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Joe Henry: An Eclectic And Raucous 'Reverie'

Joe Henry has produced albums by Solomon Burke, Allan Toussaint, Hugh Laurie and others. The versatile singer, songwriter and producer has just released Reverie, his 12th album. It features acoustic performances from a three-day jam session in his basement.




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Other segments from the episode on November 10, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 11, 2011: Interview with Joe Henry; Interview with Kirsten Dunst.


12:00-13:00 PM

TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is singer, songwriter and guitarist John Henry. Over the past decade, he's become a go-to guy as a producer. In his home studio, Henry produced Grammy Award-winning albums with Solomon Burke, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and The Carolina Chocolate Drops. He's also produced a couple of albums with the eminent New Orleans songwriter, producer and piano player Allen Toussaint. One album brought Toussaint together with Elvis Costello.

On Joe Henry's new album of original songs, "Reverie," you hear his love of blues and jazz. Here's his song "Strung."


JOE HENRY: (Singing) I keep wooden boxes like traps strung with wire. In the light of old tires, (unintelligible), wearing their smoke like a flower in bloom, cut like a (unintelligible) in (unintelligible) room. I dig in the dirt and yank at the roots of the shadow's dark (unintelligible) in a story gone mute 'til I burn with the flu of a (unintelligible). Oh I give away what never was mine.

GROSS: Joe Henry, welcome back to FRESH AIR. That track has such a great instrumental opening. Did you write or arrange that part?

HENRY: Well, there's a - there's sort of a melodic theme that opens the song, and that was a written piece. And we talked a little bit before we recorded it just about the fact that it should feel orchestral, and it should sort of come off the rails a bit. Otherwise we didn't talk about it; it just happened.

GROSS: The coming off the rails is what I really like.


GROSS: There's a lot of that on the album, of things just kind of unraveling a little bit.

HENRY: Well, that was exactly the intention, you know, to push songs to the point, both as pieces of writing and as recordings. We would have the impression as a listener that it was literally pushing the seams and that the song was so full of itself and so full of its life that it would - you know, it was threatening to come apart. I find that invariably - I don't know why - romantic as a listener.

GROSS: Well, it's consistent with the lyrics, too, because a lot of the lyrics on this album are about people who are unraveling a little bit.

HENRY: I think they are unraveling for sure. And that was certainly a driving concept, that the music needed to feel as visceral as I hoped the songs themselves as pieces of writing would feel alive and visceral and, you know, like a body with real blood running through it.

GROSS: Now, you've said that when you were young, what your mother got from the Bible, you got from song. And song gave you a real-life affirmation and a sense of the perils and wonder and weight of the human experience. What do you think she got from the Bible?

HENRY: A sense of her own humanity and how it connected her to everybody else's, and that's exactly what music offers me. I never feel more connected than I do when I'm lost in a great song, you know. A great song to me is life-affirming. It's not putting too fine a point on it. I mean, it really is - it makes me feel awake to being alive.

GROSS: So when you were young and feeling all these, like, deep emotions from songs and feeling so connected through song, did you try to start writing songs at a young age that would have that kind of, you know, like profundity and depth, even though you hadn't really experienced life yet?

HENRY: Well not at the earliest age, where I started to find myself obsessed with songs. I'm not sure at that point I understood that a song was something that someone walking around could write. And I think when I was very young and heard Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, and, you know, I loved Glen Campbell doing Jimmy Webb songs. You know, the first 45 I ever bought was "Galveston" and a great story, a perfect bit of record-making that was.

But I'm not sure I thought of songs as something that someone actually sat down and wrote. They sounded like pieces of gold that people went into a cave and came out with. And it wasn't until I was maybe 11 or 12, and I heard sort of right around the same period of time, I heard Bob Dylan, and then I heard Randy Newman and understood that somebody was making this up.

And at that point, I wanted to go in. I didn't know how, but I knew that I was going to. I knew that I was going to find a way to do so.

GROSS: So what were the first songs that you wrote like?

HENRY: You know, very derivative, I'm sure, of Woody Guthrie songs and very early Bob Dylan songs and things that John Prine was writing very early on. You know, I was very enamored with all of the songwriters who were sort of writing in a narrative voice, you know, in character. And I understood when I was very young, I think that Randy Newman was not writing about himself, that Bob was not writing his own story, that he was making up a character and following him.

