A former child star and ingenue, she has come into her own as a chronicler of despair. Will The Power of the Dog cap her career reinvention?
The main things Kirsten Dunst wanted out of her trip to Italy were to sleep soundly on the plane and to drink a bellini upon arrival. She would have considered anything else to be a bonus and, as it turned out, those bonuses were considerable.
Dunst had gone to Italy for the Venice Film Festival, where she was premiering The Power of the Dog, a new Netflix movie with award-winning New Zealand director Jane Campion that features one of the 39-year-old actress' best performances. She arrived on the last day of August, after months at home raising a newborn baby and a year before that stuck at home because, well, duh.
So you can imagine how Dunst felt when she got off the plane, boarded a boat at sunset and sped toward her hotel with the lights of Venice twinkling on the horizon. As she took it all in, Dunst began to well up: a full day of air travel, four sleepless months of child-rearing and the most beautiful city you ever saw can do that to a person.
The next 48 hours were a whirlwind. Dunst tried to overcome her jet lag and hung out at the hotel pool, where she sipped bellinis with her brother and watched elderly, moneyed Italians swan about. The next day, Dunst donned an Armani Prive gown that made her feel bulletproof and accompanied Campion and the film's lead, Benedict Cumberbatch, to the premiere at the Sala Grande.
After the film ended, the audience gave The Power of the Dog a several-minute standing ovation, and Campion and her cast sported big grins. Things couldn't have gone better. Was Dunst thrilled?
"I was so high on the experience," she told me afterward, "with crippling exhaustion inside."
Even when she's smiling, Dunst can suggest something much more complicated going on beneath the surface. That gift serves her well in The Power of the Dog, based on the Thomas Savage novel and starring Cumberbatch as Phil, a sadistic ranch owner in 1925 Montana. For all their lives, Phil has kept his younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons), under his thumb, but when George meets and impulsively marries the melancholy Rose (Dunst), Phil resents the intrusion of this woman and sets out to destroy her.
Thus, a trap is set for poor Rose: George adores his new bride and encourages her to open up, but anything Rose exposes of herself is a point of vulnerability that Phil can use against her. Even as Rose turns to alcohol to cope with Phil's domineering ways, we hear her mutter, "He's just a man." But the way Dunst delivers the line, as though she barely believes what she's saying, suggests that Rose knows all too well the evil that men can do.
The Power of the Dog is the first feature Campion has made in more than a decade and is shaping up to be the director's most acclaimed film since The Piano (1993), but it also serves as the latest example of one of Hollywood's most remarkable career reinventions. After years of being called upon to project blonde, sunny sweetness, Dunst has somehow become one of our foremost chroniclers of finely etched despair.
Think of Melancholia, in which Dunst's depression reaches apocalyptic levels even before the world comes to a violent end; of the way her punch lines pack a bitter sting in the deceptively rom-com-shaped Bachelorette; or of Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled, with Dunst nursing a loneliness so private that it feels like an intrusion just to behold her. Even in her TV work, on Fargo and On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Dunst takes characters with high comedic upside and makes sure they are always operating from a place of real, bone-deep disappointment. She's felt those things before, and she makes you feel it, too.
"She's got depth: She knows it, she's seen it," Campion told me. "What I find so incredible is that she's so in the emotion of the moment. She brings you to empathy immediately."
I asked Dunst how she manages to do that, and she thought about the question for a while.
"I'm not afraid to share my pain," she finally said. "I don't have any walls up when it comes to sharing those parts of myself. And it's my job to share all that stuff."
A few days before Dunst flew to Italy, I visited her ranch-style Los Angeles home, where she answered the front door with her blonde hair tucked behind her ears and a substantially sized baby on her arm.
"This is the newest guy, the Big Kahuna," she said, introducing me to her 4-month-old, 8kg son, James Robert. "He's an angel, but he's a hungry angel. And a heavy angel."
James is her second child with Plemons, her co-star in The Power of the Dog. The two actors met in 2015, when they were fatefully cast as husband and wife in the second season of Fargo. For the past few months, Plemons had been away filming the Martin Scorsese drama Killers of the Flower Moon and Dunst had mostly handled wake-up duties by herself. "I'm so tired, I haven't slept through the night in four months," she said as we moved to the backyard. "I've developed an eye twitch, too." Dunst let out a little chuckle. "Yeah, I'm in a really special place."
Dunst has a one-to-one connection with the audience that proves just as direct with whomever she's speaking to in real life. In conversation, she is candid and matter of fact, like the sort of friend who'd level with you if you were wearing something hideous. It's been more than a year and a half since she last acted, and she's honest about the allure of all that down time: "There's a part of me that's like, I've done this for so long. When can I just relax?"
Then again, there's not much time for relaxation when you're raising two young children. As we talked, Dunst's older son, 3-year-old Ennis, stomped into the backyard. "Hi, Bubba," Dunst cooed sweetly. "Oh no, are you mad?" Ennis was pouting: He didn't want to go to swim class because the instructor had made him put his head underwater. Dunst turned to me, raising an eyebrow. "This is what doing an interview at home is like," she said.
By the time she was Ennis' age, Dunst — born in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, to a medical services executive and a flight attendant — began modelling. And by 8, she had appeared in The Bonfire of the Vanities and a short film directed by Woody Allen. "I clearly had something old inside of me that was a little bit more than your average commercial kid," she said.
