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Kirsten Dunst, 24, is as convincing swinging on Spiderman's web or glamming it up as the doomed 18th century Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Endowed with a chameleon-like ability, she easily disappears within the roles she portrays.

Thankfully, in person, this petite blonde doesn't insist on an entourage to hold her hand during press interviews. "Everybody always says to me, 'You're so secure for an actress!' But I've always been pretty secure, actually. I think it's because I love what I do and I choose to live my life positively. That's a conscious choice I made for myself."

Raised by a single mum, Dunst became fiercely independent - she was the breadwinner in her family from the time she was a teenager. Her parents divorced when she was 13. Her father, Klaus Dunst, a German medical services executive, still lives in New Jersey, but her mother, Inez Dunst, a former art-gallery owner packed up the rest of the family (Kirsten and younger brother Christian) and headed for Los Angeles, where they could concentrate on Kirsten's career.

She says, candidly, "It's not easy to become a grownup. I grew up being a child actress and that doesn't make for an easy family situation. Money is the worst thing in the world. It complicates relationships; it complicates everything."

Watching her performance as the tragic Austrian Archduchess who was wrenched from her homeland at 14 to marry France's Dauphin - and only 19 when she became Queen of France - it's apparent that this American starlet has a few things in common with the European icon.

Dunst had to grow up quickly, and has spent her life surrounded by adults on film sets since the age of three. She is also plagued by rumours and gossip.

"I definitely understand that feeling of isolation that Marie Antoinette went through, and the idea of trying to find your identity while you're growing up and you're surrounded by outside pressures," she says. "You go somewhere and people know who you are immediately, so they treat you differently. That can mess with your head. I was constantly surrounded by people I was trying to please; people who wanted so much from me." She pauses. "But at the end of the day, I'm just an actress. I'm not a queen."

As the subject of tabloid fodder for several years due to various romantic liaisons, Dunst can also relate a little to Marie Antoinette, who attracted unwanted attention and jealousy.

"She didn't realise ... how critical everyone was of her," says Dunst. "When it comes to my life, what am I criticised for? What I'm wearing or not wearing?" She rolls her eyes. "Who really cares?"

Although she's graced numerous magazine covers and has dated fellow young Hollywood types such as Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire, and, currently, Orlando Bloom, Dunst doesn't wante to be treated like royalty or feel she deserves any diva-like treatment.

"I want to be treated like everybody else. It's really not that big a deal. I don't want people to act differently around me, and I don't ask for anything special. There is this hoopla and publicity around what I do for a living, and for some reason people always think they need to take care of me in a certain way. But I'm fine. I'm not a child and I don't want to be surrounded by 'yes' people. It's ridiculous and unnecessary."

Dunst began her career in TV advertisements, and followed that with her first big screen role in Woody Allen's New York Stories.

Her breakthrough performance was when she played opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Interview With The Vampire (1994). She didn't fall for Mr Pitt's obvious charms. "No, I didn't fall in love with Brad Pitt! I was, like, 11!"

Since then she has had about 50 movie roles including Spiderman 1 and 2 (she is currently shooting 3), Mona Lisa Smile, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Bring it On.

For all her 24 years, Dunst has an ever-present element of world-weariness about her which makes her seem older than she is. "I've been working my entire life and I think that having started so young as an actor, you have be a mature soul, so maybe I'm just an old soul," she shrugs.

Dunst has an edgy appeal. She is a pinup for the MTV generation (and won the dubious award for Best Kiss in 2003 for Spiderman), and is widely regarded as one of Hollywood's hippest young movie stars.

"I think young people respond to me because they respond to honesty. They can see that I am growing up, just like they are. They can smell when you're being fake and maybe that's why people relate to me."

When it comes to red-carpet events and premieres, she's often decked out in designer gear from head to toe, for which she has unwittingly become a fashion icon, but when it comes to her personal life she seems to put in a lot of effort into appearing as though she doesn't care about the way she looks and doesn't need to maintain any perceived image. In fact, she is often seen looking dishevelled and in need of a hairbrush.

"My girlfriends and I wear no makeup. Especially me, because after wearing makeup on set, I don't want to wear makeup. And I could care less about that kind of thing. I find clothes very uninteresting and I would never dress up a certain way for the paparazzi. Screw them. They can all just die," she says. "I just want to feel comfortable."

Her comfort level was definitely not a priority in her transformation to an 18th century queen. Her hairstyle was the famed towering monument of that era.

"The daily process was pretty brutal. There was a constant flow of dry shampoo and hair spray and they were always piling more and more stuff on me."

And as for the corsets and girdles? "It was very hard to breathe," admits Dunst.

"I never really worried about how tight the corsets were. I probably could have gained weight for the role, actually, so I just ate what I wanted to and whatever got sucked in got sucked in."

She also had to take lessons in singing, dancing, etiquette, and the harp. She says, finally sounding her age, "The harp was like - who learns the harp?"

Bringing an historical film into line with modern sensibilities, director Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), who also directed Dunst in The Virgin Suicides in 1999, cast her cousin Jason Schwartzman in the role of Louis XVI.

Modern music underscored lush costumes and the overindulgence of the wealthy. We witness Marie Antoinette's famed fondness for chocolate and cake, and her ability to party like a rock star.

Dunst believes Antoinette was misunderstood, although she acknowledges her misuse of power. Dunst says, "Well, there are always people in power who don't take care of other people. I mean, I didn't choose our President."

As far as her socio-political leanings are concerned, Dunst veers towards the politically incorrect. "I'm not going to talk about whether I think weed should be legalised. I could see that quote everywhere! Please!

"My friend's father was Carl Sagan, the scientist, and he would come up with his best scientific ideas stoned; and her mom was on the board of Norml to legalise pot. I think it works for some people and not for others. Some people can function and some people can't."

Dunst is having her cake and eating it. She doesn't want to think much about the future, about where her career is heading or when she will settle down and have children.

"I think it's important not to define your life. I don't think about where I'll be in 10 years' time. Being open to things and being open to change, is a good thing and that's what I am right now," she says. "Life is good."

Lowdown
Who: Kirsten Dunst
Born: April 30, 1982, New Jersey
Key roles: The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994), Little Women (1994), Jumanji (1995), Wag the Dog (1997), The Virgin Suicides (1999), Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999), Get Over It (2001), Crazy/Beautiful (2001), The Cat's Meow (2001), Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Wimbledon (2004), Elizabethtown (2005)
Latest: Marie Antoinette opens at cinemas, Thursday December 21.