When Kirsten Dunst plays a character who goes to dark places, that doesn’t mean she goes to dark places herself.
“You know what’s funny? You really need to be in a good place,” Dunst tells us. “I think my best work is when I’m in a really happy place.”
The actress didn’t even feel her bleakest role to date — as a clinically depressed woman happy the apocalypse is around the corner in Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” which won her the Best Actress trophy at Cannes — was a drag. “I had a great time on ‘Melancholia.’ I really did! I was so grateful to be working on an amazing role with a great auteur.”
She felt the same way about “Midnight Special,” a new sci-fi drama by Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter,” “Mud’). She plays a former cult member who’s had her young son (played by Jaeden Lieberher) taken away from her. He has mysterious superpowers, making him sought by government agents and religious fanatics alike. Once reunited, Sarah and her son go on the road — with his father (Michael Shannon) plus his friend (Joel Edgerton) — to help him achieve his a strange destiny, which may involve him leaving this realm forever.
Dunst, now 33, has talked about her desire to start a family, but she didn’t draw on that to play a mother.
“I didn’t think about that with this role at all. They’re totally not the same feelings — to have a son you haven’t seen in two years,” she explains. “I had enough things to draw from in my own life to relate to her emotions. I thought about who I care about in my life. We all have things in life that are huge — deaths in families, everything. I try not to think about that — that some day I’m going to die. Maybe one day when I have kids I’ll think about it more.”
Dunst also has to do this without much in the way of dialogue. Sarah doesn’t speak much, and you have to glean her face — weathered and free of makeup (“It wasn’t a vain role, that’s for sure,” she jokes) — to see everything she’s thinking.
“I’m a silent film actress in this,” Dunst says, smiling. To her that’s a great thing. “I love not talking in films. Who talks that much in real life anyway? I definitely don’t talk that much. It’s kind of exhausting.”
We don’t see Sarah until some 40 minutes into “Midnight Special,” when she’s reunited with her son and have to imagine an unhappy backstory that’s only hinted to the viewer, even as she has to step up her game to help her son.
“I think it would be boring to play her dead — dead in her mannerisms,” Dunst says. “She’s very saintly to me in a way, because she’s been through all his pain, she’s been away from her child for two years, she can’t talk about it with anybody. She has to live in purgatory until she sees him again. Then she has to be strong for him. She doesn’t act out in anger. She’s full of a lot of grace, and I only see that in people who’ve had great traumas in their life and can come out the other side.”
“Midnight Special” is a strange outlier in the multiplex: a studio film with a sci-fi foundation that’s about characters, not action. It’s patiently paced, and with a lot of key chunks of information withheld till later in the film. It trusts us to piece it together slowly.
“It has an ’80s feeling of slow burn, like you have to earn your characters. It’s not a depressing sci-fi movie or a vulgar bloody-guts kill-the-alien-foreign-thing movie. It asks a lot of questions about spirituality. To me this is a big movie,” Dunst says. She recognizes that most movies today aren’t like this, in part due to the success of her old franchise, last decade’s run of “Spider-Man” films.
“All we have now is superhero movies or kids movies,” she remarks.
At the same time she’s reluctant to drown herself in films that are too small. “I personally find it hard to commit to some independent films,” Dunst explains. “Sometimes you work really hard, you’re not really being paid and it’s not seen by anybody. Independent film is in a hard place right now, for sure. I’d rather be on television and have people see my work.”
That’s one reason she wound up on the second season of “Fargo,” in a Golden Globe-nominated turn as beautician Peggy Blumquist. The long hours may have hurt, but she was still sad to say goodbye to her after only 10 episodes.
“To be honest it was such a great role I could have kept playing it,” Dunst says.