When Frank Herbert wrote his science-fiction epic “Dune” in the 1960s, he instinctively made the crucial character of Liet Kynes a white man. But Denis Villeneuve sought a modern, diverse cast and he saw Kynes — who must convey integrity and authority while delicately juggling competing diplomatic interests — differently than Herbert. So in his “Dune,” Kynes is played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, a Black woman.
Duncan-Brewster, who already made history in “Rogue One” as the first Black woman to have a speaking role in the “Star Wars” film universe, is joined in the cast by a consciously diverse collection of actors, including Stephen McKinley Henderson, Chang Chen, Babs Olusanmokun, Benjamin Clementine, Dave Bautista, and, of course, two big-name stars in Jason Momoa and Zendaya.
For his otherworldly film, Villeneuve entrusted the task of collecting this worldly roster of talent to Francine Maisler, whose resume as a casting director stretches back to “Reality Bites,” to “Being the Ricardos,” while for television she cast “The Underground Railroad” and “Winning Time.”
“I’m only as good as the director I work with,” Maisler says, “and Denis is so inclusive and thoughtful in his casting.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did Sharon Duncan-Brewster get cast as Liet Kynes?
The idea came from Denis and writer John [Spaihts]. Science-fiction movies are predominantly male-centered and while the Bene Gesserit [a powerful group of nuns] are already in the story, Denis wanted to make sure women were an important element beyond that so they weren’t just an accessory. Denis wanted to reflect more of the world where we’re going with women in positions of power. And changing the gender and race didn’t affect any of the character’s attributes.
We searched here and in London, where I work with a casting director, Jina Jay. Sharon came through Jina and came in and read — she exudes an intelligence and a power and an inner strength. We presented
Denis with a short list of who we loved for this role and he chose Sharon.
Was the casting of Zendaya as Chani born out of a desire to add another name or more diversity?
That was a role where we wanted more diversity. This was before “Euphoria” debuted. Zendaya was one of five actresses who read for the part. She had incredible presence and her chemistry with Timothée [Chalamet] was undeniable.
Many of the crucial secondary roles bring a mix of familiar and fresh faces while adding more diversity. Was that a conscious plan?
I normally cast actors from all around the world. As an audience you always want some surprises but also the comfort of people you’ve seen before. We were able to get a great mixture from all over the world. For the role of Dr. Wellington Yueh, we put together a list of the most talented Chinese actors in the world. We had a hard time getting to Chang Chen’s agent but the studio finally reached his manager in China. We got tapes of 30-50 actors for Denis.
And then you have Stephen McKinley Henderson, who is one of my favorites because I’m originally a New York theater person. If you know his work on stage, you know he’s one of the best actors in the world. I just cast him again in Alex Garland’s next movie.
Speaking of finding surprises from around the world, how did you cast Benjamin Clementine, the British poet and singer as Herald of the Change?
Someone in my office told me to watch his performance on Tiny Desk. As a casting director you’re always looking for new people wherever you can find them. He has an incredible face but also his music just kills and he has such depth as an artist. Denis is just completely open when I present someone like Benjamin — he knows I’m not just presenting a Black actor, I’m finding the best person for the role. I was so proud and excited about having him cast as Herald of the Change.