Duke Leto and disobeyed the order by giving him a son when she was only supposed to have daughters. Caught between different groups, Ferguson found satisfaction in the freedom of complexity when it came to Jessica.
“I have no idea what goes behind [your] closed doors and you have no idea what goes behind my character. We decide what levels and what layers to show and at what time and that’s exactly the same with Jessica. She is molded with all of her knowledge and her sisterhood with the Bene Gesserit, and yet she’s a rebellious believer, and a woman in a society, and it was just layer upon layer. So when we directed, it was more a question of who is she at this moment? Is she a mother? Is she a protector? Is she just reading the room? And then mixing them, that’s what’s fun.”
When it comes to acting, Ferguson’s challenge came in not falling into the habit of doing what comes naturally. “I guess that is, I mean, an actor in general. You know, the bicycle story. You go down a hill, you have a bicycle with a foot brake and then all of a sudden you change your bike you’re on a handbrake, [but you] automatically go for a footbrake. It takes repetition and repetition, and I think that for me is something I work on. I play this extremely powerful character, and I start walking like a bloody queen, you know, because that’s what I’m used to doing. And it’s my job to break that and Denis’ job to help me find something else and that was very challenging and fun.”
One of the main things that defines Jessica was her decision to give birth to Paul, which was a rebellion from the Bene Gesserit order. Ferguson explained that her character’s belief and love was the driving force in her rebellion. “I think what was so lovely with Jessica’s rebelliousness is, number one, her belief. Her belief that she is the one who can bring forth the Kwisatz Hadarach.”
“There’s something about the beauty and the horror of religion and belief that we rebel, we push ourselves, we which challenged things, right? And there’s always the one who can break through that and think that they are the capo di tutti i capi. And then also I think that combined with her pure and utter love for the Duke, who wants a son. That together in her mind made complete and utter sense. I mean, it’s hard. When you are a Bene Gesserit, when you can read, and think, and connect to your ancestral histories, and the women, and you think that you are actually the one chosen? There’s no question, you just fucking rebel.”
Dune will premiere in theaters and on HBO Max this Thursday, October 21, 2021.