In a much-YouTubed press conference at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Kirsten Dunst was visibly appalled when her director, Lars von Trier, launched into a rambling joke in which he claimed to “understand Hitler.” Dunst went on to win a festival prize for the film, Melancholia, and if there are any signs of lingering resentment, she doesn’t show them. When we meet at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, the 29-year-old Spider-Man star—wearing a cowgirl blouse and jeans—seems to have put the incident (and her own experiences with depression) behind her.
Are film festivals traumatic for you now?
I’ve had a few interesting Cannes experiences, so I’m used to it, and Lars doesn’t fly anywhere, so he can’t do press in the United States. He doesn’t fly, so we’re saved on this one.
You almost had to expect he would say something crazy. Before the Nazi remarks, he said his next film would be a four-hour porno starring you.
I didn’t know what to expect. We were doing a press conference—it’s very normal. He says stuff and he’s usually really funny, but it took a very dark turn. I was pretty shocked.
You’ve said your own experience with depression helped you understand the character of Justine, but what you went through [Dunst checked into rehab for depression in 2008] seems very different.
Lars was very vulnerable about his depression and what he’s been through, and this film is about that, and I think most people, most humans, go through some sort of depression in their life. The scripts that speak to you are things you can infuse with all of yourself, and so to me, I knew how to portray this.
You also said it’s a difficult thing to portray onscreen.
It is because it can be boring. When people are depressed, you sleep a lot. It’s hard to make that cinematic and interesting, when someone’s not doing anything, but have an anxiety feeling underneath the whole thing, and to smile but have those glazed-over, out-of-it eyes. That was a big thing for Lars, what that looks like. He’s so vulnerable with his actors, he shares a lot, so immediately you feel free and you trust him.
Justine’s expected to be the center of attention at her wedding. It seems there’s a similarly ritual aspect to movie stardom, like coming to film festivals.
I’m not someone who feels the pressure of someone else’s expectations. That’s a very young way to feel. It’s weird doing red carpets, it’s uncomfortable. But you can have a sense of humor about it. Cannes’s red carpet is intense—that’s a lot of people shouting at you from both sides. It’s kind of emotional in an overwhelming way, but Toronto is mellow.
You’re known for being private; you live in New York, not Hollywood.
I love L.A. I lived in the San Fernando Valley for a long time. I’m going back there for four months soon for the holidays to be with my family. You do live more anonymously in New York. People don’t care that you’re an actor. The photographers there stay far away when they take your picture. They know I don’t like it, so they usually just leave me alone. I just didn’t want to live in a house by myself in L.A. I did that when I was younger and I didn’t have…like, if you don’t have a guy around to help you with things.
How has your perspective changed since you were a child actor?
When I was younger, I always did movies that teenagers would watch, not adults. I did Crazy/Beautiful or comedies like Bring It On. A lot of people my age, they grew up with me onscreen. I think that’s helped keep a certain amount of longevity. When you grow up with a person, you feel like you know them. The guy who drove me here in Toronto was like, “I love Jumanji.” Your fans grow up with you.
Lars has a reputation for being cruel to his women protagonists.
I know. If someone was cruel to me, I’d shut down. Cruel—that’s a heavy word. Cruel to someone? I never saw that from him, and if I ever worked with someone like that, I’d emotionally shut down. I don’t think you get anyone to perform or be open if you’re not open with them as well and if they don’t trust you. Then you’re just going to get a really angry performance. If someone was mean to me, I would just walk off the set.
Having a fractious parental dynamic—
Me? Oh, in the script.
Well, in the script, but your parents separated when you were relatively young.
Whose parents haven’t? I was actually well-adjusted about it. But yeah, those parents in the movie were terrible to her at the wedding.
When you watch the film, how do you react?
It gave me anxiety, but I think because I’m watching myself for two hours. When I first saw it and the ending came and the sound was really loud, I looked over at my friend and started laughing. It really surprised me how loud it was. It shook the seats.
Melancholia plays at the Chicago International Film Festival October 7 and will be available on demand the same day.