So I never got seduced by the idea that sort of was popular in the '70s that the singer/songwriter was offering you pages from his diary set to music. You know, it wasn't about how much of your life are you willing to expose, it was about how wild a character you were willing to inhabit.

GROSS: Let me play another track from your new album, "Reverie," and this is called "Sticks and Stones," and the lyrical hook is every new leaf I had is gone. I really like that because it implies, like, nothing left to try, out of options, no more chances. Every new leaf I had is gone is playing on an expression, you know, of turning over a new leaf, but it's not an expression in and of itself. It's a kind of phrase that you made up.

So before we hear the song, I'd like you to talk about coming up with that line.

HENRY: Well, I think the idea of the song is that this character is paralyzed to act as long as he thinks there are options otherwise. And, you know, he is so distraught, he's found himself so out on a wire that he's got no choice but to push himself forward because his survival is to move forward. He can't stay still.

You know, you ever watch somebody try to not move on a tightrope, you know, you sort of can only keep your balance if you're moving forward. And I think this character does feel himself completely out of sorts and out of options, you know, when he sings I'm turning over the dark Missouri now that every new leaf I had is gone. You know, I'm turning over the river. I'm setting myself out into the water because I don't have any options left.

GROSS: Okay, well let's hear it. This is "Sticks and Stones." And I should say that I want people to hear the - we were talking before about how a lot of the music just kind of unravels and gets really out there on this album. So I want our listeners to hear where I think that happens at its utmost on the album, and that's in the middle of this track.

So what we'll hear is we'll hear the opening of the track, and then we're going to cross-fade it into the unraveling because I want to make sure that we get to hear that.

HENRY: Okay.

GROSS: So here's "Sticks and Stones."


HENRY: (Singing) Gather wood against the weather. Pilot storms against the sky. String up all life's pearls between us and the heaven's blackest eye. (unintelligible). Go down Moses, (unintelligible). Give into the longest water. Send that little boat for us.

(Singing) Sticks and stones, blood, ash and bone. (Unintelligible) now that every new leaf I had is gone - Missouri now that every new leaf I had is gone. (Unintelligible)...

GROSS: That's "Sticks and Stones" from Joe Henry's new album "Reverie." Now that musical unraveling there, where the drummer especially starts to go, like, really outside, almost like it's going to turn into a free jazz date or something, it sounds great. He's an incredible drummer. He works with you on your music and some of the music that you produce, as well as your own records. Is he primarily a jazz drummer or a rock drummer?

HENRY: I'm not sure what to call what Jay Bellerose does except that he's a revealer. You know, as a musician, he reveals songs. I hesitate to even say that he's a drummer. He's a musician who happens to work from that chair, but he's completely remarkable. And yeah, he's involved in almost everything I do as a producer or as an artist because I don't know anybody who thinks like he does.

You know, he's a painter, and he finds ways to articulate time and rhythm in a way that, you know, defeats none of its mystery, which is the whole point to me.

GROSS: What did you tell him you wanted there, and why did you want it?

HENRY: I said the whole song should sound like, you know, all four of us were falling down a flight of stairs.

GROSS: Good.


GROSS: Okay.

HENRY: He knows how to take direction.


GROSS: Now you play a very blues-influenced style on this song. How did you learn blues? Did you learn it from listening to records? Did you have a teacher?

HENRY: No, everything I learned about playing I learned from records. You know, when I was of high school age, you know, I literally just sat in front of a record player every moment that I could with a guitar in my lap, and I would put on a side of a record and try to find my way into every song as it went by.

And a lot of that music I was hearing at the time were, you know, the great country-blues musicians who were primarily guitar players, too, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin' Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Willie McTell, Skip James, on and on, you know. It's still incredibly evocative music to me and sounds completely alive when I hear it.

GROSS: You know, here's a formative - a question about your formative music experiences. I think you wrote about this. When you were young, your father worked for Chevrolet, and he drove a company car, and one of those cars happened to have a demo tape player in it, and the tape that was in the car was a promotional tape for Chevrolet. And at the end of it was a song by Lorne Greene because Chevrolet sponsored Lorne Greene's show "Bonanza."

