The Dune: The Sisterhood Cast Is Stacked

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The world of Dune is remarkably vast, spanning planetary systems and parsecs. It's so enormous, in fact, that one movie couldn't contain even half of Book One of the source material—which, as Chris Nashawaty argued in his review of the 2021 film for Esquire, is actually a good thing. There are many good things about Dune (like Duncan Idaho, for example), and with excitement at an all-time high following the success of Denis Villeneuve's blockbuster adaptation, HBO Max is developing a television prequel series called Dune: The Sisterhood, which promises to take viewers behind the scenes of a mysterious matriarchal order with superhuman abilities.

Here’s everything we know about the series so far.

In June 2019, before the film released to wide acclaim, WarnerMedia gave a straight-to-series order for Dune: The Sisterhood. Set in the universe of Frank Herbert’s Dune, this prequel will focus on the Bene Gesserit, a secretive matriarchal order of nuns, spies, scientists, and theologians with superhuman abilities, whose powers include mind control, hyperawareness, and collective memory, among other extraordinary talents. (If you've seen the movie, this is the witchy community of Paul's mother.) HBO Max's official synopsis for the series reads as follows: "Set 10,000 years before the ascension of Paul Atreides, Dune: The Sisterhood follows the Harkonnen Sisters as they combat forces that threaten the future of humankind, and establish the fabled sect known as the Bene Gesserit."

What does that mean, exactly? In the books, the Bene Gesserit are an ancient order of women who have mastered their minds and bodies through mental conditioning to gain superhuman powers. The Sisterhood uses its knowledge and power to help guide humanity according to their own plan of the future. And while their history—and purpose—isn't well known, members of the Sisterhood often work as advisors, wives, or concubines to leaders of the Great Houses, crafting alliances that help drive events toward their own somewhat shadowy goals. “The Bene Gesserit have always been fascinating to me,” Villeneuve said. “Focusing a series around that powerful order of women seemed not only relevant and inspiring, but a dynamic setting for the television series.”

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In Children of Dune, Herbert writes of the Bene Gesserit’s credo:

Religion is the emulation of the adult by the child. Religion is the encystment of past beliefs: mythology, which is guesswork, the hidden assumptions of trust in the universe, those pronouncements which men have made in search of personal power, all of it mingled with shreds of enlightenment. And always the ultimate unspoken commandment is 'Thou shall not question!' But we question. We break that commandment as a matter of course. The work to which we have set ourselves is the liberating of the imagination, the harnessing of imagination to humankind's deepest sense of creativity.

Back in October 2021, when the feature film debuted, it was announced that Villeneuve was attached to direct the pilot, and Jon Spaihts, his co-writer for the Dune film script, was attached to write. Villeneuve and Spaiths were set to executive produce the series, along with the late Frank Herbert’s children, Brian Herbert and Kim Herbert. But as the show's development has soldiered on, there's been a number of leadership shake-ups. In an interview, Spaiths kept mostly mum about the project, but revealed that he's no longer attached.

“That is carrying on and I’m not allowed to talk about it very much. But that effort is alive and well,” he confirmed. “I ended up getting moved off of it to work not just on Dune: Part Two, but to investigate other cinematic prospects in the Dune universe, which we are still talking about and which, again, I’m not allowed to say very much about."

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Villeneuve is also playing it close to the vest, but with interest in Dune skyrocketing after it swept the Oscars with six wins, he's back in the hot seat. Though the director claims he has no oversight of the series (that's a job for the show-runner—more on her below), he assures fans that wheels are in motion. “The TV series is a work in progress. It’s moving forward,” he told Deadline. That being said, he's no longer attached to direct; HBO Max has brought in Emmy-winning director Johan Renck for the first two episodes. Renck was widely praised for directing the entire run of HBO's Chernobyl, but he's also directed episodes of The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and Vikings. Sounds like he knows his way around epic world-building and action-y showpieces, which is exactly what Dune: The Sisterhood needs. According to Collider, Villeneuve and Spaihts are out as writer-directors due to their commitments on Dune: Part Two, but they remain attached to the project as producers.

