Over the course of a career not much shorter than her 29 year-old life, Kirsten Dunst has covered a lot of bases — skipping gamely between fluorescent Hollywood blockbusters, handmade American indies, fizzy teen comedies, primetime television and the chillier climes of the European arthouse — but there’s one area the actress feels she’s neglected thus far.
“I really want to do a film in another language,” she says, her tone ruminative but quite serious, over the phone from Los Angeles. “My dad’s from Germany, so it’d be really cool to do a film in German. I’m not quite fluent, but I can get there. And my accent’s pretty good. I wouldn’t feel too out of my element.”
It’s not just any German film she wants to work on either: Michael Haneke, that esteemed Austrian dissector of psychological trouble, currently tops her wishlist of directors to work with in the future, a group that also include Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne. The prospect of the sunny New Jersey blonde collaborating with the frosty German-born formalist isn’t quite as unimaginable as it might have been a year or two ago, before another prickly European provocateur, Lars von Trier, showed everyone what Kirsten Dunst is made of in “Melancholia.”
von Trier’s film, a nervy, finely textured relationship drama set casually over the days leading up to a quite literal apocalypse, is the kind of substantial art-blockbuster that reflects well on everyone involved — but it represents a career watershed for Dunst, an actress of long-held promise never previously gifted with a part this emotionally rich or restless. Inheriting the role of Justine, a clinically depressed copywriter whose mental unravelling begins on her botched wedding night, after Penélope Cruz bowed out, Dunst seizes the opportunity to bring a more acrid subtext to her radiant sweetheart demeanor.
The result is a startling performance that not only holds its own with von Trier’s illustrious gallery of complex female portraits (including Emily Watson, Björk, Nicole Kidman and Dunst’s own, equally impressive, co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg), but has deservedly earned her Best Actress prizes from the Cannes Film Festival and, only last weekend, the august National Society of Film Critics. She remains an exciting dark horse to consider for the Oscar ballot; whether she gets there or not, the point has been proven.
“Even before I read the script, I knew this would be something special for me,” she says. “I knew it’d be a chance for me to let loose and be vulnerable in a way that I haven’t been able to show before — because those roles just aren’t out there. Lars is one of the rare major filmmakers whose films center on female leads. We’re so used to see women on screen just as wives or girlfriends or moms, and a lot of people don’t like to see women on screen in the way that Lars presents them — they want them pretty and gilded, even when they’re sad and breaking up inside.”
Justine hardly lacks for surface prettiness, but she’s allowed to be chaotically irrational, even aggressively sexual, in her impulses in a way that certainly shatters the gilding — which is precisely what Dunst responded to in her. “Pristine vulnerability is just so boring to me,” she continues. “The performances that I love are ones like Gena Rowlands in ‘A Woman Under the Influence,’ where women are allowed to be messy and imperfect. It’s that kind of woman that has always inspired me to seek roles that are a little out of the box. I just haven’t always had the opportunity to do them.”
I suggest that von Trier’s preoccupation with alternately challenging and challenged female characters doesn’t really square with the accusations of misogyny frequently levelled at him by detractors. Dunst enthusiastically agrees: “What’s interesting is that many of the people who surround him in the highest positions on set are women. Not only does he create a lot of opportunities for women in his films, but I think he in turn likes to be nurtured by them — he’s more comfortable with women on set.”
Some actors have described working with von Trier as a trying experience — Paul Bettany and, most famously and acrimoniously, Björk fall into the “never again” camp — but Dunst has nothing but fond memories of their collaboration. Indeed, she’s keen to reteam with him down the line. “We had a wonderful relationship,” she says. “People call him demanding, but then, I’ve always been very demanding of myself as an actress. I found him more vulnerable than demanding, actually: I feel like his presence almost permeates the scene when he’s on set, as if he’s one of the actors. So when he gives you ideas to try, it feels like it’s coming from a very real, empathetic place. I felt very safe with him.”
“I guess it’s a different situation with someone like Björk. Like him, she’s such a singular genius, and when you put two of those together, there’s going to be friction. But it turned out be worth it — what they got out of each other was amazing. And even if I hadn’t got along with Lars, it would still have been worth it: it’d still have stretched me, I’d still be proud of this work.” She feels the film reveals certain shifts in the director’s own sensibility, too. “I know he’d hate me for saying this, but I do think it’s the work of a kinder Lars. It just is. Even if it’s about the world ending.”
Dunst’s loyalty to von Trier has weathered the storm of controversy that followed the film’s disastrous Cannes press conference, where the director’s poorly misjudged joke about Nazi sympathizing elicited fury from festival brass and visible mortification from the actress herself. (“Oh, Lars,” she murmured to him at the time. “That was intense.”) von Trier may still be dealing with the fallout to some extent — he took a vow of public silence in the autumn — but Dunst is mostly happy the film has come out the other side.
“I care for him, so obviously I was frustrated by his behavior,” she remembers. “Lars has always said provocative things, and I knew he was going down a really inappropriate track there, but it was so very Lars at the same time. I know, we know, he didn’t mean any of that; he was trying to make a joke, really badly. Who knew they would kick him out of Cannes? Maybe I’m defending him too much: at the time, I was shocked and humiliated and didn’t know what to do, but I was soon ready to move past it.” Winning Best Actress only a few days later suggested others were, too. “Yeah, it was just a shame that we couldn’t celebrate together. But he apologized to me. We’re good friends.”
I observe that it wasn’t her first experience of Cannes controversy — Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” in which she played the titular French monarch as a spoiled, wayward teen, endured a rocky reception there six years ago, and came out stronger for it. Does she welcome the chance to ruffle a few feathers? “As long as it’s not in a bad movie!” she laughs. “At least both ‘Marie Antoinette’ and ‘Melancholia’ I can take great pride in, whether people like them or not. A lot of people have come up to me and said ‘Marie Antoinette’ is one of their favorite films, which means more to me than any media attention.”
Coppola’s film was one of several earlier signals of Dunst’s intended artistic reach, though the actress has no desire to be cornered exclusively into arthouse fare. She enjoys adjusting to the differing scales of disparate projects: her 2012 slate includes sci-fi romance “Upside Down” (“It looks like nothing I’ve seen before,” she says), all-girl comedy “Bachelorette” and a supporting role in Walter Salles’s Jack Kerouac adaptation “On the Road.”
“I feel like everyone directs their own career according to their taste, what they migrate to emotionally and what kind of artists they want to work with,” she says. “And I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can wait six months for a project that really interests me. The filmmaker is really important to me: it could be their first film, it’s not just about their reputation, but I have to really believe in them. In a way, to me, even ‘Spider-Man’ was almost like an independent film on a very large scale, because Sam Raimi has such an independent spirit.”
So, dreams of a German-language debut aside, she’s open to all offers? “Well, I don’t limit myself, and I don’t do things just to do things,” she says firmly. “I’ve been lucky to find people who want to work with me, whom I respect and like, but the truth is there aren’t that many good projects out there. And we make way, way too many movies. So it’s not always going to happen with every project. But I try and wait it out.”
Your move, Haneke.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
Sign up for Instant Alerts from In Contention!