And the song was "Ringo." It's one of those, like, Western ballads that's half-spoken and half-sung. From what I remember of the song, I don't remember thinking that's really good. Something about that must have really struck you when you were a kid. What struck you then, and do you think you still like it?

HENRY: What struck me at the time was what a great narrative bit of storytelling it was. And also his deep half-spoken voice, you know, I loved everybody who sounded like that. You didn't have to be a great singer for me to be engaged. You just had to be a persuasive singer, you know.

And his voice I found very seductive, but it really was about the story. You know, I found very early on that I was attracted to songs that really did draw a bit of character, you know. I loved "Ode to Billy Joe" like anybody, you know, Bobby Gentry. That was such an incredibly deft bit of writing in the way that that story is unfolded.

You know, it starts off, you know, it places the character in a moment, and then the story just starts to unfold around it. And I think it's a perfect example of great songwriting. And Lorne Greene's song "Ringo," you know, I could see it. I saw it in the backseat of this new Chevrolet station wagon with the fake wood paneling that we were driving around.


HENRY: You know, I was back there in the dark, and I could see it in front of me just like a movie.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer, guitarist, producer Joe Henry. His new album is called "Reverie." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joe Henry. He's a songwriter, singer, guitarist and producer. He has a new album called "Reverie." So as you've talked about before, one of the things you've done on your album "Reverie" is when you were recording in your own studio, which I think is in your home, you left the windows open so that there'd be ambient sound.

And you hear, you know, background noise. You hear birds. You hear a dog howling in the background. Was there a moment where, like, there was like a garbage truck going by or something with a sound, like, that you actually didn't want on the album, and you had to do another take?

HENRY: No, I was prepared for that except that when I embraced this as a concept, I decided that, you know, we were going to live with it. But keep in mind, too, that I didn't just open the windows. I put microphones at the windows.



HENRY: And I could have toned that, you know, I could have toned any of that down if I had wanted to. But, you know, we were all working together, and we had a headphone mixer, and you can adjust, you know, for yourself what you want to hear as you're recording.

And we had the ambient noise from outside coming up on a fader, and, you know, we all had it pushed pretty loud because we found ourselves responding to what was happening around us before, during and at the end of a take.

And I noticed that if I had pulled the fader down that the songs were significantly diminished, that the sonic picture went from being three-dimensional to being very flat. And then I, you know, I couldn't live without it.

I did imagine that, you know, once we had finished the record that there would be moments where, well, this was a good take for me, but the dog had a better take before...


HENRY: …and that we would have to do some slight-of-hand to cut it together. But we didn't. You know, what you hear is what happened in those moments, and we just stitched it together to sort of encourage the idea that if you listened from start to finish, it feels like the whole record happens in real time. There's never silence.

You know, a song ends, and then a car finishes passing, and another song begins. It sounded like we just played it as you hear it, you know. It's an attractive idea to me. I like hearing it that way.

GROSS: So last year you produced an instrumental album by Allen Toussaint, who's one of the key figures in New Orleans music. He was one of the key behind-the-scenes figures as a pianist and producer and songwriter in early New Orleans rock 'n' roll and, you know, produced a lot of other people, wrote a lot of songs, including "Working in the Coal Mine," "Lipstick Traces," Mother-in-law," "Yes we Can-Can" which the Pointer Sisters had the big hit of.

And you took him in a different direction on this album. It's early jazz. It's spirituals like "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." There's a Monk tune on it, an Ellington tune. It's not what you associate Allen Toussaint with. And you've said you even got him playing songs that he'd never heard before let alone never played before.

And I'm thinking it's such an interesting thing for you to do because Toussaint knows so much music, and he's such an important producer himself, and to put himself in your hands and let you be the producer and guide him in a direction that he didn't even know he wanted to go in is I guess kind of a gutsy thing to do.

HENRY: Well, it was gutsy for him, I mean very generous of Allen to have given me that kind of latitude and been willing to go there with me. But I had heard him in the studio one day between takes of something else, play a Fats Waller tune, just to sort of clear the air for a minute.

And I was so stunned to hear this piece of music that I knew very well and hear it coming from him because he still was playing it truly authentically as himself. And I knew he'd never been featured as a piano interpreter, and I thought he should be because I thought he had such a beautiful song-oriented approach to this music that so many of us revere.

