At 29, Kirsten Dunst has more than 25 years’ experience. But nothing can quite compare to shooting “Melancholia” with Lars von Trier, the Danish bad-boy auteur who’s almost as well known for eliciting career-best performances from his actresses as he is for igniting controversy. (This interview was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival. “Melancholia” opens in theaters November 11.)
Dunst stars as Justine, a depressive who notices a new planet, Melancholia, hovering above in the sky on her wedding night. Operatic in execution and flawlessly acted by its exceptional ensemble (Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt), “Melancholia” is among von Trier’s most accomplished works and by far his most commercial. Shame, then, that his team’s achievements were overshadowed by his infamous Hitler-sympathizing remarks following its world premiere in Cannes. Although the festival shunned von Trier, Cannes still chose to honor Dunst by awarding her with their Best Actress prize.
We caught up with the actress in Toronto, here for the the North American premiere sans von Trier (he doesn’t fly). Bubbly and refreshingly candid, Dunst opened up about working with von Trier, whether she plans to reteam with him and the advice she sought prior to taking on this role.
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You’ve had quite the year. How would you characterize it?
I feel like 29’s a good year in general for people. I hope so. 29 has treated me well so far.
I’m guessing Cannes had something to do with that.
I had a good group of people around me in Cannes. We had a lot of fun. Obviously, it was complicated. I didn’t realize what a big deal everything would be. It was surreal. But I went away from Cannes to Istanbul right after and got out of ‘it,’ which was good for me.
It was amazing too, just a lot of feelings. I will never forget that moment. Not the Lars moment.
Winning the award.
Yeah, that moment (laughs). That was the good one. I’m always confused when people ask about Cannes — I’m like, which part?
Yeah, let’s stick mainly to the good that came out of your work with von Trier.
It’s a well known fact that this project was originally conceived for Penelope Cruz.
Yeah. Thank you, Penelope, for not doing this.
So how did you come on board? Did he just pick you out of a hat?
Two director friends of his recommended me for the movie. I always joke that the only movie [of mine] he’s seen recently is “Spider-Man,” because he cast Willem [Dafoe], Bryce [Dallas Howard], and me. He has children, so I’m like, “Is that the only movie you watch, Lars?”
It felt like almost a done deal if I wanted to do it, just based on the email that I got. Lars is really into you for this role, read the script, you’re talking to him tomorrow. I talked to him, and he was just like, “I want you to be in the movie.” I love when it’s so simple like that.
Who were the directors?
It was Susanne Bier and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Not bad company.
Not bad at all.
Even though he poked fun at Susanne Bier in Cannes.
Yeah, but that was a joke. They’re friends. That’s what people don’t understand. Like the movie that she won the Academy Award for [“In a Better World”], Lars’ production company produced it. I think she was upset with him, as was everyone, but I know them to be friends.
What was your first reaction when you opened up that initial email from Lars?
I was like, Lars von Trier, done.
Really, without reservation?
Of course! It’s so rare to get these kind of parts as women. There really aren’t any directors except for Lars and maybe Pedro Almodovar, that are super famous at just writing scripts for women in the leads.
What do you make of Lars’ detractors who see his films as misogynistic?
That’s so odd to me, because in life there are so many things, it’s weird to pick that out. To me, he’s the only one producing roles for women where they can do anything, it’s so exciting. Usually it’s the men who get these complicated, crazy, weird roles. I mean, “Antichrist,” Charlotte [Gainsbourg]. You never see anyone like that on screen. It’s amazing. How could that be misogynistic? I don’t understand that reasoning. He wants women to play him [in his films]. And he’s surrounded by women. Anyone that heads his departments on his team, that’s worked for him forever, are women. And he doesn’t boss them around. They boss him around (laughs).
And he needs to be nurtured, you know. I think he actually relates better to women.
Did you consult with Bryce Dallas Howard or anyone else you knew that had worked with Lars, prior to filming, to get their take on the guy? You hear all these rumors that he “tortures” his actresses. That Nicole Kidman didn’t do “Manderlay,” because she had such a rough experience making “Dogville,” etc.
