How Oscar Isaac Brings Duke Leto Atreides to Life in Dune

Dune star Oscar Isaac says Arrakis ruler Duke Leto Atreides is noble, human and in a lot of trouble.

Oscar Isaac in Dune
Photo: Chiabella James/Warner Bros.

A critical character in Dune, both the novel and all three screen adaptations of it, is Duke Leto Atreides, head of the powerful Atreides family and father of the story’s protagonist, Paul Atreides. The Atreides are one of many noble families who wield immense power in this galactic empire of the far future, and Duke Leto is given control by the Emperor of perhaps the most important planet in the galaxy — Arrakis, also known as Dune.

Arrakis is the only planet that produces a substance called melange, or the spice, which enhances human abilities and makes space travel possible. But Leto is walking into a trap set by the Emperor and former Arrakis overlords the Harkonnens, who plan to wrest control of Arrakis away from Leto and his family by any means necessary — including murder.

In director Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel (or at least its first half), Leto is played by Oscar Isaac, an actor who is well versed in science fiction thanks to his work in movies like Ex Machina and as pilot Poe Dameron in the recent Star Wars trilogy. The role of Leto was previously played by Jürgen Prochnow in the 1984 film and William Hurt in the 2000 miniseries.  

Asked in a recent online press event to break down the character of Leto, Isaac responded, “He’s a dad. I think that’s a big thing. He’s a father, and he’s got all the qualities of, I think, what the epitome of what a father should be. He’s noble, and House Atreides is a noble house…He’s human, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”

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On a deeper level, even though Leto cannot refuse the offer to rule Arrakis, he also knows that he is putting himself, his wife Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) in grave danger by taking them from their home world of Caladan and bringing them to the inhospitable desert planet.

“He is absolutely human and doomed, the way that humans are,” Isaac said. “And under incredible pressure to save his family, save his house, but also adapt to this new existential threat situation, which is being forced to move to this strange planet, and being able to see that there could be a trap…and yet, he’s trying to live up to those bigger ideals, which are sensitivity and empathy and love and order, and trying to give that and show that to his son, knowing that he’s not going to be there forever, in the hopes that they can use this dark, strange situation to their advantage.”

Leto also knows that his son is special — and (in the novel) wasn’t supposed to exist at all, had Jessica followed the breeding edicts of the mystical religious order known as the Bene Gesserit and produced a female — and that his wife as well as Paul may have roles to play that are outside his understanding.

“It’s a really weird family,” explained Isaac. “I mean, they’re tight, but they’ve got very specific goals, all of them. You’ve got Lady Jessica — Rebecca Ferguson, who just did an incredible job — and she’s his dearest partner in greatness, but she has her own weird, Bene Gesserit, prophet/spy thing going on. I think (Leto) doesn’t really get too much into what that’s all about. He understands she has this specific role to play. And then he’s got a son that might be the messiah, so there’s a lot going on there.”

Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac in Dune
Chiabella James/Warner Bros.

The birth of Paul to Leto and Jessica is part of an ancient, vast plan to create a superbeing known as the Kwisatz Haderach, and it’s Jessica’s direct decision to have a boy instead of a girl that sets those events in motion.

“She’s the engine of the family,” said Isaac. “She’s the engine of the events that happen. It’s a long game that’s being played over millennia, and she’s part of that. So she’s in a very interesting place too, because she understands that there’s a much greater mission to accomplish. Yet she also loves her family and wants to protect them in any way she can. They’re a family in an insane amount of pressure and a lot of conflict, but I think at the core of that, it’s an intense love that they have for each other.”

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As fans of the book know, the Atreides family is permanently transformed by the events of Dune, ultimately giving its members a larger role to play in the fate of the known universe — if they survive.

Dune is scheduled to open in theaters on December 18.