In director Denis Villenueve’s Dune, Rebecca Ferguson is playing arguably the coolest character in Frank Herbert’s novel: the disgraced Bene Gesserit adept, passionate lover, and fiercely protective mother known as Lady Jessica. Jessica is how we are introduced to the supernatural abilities of the all-female Bene Gesserit sect, which plays a long game for control of the galaxy. And the most cinematic of those superpowers is the Bene Gesserit Voice, a way of controlling the minds of others simply by talking to them.
“The Voice was a fun thing to play around with,” Ferguson tells Polygon over Zoom. “When we were on set, Denis didn’t really have a clear idea of exactly how it would sound which gave such a freedom for me and everyone else to to interpret it the way they wanted to, and that’s a creative freedom.”
[Ed. note: This piece contains mild spoilers for Dune.]
In the final film, Villenueve and his effects team imbue the Voice with layers of tone and reverberations whenever it is used, but that work was all done in post production. Ferguson and the other actors performing Bene Gesserit mind control on set simply had to find their own way to embody a voice so compelling it must be obeyed — and that meant some experimentation.
“I actually started doing like, Donald Duck sounds,” Ferguson says, “and I don’t know where I was going with it. I thought, If I can play around and animate a sound, I think Denis will go, ‘Oh, that’s amazing. Let’s do that, Rebecca!’ [laughs] Never happened. So we focused mostly on where the energy came from. It’s like yoga, it’s like meditation [for the Bene Gesserit]. If you are in complete calm, and in line with your thoughts and your soul and your body, there is a directness, when you cut out all of the other stimulants around you. And to be able to talk from that point, whether it is ‘Start your interview,’ or whatever it is, it will become very pure.”
Ferguson didn’t hear the Voice in its full power until the first time she saw the final film — and she liked it. But she says the process was the same for another classic Dune trappings: the sandworm.
“Paul [Lambert], the visual effects man, who is amazing, he would be on set nearly every day. You couldn’t see the shape of the sandworm, which was quite cool because no one really knew exactly what it looked like. So once again we could play with shape and size, it was very sort of adaptable to our own imagination.”
Dune was released globally on Sept. 15, and will be available in theaters and HBO Max on Oct. 21 starting at 6 p.m. EST.