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When filmmaker Denis Villeneuve set out to cast Thufir Hawat in Dune, he wanted an actor with intelligent eyes and a “teddy bear”-like quality that the audience would immediately embrace. So Villeneuve quickly turned to Stephen McKinley Henderson, an actor he’s long admired and even tried to cast in a previous film. In the world of Dune, computers have been cast aside in favor of Mentats like Hawat, who serves as a human computer, political advisor and head of security for House Atreides and Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac). For Henderson, the role of Hawat allowed him to tap into two of his oldest passions.
“The thing that helped me is that I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes,” Henderson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So there was something about his power of deduction that made me feel connected, in a way, to play a Mentat. I thought of how they had to be a prototype, so to speak, in the mind of [Gene] Roddenberry for Spock, but it was really the fact that I was a math major. So I’m always able to find something in my background that helps me, and my love for math at one point was one of the things that helped me with Thufir.”
Henderson knew that Villeneuve had been dreaming about making a Dune movie his entire life and that he had meticulously prepared so much of what ended up on the screen. But the moment when he realized that Villeneuve was a special filmmaker was when he embraced an unusual detail during their downtime on set.
“It was a very hot day in Hungary, and the makeup people knew that I might burn or something. So they brought me this little frilly parasol that they had,” Henderson shares. “And when I was using it, Denis saw me sitting there with it and he said, ‘Oh, I deeply love that.’ Then he said, ‘How do you feel about it?’ And I said, ‘I love it, man. I love it.’ Despite all of his preparation, it was still possible for him to have an almost frivolous inspiration for one character detail at any given moment.”
Henderson also reveals a deleted scene between Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and Hawat after the latter’s oversight results in a Harkonnen hunter-seeker nearly killing the young heir of House Atreides.
“I don’t know whether it’s still in the film or not, but in the script that we had, Paul said to him, ‘It was also what you taught me that made me triumphant over that hunter-seeker,'” Henderson says. “So that’s the only thing that helped [Thufir] get off the hook, but [his] resignation was a sincere desire to say, ‘Get someone else because I care that much.'”
In a recent conversation with THR, Henderson also looks back at key scenes from Alex Garland’s Devs and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. Then he discusses his recent experience on Ari Aster’s Disappointment Blvd. set alongside Joaquin Phoenix and Patti LuPone.
Congratulations on Dune. It’s truly a masterpiece.
Oh yeah, to be a part of Dune, my goodness. Denis! Ah man, he’s quite something. I, too, think it’s a wonderful, wonderful film. And it’s Part One. (Laughs.) That’s the other thing. But what a visual feast and a real wonderful capture of the spiritual nature of the book and its intentions. And what a wonderful cast. I’m so glad to be a part of the cast, but I’m also glad your response to it is favorable, of course. (Laughs.)
So how did this role come across your desk? Was there anything unusual about the casting process?
Well, that’s the magical thing. I was doing Devs in Manchester, England, and my manager said, “Denis Villeneuve would like to speak with you.” And I said, “Whoa, wonderful.” Denis said he had tried to reach me for another project sometime before, but I was unavailable. I didn’t even realize that, and then I found out later that it was because I was doing a show on Broadway. But he called me and simply said, “I want you for this.” And I said, “Yes.” (Laughs.) So that was pretty much that. I was already in the midst of a wonderful project [Devs] and was really glad to be working with Alex [Garland]. So I just felt like my cup was running over, you know? It was quite something. From Denzel [Washington] to Alex and Denis to Halle [Berry]. … I hadn’t read very much about Dune in terms of the film being made, but right after that call, I started to note when actors were coming on board. They’d have little things in different publications: “Javier Bardem is aboard. Sharon Duncan-Brewster has been signed.” So I just thought how fortunate I was to be a part of his vision.
Did you read the book in order to have a frame of reference?
