The Golden Globe-nominated actress shares her experience of playing a character who isn’t likable, as she does in the new film Melancholia.
Actress Kirsten Dunst
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Kirsten Dunst to this program. The talented actress has been receiving terrific reviews for her performance in the new film, “Melancholia,” a role that earned her a best actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The movie opens in theaters around the country this weekend. So here now a scene from “Melancholia.”
Tavis: We didn’t show that particular clip, or the clip I want to reference now, but it’s pretty bold when you start a movie and you can tell in the first five minutes how this thing is going to end.
Kirsten Dunst: Yes.
Tavis: And yet you still want to see it.
Tavis: That’s pretty powerful.
Dunst: Yeah, the beginning is beautiful, it’s all these slow-motion shots, and yeah, they kind of show what’s going to happen, but I think that also gives you an opportunity to really be with the people and not – and also have that anxiety of when’s it going to happen as well. I think it feeds into that.
Tavis: I am curious, so I ask now, what drew you to this particular role? I see this movie in a couple different ways. It makes a statement about depression, wrapped around your wedding, of course, in the movie, it makes a statement about the end of the world, and there’s always a fascination with end of the world movies. What drew you to it? What did you see the movie about, principally?
Dunst: When I first read it, it was – I knew that it was Lars von Trier and I was to read the script and Skype with him the next day, because he doesn’t fly anywhere.
Tavis: Yeah. All Skype, huh?
Dunst: Yeah, all Skype. (Laughter) So I read it and I didn’t even really register which character I was even going for at first. It was almost just – like it was like reading someone’s insides. It just felt like an emotional journey and then it was over. It wasn’t too laden with anything extra that scripts are answering all the questions for you. It was left for a lot of different interpretations, which I always appreciate.
Tavis: I suspect reading this you knew, to your point now, this was going to be really emotional, an emotional character to have to play. You had to dig deep on this one.
Dunst: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Tavis: That didn’t intimidate you, obviously.
Dunst: No, I’m an actress.
Tavis: That’s what you look for, yeah.
Dunst: That’s what – yeah, that’s what I like doing. (Laughter) But then you lighten it up and you do a comedy next, or you figure out the balance. But yeah, intuitively I really was ready to do something like this, and also, roles like this don’t happen for women very often.
I’m not playing an historical figure and this is something that I could create, and also Lars, whether you like his movies or not, he’s considered one of the great auteurs of our time, so to be able to work with him and yeah, play a role like this, who is sometimes very unlikeable too, which is refreshing for me to play.
Tavis: Is that a turn-on, that the character is unlikable?
Dunst: Well, there are parts where I remember after my friends saw the screening and everything, they were just like, “I don’t like you.” (Laughter) And “You should play a villain next in a film.”
Dunst: Because I really get kind of ice-queeny there at the end, a little bit. So, but yeah, it’s – you don’t see women portrayed in this way, and you don’t see depression portrayed in film, because it’s not usually something that’s very cinematic. So I think this is – someone like Lars could do that.
Tavis: This is one of those “Inside the Actor’s Studio” kinds of questions. So when there’s something that isn’t, to your point, Kirsten, portrayed often on film, and it’s not sexy and it’s not likeable, how do you approach playing the character?
Dunst: For me, as honest as possible. I’ve always had a process that I do before I even get to set or go to the location. I work privately, and it almost feels like therapy between me and who I’m playing. So I have this inner life that’s there and it gives me a confidence, too, that when I’m playing the role I know every question. I know Justine better than anyone else.
Lars isn’t someone to rehearse much either, and he doesn’t like talking about things.
Tavis: Kind of hard to rehearse on Skype, I guess.
Dunst: Yeah. (Laughter) Well, once I was there, yeah. That even fell through, so we had to talk to each other on the phone, actually.
Tavis: If I’m to believe what I read, Lars, in part, was drawn to this project, worked on this project so hard, because of his own battle with depression in the past. But it can be difficult, as you well know, in this business to be attracted to a particular subject matter, to try to put it on screen and to not proselytize, to not preach about the issue, but to get the audience to feel a certain empathy for the character anyway.
Tavis: That’s not always easy to do.
Dunst: No, it’s not. It’s not easy for me to do either, because I can’t think, oh, I want this person to be likeable. It’s really the dynamic between the sisters, I think, that makes my character sympathetic, because Charlotte’s character is so lovely and such a caretaker that it makes you care about Justine as well, even though she’s having a bath in the middle of her wedding and yeah, just going off and into her own world.
