Kirsten Dunst: Expressing Something Blue In Melancholia The actress stars in Lars von Trier's new psychological drama Melancholia, about depression and the end of the world. She talks about making the film and about working with Von Trier, whose controversial remarks about Hitler got him kicked out of this year's Cannes Film Festival.
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Dunst: Expressing Something Blue In Melancholia

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Dunst: Expressing Something Blue In Melancholia

Dunst: Expressing Something Blue In Melancholia

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TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.



KIRSTEN DUNST: (as Justine) We're alone. Life is only on Earth, and not for long.

GROSS: That's Kirsten Dunst in the new film, "Melancholia."


GROSS: "Melancholia" is a very moody film, and the mood is depression. But the filmmaking is exhilarating. The film is directed by Lars von Trier, and the music he uses on the soundtrack, from Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," deepens the mood. Dunst plays a woman getting married at her sister and brother-in-law's estate. She's expected to be happy. It's her wedding. But she's increasingly overcome by depression, and her state of mind is reflected in the cosmos. A formerly hidden planet named Melancholia is on a collision course with Earth. Her brother-in-law has a telescope that helps them watch it, but soon, the planet is so close you could see it with your naked eye, like a second moon getting larger as it approaches.

Dunst won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival this year for her performance in "Melancholia." She's been in the business since she was a child. Her other films include "Interview with the Vampire," the "Spider-Man" movies, "Bring It On," and "Marie Antoinette."

Kirsten Dunst, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about the opening shot of the movie, which is on your face, and you're looking very kind of sad and maybe disoriented. Your face almost seems an even. Your eyes are out of focus, one almost seems higher than the other, your lips like - your left side looks a little higher than the right side of your lips. And then leaves start falling in slow motion alongside you. And it just - that's the opening shot, and with this Wagner music behind you, it just establishes a mood, immediately, of melancholy.

DUNST: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Can you talk about what it was for you - what it was like for you to do that opening shot?

DUNST: Well, first of all, there were birds that were falling out of the sky.

GROSS: Oh, those weren't leaves. Those were birds?


DUNST: Yeah, they were birds.

GROSS: I missed that.


GROSS: That's really gloomy, isn't it?


DUNST: Yeah, leaves are kinder. They naturally fall. Yeah, I remember that day, and we had to do it couple of times, because they slow it down, so, you know, you have to not only...

GROSS: Wait. This is all in slow motion. Yeah.

DUNST: Yeah. Not only did you have to worry about blinking and things like that and too much, but you have to worry about acting, too. But, yeah, I was in a headspace throughout the entire film, definitely. But the work that I do before I start filming really gives me an inner life and a base for the person I'm playing, and I feel like the work I do privately for the roles that I play really gives me a confidence and gives me a base of this person, where I feel like, you know, very, I could do anything and make no mistakes, and that I know this person better than anyone.

GROSS: So your character, Justine, is very depressed. And there's this planet that had formerly had been hidden called Melancholia that's heading toward the Earth, and may or may not strike the Earth and end life on Earth. And the movie seems to be saying, in a way, that depression is, like, the appropriate position to have in this world because, you know, it's reflected even in the cosmos. There's this planet named after sadness...


GROSS: know, that's headed our way and going to destroy us. So people who aren't depressed just aren't in sync with the planets. They're not in sync with reality. They're not in sync with the cosmos. The cosmos is saying: Be sad.

DUNST: Really? I don't know. I feel like, to me, when the marriage of the - Justine's depression in "Melancholia," it almost revitalizes her in some strange way. So I always thought of it as something, you know, really hopeful for Justine, like she came from that planet, and that she's - that's her Mother Earth coming to get her.

GROSS: Your sister in the movie, who's played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, when she realizes that the end of the Earth might be near, she panics, whereas you feel like, yeah...


GROSS:'s fine. You know, that's the way it's supposed to be. And you're depressed and she's - I mean, you're kind of naturally depressed, and she's in a panic. And so, like, the movie was almost saying to me, okay, we're going to die. You have a choice: You can either be depressed or you can panic.


