For the last of our interviews with the key players behind this weekend’s “Midnight Special ” (director Jeff Nichols‘ interview is here, actor Michael Shannon‘s is here and Joel Edgerton‘s is here) we finish up with perhaps the film’s biggest star, who, though crucial, actually has one of its smaller roles. But Kirsten Dunst, who plays the mother of the supernaturally-gifted boy Alton, who is reunited with him on the run when he and his father Roy (Shannon) escape from the cult (called The Ranch) that they all used to belong to, has always pursued a strange kind of stardom. Her emergence as a Hollywood player (breaking out in “Interview with the Vampire,” starring in Sam Raimi‘s “Spider-Man” blockbuster series and more) never quite eclipsed her career as an indie sweetheart.
That parallel track really took off with Sofia Coppola‘s “The Virgin Suicides” and since then, Dunst has worked with a wide range of independent and arthouse talents, like Michel Gondry, Cameron Crowe, Walter Salles and Lars Von Trier. It seems a very filmmaker-led strategy, so when we met her at the Berlin International Film Festival after the premiere of “Midnight Special,” that’s where we started.
Your role in this film is not huge, as your character is simply not the main focus. So why did you take it — was it the lure of Jeff Nichols?
That’s exactly it. I will do anything with a good filmmaker. I really didn’t even need to read anything, it’s really all about the filmmaker to me. You want to feel like you’re working, with the director and the other actors involved, towards a common, creative, meaningful experience. Not every movie is like that and I knew that I would get that this time.
So sure, I was the lead in my last movie and I’m not the lead in this one, it’s like, who cares? As long as you are doing something you think is good it doesn’t matter.
So in general your decisions are based on who you get to work with, rather than the project itself?
Well, you know I worked with Leslye Headland [on “Bachelorette“] who was a first-time director… I do take risks too. But I like finding things that I feel I can help my life in a way. And I could never be an actress that does that same thing over and over again — I would be so bored. I would hate this job!
You didn’t find working on “Fargo” season 2 to be too repetitious or boring then?
No — that was hard work. You don’t get a lot of takes, two takes and move on. The way they cram the schedule, you really do a lot in one day. It doesn’t look like that when you watch it, but… seriously the amount of money and time that we had, it looks like we had so much more than was given. It’s really amazing to me. Yeah, it was hard work that show, and I talked a lot. I hate having so many lines!
So you must have been happy to play one of those stoic Jeff Nichols characters here…
Oh yes, but this came before “Fargo,” for me, like a year before.
Ah, of course. So your voice was rested.
Exactly! I love movies where I don’t have to talk. I’m great at silent acting.
But you know, I think this movie isn’t really about the performances. I mean, when you watch a great movie you don’t think “He was amazing!” “She was amazing!” You just watch it and you’re like, wow, “That was amazing,” and I think that’s this kind of movie.
I think that’s very true here, and part of it is that no one is playing the standard archetype of their role. Your character, Sarah, for example, is a very unusual, relatively unseen take on motherhood.
Oohh, I like that… an unusual take. You have a good perspective! Are you a mom? I’m not a mom either, but I like your whole depiction of this role.
It’s just that she can be quite hard-headed and unsentimental, and has been separated from her son for some time.
You know what’s interesting, though — I think she got thrown off The Ranch [the name of the cult Sarah, Roy and Alton previously belonged to], because she wouldn’t let her child be taken. I mean, they lie and say she “abandoned” him, but really the head guy kicked her out because he wanted to raise her son as his own son. [This meshes with what Nichols told us about a prologue scene he conceived of but never shot]. And she can’t call the cops or anything because the kid’s life would be ruined, he’d be a science experiment.
So she lives with the love of The Ranch too. Jeff and I discussed how Sarah was probably into drugs or something, and The Ranch saved her, plus she met Roy there. That’s why I think she keeps her hair in that braid, there’s a love/hate with The Ranch. Even her house on the outside, where there’s barely any furniture — it’s not like she’d really cared about it, it was bare minimum, she was living such a sad life.
But also, I’ve met people before who have had such heavy trauma in their life that there’s almost something a little bit… angelic about them. They’re so kind and appreciative of every moment they’re living and I feel like Sarah’s like that, she’s a little saintly, like a Mary. That’s how I depicted her.
So you saw the film as at least partially a religious allegory?
Well, Jeff will say the movie’s very anti-religion! And I’m like, but your major characters — you’ve got Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and you’ve got the disciple, how can you say that? I mean, even if you’re not religious, something seeped through there. But he doesn’t take it as that. And I guess it also shows how The Ranch, being a religion too, can manipulate people and brainwash them — it’s just various different perspectives. And I think it’s cool that it raises the questions of what else is out there and that we can’t be the only things around.
I suppose as the writer/director it’s his prerogative to interpret it differently. And you yourself are primed to make your directorial debut soon, isn’t that so?
Not very soon — I would think that it could get rolling end of this year or next year. Next year would be better, but you never know. I’ve finished writing it, and I think they’re gonna announce it soon.
I’ve read that it’s a kind of dark comedy?
Well, hmm. It’s like, I just like movies that are funny when they shouldn’t be. So there’s a little bit of that. It’s not a dark comedy, though there’s an element of that — if you knew the thing that I was adapting, you might be like wow, that is absolutely nothing like a dark comedy!
But you won’t tell us what it is!
I know, I know! I can’t. But they’re gonna announce it soon, I think. And I will say that I don’t want it to be just some “little indie.” I want it to be a… bigger movie.
Quite a few — maybe all — of the roles you’ve chosen over the years have a dark element to them. Is that what draws you to them?
You know, it’s funny because I don’t watch movies like that — the movies I watch are like, “Trainwreck” and “Straight Outta Compton.” But I like being in the darker movies — I guess I like expressing myself that way, but usually my entertainment is different. Though, wait, I’ve watched pretty much every movie this year, so actually that’s not true at all.
Oh you have? So what have been your standouts?
I like “Mustang” a lot. Obviously there’s a ‘Virgin Suicides’ influence there, but she did it in her own way, a really beautiful way, I loved that movie. And — I couldn’t get through it all, because it was making me physically ill — did you watch “Son of Saul“? Oh my God. I mean, I was so impressed by it, but then I was like I can’t do this right now, this is a little intense for me.
So what’s coming next for you?
Next I did a movie with my girlfriends who do a fashion line called Rodarte, that will come out this year [This is Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s “Woodshock,” co-starring Pilou Asbaek and Lorelei Linklater]. They showed a trailer for sales here, and it is going to be something special, I think.
And then I’m probably going to work with Sofia [Coppola] again this year. [This seems a tentative confirmation of this report we ran back in August of last year] So when people say there are actors who won’t work with female directors… hey there! Hello!
And you’re going to be one soon too.
Yeah, and there’s a lot of good female roles in that movie too…
“Midnight Special” opens today.