Dune’s Sharon Duncan-Brewster is Up For the Challenge

The Dune star—who is no stranger to making history on screen—was more than ready to take on the gender-swapped version of Dr. Liet Kynes in Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the sci-fi classic.

by Iana Murray

Sharon Duncan-Brewster close up
Sharon Duncan-Brewster photographed by Simon Lipman.

Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated cinematic retelling of Frank Herbert’s foundational novel, is not only an action-filled epic with giant worms, but a complex game of strategy played on a stratospheric level by feuding royals. At the elusive center of the story’s scheming and dueling is Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s Dr. Liet Kynes. On the surface, she’s an ecologist tasked with acquainting the Atreides family with the unforgiving terrain of the desert planet Arrakis, but underneath, she conceals conflicting loyalties with multiple factions, including the native Fremen, who rebel against the colonization of their home.

After playing a small role in Rogue One—and becoming the first Black woman to have a human speaking role in a Star Wars film—Duncan-Brewster will make history once again by portraying a character originally written as a white man. She is bracing herself for a potentially toxic reception not too dissimilar from the response to her appearance in her last galactic franchise, but what she’s really anticipating is the long-awaited arrival of her biggest project to date. “Imposter syndrome did kick in for a little while,” Duncan-Brewster admitted over a Zoom call from her home in London. “But having said that, there was a part of me that felt like, yes, this is what you've always wanted, and you are here, girl! Own it, enjoy it and live it.” With Dune finally set to hit theaters, the actor reflects on the significance of her character and the challenges of filming in extreme conditions.

Was filming in the desert challenging?

When you’re wearing a glorified onesie and you’re desperate to go to the toilet!

I imagine the stillsuits you wore weren’t as well adapted to the desert as they’re described in the book.

They don't serve their true purpose, but we got used to them. Even though they were fitted for us specially, there are elements that were cumbersome to begin with; after a while, it adjusted to our bodies. It fits like a good shoe, just stretched a little bit. I must admit, I felt really cool wearing my onesie.

I had to do a majorly long run across a dune and I was told to just keep running until you hear the whistle. Because I was running [and] the wind was coming in the opposite direction, I didn't hear the whistle, so I just kept running over a dune. But I loved it, and loved the reality of hitting over the other side of the dune and seeing cars and trailers and everything. This is another world in comparison to the other side, which was this beautiful, mesmerizing backdrop of Wadi Rum and Abu Dhabi. It was gorgeous. It did make me feel like I was just this tiny speck in a huge galaxy. Very humbling, but at the same time, very hot.

You’re no stranger to sci-fi. Why do you find yourself drawn to that genre?

I'm a firm believer in manifestation. Someone had said to me about six, seven years ago, "What would you like to do next?" And I said, "I'd like to go into space." All of a sudden, these jobs just came along! [I had] one day of filming on Star Wars: Rogue One, but me being there on that one day meant that I am the first Black human female to have a speaking part in any of the Star Wars cinematic entities. That's just like... what? When someone brought it to my attention, I said, "Are you kidding me?" The only other person is Diahann Carroll, who was in a television Christmas special. She's the only person aside from me.

How do you feel when you achieve something like that? Are you grateful for being at the forefront of this milestone or frustrated that it took this long to happen?

At first, I was doubtful that it was even true, because I said, "Surely no, there must be someone." I said, "Please, can anybody inform me? And everyone came back and said, "No." Over all these years, how is that possible? So for me, it's an honor to be the first person but actually, it's a real huge disappointment that we've only come so far, because this should not be the case. It raises alarms, and it speaks volumes about the state of the industry. Things are changing but very slowly. And there's a lot that needs to be done with regards to people who are not white. (I don't really enjoy saying people of color, because to me, that conjures up all sorts of intricate ways of seeping out of facing truth.) People who are not white are not given the opportunity to show that we can do everything that everyone else is doing right now. It wasn't a joyous realization. It was actually something that really shocked me.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster photographed by Simon Lipman.

The universe is so vast and yet all the stories are about white people.

In a world where anything is possible, how is it that all the stories we're sharing are about white people? If we take it in the other direction, there's an argument that states that you're happy to show some people who aren't white in space, and you're happy to show some people who aren't white in a period drama. However, you're not really happy to show people who aren't white right now. We're all very much aware that we're a multicultural society. So why is it still that when I turn my T.V. on, if I see something with Black or brown people, they're all segregated? You never see a male Black lead or an Asian female counterpart. The formulas that we are allowed to work within have not changed very much over the last 50 years, I'd say. You have to see us in a period drama because that states, “That was then, it's not now. This is what happened, and we're normally oppressed or struggling or suffering.”

How have you seen things change?