DUNST: Right.

GROSS: Be depressed and accept it, or panic.

DUNST: Well, Lars always - he would say to me, I think Justine has strength at the end, because when you're depressed, you - you're numb and you're fearless to, you know, major tragedies. So you can be the one that is - can take care of everyone else. So I always imagined, for me, Justine getting this strength from Melancholia, and almost having a sage-like quality towards the end where...

GROSS: She is, yeah. Mm-hmm.

DUNST: Yeah. She's not very nice to her sister. That's for sure. She's not consoling her or comforting her in any way, and there's kind of an evilness, almost, about Justine to me towards her sister. And - but also strangely calm and kind of pulling everyone together at the same time. But I also think - don't you think that there's those people out there, that if the end of the world were coming, some people would panic? Some people would be kind of - isn't this beautiful, because we all get to be here together for this? Like, there's so many - you know. There are - who knows how people would react to this. It's not something that - yeah. You can - I can't even imagine.

GROSS: One of the paradoxes in the movie is that your character is feeling kind of dead inside, not able to experience joy even at her own wedding. But your body is just luminous and sensual, in spite of the deadness you're feeling inside. There's a scene where you're lying naked in the grass, or on a rock, I forget which. It's a kind of long shot. And it's as if you were sunbathing, but bathing in the light or dark of this planet Melancholia that's heading toward Earth. But it's like a classical painting.

DUNST: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Can you talk about how that was composed, and how you and Lars von Trier talked about that and the kind of, you know, painterly image that it was supposed to look like?

DUNST: Well, first of all, I knew that I was going to be naked in the movie at some point. You know, it's a Lars von Trier movie. I knew I wasn't going to get away without being naked. But I didn't know exactly how it was going to look. I was also stuck on the rock. So I had to be kind of rafted over. They were on a bridge above me. And listen, I knew our DP was great and very intuitive, as well, because he was always carrying the camera and would have to follow us around, and we barely knew what we were doing or where the camera was half the time.

We did really rehearse. We'd just shoot it right away, the rehearsal. And so we kind of figured out where we were, and then the camera would just follow us around. So I didn't know - I knew for the shots in the beginning of the film, you know, how they looked because we'd see playback, and they were very carefully composed. But I didn't know exactly how the nudity would look. I knew that it would be beautiful. Lars, you know, was like, don't worry, darling. Don't worry, darling. So I knew that I was in good hands. But I didn't know exactly how pretty it would look. So it's not a terrible way to display one's body.


GROSS: Lars von Trier has a reputation for putting his leading ladies through extremes, sometimes sexual extremes. Did you have any reservations about working with him when you signed on?

DUNST: I have to say I didn't. I was so - I was so ready. I was - you don't get to work with, you know, whether you like von Trier's movies or not, he's considered one of the, you know, great auteurs of our time. And, you know, to be able to work in one of his films, to me, was such an amazing opportunity.

You know, I feel like he loves this reputation of being this torturer director, but I couldn't have had a more lovely experience. And I was also, you know, if he had been difficult with me, that would've been an experience, as well. I would've had a month of that and - but I still worked with von Trier, and I'm tough and no one, you know, I would have just fought back. But I also don't think you can get the performances you can without being a teammate with someone, you know. I think I'd shut down if somebody was - would be cruel to me or anything like that. I would - that doesn't work. That's just bad manipulation, and Lars is too intelligent for that.

GROSS: My guest is Kirsten Dunst. She's starring in the new movie "Melancholia." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Kirsten Dunst, and she's now starring in "Melancholia." You know, it's funny. One of the things Lars von Trier is famous for its co-writing the Dogme Manifesto, which is a film manifesto that creates rules that you're supposed to follow. So, you know, shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. A sound must never be produced apart from the images, or vice versa. In other words, all the sound has to be coming from an actual source, like a radio or an iPod. The camera must be hand-held. Special lighting is not acceptable. And I'm thinking, like, "Melancholia" violates, like, every one of those rules. I mean...


