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DUNE: Ian McNeice
The actor on playing the hedonistic Baron Harkonnen.
By Steve Fritz
December 11, 2000
Of the entire Dune
oeuvre, probably the toughest roll to play is its principal villain, Baron Harkonnen. In producer Dino De Laurentiis' movie, he's played as a sort of malevolent cherubgrossly overweight, vulgar and with boils sprouting all over what little of his body isn't covered by kinky black leather. In other words, if you don't handle this roll carefully, you end up with something about as threatening as a cream puff that's been out of the fridge a tad too long. No one in their right mind is scared of rotted goo.
'I don't see the Baron quite that way,' concurs John Harrison, screenwriter-director of the Sci-Fi Channel's new Dune
mini-series. 'I see him as a total libertine. I also see him as a totally vicious and violent man; a very shrewd and brilliant manipulator. He is not a clown.'
Not that he isn't beyond being made a fool of
. In one critical scene in Harrison's new version, Princess Irulan has a field day about the Harkonnen crest being a boar, when it should be a pig. The reference is a direct play on the Baron. Irulan obviously never read George Orwell's Animal Farm
. People forget that pigs are one of the most intelligentand treacherousdenizens of the barnyard. When riled, they've been known to mangle, kill and then eat a farmer's child or two. Boar or pig, the Baron can be equally as brutal. So it's a bit of luck that Harrison cast actor Ian McNeice in the role.
'The Baron is such fun to play,' says McNeice. 'It's true, villains are the best and we Brits just lap them up. It's an old saying in Hollywood, but if you want a good villain, hire a Brit.'
British or not, the important point is McNeice's interpretation of Baron Harkonnen is a far different creature than what we saw in the De Laurentiis production. Pig or boar, you don't want to rile him or he'll have you for supper...maybe literally.
'I think wherever I come from, I base whatever I do on truth,' says the veteran British actor. 'What does drive the character, in this case the Baron? He is a very large, ripe character. At the same time, he has certain things he wants to get done.'
What brings this all home is one major scene where you get the full weightpardon the punof the character. It starts with the Baron leaning over the body of a naked woman who's quite obviously dead. Hidden inside both her knees are two small pins. As the Baron quickly points out, the pins were poisoned and intended for him. He's disarmed the weapon, and now he's ready to take care of the person who sent her...his beloved nephew Feyd.
'That scene, where Feyd tried to kill the Baron, he doesn't fly off into a rage,' says McNeice. 'He sets him down and says 'C'mere. You tried to kill me, but let's talk about this.' All he really wanted Feyd to admit was that he did it. So he does slap Feyd around a bit, but then turns around and says, 'Let's use this moment,' and uses it as a lesson to Feyd on how to better apply himself. He gave Feyd a valuable lesson on how to use his failure against somebody else.'
'That is a critical scene,' agrees Harrison. 'It's drawn directly from the book. It shows he doesn't have designs just on the Atreides and Dune, but for the entire Empire. The way he sees it, he's just removing the people who have always stood in his way. And, after he eliminates them, why stop there?'
'What it shows is the Baron has plans, plans, plans,' adds McNeice. 'He schemes all the time. He isn't just after the fall of the Atreides. He's setting up to take over the entire Empire. He's just an amazing character.'
McNeice has a reputation as being an incredible actor. A hard working veteran thespian with over a dozen films on his resume, he's also a respected drama teacher (his students have included Dune
's Lady Jessica, Saskia Reeves) and former veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company. At the time of the interview, he had just finished work on another movie, an adaptation of comic book writer Alan Moore's From Hell
[about Jack the Ripper], and currently is in mid-production on an HBO movie, Conspiracy: The Meeting at Wannsee
, with Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci. Other roles have found him hamming it up with Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls
, vamping it up to the max in one of Milos Forman's best costume dramas, Valmont
, or getting down to the very basics of the Welsh working class in The Man Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain
Still, McNeice openly admits that Baron Harkonnen is one of his favorite roles of all time. 'The Baron was a terrific challenge,' admits McNeice. 'I enjoyed doing it and I'd like to do more. If there's a chance of the Baron coming back, I'd like to be there. I loved playing a character that was all-out evil.
'There's a certain Shakespearean quality about the Baron, especially the way John Harrison wrote it. He had this wonderful sense of writing all my scenes in these wonderful rhyming couplets, which is quite Shakespearean in its own way. I have about four years of Royal Shakespeare Company experience and I thought that was all behind me, so I found that quite sweet.
'There's also the sexual aspect of the Baron, which I found interesting,' continues McNeice. 'That love affair he has with Feyd! He adores the boy! Yet the Baron is quite the hedonist; he loves to eat, he loves to screw, he loves all of it. He's basically a big boy with a huge appetite. Now that is enormous fun to play! At the same time, what you don't try to do is turn him into the horrible comic caricature. So you try to inlay as much depth as you can. Fortunately you can do this because he's extremely bright. He's no fool.'
As it turns out, McNeice was very familiar with the original Herbert text, having read it when he was much younger. So, as he put it, his prep time was relatively easier when compared to his younger colleagues. He only had to dig up the book and 'hash it over' to get ready.
'To be honest, I was a fan of the David Lynch film,' adds McNeice. 'Not a lot of people were, but I was. So I knew there were a lot of things that were done that never made it to the final film. One of the reasons why I took the role was we would try to pack a lot of the stuff that was cut out of the Lynch version now that we had six hours to go with. We also could take our time with it.'
What McNeice apparently isn't ready for is the fanatical following the book carries. He's quite unaware of the two new books based on the series written by Herbert's son Brian and author Kevin J. Anderson, or how well the books are selling. On the other hand, he did get a warning shot when he attended last year's San Diego Comic-Con.
'A while ago we were shipped out to California to do a junket and then we were sent down to San Diego to do the Comic-Con,' recalls McNeice. 'We thought just a few people might show up to ask us a few questions. Imagine my shock when 600 showed up. I was completely bowled over by it. Dune
is big stuff.'
In the meantime, fans can look forward to hearing McNeice's name a lot more in the future. He seems more than a little pleased with the two films he completed after
he wrapped up his work on Dune
'I also had a lot of fun doing From Hell
,' says McNeice. 'I play this character who hangs out at the morgues and examines the bodies as they are coming in. He's the prototype of what will eventually become forensic guys. I got to work with [actor] Johnny Depp and it was a very fun shoot. It's also going to be a phenomenal piece of work. I just saw some bits of it and all I can say is 'Wow!'it's very black, very deep and very dark. The Hughes Brothers are going to be releasing a major piece of work.
'The lucky thing is, I am currently working on a very intense thing over here [with] Conspiracy
. It's about the Nazis in 1942 and how they came up with the 'Final Solution' for the Jews, where they came up with the gas chambers. It's a very heavy piece. My character is called Klopfer. I play an aid to Martin Bohrman.
'So where I'm lucky is I don't have to rely on the one role. There are many roles I've played and there are many roles I've still to play. When they do the Dune
sequels, they have to have flashbacks. I had such fun with this role that they have to figure out a way to get me back in. I gotta do it, you know? At the same time, it's not something I'm waiting to do again. I have plenty to keep me busy.'