And now, with the show entering production in Budapest, leadership shake-ups have struck again. In July 2021, Dune: The Sisterhood announced that it had found its show-runner in Diane Ademu-John, who most recently worked as an executive producer and writer on Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor. Allison Schapker, a veteran producer with experience on Fringe, Lost, and Altered Carbon, soon came aboard as Ademu-John's co-showrunner. Now, Ademu-John has exited the series, leaving Schapker as the sole showrunner. Citing "other commitments" as the reason for her departure, Ademu-John will stay on as an executive producer.

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The series has also announced its leads: Emily Watson and Shirley Henderson will head up the cast as Valya Harkonnen and Tula Harkonnen, two formidable sisters who have risen to power in the Sisterhood, a secret organization of women who will go on to become Bene Gesserit. These characters, featured in the spin-off novel Sisterhood of Dune (which the series promises to adapt), have big futures ahead of them: Valya is destined to become one of the organization's first Reverend Mothers, while Tula will one day murder her Atreides groom on their wedding night. (Yikes!)

Dune: The Sisterhood will also welcome a wide swath of series regulars. Game of Thrones alum Indria Varna joins as Empress Natalya, whose marriage to Emperor Corrino is said to have "united thousands of worlds." Dune: The Sisterhood has stacked its cast with fantastic actresses; below, you'll find Deadline's list of who's playing who, along with official character descriptions.

Sarah-Sofie Boussnina plays Princess Ynez, an independent young princess dealing with the pressures of her responsibility as heir to the Golden Lion Throne.

Shalom Brune-Franklin portrays Mikaela, a strong-willed Fremen woman who serves the royal family while longing for a home planet she’s never known.

Faoileann Cunningham is Sister Jen, a fierce, unpredictable acolyte in training at the Sisterhood School who rarely reveals her emotional core.

Aoife Hinds plays Sister Emeline, a zealous acolyte descended from a long line of martyrs, who carries fervent religion to her training at the Sisterhood.

Chloe Lea portrays Lila, the youngest acolyte at the Sisterhood School with a deep empathy beyond her years.

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Sounds like a lot of girl power, doesn't it? Well, even a series called The Sisterhood needs some dudes. That's where Travis Fimmel comes in: the Vikings alum has been casted as the series' male lead. He'll play Desmond Hart, "a charismatic soldier with an enigmatic past who seeks to gain the Emperor’s trust at the expense of the Sisterhood." The show has tacked on two more recurring male characters, too—per Deadline, Mark Strong will star as Emperor Javicco Corrino, described as “a man from a great line of war-time Emperors, who is called upon to govern the Imperium and manage a fragile peace.” Meanwhile, Chris Mason joins as Keiran Atreides, billed as “a Swordmaster to a Great House whose ambition to live up to his family name is disrupted when he forms an unexpected connection to a member of the royal family.” Based on that description, could Keiran Atreides be Tula Harkonnen's ill-fated groom? Canonically speaking, Tula married a man named Orry Atreides, but what's to say that Dune: The Sisterhood isn't planning to go off-script? Little is known about Orry Atreides, meaning that the series could very well flesh out his backstory (and change his name for his pre-royal life) as they please.

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When asked if Lady Jessica would figure into the show, Villeneuve declined to answer, but Rebecca Ferguson, who plays the character in the new film, is on board. "If it’s a thing, I’m game," she said. "I’m currently free in 2023, May to December, so I’m just putting that out there." However, with Valya and Tula now identified as key characters, the chances of involving Lady Jessica seem slim; these women exist 10,000 years apart from one another.

Mum’s the word on release dates (when quizzed about it, Spaihts said, “They’re well down the road, but I honestly don’t know the details of the timing"), but here's the good news: in November, The Sisterhood has begun filming in Budapest, alongside Dune: Part Two. The other promising thing for fans of Dune is that THR reports that this series is all part of Legendary Entertainment's “larger plan for Dune, which also includes video games, digital content packages and comic book series.” The Duneiverse is clearly expanding, so even though things are as dry as the Arrakis desert now, it seems like we're in for a bright future.

Watch this space for updates as we continue to learn more.

FromEsquire US

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Adrienne Westenfeld
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Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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