And so I threw the idea out there, and he was open to walking through the door, even though he had people in his world, I know, who suggested it might not be a good career move for him to make, you know, an old-timey jazz record in a way. But I just really wanted to place him on that landscape, you know. So much of the music from that record, "The Bright Mississippi," is associated with New Orleans: Jellyroll Morton, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, etc.

And I just wanted to see Allen considered on that broader landscape than just '70s R&B producer. I wanted him to be seen on the greater stage that is New Orleans historical music. I think he belongs there.

GROSS: So tell us who wrote "Egyptian Fantasy" and why you chose this.

HENRY: Well, it's by Sidney Bechet, the great New Orleans - he started off to be - as a clarinet player and then moved to the soprano saxophone. And I just thought it was, you know, wild like a Fellini movie and expansive and sounded like a great overture, you know.

We recorded it to be the opening track. I always imagined that it was the parade going by. I think it sounds like a great parade passing.

GROSS: Well, Joe Henry, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

HENRY: Terry, it's my pleasure to talk to you.

GROSS: Joe Henry's new album is called "Reverie." Here's "Egyptian Fantasy" from the Allen Toussaint album "The Bright Mississippi," produced by Joe Henry. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
12:00-13:00 PM

TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.



KIRSTEN DUNST: (as Justine) We're alone. Life is only on Earth, and not for long.

GROSS: That's Kirsten Dunst in the new film, "Melancholia."


GROSS: "Melancholia" is a very moody film, and the mood is depression. But the filmmaking is exhilarating. The film is directed by Lars von Trier, and the music he uses on the soundtrack, from Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," deepens the mood. Dunst plays a woman getting married at her sister and brother-in-law's estate. She's expected to be happy. It's her wedding. But she's increasingly overcome by depression, and her state of mind is reflected in the cosmos. A formerly hidden planet named Melancholia is on a collision course with Earth. Her brother-in-law has a telescope that helps them watch it, but soon, the planet is so close you could see it with your naked eye, like a second moon getting larger as it approaches.

Dunst won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival this year for her performance in "Melancholia." She's been in the business since she was a child. Her other films include "Interview with the Vampire," the "Spider-Man" movies, "Bring It On," and "Marie Antoinette."

Kirsten Dunst, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about the opening shot of the movie, which is on your face, and you're looking very kind of sad and maybe disoriented. Your face almost seems an even. Your eyes are out of focus, one almost seems higher than the other, your lips like - your left side looks a little higher than the right side of your lips. And then leaves start falling in slow motion alongside you. And it just - that's the opening shot, and with this Wagner music behind you, it just establishes a mood, immediately, of melancholy.

DUNST: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Can you talk about what it was for you - what it was like for you to do that opening shot?

DUNST: Well, first of all, there were birds that were falling out of the sky.

GROSS: Oh, those weren't leaves. Those were birds?


DUNST: Yeah, they were birds.

GROSS: I missed that.


GROSS: That's really gloomy, isn't it?


DUNST: Yeah, leaves are kinder. They naturally fall. Yeah, I remember that day, and we had to do it couple of times, because they slow it down, so, you know, you have to not only...

GROSS: Wait. This is all in slow motion. Yeah.

DUNST: Yeah. Not only did you have to worry about blinking and things like that and too much, but you have to worry about acting, too. But, yeah, I was in a headspace throughout the entire film, definitely. But the work that I do before I start filming really gives me an inner life and a base for the person I'm playing, and I feel like the work I do privately for the roles that I play really gives me a confidence and gives me a base of this person, where I feel like, you know, very, I could do anything and make no mistakes, and that I know this person better than anyone.

GROSS: So your character, Justine, is very depressed. And there's this planet that had formerly had been hidden called Melancholia that's heading toward the Earth, and may or may not strike the Earth and end life on Earth. And the movie seems to be saying, in a way, that depression is, like, the appropriate position to have in this world because, you know, it's reflected even in the cosmos. There's this planet named after sadness...


GROSS: know, that's headed our way and going to destroy us. So people who aren't depressed just aren't in sync with the planets. They're not in sync with reality. They're not in sync with the cosmos. The cosmos is saying: Be sad.

