billing order

Trying to Understand Dune’s Spicy Credits

Our two stars. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Vulture is recirculating its coverage of Dune in celebration of the epic’s long-awaited release on HBO Max and theaters.

Desert landscapes, Instagram-filter blue eyes, Charlotte Rampling with a dagger: We haven’t seen much footage from Denis Villeneuve’s Dune in its first trailer, but what we have seen is all very enticing and mysterious. The big-budget adaptation of (the first half of) Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi epic is coming to theaters in December, and while we could spend a lot of time piecing together what all these images might imply, there’s something even more mysterious right at the end. At the end of the Dune trailer, Warner Bros. unfurls some of the wildest billing I’ve seen this side of Avengers Infinity War and Endgame. As you might expect from a big, sweeping movie, Dune has a big, starry cast — 13 names, in a wonderfully scrambled order, with two actors getting special “with” designations at the end, and a third sneaking in with an “and.” Armed with Google, a basic understanding of Hollywood hierarchies, and a “soon to be a major motion picture” copy of Dune I’m 300 pages through, I’m here to do my best to make sense of it all.

Photo: YouTube

First off, we have the one and onlée Timothée Chalamet, which makes sense given that he’s playing Paul Atreides, the possibly chosen-one protagonist of this whole space saga. Next up: Rebecca Ferguson, who plays his mother Lady Jessica, who’s trained in all sorts of psychic talents (like a Jedi in Star Wars, which definitely ripped off was inspired by Dune). Ferguson has had a solid run keeping up with Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible movies and mouthing the words to “Never Enough” dubbed in The Greatest Showman, but she’s definitely not as big a name as some of the other actors in Dune, so congrats to her on securing this placement. One explanation: Villeneuve has made a big show of saying he’s expanded Jessica’s role and those of the other female characters in the movie, so perhaps this version will be especially Jessica-heavy (give us that sweet Bene Gesserit backstory, Denis!). A movie’s plot can only have tangential bearing on its billing, so while there are plenty of story reasons that Jessica will probably get more attention and screen time than her husband, it’d be hard to argue that Ferguson has more name recognition than Oscar Isaac, who plays Duke Leto, Paul’s father. Isaac is arriving on Arrakis after a three-movie stint in Star Wars. He was sixth-billed in Rise of Skywalker, so at least he’s moved up to third here.

Then there’s Josh Brolin, who plays Gurney Halleck, the skilled fighter and minstrel appointed by the Atreides to train Paul and who loves to sing a song or two on occasion. What’s notable about this is that Brolin’s a step above Stellan Skarsgård, who plays the primary villain, the monstrous Baron Harkonnen (apparently there are prosthetics involved, as there were in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again). That’s the kind of role that might typically net you a “with” near the end of the credits, but, well, we’ll get to the “with”s in a bit …

After Skarsgård, there’s Dave Bautista as Rabban Harkonnen, the Baron’s brutish nephew, and then Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat, one of Duke Leto’s trusted advisers. Baustisa’s got Guardians of the Galaxy and Blade Runner 2049 under his belt, and Henderson has a lauded stage career plus a starring role telling Lady Bird “they didn’t understand it.” But in this case, the “it” I don’t understand is how both their names managed to land above Zendaya’s. She’s playing Chani, a mysterious Fremen (desert-dwellers who have blue eyes) woman who appears in Paul’s dreams before they eventually meet on Arrakis. Zendaya has a weird history with billing. Never forget that she ended up behind Gwyneth Paltrow, doing a cameo she forgot about, in the end credits of Spider-Man: Homecoming. This movie covers the first half of the novel Dune, and in the novel it takes a while before Chani shows up anywhere outside Paul’s dreams. So it could be that we’re getting a repeat of Zendaya’s Spider-Man arc in that she’ll be a big part of the advertising and rollout, but only a small part of the first movie. But this is Zendaya! Couldn’t she leverage that pull alone for higher billing, even if this is basically table setting? Maybe she simply tells her agent she does not care. I respect that.

Finally, we have Chang Chen, playing Atreides physician Dr. Yueh, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster, playing Dr. Liet Kynes, an ecologist who’s become a well-connected political player on Arrakis. Chen has a long career in Taiwanese cinema, with fewer big roles in American movies aside from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Duncan-Brewster has a solid career in British TV (we love to see a Sex Education breakout), and is playing a character who’s male in the novel. After them, the deluge: We have Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling as our first “with.” She’s playing the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, a.k.a. the Bene Gesserit woman who gives Paul the intense hand test in the trailer. One big, creepy scene played by an icon: the ultimate “with” role. But she’s followed right up by Jason Momoa, playing the roguish Duncan Idaho, one of Leto’s lieutenants. That’s a part that’s around the size of Josh Brolin’s, at least initially, but perhaps Aquaman gave Momoa some extra leverage. Wet guy comes to the desert planet! The people have gotta know about that! Finally, there’s Javier Bardem, securing the coveted final “and.” He’s playing Stilgar, the leader of a Fremen tribe, and a sort of model of a way of being in the book. That “and” might be recognition of the gravitas Bardem brings to the role, and also thanks to him for spending a lot of time in the desert filming everything. That, and the Fremen do know a lot about the spice out there in the desert, and whoever controls the spice … controls the billing.

Trying to Understand Dune’s Spicy Credits