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Kirsten Dunst plays a bride suffering from depression in director Lars von Trier's Melancholia.

Kirsten Dunst

It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Nov 12, 2011 Kirsten Dunst Bookmark and Share

In May, Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her lead performance in director Lars von Trier’s nightmarish end-of-the-world drama, Melancholia. As this year’s Hollywood award season gets into swing, Dunst has a laugh looking back at her first major award ceremony experience, at the Golden Globes in 1995, when she was 12 years old.

“Well, I lost, so I remember being a little kid and crying,” she says, defending her younger self. “‘Cause I’m little girl!”

Dunst was nominated in the supporting actress category for her portrayal of Claudia in Interview With the Vampire. The award went to Dianne Wiest, who would go on to win the Oscar in the same category for her role in Bullets Over Broadway.

“Everyone’s like, ‘You’re gonna win, you’re gonna win!’ and I was like, ‘Uhh, I didn’t win,’” Dunst recounts, reenacting her reaction with mock crying. “I remember, we were sitting at a table with the cast of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and my mom’s like, ‘Hide your face! Hide your face!’”

Since then, Dunst has been a perennial presence in movies, starring in pop-culture touchstones such as Bring It On and the Spider-Man films, while alternately stretching her skills for directors the likes of Sofia Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich. Still only 29, Dunst now has 20 years of motion picture acting experience, and she believes that’s strengthened her enough to take on more challenging roles. When she received an email informing her that von Trier had a script for her to read, she felt she was ready to take on the Danish filmmaker, despite his reputation for breaking down his female actors.

“I was ecstatic,” Dunst says. “These opportunities don’t come along very often. He’s one of the great auteurs of our time. And it’s like a month of shooting? Like, how bad could it be? You know, I’m pretty tough. I’ve dealt with plenty of directors now, at this point. I wasn’t afraid.”

Von Trier’s methods and demands have resulted in major recognition for several of his actresses. Emily Watson, an unknown when she starred in von Trier’s 1996 film, Breaking the Waves, earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress with that performance. And, like Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg was awarded Best Actress at Cannes in 2009 for her portrayal of a mother mourning the death of her child in von Trier’s Antichrist. Yet, Bjork, the star of von Trier’s 2000 film, Dancer in the Dark, was so emotionally distraught working with the director that she quit acting and sent a letter to Nicole Kidman, advising her to not take the lead role von Trier’s follow-up film, 2003’s Dogville. When reminded of this, Dunst rationalizes lightheartedly.

“Bjork is a genius artist herself, and when you get two together…not that I’m not a genius,” Dunst jokes. “But she’s an incredible musician. They have to collaborate too on the film; I can’t imagine Lars collaborating with anybody else. It’s his world. So, there’s going to be friction, and that made sense to me, that there would be. And that’s the first and only time she acted. So who knows?”

The visually lush yet haunting film is divided into two parts titled after the sisters that Dunst and Gainsbourg play: Justine and Claire, respectively. The Justine portion focuses on a lavish wedding reception that Claire and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), throw for newlyweds Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). Justine suffers from depression, and her anticsshe arrives two hours late and repeatedly disappears from the proceedingsas well as those of her squabbling parents, send the gathering spiraling toward disaster. In the Claire section of the film, Justine, Claire and John try to cope as a planet named Melancholia approaches on a course that will bring it dangerously close to colliding with the Earth. In portraying someone with depression, Dunst taps a range of flightiness, exhaustion, despair, and cold resignation.

“I don’t think that Justine knows that the end of the world is coming when she’s at her wedding,” she says. “I think that there’s something she senses, but I don’t think that’s what makes her depressed. I think that she’s gone through this a few times in her life, and I think that 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. And there’s something else she’s longing for that’s not in her realm.”

In doing press for the film, von Trier alluded to the words of Danish poet Tom Kristensen in suggesting that Justine is longing for shipwreck and sudden death, that she is pulling the planet from behind the sun and surrendering to it. The director battled his own depression during the making of Anichrist and has spoken openly about it.

“Lars…goes through different states of how he’s doing,” Dunst says. “On Antichrist, I know he was in kind of a dark place, and Charlotte was like, ‘We were filming in Germany, in the middle of nowhere, and the food was terrible, and Lars couldn’t hold the camera, and he was shaking so much, and not in a great place.’ And then, on Melancholia, ‘he was in a really good place,’ she said.”

