In Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” Rebecca Ferguson plays Lady Jessica, lover of the world ruler portrayed by Oscar Isaac and matriarch to Timothée Chalamet’s messiah-in-waiting. She is a doting mother who is distracted by the pressures of a royal household, but more importantly, she is brimming over with a supernatural power that could bring about revolution.
That dynamic is not a bad allegory for Ferguson’s career. Having largely served as a second name on the call sheet behind male co-stars in the massive films that pepper her IMDb page, Ferguson has consistently dazzled critics and audiences — emerging as both an anchor and a scene-stealer in “The Greatest Showman,” “Doctor Sleep” and the “Mission: Impossible” films, where her shadowy agent is able to make quick work of Tom Cruise and anyone else who gets in the way.
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“Would we also say that I’m constantly in the background of a more famous man?” notes Ferguson. “It’s true, and it doesn’t have to do with the man or the people that I work with. We’re quite used to the structure of a film, and it will be ‘Famous man, and then a famous woman.’ Thankfully, we’re getting into a world that will celebrate other types of dynamics, whether its friendship or sexuality or whatever. I guess I fall into maybe the last push of the old-school thinking.”
“Dune,” which opens in theaters and on HBO Max on Oct. 22, is part of that grand, fast-disappearing tradition of innovative, blockbuster studio filmmaking. It’s a brainy sci-fi epic, something of a rarity these days. But Ferguson says her Lady Jessica is hardly old-fashioned. When first approached by Villeneuve to star in the Warner Bros. epic, she spoke bluntly about her hesitations.
“When he explained the character, I thought, really?” she says. “You want me to be regal and poised and ask me to do a role that I have played so many times before? I would literally be a teapot for you, but I don’t think that’s the role for me, dude.”
Villeneuve was not interested in her poise, but a story about “the strongest woman in the world, and her fear for when she creates chaos and has to bring her son in front of death.” Ferguson took the job.
It is yet another role to which she lends her steely intensity, a skill she’s been honing since she was a teenager. While her introduction to acting is largely unknown to U.S. audiences, it is a fascinating case study in ambition and self-discovery.
At 15, Ferguson auditioned for and won a leading role in Sweden’s top primetime soap “Nya tider,” where she lived out the fictional coming-of-age of her character Anna Gripenhielm as well as her own off-screen. Production spanned only six months of the year, and since Ferguson had no desire to pursue higher education, her family encouraged her to learn the ins and outs of filmmaking.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
“My stepdad told me, ‘If you’re not going to study, you need to work. What are you going to be doing for the other six months? Are you going to be living off the money you’re earning? The point is to save that and you’re not getting an education,’” she recalls. “The contract we fixed said I would work in the production office behind the scenes, because I needed a job. So half the year I was the lead actress, and then for the other half I was the runner at the production company, getting coffee and writing schedules.”
As she advanced in her craft, Ferguson faced a dilemma shared by other European talent, she says.
“There is no high casting or film movement in Sweden like in America or London. I had been stamped as soap opera Anna, and the only way to progress was enrolling in drama school and spending your life on the stage,” she says. “I did anything to earn a living. I worked at a Korean restaurant that I loved, at a nursery and day care as a nanny, as a cleaner in a hotel.”
She would spend the next decade booking guest parts on local television, until a significant breakthrough happened in 2011 with her first film role in “A One-Way Trip to Antibes.” Electrified by working on “a real movie,” she was quickly cast as the lead in the BBC series “The White Queen.” There she caught the attention of Cruise, who transformed her life and career by hand-picking her to star opposite him in 2015’s “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.”
Ferguson’s profile exploded after “Rogue Nation,” and she appeared in the likes of “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “The Girl on the Train” and “The Greatest Showman.” There were some missteps, like the ill-fated Jake Gyllenhaal sci-fi thriller “Life” and the gruesome Michael Fassbender murder mystery “The Snowman.” Ferguson says she’s never had to wear the scarlet letter (“F” for “flop”) for the inevitable disappointments that come with an A-list movie career, but that raises an interesting question about how the industry deploys an actor of her caliber.
After years of ongoing discussions with her representatives, wondering “when am I going to step forward and take the plunge” into those leading spaces, Ferguson says she realized on the set of “Dune” that she may have to think smaller to reach that next level.
“Timothée and I had a great conversation one day. He was explaining what it felt like to be coming into the enormity of this movie, a possible new bloody ‘Star Wars’-level franchise, when he comes from indies and smaller sets,” she says. “His technique and process became very different due to the independence of his films. I come from a world of enormous projects; I haven’t done indies. I’m seeking where he’s come from.”
She’ll get her chance as the star of the new Apple series “Wool.” Ferguson leads a cast including David Oyelowo and Rashida Jones in the story of an underground community held to strange rules and regulations they believe protect them from a ruined surface world. For the first time, she’s also serving as an executive producer.
“I’m at a stage in my career where I’m very happy where I am. I could end it here and I would be so grateful. I don’t need more, but I want more, out of curiosity. I’m head of my own TV show, which is completely a new energy,” says Ferguson. “I’ve usually hidden behind the fact that if something fails, I don’t have to take it. I want to step into a world where I have a lot to carry.”
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