GROSS: ...after all it's about a planet that doesn't exist in real life, and he has to shoot this planet that doesn't exist. So he has to create lighting and effects and...

DUNST: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and it's such a really beautiful-looking film, and a lot of that beauty is from the way, like, you are so exquisitely lit and the way the sky is so exquisitely lit. So do you think of him as having kind of torn up the manifesto at this point?

DUNST: Even though it's not following those rules, there's still a quality of that naturalness with the camera. And we have the very set-up shots. But then the rest, it feels very natural to me in the way the camera moves and just follows whoever. And it does look beautiful, though. I mean, even Lars would say, you know, this is too pretty and this is too - what am I doing? I think that he was just in a good mood and wanted to - you know, he was in a very good place when he made our film.

GROSS: That's funny, because it's a film about depression.

DUNST: I know. I know. Well, I'm sure it was cathartic for him to write it, probably, too, and experience that and come out of it on the other side.

GROSS: Okay. So at the Cannes Film Festival, there's a now-famous press conference where you, the other actors in the film and Lars von Trier are fielding questions from journalists at Cannes.

DUNST: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And he starts digging himself in deeper and deeper and deeper with one of the answers. And if you don't mind, I just want to play a part of his answer, because you were sitting right next to him...

DUNST: Oh, God.

GROSS: ...during this. And, in fact, during this, we'll here you...

DUNST: Do I really have to relive this, Terry?


GROSS: Do you mind?


DUNST: I mean, if it makes for good radio, sure, why not?

GROSS: It does. Believe me.

DUNST: I know.


DUNST: I'm nervous. Oh, God. Okay, play it. Let's see what it sounds like.

GROSS: Okay. And so this is his answer to the question: Can you talk about your German roots and your interest in the Nazi aesthetic?


LARS VON TRIER: And the only thing I can tell is that I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew. Then later on came Susanne Bier, and then suddenly I wasn't so happy about being a Jew. No. That was a joke. Sorry.



TRIER: But it turned out that I was not a Jew. And even if I'd been a Jew, I would be kind of a second-rate Jew, because there are kind of a hierarchy in the kind of the Jewish population. But anyway, I, no, I really wanted to be a Jew and I'm - and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, you know, because my family was German, Hartmann, which also gave me some pleasure, so I'm kind of - I - what can I say? I understand Hitler.

But I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end. But there will come a point at the end of this, there will come, I will - no, I'm just saying that I think I understand the man. He's not what you would call a good guy, but I, yeah. I understand much about him and I empathize with him a little bit. Yes. Not in the - but come on, I'm not for the Second World War and I'm not against Jews, Susanne Bier. No, no, not even Susanne Bier. That was also a joke.

GROSS: Okay. I think the only reaction to that is oy vey.


GROSS: And...

DUNST: Yeah. It's almost painful just to hear it.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

DUNST: Especially because, like, we're on the radio. He's a friend of mine. It's - you know, he's clearly nervous, and the woman who asked him the question asked him kind of an inappropriate question about his mother, and his mother on her deathbed, like, basically. That's when he found out his father, who was his father, wasn't his father, and his father was somebody else.


DUNST: So that was the question that she asked him, like, about his own mother and her death and finding out that his father wasn't his father. So I think in - listen, I'm not defending what he said at all, but him being a friend and someone who I care about, you know, 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 he was trying to be funny, and it was just completely inappropriate, obviously.

And also then you have the - he's Danish. He doesn't speak English that well, you know, and he's trying to, like, make jokes, and it's just so the most inappropriate forum to do that and to say those things. But he's not anti-Semitic at all. It's just sad to see someone that you know and know so well and who's, like, has a family who's lovely. And we all were upset with him, and I just - it feels awkward to hear it again, you know?

GROSS: Oh, I'm sure. And I'm thinking of, like, what it was like for you sitting next to him. The cameras are on you and him.

DUNST: My visual is much better than the boys, I feel like. My face just goes through every emotion possible. But, yeah, I was surprised that it became such a, like, a YouTube thing to look up, you know?

