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DUNE: Alec Newman and John Harrison

The actor and writer-director on bringing Paul Atreides to life in the new mini-series.

By Steve Fritz     November 27, 2000

To hear director John Harrison's take on Alec Newman, it was almost a miracle that he ever hired the young actor to play Dune's Paul Atreides. 'I had set out very early on to look for somebody that was a brilliant young actor to do the role,' said Harrison, who not only directed the Sci-Fi Channel mini-series, but scripted it as well. 'I had discussed with the networks that I had no intentions of casting a television name simply for the name value.'

Even with the freedom of looking for a new talent to play the central character in his new version of the Frank Herbert epic, that didn't mean Harrison made the job easy for himself. 'In the book he's 15 to 18, and I made him a little older, 18 to 22,' says Harrison. 'The actors in that age range with the talent are woefully shallow. I didn't want the role to be overwhelmed with a star name. So I set out to find a really fine actor. It was a difficult search. I went to New York. I went to Los Angeles. Finally, I went to London and met Alec almost by accident.'

Even then, it turned out to not be the easiest casting call. 'I had actually gone there to interview another actor,' recalls Harrison, 'but the casting director told me there was this other young Scot that was really a wonderful talent and I ought to meet him. As it was, I had just flown in. It was 10:00 p.m. and that was the only time he could meet me. I also found out later Alec was sick with the flu and didn't really want to meet me. If this casting agent hadn't been persistent, I might have missed him and that would have been a tragedy.'

'I met John Harrison in London around the end of September, and got the part about a week later,' is the way Newman summarizes it. Still, it probably was indeed a minor miracle Harrison found Newman. At 23, he's fast becoming one of the hottest young stars of the British scene. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, he had already starred opposite Elizabeth's Cate Blanchett in a theatrical production called Plenty. His resume also included three movies and another hit London play. To top it, he was the featured actor in a pop video by Paul McCartney around the song 'Beautiful Night.' In other words, Newman is a busy man.

Still, he took on the role, even if he wasn't too familiar with Dune's history. 'I admit that before I got the role, I wasn't really that familiar with the book or the [first] movie,' says Newman. 'Basically I knew it as the film with Patrick Stewart and Sting. That was as much as I knew about it at that point. It was something I had never come across. As soon as I knew that I was doing it, I got cracking right away on the book.

'In the end, it was probably a benefit. As I started reading the book, and then the script, I started to realize what a huge, expansive thing it was. That got me tingling with excitement because to me it is really a very classical story. Another thing I was later to discover was just how large a following the book still carried. There are people who read it religiously twice a year. To some fans, it's kind of a science fiction Bible. I had no idea what I got myself into. In a way it made me feel like I had just gotten a major role in Star Wars.'

While the role may have given Newman the jitters, if Harrison had any fears it seems the young actor was quick to allay them. 'First of all, he's an outstanding talent,' admits Harrison. 'He's also a wonderful man to have to put up with for four months of virtually seven-day-a-week shooting. The training the British kids take is so deep! When he came in for his first day of shooting he had an American accent down pat. You wouldn't have known he was a Scot.'

To top it off, production considerations made Newman film the role in reverse order. Due to a scheduling conflict, William Hurt, who plays Duke Leto, couldn't become available until the last part of the shoot. As a result, the filming was done in reverse order, with Newman first playing Atreides as the Mahdi and then working backwards from there. 'The range he has to play is just phenomenal,' says Harrison. 'He goes from this boy, this spoiled young prince, and is raised to this messiah-like character. He pulled it off. He's just incredible.'

For Newman, much of it boiled down to his approach to the character. 'What I decided to do was to strip as much of the iconic out of the figure of Paul Atreides as I could,' explains Newman. 'I felt the best thing to do was to make sure there was as little of Luke Skywalker in him as possible. There are a lot of classical elements in him, particularly in the sense of the journey of self-discovery that he goes on. I think in the end that makes Paul a much, much bigger figure, if that is at all possible.

'I also feel there's kind of a Hamlet feel to Paul, particularly in his early stages due to his relationship to his mother and the loss of his father. It's a very heroic story, but he's really a reluctant hero. Even at the end, when he's unleashing this chaos and death across the universe, he's not just going out there and blowing up the Death Star. There's no clarity to the end of Dune. That's something I like because it's very human. I like it better that wayunresolved.'

Dealing with the age difference between himself and the young Paul was also a challenge for Newman. 'When the book begins, Paul is only 15 years old,' says Newman. 'I felt there was no way I could convince anyone I was 15 again, so instead I decided it was important that, when I played Paul at that point, to make him look young, a bit innocent and starting to feel the weight of the coming responsibility he'd inherit from his father and his family standing. I also made sure he was a bit petulant and a bit spoiled, but also feeling a bit of confusion about leaving his home planet.'

To meet the character's next challenges, Newman relied on two major aids to help him get into the role. The first was reading the Islamic holy book, the Koran. 'It was just wonderful to go through that whole journey of him first becoming Muad'dib and then the Mahdi and releasing this religious war,' says Newman. 'The challenge then was to make that character as different from the young boy we're first introduced to. What helped me was that, from the beginning, I felt Dune was a very religious story. Obviously in terms of the Fremen and their belief systems and social order, I got hold of the Koran and I read that. I felt it was important to have something that important to draw on. I found it was a very solid book to draw on. After I read the Koran, I decided to read Dune again, and suddenly the other book started to get a lot more weight. I could see the story of Mohammed was very much there. Everything now required much more thought.'

The other key aid was a new stage lighting process developed by head cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. 'Storaro came up with this wonderful invention called the Translight,' says Newman. 'It's kind of like this huge, almost theatrical backdrop that covers the whole 180 degrees of the studio. It made me feel like I was actually on location. So we ended up with this really strong, very stylized environment. We felt like we were really in the year 10,161.



'I did get a chance to see all the sets and couldn't help but notice how they set each one up. The Harkonnen set is all reds and blacks, and very decadent. The Imperial Palace is just beautiful. It gave me a sense of awe, as if it was some of the grandest of Asian and European palaces and still managed to be as delicate as a daffodil. The sets did a great job of reflecting the people that were within them. The people in design and costumes certainly gave everything the scope Dune demands.'

Many, in fact, are crediting the costumes with giving this version of Dune the feel of a highly charged historical piece. 'In a way it's kind of a period piece,' agrees Newman, 'but the period is nearly ten thousand years in the future. Then again, what happens in the story and what I think Frank Herbert drew on had a lot to do with human history, and that was reflected in a lot of the costumes. It gives the whole thing a very familiar feel. If you look at all the sets, you can see the entire history of mankind running through it, all rolled into one. In many ways Dune is [as much] about the history of human culture as it is about anything else.'

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