Kirsten Dunst On Expressing 'Melancholia'

Nov 6, 2011
Originally published on November 6, 2011 6:58 pm
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Lars von Trier's current film, 'Melancholia,' opens in U.S. theaters this week. Melancholia is the name of a rogue planet that is on a collision course with Earth, and it's also the mood that underlies the film. It's a kind of disaster movie, but not the kind with heroic men scrambling to save the planet. Instead, Kirsten Dunst, who plays the lead, portrays a chronically depressed young woman with a deep sense of foreboding. I asked Dunst what drew her to the role.

KIRSTEN DUNST: With this script, the more I read it, the more poetic it became. There was so much for me to explore emotionally and - because a lot of things aren't spoken, I had to fill that with a lot because just because you're playing someone depressed doesn't mean that you - you have to have a pretty rich inner life to keep it interesting, too.

CORNISH: You play the role of Justine, and we meet her on her wedding day. Maybe I'll have you explain, because it's hard to explain what is happening. What is Justine's wedding day like?


DUNST: Well, she's trying to fit into some sort of box of what, I think, she thinks will make her happy. And so you go to the wedding. And it's kind of funny the first half - almost - of the film. It's kind of like a dark comedy, in some ways. And, you know, I think this is something - depression - she's dealt with a lot - Justine. And it's something that she's trying to fix in some way but slowly, she destroys her own wedding.

CORNISH: Throughout the wedding, her sister and brother-in-law are literally begging her to smile.


CORNISH: It just sounded so painful. I never heard a description of smiling that sounded so sad.

DUNST: Good.


DUNST: That's hard for her. She doesn't want to be there and she's trying, but it's kind of overtaking her. And it's also - I think Justine kind of has a romanticism with it as well. I think it's a comfortable place for her.

CORNISH: But as the film goes on, everyone else starts to break down and essentially, at this point in the film, the latter half of the film, people are aware that Earth is in danger.

DUNST: Yeah. You kind of know that within the first...


DUNST: ...the opening of the film.

CORNISH: So it hangs over everything, essentially; that everything has more meaning because everything could be the last time.

DUNST: Mm-hmm.

CORNISH: And Justine is the one who goes from being borderline hysterical and catatonic to being the person who's got this kind of Zen level of calm. What did you think that that transition was, I mean, as you were going through the character?

DUNST: Well, Lars and I discussed that. He doesn't like to discuss much but the one thing we did talk about was how sometimes when people are depressed, they seem to be the ones that rise to the occasion when something really horrible is happening. And if you're kind of numb, you're accepting more and less fearful, and able to see it in a different light that I think gave her kind of this sage-like quality to handle it in a very graceful way, and do that for her sister and her sister's son.

CORNISH: You were public about dealing with depression a few years ago. And did you have any trepidation about doing a film like this, that takes on this very specific issue in such detail?

DUNST: Yeah. I mean, for me it was something that honestly, I wouldn't have - I didn't really go public about. It's not something I even would've really talked about it. It's just, you know, everyone finds out everything, you know. It's the world we live in. It's - to me, I do a lot of my work before the film, and then let it go. And then you can just be present in what you're doing on the day.

CORNISH: I want to talk a little bit about some of your other roles, and you made good calls.

DUNST: Yeah, I did.

CORNISH: I mean, just to set it up for people - like "Bring It On," which is the movie about, you know, kind of battling cheerleaders. The reviews on that were always like, this is better than you would think; this is a great movie, and she's great. "Crazy/Beautiful," I remember seeing, was a great movie. I don't know, when was it that you got to really start selecting the roles?

DUNST: I selected all those roles.

CORNISH: Really?

DUNST: Yeah. I always did.

CORNISH: When you were a kid, too? I mean, when you were really young?

DUNST: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, "Interview with a Vampire," everyone auditioned for that. Everything after "Interview with a Vampire" was always very age-appropriate, like "Jumanji" or "Little Women." Like, I always did things that my peers were going to see, too. So I never was doing very adult subject-matter films through my teen years so I think it was like, a healthy way to do it. And I always chose what I did.

So, you know, working with Sophia on "Virgin Suicides," that was the first time in my...

CORNISH: And this is Sophia Coppola. That was her debut film, I believe.

DUNST: Yep. And working with her on that film was a huge opening to like, something inside myself that I hadn't even connected with yet. Like, you know, your first feelings about like, looking sexy or what that means, and becoming a woman. So that was a huge transition for me personally, but also something that scared me to do at that age.

CORNISH: What are you thinking about, sort of next steps? Is it still with acting, or do you want to have control in other ways?

DUNST: I'd like to produce, for sure.

CORNISH: And do you have a sense of - kind of what kind of films you'd like to make, after years and years of...

DUNST: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...yielding to someone else's vision?

DUNST: I want to make movies that people want to watch. I'm not someone who takes herself super seriously, who I need to like, put out the most, you know, indie, sad thing on the planet, you know. I'm very much like, a fun person. I'm not the one who's, you know, super heavy. So honestly, when I think of the movies that I want to produce, a lot of them are comedies. That's what I like to veg out to.

CORNISH: Kirsten Dunst is the star of the film "Melancholia." The film is showing now in select cities, and it's available everywhere digitally on demand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.