How Denis Villeneuve's Dune Is Changing Stellan Skarsgard's Character

Chernobyl Stellan Skarsgard sitting at a conference table looking concerned

In the literary world of author Frank Herbert’s Dune, as well as the filmed interpretations of the first couple of novels from the canon, the character of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen has been a pretty outrageous presence to behold. With a larger-than-life stature and an equally outlandish personality, the character has entrenched himself as a shorthand for the ultimate villainy being aimed at the more heroic House Atreides. But director/co-writer Denis Villeneuve has changed the character in a key way, as he’s leaning more on a restrained and intimidating portrayal of the character.

With Marvel Cinematic Universe veteran Stellan Skarsgard cast as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Denis Villeneuve had a different approach in mind for this legendary Dune villain. As he told Vanity Fair in a recent interview, his reasons included some pretty key details as to why there was such a switch:

As much as I deeply love the book, I felt that the baron was flirting very often with caricature. And I tried to bring him a bit more dimension. That’s why I brought in Stellan. Stellan has something in the eyes. You feel that there’s someone thinking, thinking, thinking—that has tension and is calculating inside, deep in the eyes. I can testify, it can be quite frightening.

A man described as looking like a rhino in the prosthetic work that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune required Stellan Skarsgard to wear, the “mammoth” Baron Harkonnen is an extravagant character of Machiavellian means. But past portrayals have ranged from Ian McNiece’s mildly theatric schemer in the Sci-Fi Channel’s Dune miniseries to Kenneth McMillan’s over-the-top portrayal in David Lynch’s 1984 theatrical version.

Kenneth McMillan in particular has been the memorable high bar for over-the-top Harkonnen action, as you’ll see in the clip from David Lynch’s variant of the story:

As we keep seeing new looks at the characters of Dune in their current incarnations, witnessing Stellan Skarsgard’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is something that fans and newcomers alike must have been looking forward to prior to this moment. But now, with a character description that leans harder on Skarsgard’s handsome and imposing features, rather than just letting the character be a massive figure of ugly lechery, these new depths make getting that first look even more tantalizing.

We’ll probably get that first look soon, as not only has a drip feed of photos started making their way online, but it could be assumed that with Dune still slated to open this winter, a trailer is on the horizon. For now, we’ll have to wait and see whether or not Dune still makes its December 18 release, and if we do get to see Baron Harkonnen rear his devious face on our screens in the near future.

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.