Kirsten Dunst is so young, it’s easy to forget that she’s been on screen for more than 20 years. She first turned up as Mia Farrow’s daughter in Woody Allen’s segment of New York Stories (1989) at the age of 6, but she really came to the world’s attention with her chilling, Golden Globe-nominated turn as Claudia the child vampire in Neil Jordan’s 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire.
Dunst was in town earlier this week to present Lars von Trier’s Melancholia to audiences at 2011 AFI Fest and I sat down with her for a roundtable interview at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. These roundtables are always a dicey affair with the dumbest people always seeming to ask the most questions, but Dunst is a smooth and seasoned professional. She managed to be interesting and engaged with even the silliest of questions (A Twilight question? Really?). She was game for just about anything, but was also happy to politely sidestep questions about things she didn’t want to talk about.
Of course it’s Dunst’s job to come across as likable when promoting her films, but it’s impressive how naturally and comfortably she pulls it off. It’s almost as though she’s just sitting down at a table with girlfriends for drinks.
The first question doesn’t even make sense and shows an appalling misread of the movie, but you have to start somewhere I guess.
Q. The point of view of the movie seems to be that if you know the end of the world is coming, you have to be depressed about it. Do you subscribe to that world view?
Kirsten Dunst. I don’t think that Justine knows the end of the world is coming when she’s at her wedding. 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 like not in her realm.
Q. Do you think Lars believes depression is some sort of inevitability then?
KD. No, I don’t think so. Lars has spoken openly about his depression and there are scenes in this movie that are verbatim what Lars went through, but I wouldn’t say that… he didn’t talk much about his feelings. He talked about his depression with me, but he’s not an over-talker, you know?
Q. You went through depression yourself, right?
KD. Yeah, I did but that’s not something that I even wanted to talk about. It just kind of had to come out because other people were talking about it, but it’s not something that I would talk about anymore.
Q. Is it something that you related to the character?
KD. Well of course. I’ve always used my own personal emotions and things that I’ve gone through in my life to build a character, yeah. The work that I do before a film feels like therapy almost between me and whoever I’m playing.
Q. Was going that dark in this film therapeutic in any way?
KD. Well yeah, you don’t have an opportunity to do roles like this very often. At the end it definitely feels cathartic. It should. All movies that I do I feel like, you know, you’ve got to release some sides of yourself. The last movie I did was a comedy and I got to play a real mean girl. I’d get so uncomfortable in working on the script… it was difficult for me to think about where that comes from, but then, you know, you bring those things out from inside of yourself and it’s fun to express those things. I mean, that’s part of why I like what I do.
Q. Given von Trier’s reputation with actors, did you have reservations about working with him?
KD. As soon as I read the email like, “Lars wants to talk to you. Read the script,” I was ecstatic. I mean, 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 (laughs). I’ve dealt with plenty of directors at this point. I wasn’t afraid.
Q. What about the letter Bjork supposedly sent to Nicole Kidman before Dogville saying “Don’t do this movie”?
KD. Well it’s like Bjork is a genius artist herself and when you get two together it’s just like… not that I’m not a genius or anything (laughs)… but she’s an incredible musician. They have to share and they have to collaborate on the film. I can’t imagine Lars collaborating with anybody else. You know? It’s his world, so there’s going to be friction. That’s the first and only time she acted, so who knows? You know what I mean? Lars also goes through states of how he’s doing. On Antichrist I know he was in kind of a dark place. Charlotte (Gainsbourg, co-star of Antichrist and Melancholia) was like “we were filming in Germany in the middle of nowhere and the food was terrible (laughs) and Lars couldn’t hold the camera he was shaking so much and not in a great place…” and then on Melancholia he was in a really good place, she said. I talked to her about it, but I agreed to do the film beforehand.
Q. How does Lars compare with the other directors you’ve worked with?
KD. I’ve worked with directors before were the camera is moving, following you, but Lars is really pared down. We don’t even rehearse the scene. We just start shooting. It could just be like a scene in this room and there’s not much light. You figure out everything. It doesn’t feel so planned at all. I guess this is the most unplanned movie that I’ve been on in terms of how we shoot.
Q. Was the dialogue improvised at all?
KD. The dialogue was in the script for the most part. At the beginning, some of my scenes with Alexander were a little improvised, but mostly everything was scripted.