Gainsbourg’s part in Antichrist required her to appear nude in several scenes, some of them sexually explicit. The potential for nudity didn’t phase Dunst when accepting the role of Justine.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be in a Lars von Trier film and get away without taking my clothes off,” she says, laughing. “Hey, if you’re going to do it, might as well be in a von Trier film. Why not? And it looked so pretty. I knew the context it was going to be in. It wasn’t a surprise to me. Not that it’s the most fun thing to do. But we joke about it, and they close the set, and they make it comfortable.”

Sex scenes cause more anxiety for Dunst than being nude on camera. They’re a part of screen acting that she’s managed to sidestep through much of her career.

“Having sex on the golf course was so awkward,” she says, referring to a scene in Melancholia between her and Brady Corbet. “Because Lars doesn’t tell you at all how we’re going to do the scene, so I didn’t know if it was going to be very graphic. It says Justine basically rapes this kid, and so I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I’m so nervous in the trailer. Me and Brady…we’re like, ‘Oh my God, how is he going to shoot this? Like really close up? Am I going to take my wedding dress off? How is this going to be seen?’ Then we get to set, and the camera is so far away, and everything’s being shot from this really long distance. I was like, ‘Thank God! Hallelujah!’ But, that was the most nerve wracking for me, just because it’s so awkward. I don’t know how I’m going to phase into sex scenes as an adult. ‘Cause I also had one to do not that long ago, and it’s so awkward. It’s the worst. I hate them. I hate them.”

When Dunst appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman on her 25th birthday in 2007, to promote Spider-Man 3, it was humorously evident that she was exasperated over the reality that the promotional obligations for such a film are far more demanding than acting in it. Setting up a clip from the film, she joked: “I think it’s me, you know, being in peril, like I do so well.” Indeed, the clip consisted of Dunst’s character, Mary Jane, being accosted in her apartment. “I love that that’s what they show you,” Dunst said after the clip. “I’m not even acting in that scene.”

Early in 2008, Dunst, also suffering from depression, checked herself into a treatment facility in Utah, which prompted a break from Hollywood. She acknowledges that, naturally, the experience informed how she would play Justine.

“I’ve always used my own personal emotions and things that I’ve gone through in my life to build a character,” she says. “The work that I do before a film feels like therapy almost between me and whoever I’m playing.”

On set, Dunst felt it was important to release from her character between filming scenes.

“I was playing Angry Birds in my trailer,” she says, laughing. “You have to self-preserve, you know? That’s part of it, too, and you don’t have to sit there and be depressed to play depressed. You actually should be in a good place to play depressed, I think.”

Dunst already has two films lined up for release in 2012: Upside Down, a romance with Jim Sturgess, and the comedy Bachelorette, in which she plays a mean girl. Though she looks forward to more diverse opportunities in the future, she’s well aware that parts like Justine rarely come along. She’s prepared to continue playing the role of the man’s romantic interest onscreen but hopes the films will speak to her, as was the case with Upside Down.

“I was playing the ingénue and it was a love story, but it was just a such a beautiful and crazy world that the director, Juan Solanas, creates that I wanted to be a part of it,” she explains. “I’ll still play the girlfriend, and that’s what a lot of the female roles are, but hopefully they’ll be in interesting movies.”

She’s enthusiastic about the casting of Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man, and wouldn’t be opposed to making a cameo in the film.

“I wanted to,” she reveals. “I didn’t tell anyone, but I thought it was a good idea…if Tobey and I were extras and we just walked by in the background.”

The night before this interview, Dunst appeared at an AFI Fest screening of Melancholia in Hollywood. There, she was reunited with one of her cast mates, Udo Kier, a veteran of several von Trier films. Over dinner, the two joked about the director’s refusal to visit America, despite his fascination with it.

“He won’t get on planes,” Dunst says, referring to von Trier. “Even at Cannes, he took his Winnebago. But he’ll go in a helicopter that his friend can drive. And like, OK, what if we took a boat over here to America with a helicopter on it, just in case? And a boat can follow it, just in case that one sinks and something happens to the helicopter. He doesn’t want to come over here. I know that he doesn’t. Udo and I were joking last night that we’re going to drug him and get him on a plane over here just to mess with him. We’ll put him in the middle of Times Square. He’d probably have a heart attack.”


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