DUNST: Really? I don't know. I feel like, to me, when the marriage of the - Justine's depression in "Melancholia," it almost revitalizes her in some strange way. So I always thought of it as something, you know, really hopeful for Justine, like she came from that planet, and that she's - that's her Mother Earth coming to get her.

GROSS: Your sister in the movie, who's played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, when she realizes that the end of the Earth might be near, she panics, whereas you feel like, yeah...


GROSS:'s fine. You know, that's the way it's supposed to be. And you're depressed and she's - I mean, you're kind of naturally depressed, and she's in a panic. And so, like, the movie was almost saying to me, okay, we're going to die. You have a choice: You can either be depressed or you can panic.


DUNST: Right.

GROSS: Be depressed and accept it, or panic.

DUNST: Well, Lars always - he would say to me, I think Justine has strength at the end, because when you're depressed, you - you're numb and you're fearless to, you know, major tragedies. So you can be the one that is - can take care of everyone else. So I always imagined, for me, Justine getting this strength from Melancholia, and almost having a sage-like quality towards the end where...

GROSS: She is, yeah. Mm-hmm.

DUNST: Yeah. She's not very nice to her sister. That's for sure. She's not consoling her or comforting her in any way, and there's kind of an evilness, almost, about Justine to me towards her sister. And - but also strangely calm and kind of pulling everyone together at the same time. But I also think - don't you think that there's those people out there, that if the end of the world were coming, some people would panic? Some people would be kind of - isn't this beautiful, because we all get to be here together for this? Like, there's so many - you know. There are - who knows how people would react to this. It's not something that - yeah. You can - I can't even imagine.

GROSS: One of the paradoxes in the movie is that your character is feeling kind of dead inside, not able to experience joy even at her own wedding. But your body is just luminous and sensual, in spite of the deadness you're feeling inside. There's a scene where you're lying naked in the grass, or on a rock, I forget which. It's a kind of long shot. And it's as if you were sunbathing, but bathing in the light or dark of this planet Melancholia that's heading toward Earth. But it's like a classical painting.

DUNST: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Can you talk about how that was composed, and how you and Lars von Trier talked about that and the kind of, you know, painterly image that it was supposed to look like?

DUNST: Well, first of all, I knew that I was going to be naked in the movie at some point. You know, it's a Lars von Trier movie. I knew I wasn't going to get away without being naked. But I didn't know exactly how it was going to look. I was also stuck on the rock. So I had to be kind of rafted over. They were on a bridge above me. And listen, I knew our DP was great and very intuitive, as well, because he was always carrying the camera and would have to follow us around, and we barely knew what we were doing or where the camera was half the time.

We did really rehearse. We'd just shoot it right away, the rehearsal. And so we kind of figured out where we were, and then the camera would just follow us around. So I didn't know - I knew for the shots in the beginning of the film, you know, how they looked because we'd see playback, and they were very carefully composed. But I didn't know exactly how the nudity would look. I knew that it would be beautiful. Lars, you know, was like, don't worry, darling. Don't worry, darling. So I knew that I was in good hands. But I didn't know exactly how pretty it would look. So it's not a terrible way to display one's body.


GROSS: Lars von Trier has a reputation for putting his leading ladies through extremes, sometimes sexual extremes. Did you have any reservations about working with him when you signed on?

DUNST: I have to say I didn't. I was so - I was so ready. I was - you don't get to work with, you know, whether you like von Trier's movies or not, he's considered one of the, you know, great auteurs of our time. And, you know, to be able to work in one of his films, to me, was such an amazing opportunity.

You know, I feel like he loves this reputation of being this torturer director, but I couldn't have had a more lovely experience. And I was also, you know, if he had been difficult with me, that would've been an experience, as well. I would've had a month of that and - but I still worked with von Trier, and I'm tough and no one, you know, I would have just fought back. But I also don't think you can get the performances you can without being a teammate with someone, you know. I think I'd shut down if somebody was - would be cruel to me or anything like that. I would - that doesn't work. That's just bad manipulation, and Lars is too intelligent for that.

