Interviews of Alec Newman

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November 30, 2000
By Porter Anderson Editor

'Countless delicate decisions'
"Had I not got my lazy arse out of bed that morning ... ?" The one known to the desert Fremen as the Muad'Dib has a mighty Scottish dialect right now. In fact, it's too bad you won't hear much of it in the screen-sanded speech he uses in "Dune." This dialect holds a mischief, a wink, a little key to this man's pleasure in the irony of his good luck.

"I was lying in bed with horrible flu," Alec Newman says, "when the call came through to go see John Harrison. I thought, 'Well this is ridiculous, it's a huge project, it'll be on in the States and I've got the flu -- it's ridiculous and I'm not going.' John had flown in that day and had seen another guy" for the role "and was telling Wendy Brazington, the U.K. casting director, 'I think I've had enough for today.'

"So I was being reluctant. And he was being reluctant. But we both decided it might be all right." The hotel-room reading of a couple of scenes that Newman managed to give Harrison that day in London may very well end up making this Glasgow-born actor's career. At the very least, it has given him a week's lead-up to the show's debut this weekend "doing what John tells me is known as the 'Hollywood shuffle.'"

Newman turned 26 on Monday. "I'm not even that big a name in Britain," he says matter-of-factly. But suddenly he has access to the swank offices of Tinseltown. "It's like just having left drama school all over again," he says. "It's actually quite nice, to come here and be able to relax and say hello, knowing that it's all fresh. Then again, while I don't want to waste the opportunity of my work being seen, it's important for me not to get too over-excited, you know. "I'm proud of the work. In six hours, there's always going to be bits you wish you'd done another way, but that's the same for anyone involved. I figured this would be as good a time as any to come over," to California, "figure out how it all works. It's such a great opportunity for me. And, yes, I'm driving myself around on your roads -- driving myself around the bend." You're hearing, naturally, the traditional actor's superstition -- you don't say who you're seeing for which gigs. You're also hearing Newman's quiet way: He's making hay while the sun of this glistening new production shines on him. This is what you do with a starring role like Paul Atreides in "Dune." You try to turn it into a career catapult to something even greater.

"There was an interesting moment at the airport," he's talking about LAX, Los Angeles International, "when I was pulling off on the wrong side of the road. I thought it was the radio. But it wasn't the radio, actually, it was the people beeping at me. Some very colorful language," from other drivers, "my welcome to Los Angeles. "

'Desert power'
Newman's Paul Atreides is Luke Skywalker with a mind -- a problematic, layered figure, at times an anti-hero. Before the Force was with anyone, Frank Herbert's Paul was saying, "I will face my fear ... and it will pass through me .. and when it's gone there will be nothing ... only I will remain."

The actor says he didn't know "Dune" before getting into the project. "It was a bad thing because I had lots and lots of work to do very fast. But it was good because I had no prejudice about it. "It's silly to be talking about the whole universe, standing here in Beverly Hills, isn't it?" "After I was cast, friends were quoting parts of it to me. 'Fear is the mind-killer.' All my peers had it, but I'd missed it. I was always a big 'Star Wars' fan but I started to realize that 'Dune' is far more rich and more complicated. So it was a great shock. I gradually found what I was involved in. "I was on a fast burn. Before I went back to the script, I'd read the book three times. I set about getting to know each part of the story as well as I could. It's a really vast journey Paul makes, a huge spiritual journey. I knew I'd need to know it inside and out -- that was a given, being that we'd shoot it out of sequence.

"So I arrived in Prague" where much of the shooting was done "and set up an office in my room, I was quite proud of it. Went to the gym every day, I was terrified I'd look fat. The guy playing Feyd, Matt Keeslar (Feyd has a pivotal fight with Paul) is incredibly fit. So I figured, 'If I'm going to be half-naked opposite this guy, then don't eat that chocolate. And stay off the beer.' Didn't quite manage that last one."

Newman knows he'll be scrutinized by the worldwide cult of purists who frequent "Dune" sites on the Web. The actor stands 5 feet 9 inches, a point in his favor in playing Paul, who in the book is a teen-ager. So towering is the meaning finally vested in the character by Herbert that it's easy to forget the Kwisatz Haderach is really just a kid at the vortex of "countless delicate decisions." "I just hope people appreciate how faithful we've been to the book," Newman says. "John hasn't changed any plot line, or added anything to make it easier to understand the material. There's no need. In the first part, you gather so much information. And then the last bit just goes at such a lick."