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Why Timothée Chalamet’s Dune character Paul is an actor’s dream role

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Frank Herbert’s hero is on a grand quest with real-world parallels

Timothée Chalamet fights with two blades in Denis Villeneuve ‘s Dune 2020 Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures

The trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is here, bringing Frank Herbert’s classic, dense science-fiction novel to life for a new audience — including very real, very vocal Timothée Chalamet stans. But the first trailer doesn’t shed much light on who Chalamet actually plays in the movie, and what’s going on with the character. Book readers already have a keen sense of how the actor is approaching the role.

Set on a distant, desert world of Arrakis, the novel revolves around the journey of Chalamet’s character Paul Atreides the heir to an aristocratic dynasty, who finds himself exiled and forced to survive in the inhospitable world in order to avenge his family. Paul is at the center of the micro and macro drama of the galaxy when the story of Dune begins.

“Timothée has many qualities [that make him perfect for Paul],” Villeneuve said in a roundtable discussion presented alongside the trailer. “There’s a deep intelligence in the eyes, and he has an old soul. When you talk with Tim, you get the impression that he’s lived many lives. Yet he looks so young on camera. So that contrast of someone who has a lot of experience but is in the middle of his teenage years is Paul.”

Paul in the story of Dune

Paul belongs to House Atreides, which is part of a quasi-feudal, intergalactic empire. As Dune opens, the Emperor has granted the Atreides family stewardship of Arrakis. It’s a powerful, important role: the planet is the only known location of a substance known as melange — or spice — which allows people to manipulate space-time and thus unlocks interstellar travel. It’s the source of power for the Emperor, the Spacing Guild, Houses, and other entities within the Empire.

However, the move is a trap set by the Emperor and Atreides rival House Harkonnen, to eliminate Paul’s father Leto, and his bloodline. But Paul’s upbringing throws a wrench into their plans and will ultimately change the course of galactic history.

There are several powerful organizations that operate alongside the noble houses within Frank Herbert’s universe, chief amongst them the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood that works to hone humanity’s mental abilities and to direct the evolution of humanity over generations. For centuries, they instituted a breeding program designed to produce a person, the Kwisatz Haderach, with supernatural abilities, in order to further exact control over the universe.

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson pooping in their stillsuits in Dune movie
Paul (Chalamet) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) on Arrakis
Photo: Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures

Unexpectedly, Paul is this fabled Kwisatz Haderach. His mother, Lady Jessica, is a member of the order and is the concubine to Duke Leto Atreides. She was part of this breeding program, and while she was directed to produce a daughter, she gave birth to Paul, disobeying her order out of her love for Leto. From an early age, she trained Paul in the Bene Gesserit’s ways, and as a result, he’s exceptionally mature, observant, and is a skilled fighter.

Shortly after the Atreides settle on Arrakis, Paul and Lady Jessica find themselves in the deserts of Arrakis, where they’re presumed to have been killed. However, the pair are able to survive because of their superhuman abilities, and encounter a band of the planet’s natives, the Fremen. Their saviors recognize that Paul is special, and that he’s the prophesied Lisan al-Gaib or “the Voice from the Outer World” who will ultimately transform the planet from a desert wasteland, turning it into a paradise. What happens next in is the brunt of the drama in Dune.

What Paul represents in Dune

Paul (Timmy Chalamet) walks the beach in Dune
Paul walks the beach
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

A former journalist, author Frank Herbert was particularly interested in the relationship of individuals and power, and used his Dune novels to explore that dynamic. In the afterword to the ACE edition of Dune, Herbert’s son Brian explained that Paul “resembles Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence), a British citizen who led Arab forces in a successful desert revolt against the Turks during World War I,” and that the resistance movement “led Frank Herbert to consider the possibility of an outsider leading native forces against the morally corrupt occupiers of a desert world, in the process of becoming a godlike figure to them.”

But Paul also serves as a warning. Having lived through World War II, McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, Herbert saw the dangers that unchecked power in the hands of individuals could bring. “Personal observation had convinced Herbert that in the power arena of politics/economics and in their logical consequence, war, people tend to give over every decision-making capacity to any leader who could wrap himself in the myth fabric of society,” wrote William F. Touponce in his biography Frank Herbert, who saw “heroes as painful for society, and superheroes as a catastrophe because their mistakes involve so many of us in disaster.”

Decades before Star Wars fans decried the treatment of Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, Herbert understood the perilous balance that a man with superhuman abilities had to walk. Paul uses his power to gather a massive army to his side to force his family’s murderers from his new home and eventually sits atop the Imperial throne. But facing the consequences of his power, and the unchecked movement that he reluctantly leads, he vanishes into the desert, recognizing that he’s become the very thing he wished to avoid.