I definitely did. I had a dear friend years ago who had the book and used to quote from the adages, the verses that were at the beginning of each chapter. And it intrigued me. So I started it, but I never finished it. This was years ago when I was in grad school. And so when I was offered the role, I decided that I would get an audiobook and a copy of the book, so I could follow along as the book was read. And I happened to get a rather good audiobook, which had people doing several voices. Two or three people did many voices, but with sound effects of the wind and the sand. (Laughs.) It made it much, much more digestible. So yes, I did, indeed, read the book. I had seen the earlier film [Dune (1984)], but I didn’t remember it at all. The only thing I remember was somebody bursting a lot of sores on someone [Baron Vladimir Harkonnen]. It was a strong image that I was left with. (Laughs.) But I did read the book and was completely intrigued by it. Clearly, many writers had read it before me because many things have been written because of it. It also spoke to our time in terms of taking care of the planet. We have to be shepherds and we have to husband the planet. So yes, I did read it, but I didn’t read it to find out how I would play the character or anything. I read it to know the work. In order to make a contribution, you have to know the cause. So I wanted to know the cause first, and for the rest, I just waited till I got the script because that’s what you have to portray.
In Devs, your character worked on a powerful computer, but in Dune, Thufir Hawat is the powerful computer.
(Laughs.) You’re right.
So how did you wrap your head around playing a “Mentat”?
Well, the way you put that is so wonderful; I hadn’t thought about that. But the thing that helped me is that I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. I like to see them all. I read the stories when I was younger, but since that time, I’ve loved seeing all of the Basil Rathbone films and every other incarnation of Sherlock Holmes. And one of the things about Holmes is the power of deduction. You eliminate all of the false things and the thing that’s left must be the truth. So there was something about his power of deduction that made me feel connected, in a way, to play a Mentat. I thought of how they had to be a prototype, so to speak, in the mind of [Gene] Roddenberry for Spock, but it was really the fact that I was a math major. When I went to undergraduate school, I was a math major and a political science major, but I didn’t major as an undergraduate at first. So my first year in college, I was in plays because I was in plays in high school. I went to a great high school in Kansas City, Kansas, and I went all the way to calculus and trigonometry in high school. I really enjoyed that things equaled things. The quadratic equation in algebra was a favorite because you work a problem down to x equals this and that. It was just concrete, and I love the concrete nature of it. And then I got all caught up in the theoretical nature of art, poetry and all of that stuff. (Laughs.) And that’s why the quantum physics on Devs was so absolutely astounding because nothing is sure. So I was always intrigued by numbers, but as you work as an actor, you find that there’s always something in your journey that you can call upon. Nothing human is foreign to us. The only thing that’s foreign, really, is a language, and if you study hard, you can even learn that. But cultures aren’t really foreign because they come from families with a mother, father, sister or brother. So I’m always able to find something in my background that helps me, and my love for math at one point was one of the things that helped me with Thufir.
How quickly did you realize that the goal is to get Denis to say, “I deeply love it,” about a take?
(Laughs.) That’s it! Oh yes! That’s wonderful. You’ve probably been talking to Josh Brolin.
I caught on to it many years ago, so I’ve talked about it with Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and most recently, Sharon Duncan-Brewster.
Yes! (Laughs.) I got it quite early. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but I did something quite early that made him say, “Yes, I deeply love that. Oh, I deeply love that.” (Laughs.) So it was a joy to hear that. And the more people involved in the scene, the harder it is to get that. (Laughs.) I think it’s harder for him to really be that way about something. But when he is, it’s a joy, and you know that you’re moving on because he’s got it. I imagine that the editor [Joe Walker] is really happy when he gets to hear that. (Laughs.) That’s the person who’s really happy to hear that down the line.
Was there a moment early on during filming where you realized why Denis has the reputation that he has?
