''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.''