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The Story Behind Stephen McKinley Henderson’s Dune Parasol

Photo: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

When Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and the dutiful computer-man Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) first see each other on the desert planet Arrakis in Dune, their warm embrace offers a brief reprieve from all the worry that surrounds them. The House Atreides, led by Paul’s father (Oscar Isaac), has accepted a mission to supervise a magical resource cultivated on Arrakis that extends life and facilitates interstellar travel. Everyone is anxious about how things will go. War looms. Chalamet and Henderson hugging it out is a tiny bit of assurance. Even better: the sight of Henderson walking through the sand carrying a little white parasol.

Henderson isn’t the sort of actor you’d expect to find in a big-budget sci-fi tentpole. He is known first and foremost as a theater veteran, revered for his work in August Wilson, Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Lorraine Hansberry plays. But over the last decade, Henderson has made a name for himself in film and TV thanks to supporting roles in Lincoln, The Newsroom, Manchester by the Sea, Fences, Lady Bird, and Devs. When he got the call from director Denis Villeneuve about Dune, he felt it was a “magical” moment in his career.

Talking to Henderson, you’ll hear a lot of charming self-effacement. He is quick to give his collaborators credit and express awe at the good fortune he has seen in his 60s and 70s. About 20 minutes after our phone conversation ended, I received a voicemail from Henderson because he’d forgotten to gush about Halle Berry, who recruited him for the forthcoming MMA drama Bruised. “I talked about the directors and casts that I was so proud to be a part of, and I didn’t want to exclude that,” he said. “It was her first directing project, and I have nothing but fond memories of that and the fact that I was called directly by her for that, as well. I just hope that you can find space to mention that I had a wonderful experience with Halle Berry.”

Ahead of Dune’s successful opening weekend, Vulture chatted with Henderson about stepping into Villeneuve’s long-anticipated world, calling Greta Gerwig from the set to reminisce about Lady Bird, and that incredible parasol.

Did Denis Villeneuve seek you out specifically for this role?
Yes, he did. I humbly say that because every time someone really sees you as part of what they’re doing, you’re part of their vision. It’s like visiting someone in a dream. I’ve had it happen a couple of times, but this with Denis was just wonderful. And the film was so well-received [at the Venice Film Festival]. I wasn’t able to be there because of the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. My wife and I were on the runway at JFK, and the rains came.

Oh no, what a bummer.
It was, but so many people had lost homes and loved ones. I was disappointed, but it was joyous to hear from Josh Brolin. He said, “Oh man, we missed you and we’re having a good time.” Josh is a wonderful guy. And being part of the House Atreides was really a kick. Sitting there one day on the set in Budapest, I thought back to my childhood and how important it was in my house and certain other houses in my neighborhood that the Ten Commandments movie was made. It was going to be like a Baptist convention, going to see this movie. I saw those incredible sets, and there I sat in Budapest all these years later saying, “That was the last time I felt that size in terms of a project.” As you reflect at 72, when you look back at your journey, there are these things that make you aware of just how long you’ve been doing it and how blessed you are to be working at all.

You’re best known for your theater work. At any point in your career, had you imagined yourself in a big sci-fi blockbuster?
Not at all. I really never imagined myself being in a film of this stature. But you run away to join the circus, and you go where the circus leads you.

Did you have any connection to Frank Herbert’s novels before accepting the role?
No. I remembered the book because I had a dear friend who loved it and would often quote from those passages. In each chapter, there’s a verse or an adage — some bit of wisdom. My friend, as he was reading the book, would tell me, “Hey, man, you should hear this one.” Even if you hadn’t read the book, you understood what issues were being dealt with and some of the spiritual nature of it. My buddy knew I had an interest in theology and philosophy. So that was my connection to it. I had started it once, I must admit, and did not finish.

I think a lot of people can relate to that.
But after I got the call from Denis, I jumped in. I was thoroughly engrossed with it, and it’s become one of my favorite books. I do understand why so many people were motivated by the book. A lot of writers and sci-fi people were inspired to do their own thing because of the elements of that.

An August Wilson or Stephen Adly Guirgis play comes with emotional, loquacious dialogue, whereas Dune required you to speak in hyper-specific sci-fi jargon. Is it harder to find an emotional core when you’re so accustomed to a very different kind of character work?
For me, it’s how much you care about other people. That’s the link. In August’s plays, there are really close connections. People matter. They use language to express that. And with Stephen’s plays, as much profanity as there is, there’s a tremendous amount of care for the other person. Sometimes you care so desperately to be understood by the other person, or you care so desperately to impart something on this person that will stick with them because you’re going to be gone. And the linchpin for this wonderful film of Denis’ is that Paul’s future is important. It’s not that they know what a messianic journey he’s on — he’s simply the crown prince of the House Atreides who will one day be king. It’s quite Shakespearean, actually.

My single favorite image in Dune is you walking with the cute little parasol. Was that detail in the script?

I’m so glad you mentioned that. That’s just delightful. It is a character that’s quite apart from me. The first thing I said was, “I’m playing a Mentat. I consider myself a passionate, feeling person, and this person is a very calculated individual. He’s an alien!” But here’s what happened. We were there in Budapest. [The rest of the cast] had come from Jordan; they’d been in the desert, but I never had to go to the desert. They came back with this incredible spiritual journey they’d been on, and they were sharing it. It was a really hot day when we were shooting. I was sitting off to the side, out in the sun. There’s nothing around, so there’s no shade. I think someone just offered it to me, not to be part of the scene at all but just to protect me. And Denis loved it. He came over and said, “Ah, you like this?” I said, “Yeah, I love it.” And he said, “Well, I think Thufir can have this.” I said, “I would love to do that; that’s fabulous.” It just says so much about where he is at the time and that he’s taking care of himself. He was a young man once. It was one of those wonderful spontaneous things.

