While there are many beautiful images from the first frames of the new Lars von Trier film Melancholia, the most striking is one that comes later in the film when a completely naked Kirsten Dunst lies outside in the grass under the moonlight with a dreamy stare on her beautiful face. The moment is almost a turning point for character who, as everyone else around her becomes unhinged at news that a planet called Melancholia is going to collide and destroy the Earth, seems to come out of her deep, debilitating depression just when the end is near.
Such is the kind of juxtaposition one would expect from a Trier film, but Dunst, who walked away with the Best Actress award earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, brings a vulnerability and rawness that reminds us that she’s capable of much more than what we see in her mainstream films like Bring It On and the Spiderman franchise. However, Dunst proves in every moment of screen time in Melancholia that she’s come a long way since playing a vampire child in the film that made her a star, Interview With A Vampire, in 1994.
Early on in the planning stages for the Trier film, it didn’t take long for Dunst to get excited about the part of the uber-depressed Justine. “As soon as I read the email, ‘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. How bad could it be? I’m pretty tough. I’ve worked with plenty of directors at this point. I wasn’t afraid.”
While Trier infamously clashed with singer Björk when she starred in his 2000 film Dancing In The Dark, Dunst wasn’t phased by the stories of on-set drama before she started work on the film. “Björk is a genius artist in herself and when you get two of them together – not that I’m not a genius or anything [laughs] — 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. And that’s the first and only time she’s acted, so who knows.”
One thing that she was fully aware to expect from being in a Trier film was that she wouldn’t have to be merely emotionally raw but physically, too, hence the nude scene under the moonlight. “I knew I wasn’t going to be in a Lars von Trier [movie] and get away with not doing that,” Dunst said of the film’s nudity, which also includes a scene where she’s nude but also so deep in her depression that her sister (played by Trier film staple Charlotte Gainsbourg) has to try to lift her into the bathtub. “Hey,” Dunst said showing off her dimples as she smiled, “if you’re going to do it, you might as well be in a Trier film, why not? It looked so pretty and I knew the context it was going to be in so it’s not like 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.”
With the intense depression that her character experiences in the film, it’s impossible not to wonder how that might reflect on Dunst’s own depression, which she was treated for in 2008. “Lars has spoken openly about his depression,” she explained, “and in this movie there are definitely scenes that are verbatim what Lars went through.” However, Dunst was not open to discussing her own experience. She would only say that her own personal bout with depression was not something she ever intended to be known in the world.” It just had to come out since other people were talking about it but it’s not something that I would talk about anymore.”
Back to talking about her character, does Dunst think Justine figures out early about Melancholia and what will happen when the planets collide? “I don’t think that Justine knows the end of the world is coming when she’s at her wedding (to True Blood actor Alexander Skarsgård). I think that there’s something that 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 is not 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.”
However, the actress said that there was a good thing that came from playing the crippling kind of depression that Justine exhibits in the first half of the movie. “You don’t have an opportunity to do roles like this very often and, yeah, at the end it feels cathartic. It should. All the movies that I do I feel like you release some sides of yourself.”
Also, for those unfamiliar with his work, Trier traditionally doesn’t spend a lot of time rehearsing, which Dunst said actually helped her performance. “Lars is really pared down. We don’t even rehearse the scene, we just start shooting. And it could just be like a scene in this room and there’s not much light and you figure out everything. It doesn’t feel so planned at all and I guess this is the most un-planned movie that I’ve been on in terms of how we shoot.” In fact, she added, “It gave me a lot of freedom, actually, and I appreciated it. Being on Lars’ set is like the best film school in the world. Not research like I said it before but therapy almost between me and who I’m playing.”
Because the material in Melancholia was so heavy and dark, how did Dunst alleviate the darkness she may have felt from having to go to those dark places to truly show what Justine was going through? “I was playing Angry Birds in my trailer,” she said with a laugh. “You don’t have to sit there and be depressed to play depressed. Actually, you should be in a good place to play depressed.”
As audiences begin to take in the film now that it is starting to hit theaters, Melancholia will more than likely garner much attention next year when the Academy Award nominations are announced. Is Dunst phased by the early Oscar buzz for her work in the film? “That would be awesome!” she exclaimed, beaming. “I would embrace that. I mean, yeah, winning Cannes was pretty spectacular. I’m very grateful. I felt if I was nominated [for an Oscar], I would be very, very grateful and honored. My family would be so happy and crying, yeah. It would be great because my family really celebrates things. I don’t want to jinx things either.”
She did share that she thinks she’s outgrown the emotional first time she was nominated for a big award – the Golden Globe nomination she received for her work, at the age of 12, in Interview With The Vampire. “Well, I lost,” she recalled, “so I remember being a little kid and crying. I’m a little girl and everyone is like ‘You’re gonna win! You’re gonna win!’ And then I was like, ‘uh, I didn’t win.’ I was at a table with the cast of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and my Mom was like, ‘Hide your face! Hide your face!’”
With her early role as a vampire in the film adaptation of the best-selling Anne Rice novel, Dunst admitted to loving HBO’s True Blood but also loved talking about her love for the Twilight films. “I think those movies are funny. They’re awesome! They’re hilarious, too. So crazy! The first one, there were lines like ‘You’re my own personal brand of heroin.’ That’s a line! This is the best movie ever!”
For more on Melancholia, visit www.melancholiathemovie.com.