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The making of oversized ‘Dune’ villain Harkonnen: no CGI, just a lot of prosthetics

Often unclothed, the 600-pound bad guy is ‘more dangerous naked,’ says Stellan Skarsgård, the actor who plays him.

The prosthetics that actor Stellan Skarsgård wore to play the “Dune” villain Baron Vladimir Harkonnen weighed more than 80 pounds.
Warner Bros.

Swedish actor and “Mamma Mia” star Stellan Skarsgård wants to address the 600-pound villain in the “Dune.”

There were no computer-generated imagery enhancements for his complete transformation into the epically evil and extraordinarily large Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

That’s all Skarsgård, 70, with intricate makeup and a full-body prosthetics suit creating the cruelly cunning Baron, who was built to the size described in Frank Herbert’s classic Dune” sci-fi novels.

The transformation was made all the more difficult with Skarsgård’s ”monster” appearing in various stages of nakedness throughout “Dune,” including a stream bath.

“Harkonnen is more dangerous naked than in armor,” says Skarsgård ”His evilness comes from the inside.”

Achieving the menacing look required a prolonged process. It took five make-up artists 6.5 hours to apply the foam body suit and full makeup to Skarsgård (and two hours to get it all off).

There were seven prosthetic pieces just for the actor’s face, and hand prosthetics over his knuckles alone weighed nearly 10 pounds. Skarsgård says the suit in total weighed close to 88 pounds.

“So I was not as heavy as I looked. But dragging around [88 pounds] and trying to act normal physically is pretty hard,” says Skarsgård, who relaxed during the marathon makeup sessions. “You set your mind to just accept it. Don’t panic and sit still, watch the experts paint every vein by hand. It’s quite fascinating.”

A required hidden cooling vest attached to a portable refrigerator system added to the burden whenever the actor wore the all-encompassing ensemble on set.

“Without it, you would have heat stroke in no time,” says Skarsgård. “So I had a big tube going [down my back] through which they were pumping cold water all the time. Not very dignified, but it helped me survive. Definitely. It looks just ridiculous, of course.”

But his Baron is far from ridiculous on screen, showing unfathomable cruelty as he and his family rule the mining planet Dune and then scheme to get it back from the House Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac).

Skarsgård and director Denis Villeneuve wanted to bring a villain to the screen that audiences had not seen before, avoiding the blister-filled face Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) featured in 1984’s “Dune” (“too distracting” says Skarsgård) and rebuffing suggestions such as adding armor to the all-powerful character.

During one of the most striking visual scenes, the wounded Harkonnen rises ominously from a healing mud bath, a vision that came from the depths of Villeneuve’s subconscious.

“I had a dream to have the Baron under the liquid and emerge like a hippopotamus,” Villeneuve says.

The stunning scene required ”an engineering feat” to pull off, says Donald Mowat, the head of makeup and hair design.

“Submerging in that particular oil was problematic since it took the makeup off, and we discovered the suit was buoyant. We lost a full suit cutting holes in it to weigh him down,” says Mowat.

Nor was it fun submerging underneath the murky depths for Skarsgård.

“I don’t know what that goo was and was a little afraid to ask,” he says. “But it was some sort of sticky emulsion of water, slime, oil and black color.”

He’s in no rush to go through the transformation again to shoot the ”Dune” sequel. Skarsgård jokingly made that clear to filmmakers at the Venice Film Festival premiere last month.

“I said, ‘Please put Harkonnen in the sequel just for a scene or two,’ ” Skarsgård recalls. ”I don’t want him to be around too much.’ “

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