The Making of Austin Butler’s Sexy Psychopath in Dune: Part Two

Anthony Breznican

February 22, 2024

The Making of Austin Butler’s Sexy Psychopath in Dune: Part Two
Article taken from Vanity Fair
The Making of Austin Butler’s Sexy Psychopath in Dune: Part Two

Butler trained with a Navy SEAL and took inspiration from panthers and snakes to play the lethal Feyd-Rautha.

Aggressive mimicry, sometimes called Peckhamian mimicry, is the term scientists use for predators who camouflage themselves in order to attract prey, lower their defenses, and ultimately overpower and devour them. The orchid mantis lures hapless insects through its resemblance to a pink, nectar-rich flower. The Amazonian wildcat known as the margay imitates the screech of baby monkeys, which brings their worried parents running—never to return. Photuris fireflies use the allure of sex, flashing their luminous bodies to match the mating signals of rival species…then cannibalize any amorous hopefuls who draw near.

Austin Butler’s ruthless assassin prince, Feyd-Rautha, operates much the same way. He’s eerie, to be sure, but also appears to be captivating, even beautiful, to those who behold him—usually before they become his latest victims. In the upcoming Dune: Part Two, the Elvis star plays the most formidable warrior to emerge from the villainous Harkonnen clan, which is populated mainly by brutish, sickly pale ogres whose very biology is polluted by their toxic homeworld of Giedi Prime. In contrast, Rautha resembles a Renaissance sculpture that has come to life, with a perfectly chiseled marble physique, an enigmatic smile, and propensity for shedding his clothes.

The allure was intentional, says filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. “Absolutely. He’s probably Giedi Prime’s sex symbol,” Villeneuve tells Vanity Fair. “I was looking for that kind of physical attractiveness. You will see a strong, strong sex appeal in Feyd-Rautha.”

After discussing those character traits with the director, Butler says he immediately began an intense fitness regimen with an ex-Navy SEAL to push his already toned form to the next level. “That changes the way you walk, it changes the way you feel in your body,” Butler says. “And then I started doing a lot of knife training. On top of that it was looking at animals, looking at a panther and a snake and seeing how they use their eyes and moments of stillness in unpredictable moments where they may strike. All of that was the bedrock for me.”

Butler famously adopted, and maintained, Elvis Presley’s Southern drawl, but this time he imitated the voice of Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen, the sadistic head of the interstellar cartel that Feyd-Rautha serves. “It dawned on me that Feyd grew up with the Baron being the person who has the most power. We inherently end up taking on traits of those that we grew up around,” the actor says. “The voice ends up becoming this fingerprint of the soul in a way. And it changes the way you breathe, and the rhythms that you think in are even different. And so that ended up becoming a real key for me.”

The director encouraged Butler to think of his bloodthirsty killer as a celebrity of sorts. “I always say Austin brought some of the swagger of Mick Jagger into the character,” Villeneuve says. “You know when Jagger walks into a room, everybody in the room is attracted to Jagger. It’s the same with Austin’s character.”

When David Lynch directed an adaptation of Dune in 1984, he cast Feyd-Rautha as a literal rock star: Sting, who famously (or infamously) stepped into the film wearing only an armored G-string. (“I still have these,” the musician joked in 2019. “It’s very difficult getting your trousers on over them.”)

There is no campiness to Butler’s Feyd-Rautha, just an unsettling stoicism and stillness. “A wild animal is always on either offense or being aware of the fact that there could be a predator around the corner at any moment,” Butler says. “There’s that intense presence that they have.”

Villeneuve discovered a kind of counterintuitive appeal in the confidence Butler portrayed, since arrogance can read as strength to those who feel weak or frightened. “There’s something very honest about this character,” the director says. “What you see is what you get. He’s very cruel. He’s a psychopath, but he still has some kind of morality in the way that he has a code of honor and he respects people that are good fighters. It’s a character with a very interesting psyche.”

Butler’s depiction differs from the way Feyd-Rautha appeared in Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel, which characterized the assassin as “a dark-haired youth of about 16 years, round of face with sullen eyes.” Dune: Part Two, by contrast, introduces Feyd-Rautha as an angel of darkness, literally emerging from the shadows to slay helpless victims in an arena while hordes of Harkonnen faithful cheer beneath the monochromatic illumination of the planet’s black sun.

Villeneuve’s Dune movies also depict the Harkonnens as hairless, which is more of a deliberate choice than a biological trait. These are a people who seek to distance themselves from human nature. “I loved the idea that Harkonnens are a society that doesn’t like hair,” Villeneuve says. “They remove everything. They want to be as far away from any part of their past as possible, where they are coming from. There’s a will of purity.”

Butler didn’t have to shave his locks, however. “There’s two caps on my head,” Butler says. “One that goes over the hair, and then there’s the sculpted cap that attaches kind of where my eyelids were, right at the crease of my eyelids. That goes all the way back.” After that, the makeup team would airbrush his exposed body with chalky paint to capture the Harkonnens’ signature pallor.

While Feyd-Rautha prefers to go without armor whenever possible, the blistering sun on the desert world of Arrakis, where much of the story takes place, is too harsh for the sensitive skin of the Harkonnens. “They’re coming from a world where sunlight is the opposite of Arrakis,” Villeneuve says. “When they walk on Arrakis, they are like fish out of the water. They need some equipment. They need stuff to protect themselves from the sunlight and the heat that other characters don’t need.”

What Butler drew from the book was the notion that this Harkonnen had, like Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, been engineered to a state of lethal perfection. “When I was reading the novel, there was the element of him being part of this genetic breeding program,” Butler says. “He and Paul are kind of flip sides of the same coin of being the potential Chosen One. I was thinking: Generationally, it’s been leading to me as Feyd. There’s a feeling of being stronger and more vicious and more brutal and more intelligent than anybody else, even if that’s not necessarily true to other people. I think it’s true in Feyd’s mind.”

Butler felt that was why the killer carries himself with such a sense of superiority, which borders on contempt or disgust for virtually all others around him. “The sense of self-love and holding myself up on a pedestal is Feyd. The way that you take care of your body, the way that you value yourself as your own temple in a way—and don’t value other people’s lives as much within that Harkonnen mindset of brutality and viciousness that he grew up in.”

Villeneuve found himself among those enamored by the villain Butler created. “When you cast, it’s always a gamble,” the filmmaker says. “When I started rolling the camera for the first time on Feyd-Rautha, it was like an explosion of joy in my heart to see that Austin was absolutely perfect. He brought even more animal qualities to him, like some kind of a lizard, the way he moved, the way he’d move his jaw. He was without fear. He’s a fearless actor.”

Script developed by Never Enough Design