GROSS: My guest is Kirsten Dunst. She's starring in the new movie "Melancholia." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Kirsten Dunst, and she's now starring in "Melancholia." You know, it's funny. One of the things Lars von Trier is famous for its co-writing the Dogme Manifesto, which is a film manifesto that creates rules that you're supposed to follow. So, you know, shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. A sound must never be produced apart from the images, or vice versa. In other words, all the sound has to be coming from an actual source, like a radio or an iPod. The camera must be hand-held. Special lighting is not acceptable. And I'm thinking, like, "Melancholia" violates, like, every one of those rules. I mean...


GROSS: ...after all it's about a planet that doesn't exist in real life, and he has to shoot this planet that doesn't exist. So he has to create lighting and effects and...

DUNST: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and it's such a really beautiful-looking film, and a lot of that beauty is from the way, like, you are so exquisitely lit and the way the sky is so exquisitely lit. So do you think of him as having kind of torn up the manifesto at this point?

DUNST: Even though it's not following those rules, there's still a quality of that naturalness with the camera. And we have the very set-up shots. But then the rest, it feels very natural to me in the way the camera moves and just follows whoever. And it does look beautiful, though. I mean, even Lars would say, you know, this is too pretty and this is too - what am I doing? I think that he was just in a good mood and wanted to - you know, he was in a very good place when he made our film.

GROSS: That's funny, because it's a film about depression.

DUNST: I know. I know. Well, I'm sure it was cathartic for him to write it, probably, too, and experience that and come out of it on the other side.

GROSS: Okay. So at the Cannes Film Festival, there's a now-famous press conference where you, the other actors in the film and Lars von Trier are fielding questions from journalists at Cannes.

DUNST: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And he starts digging himself in deeper and deeper and deeper with one of the answers. And if you don't mind, I just want to play a part of his answer, because you were sitting right next to him...

DUNST: Oh, God.

GROSS: ...during this. And, in fact, during this, we'll here you...

DUNST: Do I really have to relive this, Terry?


GROSS: Do you mind?


DUNST: I mean, if it makes for good radio, sure, why not?

GROSS: It does. Believe me.

DUNST: I know.


DUNST: I'm nervous. Oh, God. Okay, play it. Let's see what it sounds like.

GROSS: Okay. And so this is his answer to the question: Can you talk about your German roots and your interest in the Nazi aesthetic?


LARS VON TRIER: And the only thing I can tell is that I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew. Then later on came Susanne Bier, and then suddenly I wasn't so happy about being a Jew. No. That was a joke. Sorry.



TRIER: But it turned out that I was not a Jew. And even if I'd been a Jew, I would be kind of a second-rate Jew, because there are kind of a hierarchy in the kind of the Jewish population. But anyway, I, no, I really wanted to be a Jew and I'm - and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, you know, because my family was German, Hartmann, which also gave me some pleasure, so I'm kind of - I - what can I say? I understand Hitler.

But I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end. But there will come a point at the end of this, there will come, I will - no, I'm just saying that I think I understand the man. He's not what you would call a good guy, but I, yeah. I understand much about him and I empathize with him a little bit. Yes. Not in the - but come on, I'm not for the Second World War and I'm not against Jews, Susanne Bier. No, no, not even Susanne Bier. That was also a joke.

GROSS: Okay. I think the only reaction to that is oy vey.


GROSS: And...

DUNST: Yeah. It's almost painful just to hear it.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

DUNST: Especially because, like, we're on the radio. He's a friend of mine. It's - you know, he's clearly nervous, and the woman who asked him the question asked him kind of an inappropriate question about his mother, and his mother on her deathbed, like, basically. That's when he found out his father, who was his father, wasn't his father, and his father was somebody else.


DUNST: So that was the question that she asked him, like, about his own mother and her death and finding out that his father wasn't his father. So I think in - listen, I'm not defending what he said at all, but him being a friend and someone who I care about, you know, he is very inappropriate a lot of the time. And it's part of his sense of humor, and he kind of got on a roll and he was trying to be funny, and it was just completely inappropriate, obviously.

And also then you have the - he's Danish. He doesn't speak English that well, you know, and he's trying to, like, make jokes, and it's just so the most inappropriate forum to do that and to say those things. But he's not anti-Semitic at all. It's just sad to see someone that you know and know so well and who's, like, has a family who's lovely. And we all were upset with him, and I just - it feels awkward to hear it again, you know?