With superheroes now, we have projects like Shang-Chi. We've got people like Gemma [Chan] and Benedict [Wong] who are fantastic performers, and I've worked with both of them. It's really interesting to see that the people who are rising up now are people that I've known and respected for such a long period of time, who should have been given the opportunity 10, 20 years ago. So, something's broken somewhere that needs to not even be fixed, but reinvented. It does feel like certain film companies are stepping up to it, but actually there's still a lot more work that needs to be addressed.

In Dune, Liet Kynes was originally written as a man. Was the character’s gender ever specified in the casting process?

Normally, it says "identifies as male/female," and I don't believe there was anything in the [character] breakdown that stated that Dr. Kynes was male. The first time I worked it out, I was told, "You're going up for this part." I typed into the computer, “Dr. Liet Kynes”, and this photograph of a white male appeared on my screen. But that's not a problem for me. I've been in theater for many years, and a lot of colorblind casting, as well as people doubling up as male and female occurs. I looked at it and I went, "Okay, so it's a guy, right? What's next? What's his character like?" That was my first port of call and that will always be my first port of call, because I'm auditioning to play a person who happens to be human. This person has these qualities, this education, I can do all that. The only thing I can't do right now is grow the beard. [Laughs.] But apart from the skin color, everything remains the same.

I know there are many discussions online with regards to how the storyline would be affected, and I honestly know and believe that Denis [Villeneuve] thought it through and worked it out. Of all the characters for them to make this choice with, Dr. Kynes was the right one because it doesn't really affect the storytelling. I know that Denis said that he wanted to have a diverse cast, and at the time, it was male heavy. He wanted to introduce another female [character] and said that Kynes was the right one.

In the past, you’ve mentioned that in constructing this character with the director, Denis Villeneuve, you focused on the “essence” of the character. Could you expand on what that essence is?

The essence of Kynes is somebody who has to hide many truths, and also loves the planet to such an extent that they are willing to do anything to protect it. I had no problem with tapping into that because as a woman—and quite frankly, as a Black woman—there is so much that is expected of me. There are so many responsibilities and places within society that others deem to be my duty, even though that's not the case. But still I step up to the mark. And I educate, I support, I protect.

Audre Lorde said: “Some problems we share as women, some we do not.” The reason why I'm bringing that up is because as a Black woman, we're normally at the bottom of the chain. We're the last person to be even considered. We're normally invisible in some worlds. And when we do make our mark or when we do step up, it's not appreciated. It's not noted. And a lot of the time, it's not celebrated. We have to work three times, four times, 10 times as hard in order to get what our white counterparts will get. And it's not a complaint, it's a fact. If it hurts people or upsets people, then my suggestion would be why? Why does that upset you? Why does it affect you the way it does and what are you willing to do to change that?

There’s been a lot of discussion online about Liet Kynes and what changing their gender means for Dune. One argument I saw was that the Fremen are a patriarchal society, so Kynes could not have this position of authority as a woman. I finished the book the other day, and looking back, I don’t think changing Kynes’ gender dramatically changes the story, but it does add new significance to the character. If we accept that the Fremen are inherently patriarchal, then women could hold positions of power because men have deemed them to be special.

Exactly. Historically, there are many women who have headed and fronted patriarchal societies who've been highly respected, created governments and wars, but people seem to forget them. And that's me referring to the past, [in Dune] we're talking about a time that's in the future. We are where we are now, and things are already changing within a patriarchal society. Things are changing slowly. Yes, it's a patriarchal society, but who's to say that in the future, Kynes can’t be the one, or the one of many women, who are allowed to maneuver and operate within the patriarchy? That's why I love the fact that this opens up those sorts of conversations and questions, because things are shifting.

In sci-fi, there’s been a well-documented history of fans being hostile to change, and the pushback is especially hostile when it comes to people who aren’t white entering that realm. Were you conscious of how this role might be received?

I can't lie, it's a reality that I'm faced with on a daily basis, regardless if it's the realm of sci-fi. It's something that I'm used to encountering more or less every day in some way, even if it's a minute experience—some occurrence that's so tiny that others will turn around and say to me, "Are you sure?" And I'll go, "Yes, that's racism."

I think it's a real indicator of where we are now, with everything that happened over the last year or so—George Floyd, may he rest in power—that some people are starting to open their eyes and say, "Oh, my gosh, yes, that's racist." That's really the realization of how deep this thing goes. What happens is we take a stance—Black people, people who are not white—and we shout from our corner, and sometimes people listen, sometimes people don't. But I think what happened over the last year was people were forced to open their eyes and take notice of what's going on. These conversations are now occurring online, and people are standing up for [us]. We have allies.