Anya Taylor-Joy is no stranger to Dune casting rumors. Long before she confirmed her role in the epic sequel, her name was thrown around for Princess Irulan. (This part eventually went to Florence Pugh.) And it’s not hard to see why. Anya Taylor-Joy has the ethereal features of a Dune character, like sharp cheekbones and big eyes—a look that invites an air of fantasy. 

So, when she confirmed at the London premiere of Dune: Part Two that she was, indeed, in the film, it wasn’t a huge surprise. But who was she playing? If you know the material, it wasn’t too hard to speculate. There’s only one major female character who was left out of larger casting announcements. Still, could that really be the part, given the character’s age and specific prominence in the latter half of Frank Herbert’s novel? 

Turns out, the speculation was correct. But if you’re unfamiliar with the book, or a little rusty on the facts and timelines, you still might be a little confused. Here’s everything you need to know about the character Anya Taylor-Joy plays in Dune: Part Two. We’ll also dive into her significance in the story that comes next—should Denis Villeneuve get the chance to make Dune: Messiah

Spoiler Alert

Alia Atreides’ Role in the First Dune Novel vs. Dune: Part Two

As speculated, the character Anya Taylor-Joy plays in Dune: Part Two is indeed Alia Atreides. Alia is the sister of Paul (Timothée Chalamet), and daughter of Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). She is also—at the beginning and end of the film—still a fetus in Jessica’s womb. But we do glimpse her as a grown woman late in the film, when Paul has a dream of the future after ingesting the Water of Life. In his vision, Arrakis now has a vast ocean. Alia stands on the beach, then turns to her brother. She reveals to him the importance of their family bloodline: that Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) is actually Lady Jessica’s father and their grandfather. 

This sequence varies significantly from Herbert’s novel. In the Dune book, Alia is actually born. Because Lady Jessica drinks the Water of Life with Alia in the womb, she is born with the powers of a full Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother. It’s a highly dangerous situation—traditionally, the Bene Gesserit killed children born with these insights, called Abominations, because of the risks they possess. Their lack of developed personalities mean that babies infected with the Water of Life can be more easily overtaken by ancestors with access to their memories. 

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But Alia is different. There’s a time jump in the novel, so we spend time with toddler Alia. And because she is raised by her mother and brother, she learns to control her Reverend Mother abilities. Near the novel’s end, she is captured by the Padishah Emperor (played by Christopher Walken in the film), but escapes. It’s her, not Paul, who kills their grandfather with a gom jabbar needle. She also kills the emperor’s Sardaukar soldiers and Harkonnen men on the Arrakeen battlefield with a crysknife, which earns her the title St. Alia of the Knife. 

Why Does This Change in Alia’s Story Matter in Dune: Part Two?

The way Dune: Part Two the movie handles Alia is honestly a stroke of genius. Fans wondered—and worried—how Villeneuve would work her into the story without making it laughable. A toddler with prescient power and combat power could look pretty darn silly in the wrong hands. In David Lynch’s maligned 1980s adaptation of the book, for instance, Alicia Witt plays Alia. Though entrancing in her own way, the scenes come off hokey, even though she’s also aged up a bit. It’s a big ask to find a kid capable of the acting skills required to pull off a character like Alia. 

Keeping her in utero and only showing her in dream sequences really works. It keeps the film grounded in Villeneuve’s stark sci-fi tone. But it still conveys all the necessary elements. Alia is far too important to the future of the Dune franchise to eliminate entirely. Introducing her to audiences in the event that Dune: Messiah makes it to screens is essential. 

Making her a talking fetus is also great because it still harnesses some of the weird energy of Herbert’s book. It’s not Dune if things aren’t at least a little psychedelic. Talking baby, Anya Taylor-Joy dream sequence Alia is odd without breaking Villeneuve’s established universe. The effect is something both trippy and tangible. 

How Does Alia Fit Into the Future of Dune?

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To say that Herbert’s books get even more bizarre after the first Dune is a bit of an understatement. Dune: Messiah, the second book in the series, takes everything up a major notch on the weirdness scale. Alia also becomes a major part of the story. In the sequel, she has sexual tension with what is essentially a ghost version of the deceased Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa in the first film), called a ghola. The two attempt to uncover a political conspiracy that the Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) and her cohort are establishing against House Atreides. 

In Children of Dune, the third novel, Alia takes after her brother, growing more power hungry as her abilities develop. She succumbs to the whims of her grandfather, Baron Harkonnen, who possesses her, along with her other ancestors. A murder plot against Lady Jessica develops and even more political turmoil unfurls.

The casting of Anya Taylor-Joy seems to confirm Villeneuve’s intention to continue the series and get to some of these storylines. He’s made it clear he’s interested in adapting Dune: Messiah. But if Part Two is successful enough, maybe Children of Dune is on the table, too. It’d be great to see a talented actress like Taylor-Joy get to play out Alia’s full arc. There’s some meaty stuff, and she’d be more than up to the task. 

But whether or not we ever get to those future film installments, Dune: Part Two does a great job on its own of making Alia matter. And Anya Taylor-Joy did a similarly great job of keeping her Dune: Part Two role as Alia under wraps until the opportune moment. Her red carpet appearances whetted the appetites of the audience. When she finally shows up on screen, it’s with great impact. The culmination of anticipation for a character many feared might break the illusion of Villeneuve’s maturely crafted Dune universe.

Editor’s Note: Nerdist is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks.