She hasn't been on screen much lately, but Dunst's riveting turn in the apocalyptic ''Melancholia'' has already won her one Best Actress award — and could get her nominated for more. A conversation about high art and guilty pleasures

”Do you want pancakes? I will totally split pancakes with you.”

In a few hours, Kirsten Dunst will be walking the red carpet — all elegance in a clinging Chloé gown — at the New York Film Festival premiere for her latest film, Melancholia. But on this autumn morning, at a corner table in Manhattan eatery Sant Ambroeus, the 29-year-old actress almost passes for a regular citizen of Earth — albeit a very pretty one, with preternatural bone structure. Dunst is friendly and warm. She chats easily about what she did last night (a friend came over to her Tribeca apartment for takeout and a TV doubleheader consisting of Pan Am and Toddlers & Tiaras); about how her crazy travel schedule has left her so little time to grocery-shop that she improvised this morning’s coffee with a day-old iced latte (”And it tasted pretty good!”); about her pleasure in watching The Bachelor (”My girlfriends got me a T-shirt that says ‘Most. Exciting. Rose Ceremony. Ever.”’); and about her beloved, now-departed cat, whom she’d named Cat Stevens.

In fact, talking with Dunst is so fun and casual, it’s easy to forget some things, like that the tabloids are following her every move. (After leaving the restaurant, she is instantly spotted and trailed by multiple paparazzi.) That at age 11 she went toe-to-toe with Tom Cruise — and had her first kiss, with Brad Pitt — in 1994’s Interview With the Vampire. And that for about a decade and a half, she was everywhere on screen: in teen favorites like Bring It On and in dark and fragile fare like Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette. Not to mention a modest little franchise called Spider-Man.

But after 2007’s Spider-Man 3, Dunst retreated from the spotlight. With the exception of a part in the 2008 flop How to Lose Friends & Alienate People and a terrific turn in last year’s little-seen All Good Things with Ryan Gosling, she was making more headlines for her personal life — rumored relationships with other celebrities, a stint in a treatment center for depression — than for her acting abilities. Which is too bad. Because as audiences will be reminded when Melancholia comes to theaters on Nov. 11, she is a staggeringly good actor. (The film, rated R, is already available on demand, but its lush imagery is worth seeing on the big screen.) The jury at May’s Cannes Film Festival awarded her the top prize for Best Actress. Now there’s talk that she could nab an Oscar nomination.

The pancakes arrive, and Dunst digs in. Some of the fruit-compote topping gets on the back of her hand, which then somehow ends up in her hair, a bright pink streak among shiny yellow. ”Oh, God,” she says when it’s pointed out. ”Are you kidding me? What a weirdo.”

Getting food in your hair isn’t weird. A movie that opens with Earth being obliterated after colliding with another planet, as Melancholia does — well, that sort of is. The film, which costars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, and Alexander Skarsgård, quickly flashes back to the wedding of Dunst’s character, Justine, a deeply troubled bride who mentally unravels through the first half of the movie only to regain strength in the second as everyone around her becomes undone. It’s a strange, dark, and beautiful tale that’s at once a treatise on crippling unhappiness, apocalyptic porn, and an excellent showcase for Wagner’s ”Prelude” from Tristan und Isolde.

Despite Dunst’s award, the merits of Melancholia were eclipsed at Cannes by an unfortunate press conference in which controversy-prone director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Antichrist) made the horrifically bad decision to be blithe about Hitler (”It was like watching your friend put their foot in their mouth deeper and deeper,” groans Dunst) and was declared persona non grata by the festival. Dunst says that buttons emblazoned with the director’s initials, the ”persona non grata” label, and the date were passed around. (She pulls out her BlackBerry to show a picture.) ”It wasn’t Lars’ idea, but he was into it,” she says. ”He wanted it to be on the poster.”

Curiously, it was director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) who originally suggested von Trier cast Dunst in Melancholia, after Penélope Cruz dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. (”Hey, P.T., how about you hire me next?” Dunst says with a laugh. She has met him only in passing.) The actress didn’t hesitate when von Trier offered her the role. ”You don’t get to work with the great auteurs of our time that often,” she says. And while in the past von Trier hasn’t always been easy on his leading ladies — just ask Björk — Melancholia‘s set was an industrious but happy one. ”He’s very sweet and very manipulative, but you see it from a mile away,” says Dunst with what’s clearly real affection. The results of the hard work show: ”Kirsten had this moment when she gives Alexander this kiss, a goodbye kiss, and she just sort of falls into his arms,” Sutherland remembers. ”I’m telling you, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Afterwards I walked up to her and said, ‘You might not know exactly what this f—ing movie is about, but whatever you just did there, I can tell you we’re making something special.”’

So what is Melancholia actually about? ”I think it’s a film about depression,” says Dunst. Von Trier says that one of the reasons he was interested in Dunst was that he knew she was familiar with the subject. ”It’s like, ‘Okay, Lars, you don’t have to go publicizing that for me,”’ sighs the actress, who has acknowledged her time at Cirque Lodge treatment center in Utah, but prefers not to discuss it. ”I don’t really want to talk about it. It’s not something that’s a fun topic — and you can never really explain it honestly.” She smiles. ”Maybe one day when I’m an old fart and write a book or something.” (Dunst is similarly mum on her relationship status.)

Four years without a big hit feels like 10 in Hollywood, but Dunst shrugs the subject off, and says it wasn’t a conscious decision. ”I was reading scripts; I just didn’t like anything,” she says. However, there are going to be plenty of opportunities to see more of her. Next year will bring the special-effects-laden Upside Down (”It’s a fantasy love story, and it looks like nothing I’ve ever seen before”) and the ensemble comedy Bachelorette, with Isla Fisher.

After plumbing the depths of Melancholia, can you blame her for wanting to lighten things up a bit? When filming wrapped in Sweden, Dunst went on a road trip with her father. She’s close to her family, most of whom live in Southern California, where she spent the majority of her childhood. She describes her younger brother, who also lives in New York City, as one of her closest friends and was thrilled for him to attend that evening’s premiere — though she seems a bit worried about her parents seeing it. ”It’s going to be emotional for my mom and dad,” she says. ”It’s hard any time I have to do something traumatic on screen — they always personalize it.” In Melancholia, Dunst’s character is so flattened by depression that she can no longer eat or even bathe herself without assistance. ”I’m like, ‘Get over it! It’s just a f—ing movie!”’

And yet when asked about the possibility of an Oscar nomination, she doesn’t bother playing coy: ”My family would be so excited for me, and it would just be so nice for them to have that. It’s a nice thing for your parents…and for yourself, too.” Dunst laughs and throws up her hands. ”I know what this business is like…” She grins. ”One day I’ll get nominated. I’m 29. It’s chill.”

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