Most actors who step into villainous roles will be happy to tell you all the reasons why they see their characters as relatable, or at least what makes them empathetic. Not so for Stellan Skarsgård and Dave Bautista, who play the ruthless Harkonnens in the latest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s formative 1965 novel Dune.
According to Skarsgård and Bautista, their main goal as the antagonists of Denis Villeneuve’s take on the sci-fi epic was to be as fearsome as possible. “There’s no room for any psychology, or sort of diving into [backstory,]” shares Skarsgård, who decided he’d use every ounce of his screen-time as the gluttonous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen to “scare the shit out of people.” Masked in pale makeup and prosthetics, the actor strikes an imposing figure as The Baron, whether he’s soaking in a vat of black goop, or hovering above his loyal servants barking orders.
Bautista’s just as frightening as Glossu “The Beast” Rabban, the Baron’s eldest nephew who’s frequently asked to lead the charge when Harkonnen’s scheming calls for a bit more blunt force. Reuniting with Villeneuve after Blade Runner 2049, the former professional wrestler says the key to villainy is to underplay it: “If you always try to play a character who’s trying to be terrifying, then he’s never terrifying.”
Despite being so good at playing bad, both actors were gregarious and charming in conversation with The A.V. Club ahead of Dune’s world premiere at the 78th annual Venice International Film Festival. Now that the long-awaited film finally is playing in theaters (and on HBO Max), you can watch our conversation with Skarsgård and Bautista in the video above, or read the full transcript below.
Stellan Skarsgård: I didn’t look for anything redeeming in [Baron Harkonnen’—I knew his function in this film. My function is to be as frightening as possible. That’s it. There’s no room for any psychology, or sort of diving into, “well, he had a bad childhood,” [laughs,] or, “he wanted to sleep with his mother, but he wasn’t allowed to,” stuff like that.
So, there’s no psychology behind it. You have very little space in the film to just scare the shit out of people—so they remember you in the seas in between, and that Dave and I will be hanging in there back of their heads, threatening throughout the movie, even if they don’t see us.
The A.V. Club: And, Dave, was that the same for you? Was the main directive to just be horrifying?
Dave Bautista: Yeah, you know, it’s weird. I really believe in this, I really believe in perspective. I really believe that people who we—decent human beings—see on-screen as villains never see themselves as villains. So, I think, if you play a villain, you know, [it’s] self-righteous, like, he really believes that what he’s doing is the right thing to do. [Laughs.]
DB: You play them like that, and it just comes across as true. So I think that it’s all perspective. But, for me, it’s the tone and voice and body language that becomes terrifying. If you always try to play a character who’s trying to be terrifying, then he’s never terrifying. [Laughs.] If you underplay him, and then pick your right moments to be terrifying, then that character is terrifying.
AVC: Speaking of terrifying, Stellan, a number of your scenes take place in what I would consider to be something of a “nightmare spa”—where you’re submerged in goo, or there’s other disgusting things going on. What can you tell me about filming those scenes?
SS: You don’t think that much about what was disgusting when you when you’re filming because you’re concentrated on doing your job. But I must say that I did not want to drown in that black goo that I was was dipping into. And then you come up and then you see Dave’s nice face behind the camera there, and that makes you very happy! And then you forget about the anxiety you had underwater.
DB: Those days in the steam baths, [laughs,] those were like some of my first days, and I was on set—I’m supposed to be this big, menacing, ominous character—and I’m literally shitting myself. [Laughs.] I’m like, “That’s Stellan Skarsgård!” And I was next to my buddy thinking this is all so surreal, like, “how the hell did I get from a professional wrestling ring to here? This is crazy!” I was dying on the inside. My heart was beating fast, and I was just so excited, but, at the same time, just trying to be terrifying. So, terrifying on the outside, inside I was like a little fan-boy.
SS: That’s what we are! [Laughs.]
Dune is now playing in theaters worldwide, and is available to stream exclusively on HBO Max. Before you William Hughes’ handy primer on the dense world of Dune, and check out Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s review here.