Tavis: I jumped into the conversation so fast about how the movie opens that – I do this every now and then – that we didn’t really set the movie up, what the movie is all about, so you want to do that?
Dunst: Okay, well, the movie –
Tavis: Ten minutes into the conversation now.
Dunst: Yeah. (Laughter) It’s not the type of film you can sum up.
Tavis: Exactly, yeah.
Dunst: It’s definitely emotionally left open to other people’s interpretation, but it is about depression and at the same time that my character, Justine, is going through a depression, this planet’s coming closer to Earth. So it’s also a movie about the end of the world.
Tavis: Yeah. You made a comment earlier which I guess I would expect it or I could handle it better if it came from an actress who hasn’t had the kind of run, the kind of exposure, the kind of blockbuster stuff you’ve been exposed to, but when you said that these kinds of roles don’t come around often for women to play, you experience that as well?
Dunst: Usually women are, even if they do have – it’s usually an ingénue part or someone’s girlfriend, and it’s true, the big writer and directors of our time, like yeah, it’s usually a male lead, I would say. You have, like, Pedro Almodovar, he usually centers his film around women as well, but Lars is really the only one out there that’s doing that every time.
So yeah, that’s a rarity, and a lot of those female director-writers also, they sometimes do it for themselves, like in Miranda July, for instance. I really liked her movie, “The Future,” this year. So sometimes it works like that as well.
Tavis: So how are you going about making your choices for films these days? I ask that because once you have that kind of blockbuster success, like “Spiderman,” do the choices get more easy or more difficult to make?
Dunst: For me, it’s based on intuition of do I want to tell this story, do I want to be part of this, does it excite me, and then it’s always, though, been about the director for me. I’d rather have a mediocre script and work with a great director.
Tavis: Wow, why?
Dunst: Because it’s the director’s vision, always, and if you like their previous movies or if you like what they’re telling you, then you know that you’re going to be part of something, whether it ends up being good or not, but you’ll have an experience making it. Because for me, it’s about the experience.
I can’t watch my movies and get into them because as soon as I see myself I get taken out of the film.
Tavis: So you have this list tucked away at home of directors that you want to work with?
Dunst: It doesn’t have to be – I can tell you right now.
Tavis: Untuck the list.
Tavis: Break it out, yeah. (Laughter)
Dunst: I’d love to work with Quentin Tarantino.
Dunst: I love him, love his movies. I’d like to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne; I’d like to work with, Michael Haneke I’d like to work with. I’d like to do a movie in another language, and I speak a little bit of German because my dad’s from there, so it’d be cool to work with Michael Haneke and do something in another language.
Tavis: Is it just wanting to be a part of their vision, or are there things that you think you want to or need to or can learn from working with certain directors as an actress?
Dunst: Well, they’re making some of the best movies that we have in cinema today, so to be part of something that’s great, I always want to put my effort into something I believe in. So those are the kind of people that make movies exciting for me.
Tavis: Yeah. I get the sense you like taking risk.
Dunst: Yes, yeah.
Dunst: I’m not afraid, and I think that fearlessness comes from women like Charlotte Rampling and respecting Gena Rowlands throughout my life, and watching their careers and watching their films, or Jessica Lange. These women are all doing things that are unexpected and provocative and interesting, and I have always wanted to have a long career, and I think that helps with longevity, too, to surprise people.
Tavis: Of course for some, the prevailing wisdom in this town once you get to be a star is don’t take too many risks – just play it safe, make the money, do stuff that you know people are going to like you in. So you don’t want to be too much of a risk-taker, so the prevailing wisdom is in this town.
Dunst: Well, I did do “Spiderman.” (Laughter) I built my entire career off of teen comedies. I was in “Bring It On.”
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, okay.
Dunst: You know what I mean? (Laughter) I definitely had some fun.
Tavis: Yeah, all right, I digress on that point.
Dunst: I also just did a comedy too, with Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan, like an all-night girls’ dirty comedy. So I don’t take myself so seriously. I just yeah, but I’m the one acting, so I’d better have fun, or at least it needs to be cathartic or have something in it for me to express or want to express.
Tavis: For you, yeah.
Dunst: Because then I just don’t think I’d be very good in the film.
Tavis: I buy that. Kirsten Dunst. Her new project is called “Melancholia.” Good to have you on the program.
Dunst: Nice to be here.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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