He’s so personal. He is incredibly exacting. He knows what he wants, and he’s done all kinds of preparation. And he’s in love with this subject; there’s no question. I’m sure he’s probably in love with every film he does, but Dune was a longtime love. So after all of that, he was still open to suggestion. He could still be inspired by something that he had not considered at all that day. In Budapest, we were outside, and of course, they had tried to replicate the desert a couple of times. They’d already shot in Jordan when we came to Budapest, so there was a wind machine. But it was a very hot day in Hungary, and the makeup people knew that I might burn or something. So they brought me this little frilly parasol that they had. And when I was using it, Denis saw me sitting there with it and he said, “Oh, I deeply love that.” (Laughs.) Then he said, “How do you feel about it?” And I said, “Oh, you’re serious? You think Thufir could have this?” And he said, “Yes, if you don’t mind.” And I said, “I love it, man. I love it.” I was trying to get as far away from myself as possible with this character, and so to have that and to aspire to be that human and that genteel was something that I really enjoyed. So there’s a scene on Arrakis where I have it, but this is one of those reasons why he is such a marvelous director. Despite all of his preparation, it was still possible for him to have an almost frivolous inspiration for one character detail at any given moment. He’s got the whole vision in his head and he’s working on the totality of it, but he can still see that specificity and that detail and playfully suggest it. He literally asked if it would interrupt whatever work I was doing, and I said, “Oh no, I love it. I deeply love it, too.” (Laughs.) So that’s there, and it helped me with the character in other ways. He realized that he was really becoming an old softy, in a sense, and that he was aging. That was another element of Thufir that I was realizing due to my own aging. He’s at a point now where his powers aren’t as sharp as he would like them to be.
Well, I’m so glad you mentioned the parasol because I noted how much you rocked it during my first viewing.
(Laughs.) Thank you.
Hawat was in charge of securing Arrakis prior to House Atreides’ arrival, but a threat slipped through the cracks and nearly killed Paul (Timothée Chalamet). What did you make of Hawat’s decision to tender his resignation?
Well, that is exactly it. That’s exactly the thing. That’s something that never would’ve happened to him at a different point in his journey, and that was the other thing that made me realize he had served the grandfather. He had served Duke Leto’s [Oscar Isaac] father. So he’s been around a minute, and he was probably better at his job when he was less emotional about it, when he was less human, and when he wasn’t as attached to them as he was. So his negligence endangered Paul. I don’t know whether it’s still in the film or not, but in the script that we had, Paul said to him, “It was also what you taught me that made me triumphant over that hunter-seeker.” So that’s the only thing that helped him get off the hook, but that resignation was a sincere desire to say, “Get someone else because I care that much.” And Timothée is such a likable chap. (Laughs.) He’s a very likable guy, and so it was easy to do the substitution there. I also have a son, my only son, and he’s dear to me. So I know I would rather have a professional. Although I would lay down my life for my son, I would rather have somebody who would not have to lay down their life, but somebody who would take care of whomever was trying to harm him rather than die doing it. So yes, I really felt that resignation and was shamed by the way that Duke handled it. He knew that I was going to go back and do better, but the cards were stacked against us completely because there was betrayal at the highest, highest order from the very beginning. But we’re getting into Part Two now, and I can’t talk too much about that.
I quite liked the moment a short while later as everyone is at the strategy meeting and Josh Brolin’s Gurney is already joking about the incident. And as everybody laughs, Denis cuts to Hawat, who’s frozen and shell-shocked still.
Well, thank you. It was a wonderful script, but they shot and edited a story. So there were a lot of things that they had to choose from, and Denis chose to make sure that that was visible and in contrast to the other things. So I’m just grateful because directors have to watch over a performance. You can do a lot of things that never get seen in a film, you know? And Denis loves acting and actors, so he makes sure that everyone gets their contribution. He shines a light. That’s one of the things about working with Denzel, who is such a wonderful actor and director. Doing a film with him, he’s so generous. He’s very, very generous, and I find that Denis is very generous. He’s going to tell the story, so he has to trim what he has to trim. And you may lose something that you were in love with, but what he keeps is a way of compensating you or apologizing. (Laughs.) So that’s what’s left of it, and it’s quite enough. It’s like he turned a long poem into a haiku, and I’m just glad that you noted it.
I really enjoyed Devs, especially your scenes with Cailee Spaeny. She actually spoke very highly of you when I asked about your work together.
Well, working with her was a joy, and we’re from the same state. She came and told me that early on when I first met her. She said, “Hey, you’re from Missouri.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, how did you know that?” (Laughs.) So she had just done her research, and it was just a joy working with her.
Overall, what was the highlight from your experience on Garland’s set?