GROSS: Oh, I'm sure. And I'm thinking of, like, what it was like for you sitting next to him. The cameras are on you and him.

DUNST: My visual is much better than the boys, I feel like. My face just goes through every emotion possible. But, yeah, I was surprised that it became such a, like, a YouTube thing to look up, you know?

GROSS: Just one more thing: At what point did you decide that you were going to try to stop him, to advise him just, like, stop now?

DUNST: Well, no one was saying anything, and I just remember leaning over him. I think I said, Lars, stop. This is terrible - or something. You know, there was a bunch of us up there, and I was surprised that - you know, I knew because of my celebrity or whatever, I was the one, that if I said anything too weird or anything like to stop him, I just was afraid to even be associated with what he was saying.

And I was so embarrassed that I didn't know what to say, so I just didn't say anything. I tried to lean in to stop him, but I also didn't want to get mixed up in this conversation, or him put me on the spot in some weird way. So I just sat back in pain.


GROSS: Except for trying to intervene for that one moment.

DUNST: Yeah. I did try to intervene, but, you know, he said, you know, I have a point. Whatever. I'm going to keep going.


GROSS: Well, at the press conference, he was also joking about his next film was going to be a porn film, and he would get you to do revealing nude shots in it.

DUNST: Yeah. Forget that.


GROSS: Yeah. You didn't look that comfortable during that part, either.


DUNST: No, because we're sitting there - it's fine if it's, like, with friends and he's saying this and it's funny and we're together and, like, everyone's laughing. But you can't say this stuff in front of a room full of press. But, you know, he just says what he wants to say and, you know, he went too far. And then the whole next day was dedicated to him apologizing and explaining himself and -and so, yeah. I feel like I'm done talking.


GROSS: Yeah. Enough with that. Me, too.

DUNST: Yeah.

GROSS: Enough with that. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kirsten Dunst, and she's starring in the new film "Melancholia." She won the best actress award at Cannes Film Festival for this film, and it's directed by Lars von Trier. And she also co-stars with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Keifer Sutherland. Let's take a short break, here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kirsten Dunst, and she is starring in the new film "Melancholia," which is a film about sadness, about depression, and about a planet called Melancholia that is heading toward the Earth. You started acting as a child. How did you get into the business? How old were you?

DUNST: I was really little. I mean, I was probably three or four, and I would do child modeling. At first it was just like once in a while for fun and put money away for college. And then I tried out for a commercial for Kix cereal, and I booked that. I had fun, and I seemed very honest in what I was doing and not someone who was forced into it by their parents, and it kind of had just a natural progression.

GROSS: And you had kind of conventional junior high and high school life, even though you were working?

DUNST: I did. Yeah. Yeah. Always, I went to normal schools. And when I'd go away, I'd do my same work as the kids in school, the same work as they were doing. And then I'd just come back. You know, months I'd be out, and then I'd come back and I'd still be on the same schedule as everyone else, which I think really, really helped.

I wanted to have a very normal, like - I wanted to go to the football games and be a cheerleader and go to prom and - because, you know, those were the things my girlfriends were doing, and so I wanted to be a part of that, too.

GROSS: Were you a cheerleader?

DUNST: I was in eighth grade. Yes.

GROSS: Okay.


GROSS: And you later got to play one in "Bring It On."

DUNST: I did. I had experience.

GROSS: So let's start with your breakthrough role, which was "Interview with a Vampire." You were 12 when you got the part?

DUNST: I think I was 11, yeah. Eleven years old.

GROSS: Wow. Even younger. Okay. And in this, you play a child who was turned into a vampire and is being raised by the two vampires who turned you into one...

DUNST: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...Louis, who's played by Brad Pitt, and Lestat, who's played by Tom Cruise. And as you get older, your mind changes, your mind grows up, but your body doesn't. So you become this, like, bitter, cynical woman in a child's body dressed like a doll or a princess with long, curly locks of hair, and you really hate how you look. And we're going to play a scene in which, you know, you really hate Lestat for having turned you into a vampire.

And for turning you into a doll and giving you doll gifts all the time. So in this scene, you're getting really angry, and you want to cut your hair and change how you look and all of that. So here you are in "Interview with a Vampire."


