Lars von Trier's Melancholia stars Kirsten Dunst as a depressed woman on her wedding day, just before the end of the world. "Melancholia" refers not only to the mood of the film, but to the name of a planet that's now heading for a direct collision course with the planet Earth.
When it looks like Melancholia is going to destroy the planet, everyone around Dunst's character Justine panics. But Justine remains eerily calm, seeming almost revitalized by the knowledge that all life on Earth might end instantaneously.
"Lars would always say to me, 'I think that Justine has strength at the end because when you're depressed, you're numb and you're fearless to major tragedy," explains Dunst. "So she can be the one that's going to take care of everyone else. ... I always thought ... she was connecting with herself in the deepest way."
Melancholia premiered at the 64th Cannes Film Festival, where Dunst received the festival's award for Best Actress. The film also generated publicity at Cannes for remarks von Trier made during a press conference at the festival, in which he made a rambling statement about Nazis and Jews. Dunst, who was sitting next to him at the press conference, says she went through every emotion possible during von Trier's speech.
"It's almost painful just to hear it especially because we're on the radio and he's a friend of mine," says Dunst. "I'm not defending what he said at all, but him being a friend and someone I care about — he is very inappropriate a lot of the time. And it's part of his sense of humor, and he kind of got on a roll and was trying to be funny, and it was completely inappropriate obviously. He's Danish, and he's trying to make jokes, and it's just the most inappropriate forum to do that and say those things. But he's not anti-Semitic at all."
Dunst remembers trying to intervene at the press conference to stop von Trier, she says.
"No one was saying anything, and I remember leaning over him and saying, 'Lars, stop, this is terrible,' or something. There were a bunch of us up there and I knew because of my celebrity or whatever, that if I said anything too weird or anything to stop him — I was afraid to even be associated with what he was saying," she says. "I was embarrassed, so I just didn't say anything. I tried to lean in to stop him, but I also didn't want to get mixed up in this conversation or [have] him put me on the spot in some weird way. So I just sat back, in pain. ... I did try to intervene but he said, 'I have a point. I'm going to keep going.'"
She says working with the Danish director, who has a reputation for being difficult, was ultimately a positive experience.
"I couldn't have had a more lovely experience," she says. "If he had been difficult with me, that would have been an experience as well. I would have had a month of that. But ... I'm tough and I would have just fought back. But I also think you can't get the performances you can without being a teammate with someone. I think I'd shut down if someone would be cruel to me or anything like that. That doesn't work. That's just bad manipulation. And Lars is too intelligent for that."
Dunst started her acting career before she went to kindergarten. She starred in a Kix commercial, which led to roles in other commercials and then to a small film role in Woody Allen's film Oedipus Wrecks. At 11, she was cast as a child vampire in what many consider her breakthrough role: Interview with the Vampire alongside Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.
"I was always protected on set," she says. "I didn't see certain things I would see in the film. They would shoot certain scenes separately. And I was so young that I understood that [my character] was a young person in an older person's body, but I didn't have any of those [adult] emotions."
She says she never knew, for example, that her character was supposed to have sexual desires. For those scenes, her acting teacher would ask her to imagine herself hiding her brother's toys.
"It kind of just gives you a coy face, so he would help me feel these feelings in a very safe way, where I could understand it in my own way," she says. "[The acting teacher] was very careful. ... He would have me slam a door a bunch of times, and it would make me so uncomfortable that it would evoke these feelings in me, where I could get up this anger that I wasn't familiar with."
Dunst attended the premiere of Interview, but closed her eyes during certain scenes.
"[My mom] would be like, 'Now you have to hide your face,' and I'd hide my face," she says.
On preparing for her roles
"The work that I do before I start filming really gives me an inner life and a base for the person I'm playing. ... I feel like I could do anything and make no mistakes, and that I know this person better than anyone."
On her nude scene in Melancholia
"I didn't know exactly how the nudity would look. I knew it would be beautiful. Lars was like, 'Don't worry darling. Don't worry darling.' So I knew I was in good hands. But I didn't know exactly how pretty it would look. It's not a terrible way to display one's body."