It was a joy to be on that conveyor that took you from the workplace out. That was really nice. So much of that set was built. There was not a lot of greenscreen with Devs and with Dune. Dune inevitably had to have some, but there’s much less greenscreen than you would imagine. And with Devs, all of that glass and stainless steel had to be wiped down. Those people who came in were just a wonderful crew. A lot of folks had to do a lot of things to make that work. So I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed my trailer on Devs.
My favorite thing, I’ve got to say, is that there was a line that I had. I can’t remember it exactly, but what I loved about playing Stewart is that he read. And he said, “You can’t be a scientist and not read poetry and listen to music and know the arts. Otherwise, that’s very dangerous.” As it shows in Devs, if you’re single-minded, you can do some dangerous things with that knowledge. And so there was a place where Stewart says, “Have you listened to a lot of Beethoven? A lot of Bach?” And I said to Alex, “Listen, I’ve got to add Coltrane to that. Would you mind if I add jazz to that?” And Alex said, “Yeah, of course.” He said, “I’m so sorry that I missed that.” And I said, “No, no, but as an African American playing this role, man, I’ve got to throw Coltrane in here, you know?” (Laughs.) So he permitted that and it’s one of my favorite things. No pun intended there about Coltrane and “My Favorite Things.” (Laughs.)
“Such big decisions being made about our future by people who know so little about our past.” That quote by Stewart remains with me.
Oh man, yeah. You caught that. And of course, we had, for a time, a president who probably knew less about the job description, our history, the constitution and all the things. He was not a student of history, let us say. So that line resonated on that level for me.
An actor once said that the best note she ever received was when a director told her to cry the character’s tears, not her own tears. And that leads me to the “first one to cry” scene in Lady Bird. Were you using the character’s rumored backstory involving his son, or did you draw from something personal to you?
Well, that’s a great, great, great question. I had a wonderful teacher who said, “It’s far more important to get them to cry than for you to cry.” He said, “If you cry for them, people are awkward around people who cry.” (Laughs.) They’ll feel like, “Oh, I don’t want to go there.” But there’s something that they do feel when they know that you are on the verge of tears. And also, I had another teacher who said, quite wisely, “Actors are the only people who want to cry because everyone else is trying not to cry. And they’re not successful sometimes, so they weep, but they’re not trying to weep. They don’t want to weep.”
So to answer your question, it’s always personal. As an acting teacher, I would never have such a thing in the classroom myself. (Laughs.) I wouldn’t say, “Okay, let’s have a crying contest.” That’s a result-oriented thing that I would not profess as a teacher. I would go at it from a whole other angle. But I thought it was wonderful in Greta’s [Gerwig] film because she let me really have a class with them, and this was something that had been written in. There was a young man in the class, in the circle, and I used him because of, yes, the backstory. I used him as he looked like my son. And this journey of becoming a teacher and being around young people was probably not the best choice after the death of the character’s son. So the answer is both things. Of course, the backstory is what asked you to go and tap into your own life. If you’re substituting a family member for an emotional moment, it’s great to call them and make sure that they’re okay. Say, “Hey, how are you doing? Everything okay? Yeah? Because I’m about to go in here and imagine you in a terrible situation.” (Laughs.) And then I’ll use my care and my love for them to cause me to have an emotional moment. So it’s good to make sure that you know they’re okay before you go there, and so you don’t get lost in that emotion. But yeah, Lady Bird really is a wonderful film. I was very glad to have been a part of Fences, which was quite a bit about a father and son, and this one was very much about a mother and daughter. So it was great. And both films were directed by actors, so the performances were really taken care of.
How was your time with Ari Aster on Disappointment Blvd.?
Yeah, I just finished with his film. The working title right now is Disappointment Blvd. I don’t know if it will stay that. But yeah, I worked with Joaquin! And I got to work with Patti LuPone! Patti and I went to school together. So we did work together in school, but we hadn’t worked together professionally. 50 years later, this is the first time we’ve worked together professionally. We met in 1968. So that was a real joy to be on set with Patti and to work with Joaquin, who is really a nice person. He and Ari were so simpatico, and they worked together for the whole film. I came in pretty close to the end of the shoot and so they had been working a while. And their way of working together was like they were really old friends. They could get upset and make up in the span of seconds, it seemed. But the work was always the better for it.
Dune is now playing in movie theaters.
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