In 1994 Kirsten Dunst received critical acclaim for her role in Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles. Now, 17 years later, she’s proving she’s still a force to be reckoned with thanks to her role in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. After winning Best Actress at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Dunst is once again hot in Hollywood. Talent does not run dry with this one.
Melancholia is controversial and critically acclaimed director Von Trier’s newest film, also starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland and Stellan Skarsgard. With a solid cast and an innovative director in the mix, Dunst still makes her mark as the film’s shining light, and she is humbly grateful for it—and exuberantly grateful to Penélope Cruz for turning the role down.
“As soon as I read the e-mail, ‘Lars wants to talk to you; read the script,’ I was ecstatic,” said Dunst. “These opportunities don’t come around very often; he’s one of the great auteurs of our time.”
Even with her high praise of Von Trier, his films and public comments have been controversial, to say the least, and his reputation as a director is daunting. But Dunst had no reservations about accepting the role.
“It’s like a month of shooting, how bad can it be?” she recalled thinking. “But I’m pretty tough. I’ve dealt with plenty of directors now at this point. I wasn’t afraid.”
But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t entirely at ease. Even after nearly 20 years of acting, she still finds elements of filmmaking terrifying. Von Trier’s last film, Antichrist, proved scene after scene just how far he’ll go to reach a whole new level of shocking. And nudity comes hand-in-hand with his female characters.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be in a Lars Von Trier movie and get away without nudity,” Dunst stated matter-of-factly. “But if you’re going to do it, it might as well be in a Lars Von Trier movie. I mean, why not? It looks so pretty, and I knew the context it was going to be in, and it wasn’t like a surprise to me. Not that it’s the most fun thing to do.”
Dunst is referring to a scene in Melancholia where she is sprawled on the ground, facing the sun in the nude, with soft outdoor lighting and a peaceful tone, void of any blatant eroticism. Surprisingly, though, the nudity wasn’t the thing she was the most afraid of. When she saw in the script that her character had to basically, as she refers to as “rape,” albeit the violence, a younger guy, she was petrified and mortified of how that could possibly go down.
“Having sex on the golf course was so awkward,” said Dunst. “Lars doesn’t tell you at all how you’re going to do a scene, so I didn’t know if it was going to be scary graphic. Then we get to set and the camera is really far away and everything is being shot from this long distance and I was like, ‘Thank God, Hallelujah!’ That was the most nerve-racking for me.”
Von Trier has a history of graphic and even violent sex scenes, so Dunst got off easy, considering his track record. But Melancholia still marks a milestone in her career on a level that many actresses either embrace or steer clear of. Dunst still seems decided.
“I don’t know how I’m going to phase into sex scenes as an adult, because I had to do one not too long ago and I hate them. It’s the worst,” said Dunst, who sees it merely as the next level of acting.
In Melancholia Dunst plays Justine, a new bride who falls into a deep, dark depression, culminating on the night of her wedding reception. All the while, as she struggles to maintain her composure for her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and brother-in-law, John (Keifer Sutherland), and out of respect for her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), a planet is approaching earth’s orbit, possibly threatening the existence of our planet. It’s the end of Justine’s happiness and possibly the world all at once. But she takes the latter much more naturally and peacefully.
“I don’t think Justine knows the end of the world is coming when she’s at her wedding,” explained Dunst. “I think there’s something that she senses, but I don’t think that’s what makes her depressed.”
Justine’s source of depression is never really brought to the surface, so it’s hard to figure out exactly how the two incidents are (or even if they are) related.
“I think she’s gone through this [depression] a few times in her life, and the wedding and the pressure of getting married and realizing that this man isn’t who she wants to be with is making her depressed,” said Dunst. “And there’s something else that she’s longing for that’s not in her realm.”
Von Trier has spoken very publicly about his familiarity with depression, inadvertently forcing Dunst to speak of her relationship with it as well. Never quite comfortable with the topic, she did describe how it resonates in her portrayal of her character, Justine.
“I’ve always used my own personal emotions and things that I’ve gone through in my life to build a character,” said Dunst. “The work I do before a film feels like therapy almost between me and the character I’m playing.”
By therapy, she means she strives to build a relationship with herself and the person she has to be in a film. Despite the heaviness of the film and her character, she does not see Melancholia as quite so dark.
“You don’t have an opportunity to do roles like this very often and at the end it definitely feels cathartic, and it should,” she explained. “All movies that I do I feel like you release sides of yourself.”
Not a method actor, Dunst plays depressed and mentally ill extraordinarily well, but believes you don’t have to escape to a sinister place to find out how to do it. She stressed the importance of separating Justine from herself in real life, even while filming.
“I was playing Angry Birds in my trailer,” Dunst admitted. “You have to self-preserve! That’s part of it, too. You don’t have to sit there and be depressed to play depressed. You actually should be in a good place to be depressed.”
As for Von Trier, who has a reputation that continually precedes him, Dunst found him quite effortless to work with.
“Lars does no rehearsing, we just start shooting. You figure out everything; it doesn’t feel so planned at all. I guess it’s the most unplanned movie I’ve ever been on in terms of how we shot,” she said. “It gave me a lot of freedom, and I appreciated that. Being on Lars’ set is like the best in the world.”
Her admiration for and excellent dedication to Melancholia means Dunst has a strong chance of an Oscar nomination this year if the buzz continues as it has. And she doesn’t deny how brilliant that would be.
“That would be awesome. I would embrace that,” said Dunst with a laugh. “Winning Cannes was pretty spectacular. If I was nominated, I would be very, very grateful and honored. My family would be so excited—and crying. It would be great because my family loves to celebrate.”
Expectations are high for this film, and Dunst is, at the very least, a force to be reckoned with in 2012. But what this means for the future of her career, Dunst is uncertain, and she has the same feeling about turning 30 next year.
“I didn’t think about it that way because, yeah, when you get older, you have different opportunities, roles are different and there’s more to do in them,” said Dunst. “I was just doing a film called Upside Down and I was playing the ingénue. It was a beautiful love story that I wanted to be a part of. But I’ll still play the girlfriend, and that’s what a lot of female roles are.”
And as opposed to fearing the 30-something roles, Dunst looks forward to them.
“As you get older, you just feel better about yourself,” she explained. “You’re not as worried about what other people think about you in general. You just get more comfortable in your skin, so I welcome 30. And I look young! I have a baby face.”
Her thoughts on the future are beaming and bright, quite contrary to her doomsday role in Melancholia. And with the end-of-the-world theme, it begs the question, what would she do with her last few hours on earth? Dunst had no decided answer, but a lighthearted and positive (if that’s possible) one instead.
“What do you do if this world is going to end?” she asked. “You better go out having fun rather than stressing about it.”
More likely than not, we’ll be seeing Dunst much sooner than that at the Academy Awards.
Melancholia is now playing in select theaters.
For more information, visit the film’s official Web site.