DUNST: (As Claudia) Another doll? I have dozens, you realize.

TOM CRUISE: (As Lestat) I thought you could use one more.

DUNST: (As Claudia) Why always on this night?

CRUISE: (As Lestat) What night? What do you mean?

DUNST: (As Claudia) You always give me a doll on the same night of the year.

CRUISE: (As Lestat) Oh. I didn't realize.

DUNST: (As Claudia) Because it's my birthday? You dress me like a doll. You make my hair like a doll. Why?

CRUISE: (As Lestat) Some of these, Claudia, are so old, tattered. We should throw them away.

DUNST: (As Claudia) I will, then.



CRUISE: (As Lestat) Claudia. Claudia! What have you done?

DUNST: (As Claudia) What you told me to do!

CRUISE: (As Lestat) Leave a corpse here to rot?

DUNST: (As Claudia) I wanted her. I wanted to meet her.

CRUISE: (As Lestat) She's mad.

BRAD PITT: (As Louis) Claudia?

GROSS: I neglected to mention in the last part of that scene, they find a woman who you've fed on...

DUNST: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: they say in the biz, and they're kind of upset that you've left this corpse behind. So here you are, 11 years old, playing this - it's a very dark part, and you're supposed to be in the mind of somebody far older than yourself. Neil Jordan was the director of this. What kind of advice and protection did he give you?

DUNST: I worked very, very closely with an acting coach when I was younger, and he helped me to explain it in, like, a kid mind. You know? And I was always very, very protected on set. Like, Neil and Tom and Brad, all of them, you know, I didn't see everything that I actually was seeing in the film.

They would shoot certain scenes separately, or - I was so young, I couldn't - I understood that she was an older person in a young person's body, but I had no idea about any of those emotions. So I remember my acting teacher, like, helping me. I remember there was a scene with Brad, and it to almost feel, yeah, like I was a woman or kind of sexual and, which, you know, he never said that to me, but he was like, okay. In this scene, like, imagine that you hid your brother's toy and he's asking you for it, and you know where it is, and - but you're pretending like you don't.

And it kind of naturally just gives you kind of a coy face, in a way. So he would help me feel these feelings in a very safe way, where I could understand it in my own way.

GROSS: So instead of talking about sex, you'd be talking about toys?

DUNST: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah.


DUNST: Which, yeah, he was very careful. And also, like, even emotions, like crying or screaming and all those things, when you're a kid, that's uncomfortable to do. I don't know. I mean, yeah, you'd, like, cry and things like that about stuff, but to have that level of anger is very uncomfortable as a child, like, a young, little girl. You're not supposed to do that.

And he would have me just slam a door a bunch of times, and it would make me so uncomfortable that it would evoke these feelings in me, that I could get up this anger that I wasn't familiar with or was in my system at all. So there were things he'd have me do to help.

GROSS: Did your mother let you see the movie after it was made?

DUNST: I feel like I saw it, and then they'd close my eyes at certain points.


GROSS: Seriously?

DUNST: Yeah, I think so. Yeah. I remember - I was at the premier, but I feel like, yeah, I would just hide my face. Like, he'd be like, okay. Now you've got to hide your face.


GROSS: Since you started acting when you so young, when you were a child and you were doing commercials, was there ever a period where you thought: That's not me anymore. It's not really what I want - and you broke away from that and tried to do something completely different.

DUNST: You know, I've definitely gone through phases in my life where I stopped and had to think, okay. What do I want to be doing differently? And I loved doing the "Spider-Mans," because it always gave me a bookmark for what was coming up every couple of years, and that was very comforting to have, like, those three movies, to always know you were going back to that.

And then when I didn't have that anymore, too, it kind of opened up another world for me. And, yeah, I think with any job for anyone and going into your 20s and people change jobs, or it evolves, what you want to do. And for me, acting kind of refreshed, in a way, for me, and I approached it differently and I thought about it differently. And I think that just comes with maturity and just getting older.

GROSS: Well, Kirsten Dunst, thank you so much for talking with us.

DUNST: Thank you.

GROSS: Kirsten Dunst stars in the new movie, "Melancholia." You can download podcasts of our show on our website,, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and join us on Facebook.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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