GROSS: Just one more thing: At what point did you decide that you were going to try to stop him, to advise him just, like, stop now?

DUNST: Well, no one was saying anything, and I just remember leaning over him. I think I said, Lars, stop. This is terrible - or something. You know, there was a bunch of us up there, and I was surprised that - you know, I knew because of my celebrity or whatever, I was the one, that if I said anything too weird or anything like to stop him, I just was afraid to even be associated with what he was saying.

And I was so embarrassed that I didn't know what to say, 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 him put me on the spot in some weird way. So I just sat back in pain.


GROSS: Except for trying to intervene for that one moment.

DUNST: Yeah. I did try to intervene, but, you know, he said, you know, I have a point. Whatever. I'm going to keep going.


GROSS: Well, at the press conference, he was also joking about his next film was going to be a porn film, and he would get you to do revealing nude shots in it.

DUNST: Yeah. Forget that.


GROSS: Yeah. You didn't look that comfortable during that part, either.


DUNST: No, because we're sitting there - it's fine if it's, like, with friends and he's saying this and it's funny and we're together and, like, everyone's laughing. But you can't say this stuff in front of a room full of press. But, you know, he just says what he wants to say and, you know, he went too far. And then the whole next day was dedicated to him apologizing and explaining himself and -and so, yeah. I feel like I'm done talking.


GROSS: Yeah. Enough with that. Me, too.

DUNST: Yeah.

GROSS: Enough with that. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kirsten Dunst, and she's starring in the new film "Melancholia." She won the best actress award at Cannes Film Festival for this film, and it's directed by Lars von Trier. And she also co-stars with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Keifer Sutherland. Let's take a short break, here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kirsten Dunst, and she is starring in the new film "Melancholia," which is a film about sadness, about depression, and about a planet called Melancholia that is heading toward the Earth. You started acting as a child. How did you get into the business? How old were you?

DUNST: I was really little. I mean, I was probably three or four, and I would do child modeling. At first it was just like once in a while for fun and put money away for college. And then I tried out for a commercial for Kix cereal, and I booked that. I had fun, and I seemed very honest in what I was doing and not someone who was forced into it by their parents, and it kind of had just a natural progression.

GROSS: And you had kind of conventional junior high and high school life, even though you were working?

DUNST: I did. Yeah. Yeah. Always, I went to normal schools. And when I'd go away, I'd do my same work as the kids in school, the same work as they were doing. And then I'd just come back. You know, months I'd be out, and then I'd come back and I'd still be on the same schedule as everyone else, which I think really, really helped.

I wanted to have a very normal, like - I wanted to go to the football games and be a cheerleader and go to prom and - because, you know, those were the things my girlfriends were doing, and so I wanted to be a part of that, too.

GROSS: Were you a cheerleader?

DUNST: I was in eighth grade. Yes.

GROSS: Okay.


GROSS: And you later got to play one in "Bring It On."

DUNST: I did. I had experience.

GROSS: So let's start with your breakthrough role, which was "Interview with a Vampire." You were 12 when you got the part?

DUNST: I think I was 11, yeah. Eleven years old.

GROSS: Wow. Even younger. Okay. And in this, you play a child who was turned into a vampire and is being raised by the two vampires who turned you into one...

DUNST: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...Louis, who's played by Brad Pitt, and Lestat, who's played by Tom Cruise. And as you get older, your mind changes, your mind grows up, but your body doesn't. So you become this, like, bitter, cynical woman in a child's body dressed like a doll or a princess with long, curly locks of hair, and you really hate how you look. And we're going to play a scene in which, you know, you really hate Lestat for having turned you into a vampire.

And for turning you into a doll and giving you doll gifts all the time. So in this scene, you're getting really angry, and you want to cut your hair and change how you look and all of that. So here you are in "Interview with a Vampire."


DUNST: (As Claudia) Another doll? I have dozens, you realize.

TOM CRUISE: (As Lestat) I thought you could use one more.

DUNST: (As Claudia) Why always on this night?