At 10, that old soul helped her land the breakthrough role of a precocious bloodsucker in Interview With the Vampire, but afterward, while living in the Oakwood apartments in Los Angeles — an enclave of furnished units populated mostly by child actors and their stage parents — another little girl confronted her by the pool and announced that according to her agent, she'd be the next Kirsten Dunst.
"I had the wherewithal to be like, 'This is nuts,'" Dunst said. And over the next several years, even as she booked high-profile movies like Little Women, Jumanji and Bring It On, Dunst was determined to hold on to a normal life, a normal school experience and normal friends. "I always felt it was lame to be into yourself," she said. "I probably underplayed myself more in high school because I never wanted anyone to pick on me."
But nothing about Hollywood is normal, and if you've been working there since you were a child, it's bound to worm into you in ways that can prove hard to untangle.
In her mid-20s, as she came off three Spider-Man films, Dunst had begun to feel hollow. Although she had found an important collaborator in Coppola, who explored subversive strands in Dunst's ingenue image with The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, movie shoots that really satisfied her were few and far between. Acting no longer brought her joy; too often, her life's work had become a technical enterprise she felt no real connection to.
In 2008, after checking into the Cirque Lodge rehab facility to treat her depression, Dunst came to some surprising realisations about the way being a child performer had affected her grown-up personality.
"For a long time, I never got angry with anybody," she said. "I just swallowed a lot down. When you're on set, it's performative, it's pleasing. At a certain point, you've got to get angry, and I think that eventually builds up in someone. You can't survive like that. Your body stops you."
That's why, after entering her 30s and working for the past few years with acting teacher Greta Seacat, Dunst has found a cathartic new connection with her work: She wants to take all the messy things that people bottle up and let us see them in her performances.
"That's what acting should be," she said. "Those are the performances I love, that are the most revealing about human beings and the hardest things we go through in life."
It's what she wanted to bring to Rose in The Power of the Dog, who is so gaslit by Phil that eventually, she can no longer tell if she has any worth at all. "I feel like that's a part of a young Kirsten that I had to rehash again," she said. "And that isn't a place I really want to live in, but for the role, you have to."
Dunst would avoid Cumberbatch on the New Zealand set and often stayed silent in the hours before shooting. "It's hard for Rose to vocalise," she said. "I wouldn't talk to anybody, just so that the first thing I uttered out of my mouth felt nervous and weird and gave me a sense of being a fish-out-of-water."
But Dunst isn't the sort of actor who likes to take that stuff home with her, especially since that home included her co-star. "Jesse and I were lucky we were doing a movie together," she said. "We had each other through this whole thing, to laugh with, to bitch with." And for an actress who's so committed to chronicling a character's low moments, it was important not to overthink the things that would be better if they were simply felt.
"It's nice to get older because you just care less about what people think of you," she said. "I don't have fear in my acting - and it's the most freeing thing. That kind of happened after my first kid: You have this attitude where you'll just lay all your chips on the table, because what's the point of not?"
That said, there remains a nagging sense that her recent accomplishments may have flown under the radar. Even Coppola thinks so, writing in an email: "She's the top actress of her age (of course she's my favourite!) but I do think she isn't as recognised as she should be."
This may change with The Power of the Dog, which has been widely tipped to earn Dunst her first Oscar nomination. But whether that comes to pass, the actress told me she is finally at peace with her place in Hollywood.
"I just feel like, You've worked long enough and hard enough, and it's okay if people don't like you," she said. "I've done a lot, and I like the movies that I've been in. That's a really big accomplishment, I think, to be able to like something you've been in. I don't know if people feel that way very often."
Hours after the Venice premiere of The Power of the Dog, Dunst, Campion and Cumberbatch flew to Colorado to tout their movie at the Telluride Film Festival. After that, she flew home to Los Angeles and went back to being a full-time mother.
The day after she returned, we caught up on a video call. "When I stepped in the front door, I was like, This never happened," she said. "That's how it felt: I'm home again, and back to the reality of vomit on my shirt."
The Big Kahuna had slept in her bed the previous night and each of his little loving kicks administered something of a reality check. "You go from, 'Woo, glamour, I'm getting my hair and makeup done,' to 'I haven't brushed my teeth yet,'" she said. "Back to my grungy lifestyle!"
As we spoke, Dunst was drinking from a coffee cup emblazoned with an illustration of the character Plemons played in Fargo. Her husband was returning home the next week, though not long after, the whole family would be packing up to head to Texas, where Plemons will spend several months shooting a limited series for HBO.
Dunst calculated a mother's mental maths out loud: "I guess we're going to have to drive to the airport, because we've got two car seats. Do we take a car seat on the plane? Do we ship one to Texas?" She rubbed her eyes. "The logistics of just car seats are stressing me out."
She studied my thumbnail in the call. "Where are you right now?" she then asked. I said that I was still in Italy at the festival, which delighted her. It was a little scrap, offered through a little screen, of the place where she'd had a whirlwind adventure.
"Enjoy Venice," Dunst said with a sigh, then a smile. "Have a bellini for me."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Kyle Buchanan
Photographs by: Erik Carter
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