Q. Was doing the nudity a tough decision?
KD. I knew I wasn’t gonna be in a Lars von Trier film and get away without taking my clothes off (laughs). Hey, if you’re gonna do it, it might as well be in a von Trier film, why not? And it just looked so pretty and I knew the context it was going to be in. It’s not like it was a surprise to me. Not like it’s the most fun thing to do, but we joke about it and they close the set and they make it comfortable.
Q. What was the hardest scene to film?
KD. Uhh, having sex on the golf course was so awkward, I have to say. 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. [The script] just says, like, Justine basically rapes this… kid (laughs) and so I was like “oh my god I’m so nervous!” In the trailer, me and Brady who is now my friend were 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 it going to be seen?” Then we get to set and the camera is so far away and everything is being shot from this really long distance and 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. It’s so awkward. It’s the worst. I hate them. I hate them.
Q. Your mother in the movie says she doesn’t believe in marriage. Do you?
KD. Oh yeah, I want to get married.
Q. Do you want your wedding to be like the one in the movie?
KD. No. No. That dress. I would not have a strapless dress (laughs). I’m actually in bridal mode right now. my best friend is getting married so I’m her maid of honor.
Q. Are you a hands on kind of maid of honor?
KD. I’m a good maid of honor. I’m a good assistant. That’s why I don’t have an assistant because I’m so on it that no one else can be as on it as me. I know that. I will be a great maid of honor. I found a bunch of dresses online for the bridesmaids… Everything. Just like, on it.
Q. How did the lack of rehearsals effect your process?
KD. Every film set is a totally different energy. You don’t know what everyone’s going to be like and you kind of have to work within what you’re given, but also I do a lot of preparation before I start a movie. This [way] gave me a lot of freedom actually and I appreciated it. Being on Lars’ set is like the best film school in the world.
Q. So you do a lot of research before you actually get to the set…
KD. Not research, more like.. I said it before, but like therapy almost between me and the character whom I’m playing.
Q. In a movie with this much darkness, is there a lightness on the set when the camera’s aren’t rolling?
KD. I was playing Angry Birds in my trailer (laughs). 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. We moved pretty swiftly too, so there was definitely momentum and Lars has a great sense of humor. He’d yell out like “Stop acting!” to people (laughs). We were making a very heavy thing and there were definitely days where there were the scenes I had to prepare for, but also making a movie doesn’t have to be drudgery just because of the subject matter. There was a lot of lightness too.
Q. We’re in the same hotel where the Oscar lunch is held for the nominees. Since you won the award at Cannes, do you think maybe there’s a chance for an Oscar?
KD. That would be awesome. I would embrace that (laughs). Yeah, I mean winning Cannes was pretty spectacular. I’m very grateful, so if I was nominated for an Oscar I would be very grateful and honored. My family would be so happy and crying. It would be great because my family really celebrates things (laughs).
Q. Are you thinking about your dress already? What would you wear?
KD. No I don’t want to jinx things either. A lot of it has to do with how much money you have (to promote the film) and all that other stuff energy-wise in terms of being nominated in general.
Q. This is also the hotel where they announce the Golden Globes which you were nominated for as a kid for Interview with a Vampire…
KD. Well I lost so I remember being a little kid and like crying. I was a little girl and everyone was like “you’re gonna win, you’re gonna win!” and I was like (pretending to cry) “ohhh, didn’t win.” (laughs). We were sitting at a table with the cast of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and my mom was like “Hide your face! Hide your face!” (more laughter)
Q. You mean after or during?
KD. Like literally they didn’t say my name and I was like (pretending to cry again).
(The room laughs)
Q. Would you cry this time if you lost?
KD. No, I’m at an age where I could hold it together now.
Q. Does Melancholia signal a new phase in your career or a new direction you want to take?
KD. I didn’t think about it that way. Yeah, when you get older you have different opportunities and the roles are different and there’s more to do in them, but when I found out I got this film I was doing a film called Upside Down and 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. But, you know, 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.