CRUISE: (As Lestat) What night? What do you mean?

DUNST: (As Claudia) You always give me a doll on the same night of the year.

CRUISE: (As Lestat) Oh. I didn't realize.

DUNST: (As Claudia) Because it's my birthday? You dress me like a doll. You make my hair like a doll. Why?

CRUISE: (As Lestat) Some of these, Claudia, are so old, tattered. We should throw them away.

DUNST: (As Claudia) I will, then.



CRUISE: (As Lestat) Claudia. Claudia! What have you done?

DUNST: (As Claudia) What you told me to do!

CRUISE: (As Lestat) Leave a corpse here to rot?

DUNST: (As Claudia) I wanted her. I wanted to meet her.

CRUISE: (As Lestat) She's mad.

BRAD PITT: (As Louis) Claudia?

GROSS: I neglected to mention in the last part of that scene, they find a woman who you've fed on...

DUNST: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: they say in the biz, and they're kind of upset that you've left this corpse behind. So here you are, 11 years old, playing this - it's a very dark part, and you're supposed to be in the mind of somebody far older than yourself. Neil Jordan was the director of this. What kind of advice and protection did he give you?

DUNST: I worked very, very closely with an acting coach when I was younger, and he helped me to explain it in, like, a kid mind. You know? And I was always very, very protected on set. Like, Neil and Tom and Brad, all of them, you know, I didn't see everything that I actually was seeing in the film.

They would shoot certain scenes separately, or - I was so young, I couldn't - I understood that she was an older person in a young person's body, but I had no idea about any of those emotions. So I remember my acting teacher, like, helping me. I remember there was a scene with Brad, and it to almost feel, yeah, like I was a woman or kind of sexual and, which, you know, he never said that to me, but he was like, okay. In this scene, like, imagine that you hid your brother's toy and he's asking you for it, and you know where it is, and - but you're pretending like you don't.

And it kind of naturally just gives you kind of a coy face, in a way. So he would help me feel these feelings in a very safe way, where I could understand it in my own way.

GROSS: So instead of talking about sex, you'd be talking about toys?

DUNST: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah.


DUNST: Which, yeah, he was very careful. And also, like, even emotions, like crying or screaming and all those things, when you're a kid, that's uncomfortable to do. I don't know. I mean, yeah, you'd, like, cry and things like that about stuff, but to have that level of anger is very uncomfortable as a child, like, a young, little girl. You're not supposed to do that.

And he would have me just slam a door a bunch of times, and it would make me so uncomfortable that it would evoke these feelings in me, that I could get up this anger that I wasn't familiar with or was in my system at all. So there were things he'd have me do to help.

GROSS: Did your mother let you see the movie after it was made?

DUNST: I feel like I saw it, and then they'd close my eyes at certain points.


GROSS: Seriously?

DUNST: Yeah, I think so. Yeah. I remember - I was at the premier, but I feel like, yeah, I would just hide my face. Like, he'd be like, okay. Now you've got to hide your face.


GROSS: Since you started acting when you so young, when you were a child and you were doing commercials, was there ever a period where you thought: That's not me anymore. It's not really what I want - and you broke away from that and tried to do something completely different.

DUNST: You know, I've definitely gone through phases in my life where I stopped and had to think, okay. What do I want to be doing differently? And I loved doing the "Spider-Mans," because it always gave me a bookmark for what was coming up every couple of years, and that was very comforting to have, like, those three movies, to always know you were going back to that.

And then when I didn't have that anymore, too, it kind of opened up another world for me. And, yeah, I think with any job for anyone and going into your 20s and people change jobs, or it evolves, what you want to do. And for me, acting kind of refreshed, in a way, for me, and I approached it differently and I thought about it differently. And I think that just comes with maturity and just getting older.

GROSS: Well, Kirsten Dunst, thank you so much for talking with us.

DUNST: Thank you.

GROSS: Kirsten Dunst stars in the new movie, "Melancholia." You can download podcasts of our show on our website,, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and join us on Facebook.

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