It's a bold, strange, apocalyptic story from the celebrated and controversial Danish auteur of outrage, a vision of depression and cataclysm from a director who then found himself barred from the Cannes Film Festival for joking a little too strenuously about Hitler.
Dunst was sitting next to von Trier at the press conference when he made the remarks, cringing as he self-destructed — but then going on to win the Best Actress award at the festival.
She certainly deserves Oscar consideration as well for the film, in which her young bride Justine spends the first half of the film wracked with crippling depression, and the second half calmly accepting a fate (an enormous planet that may be on a collision course with Earth) that is causing everyone around her to panic.
The film has been making the festival rounds since Cannes, landing this week at the AFI Fest and opening in limited release this weekend. It has also been on VOD for a month, though a small screen can hardly do justice to the terrifying grandeur of von Trier's vision.
Were you able to enjoy the experience at Cannes, or did von Triers' shenanigans cast a pall over it?
I could enjoy it, because I was proud of the film. I was embarrassed for him and what he did, but so was he, and he apologized. And he didn’t mean that. He says provocative things. He was very inappropriate. But we're talking about Lars von Trier here. He says the weirdest stuff all the time.
When he's not in the public, does he come out with weird, provocative things for the sake of it?
He’ll say weird things to people or in conversation. And he's nervous in front of press. I remember when he was posing in Cannes. He had gotten a tattoo [on his knuckles] that said "FUCK," and he was holding it out, but literally his hand was shaking when he was posing for pictures. This is the Lars that people don’t know. He's doing these provocative things, but also he's nervous wreck up there.
Have you stayed in touch?
Of course. I texted him the other day. I miss him. I loved working with him. I think we'll do it again. Not the next one, but maybe the one after.
Didn’t he say that his next movie is going to be pornographic?
Yeah. I think "Melancholia" was too PG for Lars. The next one is definitely going to be pornographic, for sure. So I'll wait for the one after that.
What was your introduction to him like?
Actually, it was one of the simplest meetings. You wouldn't believe the meetings and things you have to go through sometimes. But I was sent an email that Lars was interested in me for this film. They said, "Read it, and you’re Skyping with him tomorrow."
But we barely talked about the script. We basically talked about our love for Charlotte Rampling. He told me she was going to be in the movie, and we talked about how much we loved "The Night Porter," and then he said, "I'd like you to be in my film." And then I hung up the phone and jumped around like a teenager.
Lars von Trier is an auteur that you study. To work with someone like that is incredible for any actor, and most of those kinds of filmmakers usually center their films around men. So it's doubly hard to find films like this.
He doesn't have a reputation for being the easiest person to work with, particularly for actresses.
He has that reputation, but I had such a different experience, I have to tell you. I found him so nurturing and kind. He was always saying "my darling," and so sweet and funny. Really, he couldn't be more supportive.
What was your preparation like?
I spent about three weeks, every day, working with someone. For me, it's like character therapy — building the inner life so you feel like you're watching an authentic person rather than an actress saying this and that. I had my little bible of all my notes, and I felt deeply like I knew Justine better than anyone else.
Were there points when your understanding of her differed from Lars' understanding of her?
It's interesting, because Lars doesn't like to talk that much about it. And what he did say, I knew already.
In a recent interview, Kiefer Sutherland said he came up to you at one point in the shooting and said, "You might not know exactly what this fucking movie is about, but whatever you just did there, I can tell you that we're making something special."
I think Kiefer felt more like that than I did because of the character he was playing. For me, I always knew what it was.
Justine knows somewhere in her that something is happening, something's coming. Kiefer plays a pragmatic person, but Justine is more ethereal. Like, the unknown actually works for me anyway. And I was grounded in myself and what I needed to do, and I didn't think that way.
Particularly in the first half of the film, your character is almost crippled by depression. Was it hard to return to that space day after day?
It was hard. Emotionally, you have to be prepared and go to places that sometimes are very uncomfortable. Like the scene in the bathroom, where I'm also naked. It's very vulnerable, to make yourself feel like a child who can't do anything. It's emotionally draining, but it's also my job. I'm an actress.
The nudity is a relatively new thing for you in your career.
Yeah. I did in "Marie Antoinette," too, but it was brief and from behind and far away, and it told a different story. And then "All Good Things." But I felt like to buy this chemistry between her and this planet, and to make her feel like yeah, she's coming from this place, it was appropriate.
And I felt like I was in good hands. If you're going to be naked in a film, it’s not terrible that it's a von Trier film. [laughs] Unless you're shooting "Antichrist," because poor Charlotte [Gainsbourg] just ran around naked that entire film.
She's also in this film, playing your sister. Did she tell you Lars von Trier stories from "Antichrist?"
What she did say is that Lars was in a much better head space on this movie. She said he was very depressed on "Antichrist," and also shaking more. He couldn’t hold the camera and had to take long breaks. And on this film he really didn’t do that at all, and he held the camera quite often.