I talked to Bryce. But when I talked to Lars on Skype, I was like, “But he’s so shy and sweet!” He gets mad at me when I say that, because he says that I’m ruining his image. But I really got along well with Lars. I had not one problem at all.
You can’t give a good performance to a director who’s awful to you or “tortures” you… I don’t even know what that means. I mean, we’re all adults here. If he was doing something I didn’t like, I would just tell him. But you’re not going to get a good performance if you don’t have a rapport with your actors.
I get that if Bjork and he had a problem, that’s two geniuses going at it — that’s bound to happen. Who knows? But I’m super mellow. I just want to do the best work, get along with everyone and make as good of a film as we can.
What kind of feedback did you get from the actors you talked to?
Bryce, she was like “I really love Lars. He’s great.” There was something in her voice that wanted to tell me something else, but she didn’t. She was just like, “He’s really funny.” And that was it.
After that, I was not worried. Also, why would Charlotte do two films with him? I just think that he’s a particular person, so I can see why some people wouldn’t get along with him. I think he’s funny, but some people might get offended.
Have you ladies formed a group of von Trier’s leading women? Do you lunch?
(Laughs) I saw Willem [Dafoe] in the elevator today, and he’s like, “Saw your boobs last night!” But he also loves Lars, too. I feel like there is a rapport when you get along with Lars. I’m sure there’s a rapport when you hate him, too.
You seemed to have sunk so deeply into the melancholic mindset of Justine. What kind of prep work did you do, to get yourself into that state for the duration of the shoot?
I do a lot of work before even working with director on the script. And Lars doesn’t really work on the script. Kiefer [Sutherland] and I ran through our scene a few times together. Alexander [Skarsgard] and I improvised a little bit. And then we just read through one scene in the wedding, sitting in the grass near the hotel. It was such a mellow rehearsal, it was more about getting to know each other.
But to me, I always do my work way before working with the director. So for me, I come with my notes. Once you have that inner life and you’ve worked on it yourself in an intimate way, then it’s really easy on set.
Obviously, there are times when you sit alone and get quiet to access those feelings. The environment on the set was very respectful to the actors. Everyone is very quiet. It feels like you can be very vulnerable. And also, the other actors he cast were really great. Nothing felt forced.
Did you all live in the castle during the shoot?
No. That place was so weird, it was really creepy. It was, I’d run through rooms kind of creepy.
We lived in this other town. That was where we shot most of the movie. But then we shot for two weeks at that chateau.
When you completed the film, were you like, “Wow, I just worked on a masterwork.”
No. I mean, I was proud of myself. And a lot of days going to work, I’d just remind myself how special it was that I was working on a Lars von Trier film. I really appreciated that experience so much.
When you say other actresses have played him, how did he open up to you and explain his personal connection to the script?
I met him a year before we started the film. He has kind of an office house in Denmark. He was very, very vulnerable with me about the things he went through in his life. I’ve never met someone who’s that open, or shares that much with an actor. We went to dinner that night, it was very intimate. He just kind of poured his life out to me. It was pretty intense.
To feed you?
I think to put us on a common ground of, “I’m going here with you, it’s safe to be vulnerable with me.”
Go here with me.
Yeah. I’m not afraid of that stuff.
Have you ever experienced something even comparable to that with another director?
Well, I love Sofia [Coppola]. Me and her get along really well.
Has anything you’ve done since compared to your work on “Melancholia”?
This was special on another level. For me, it was like I went to the best film school basically. I mean he really creates the best energy for working. I really think the key to a film is the chemistry of people. Here you have such an interesting group of people together, and that works so well. You can have a script that’s mediocre, and if the two people have chemistry, it’s amazing. It doesn’t matter.
Everyone I worked with on the film was on the same page. There were no egos, everyone was on a team.
So it’s safe to say you’d work with Lars again?
Oh yeah, for sure. I think we will.
You sure of that?
I think so, yeah.
Last question, what’s it like doing press without him around?
I think it’s better for everyone if Lars doesn’t do press for the film anymore.