It stands out because it’s such a human thing to be carrying a little umbrella to shield yourself from the sun.
Yeah, and it’s something that someone who’s not human would be attracted to. I just think it’s the desire to really be a part of these wonderful people as the alien that he is. It’s a very civilized thing to have.

Another interesting detail is that when Thufir retrieves information from within his computer system, your eyes roll back in your head. Was that a CGI effect?
When shooting, I did roll my eyes back. It helped me to do that. But Denis, in his brilliance, said, “That is good. We may enhance it.” So he did indeed enhance it, but it was a place where I retrieved the information — in a sense, looking up into my head. Also, for me, it was personal. I had a friend who had whatever it is that makes your eyes a bit different. He was a wonderful person. He’s passed on. So when I saw how they had enhanced it, I said, “Oh my god, that reminds me of my friend Chris.” I didn’t realize that that’s probably where I was getting that from.

What a spiritual thing. That’s very beautiful.
There’s so much about this project and the making of it, for everyone. You do feel like you were brought to this work.

I don’t think you and Timothée Chalamet shared any scenes in Lady Bird, but did the two of you reminisce about that movie when you reunited for Dune?
Yes. In fact, while on set, he called Greta and we spoke to her. But we had met in New York. He just came up to me one day and said he’d seen me in these plays. His mother is a lover of theater and was quite aware of a lot of the work, and she asked him if she could meet me. There were all these international stars there, and Timothée’s mother said, “I want to talk to that guy right there.” And I saw him again when I was in the replacement cast of A Doll’s House, Part 2. We’d always seen each other and chatted, but we didn’t actually have any scenes in Lady Bird.

Are you aware how much people adore you in that movie, particularly the moment after the Merrily We Roll Along sequence where your character says, “They didn’t understand it”? It’s kind of a meme, at least among movie lovers.
Yeah, I found that out later. Again, look at the gathering of people in that film. Lois Smith is one of my favorite people. We took a class together with Lloyd Richards. He was the first African American director on Broadway directing A Raisin in the Sun, and he directed the plays of Athol Fugard at Yale and in New York. He was the director of seven August Wilson plays. Lloyd was teaching at a place called The Actors Center in New York. We were in class together, and Lloyd suggested we do something. It was a scene from Shakespeare. It was just a joy to look into her eyes and have her really get something through to me. And the other thing is that I always love East of Eden, James Dean’s film. She is so delightful in it. I just fall in love with her in that film. She is so funny in Lady Bird, too, when she’s telling them “six inches for Jesus.” And there’s Tracy Letts and Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse. And Beanie! Oh my god! It was great to be a part of that.

Your screen career has really picked up in the last decade or so. Was that something you actively pursued?
No, my friend, not at all. What happened, really, was that Tony Kushner is a fan of August’s work. He saw my work in a lot of August’s plays. When he and Spielberg were collaborating on Lincoln, Tony wanted me to play a role. And the other thing, far more effectively, that brought me into film was doing the play Fences with Denzel and Viola. All of the West Coast producers and directors came to see it. There were auditions in rooms I couldn’t even get into before that. Denzel is so generous. When someone in the business would come around to his dressing room, he’d say, “Hey, you know these actors?” Being seen in that helped, and in Tower Heist. The one time I was stumped for something to say, I played a doorman and I was standing there ready to open the door for Alan Alda. I just faded for a moment thinking about him and his career. I was thinking about him and Diana Sands doing Owl and the Pussycat years ago. On the other side of the door, he was pointing to me like, Open the door, open the door! The cameras were rolling, and I was just standing there daydreaming about his journey as an actor. Getting to be part of that was because of people coming to see Fences in 2010.

What can you tell us about Disappointment Blvd., Ari Aster’s new movie, which you shot this year?
Now, let me tell you why that’s a great transition. The only time anybody asked me the question you just asked me was Patti LuPone. We were sitting there between scenes and reminiscing about how far we go back. We had never worked together professionally, but we had worked together at Juilliard when we were in training. She says to me, “Stephen, did you ever think you would be a respected film actor in those days that we were in school?” I said, “Absolutely not.” In fact, when she said that was the first time I thought of myself as a respected film actor, other than the great honor that I received from your colleagues at Vulture to be on the [list of the greatest character actors]. That began to open my eyes that, hey, something has changed here in my journey. Patti is an American treasure herself.

What can I tell you about Disappointment Blvd.? Can’t tell you anything about the story, of course, but I can tell you that to meet Ari Aster and to see the simpatico that he had with Joaquin Phoenix and how they worked together and confronted differences together and resolved them was wonderful. Those are the two people I worked with: Patti and Joaquin. My scenes were all with the two of them, and that was precious.

Is it exciting for you to be part of these highly anticipated projects where so much is kept under wraps? That was the case with Dune, and everyone is curious to see what Ari Aster is up to next. 
I was in a reading once of an adaptation of The Visit that Tony Kushner had written. George C. Wolfe was directing, and they didn’t tell anyone who else was going. You walked into the room, and they had little cards telling you where to sit. I found my name and I looked to my left to see what name was there. It was Helen Mirren! And then I looked next to her and it said Tommy Lee Jones. So I said, “Oh, I see why he kept it a secret.” During the reading, Tommy Lee said to me, “You know, man, they don’t want anybody to know about it until they want the world to know about it. They want to keep it a secret until the day they want everybody to come see it.” So I understand it. But being part of it really does, I have to tell you, make you feel like you’re part of something special. You don’t want to betray it because there’s the fear that if I’m the leak I’ll never work again. They’ll take it and say, “Can’t trust that guy.”

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The Story Behind Stephen McKinley Henderson’s Dune Parasol