Q. Being 30, do you think that’s going to change anything?
KD. It’s next year! (laughs)
Q. Yeah, but it’s almost here. Do you think about it at all?
KD. You know I had such a fun party this last year because it was my grandma’s 90th and we have the same birthday so we threw a really nice party at my mom’s house. My friends who are musicians came and we had a band play and there were like so many people getting up and singing… That was such a fun party that I don’t really know what I’d do. One of my ideas is to take over Deetjens in Big Sur and have my friends there and put on like a fun show at the Henry Miller library.
Q. But do you think it will change anything not being a twenty-something anymore?
KD. Um… I don’t know. Hopefully not. It’s true as you get older you just feel better about yourself and not as worried about what other people think of you in general. You just get more comfortable in your skin so I welcome 30. And I look young so… (laughs)
Q. How do you feel about Hollywood at this stage? Things like the Oscars or having your hand and footprints in front of the Chinese or a star on the Walk of Fame…
KD. I think it’s nice. It’s part of the industry and part of how we celebrate performances or people. It would be cool to have a star on Hollywood Boulevard.
Q. What was your character thinking when she gave up Alexander Skarsgaard? He’s so hunky.
KD. Yeah I agree with you. She was pretty stupid (laughs). I’m a big True Blood fan so when I first met Alex I was like, “You’re my favorite vampire on True Blood!” (laughs) He’s a really great actor. Actually he’s a really goofy guy in real life. He’s really funny and sweet. He’s very easy to work with. A really good actor.
Q. Was there any kind of dynamic between him and his dad (Stellan Skarsgaard who played Dunst’s character’s boss)?
KD. Between the two of them, yeah, they’re like brothers. They talk like they’re friends about everything. It feels like a very “bro” relationship between them both. But Stellan is the man. He’s such an incredible actor. I love hanging out with him. Lars has a good group that comes back every time. They’re the best. Udo (Udo Keir, also in Melancholia) and I went to dinner last night after the movie at AFI and I just really had great relationships with these people. We really got to know each other well. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, you really bond with the people you work with.
Q. As a fan of True Blood and having played a vampire before would you play a couple episodes if there was a cool part?
KD. I think I’ve done the vampire thing. I don’t need to be on shows that I like to watch (laughs). It’s ok.
Q. What do you think about Twilight?
KD. I think those movies are funny. I love them. Awesome. They’re hilarious. So crazy. In the first one there were lines like “you’re like my own personal brand of heroin.” That’s a line! It’s like, “this is the best movie ever” (laughs).
Q. What do you think about the new Spider-Man?
KD. I love Andrew Garfield and I think Emma Stone’s cute too, so I think that they’re going to be really cute in the movie for sure and they look like they have good chemistry.
Q. Do you think you’ll come back in a cameo?
KD. I wanted to. I had the idea – which I didn’t tell anyone (laughs) – but I thought it would be a good idea if Toby and I were just extras and I we just walked by in the background.
Q. How did you get involved in the REM video (for We All Go Back to Where We Belong) and what was making you laugh?
KD. Well, Michael… (rolls eyes) “Michael. My bro Michael” (laughs)… he’s my neighbor in New York and I’ve been an REM fan since I was a little girl. I would jump around to Stand in front of the mirror. I’ve known him throughout the years and he just casually asked me. I didn’t even know it was supposed to be their last video, but I was like “yeah, of course.” He wanted to do it in the vein of an Andy Warhol screen test. We did three different takes, but the one take he used he sang a cappella to me…. so if I look embarrassed and giggling it’s because I’m so overwhelmed that he’s singing to me (laughs). It was really special.
Q. Tell us about the wedding dress you wore in the film.
KD. We wanted it to be a very “Barbie” wedding dress. Like a very, you know, traditional, out-of-a-magazine kind of bride dress. He wanted to make it American looking, but he’s never been to America. He won’t fly here. He won’t get on planes. Even to Cannes, he took his Winnebago. But he’ll go in a helicopter that his friend can fly so I’m like, “Ok what if you took a boat over here to America with a helicopter on it and a boat can follow it in case the other boat sinks and something happens to the helicopter…” He just doesn’t want to come over here. I know that he doesn’t. Udo and I were joking that we’re going to drug him and get him on a boat over here just to mess with him. We’ll put him in the middle of Times Square (laughs). He’d probably have a heart attack.
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland, Jesper Christensen, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard and Udo Kier opens Friday, November 11.