By Kathryn Romeyn By Kathryn Romeyn | October 15, 2021 | People Feature
Whether she's garnering Oscar buzz in Jane Campion's visually stunning new film The Power of the Dog, or parenting two kids through a pandemic, Kirsten Dunst maintains a refreshing realness that is undeniably captivating.
"Obviously I'm so happy," says Kirsten Dunst. “It’s just, I’m so, so tired. I’m not fully functioning.” The actress is not drained from being on set, or jet-lagged from a film festival—though she’s been on the circuit: Venice, Telluride and, tomorrow, she’s off to New York and London in support of her quietly menacing new psychodrama, The Power of the Dog, directed by Jane Campion.
No, Dunst is exhausted—and over the moon—because she and fiancé Jesse Plemons welcomed their second child, James, into the world six and a half months ago. Also, she and Plemons spent five of those months shooting a Martin Scorsese film in Oklahoma.
Sleep deprivation aside, the golden-locked silver screen star, a veteran at just 39, is eager to heap praise on those with whom she made not just any movie, but a potential Oscar contender during the pandemic that terrorized and shut down the world—and their set. Once filming resumed, “I think everyone worked harder. We just put it all out there, like, ‘We’re lucky we can even do this right now.’”
When weighing projects, it’s not a particular role or storyline that reels in Dunst. What captures her are the individuals involved. “I’d rather be in a good movie with people I really respect and admire,” she says simply. (That approach seems to have started early—see Interview With the Vampire.)
Celine dress, celine.com
The Power of the Dog represents an embarrassment of riches in the talent department. For one, this is the first time Dunst and Plemons acted as a couple on screen while being a couple in real life. They first met playing husband and wife on FX’s Fargo. “I just knew I would know him for the rest of my life,” she recalls of the Texasborn actor who started out as a “creative friend. I felt such a kinship with him.” Beyond the obvious luck that they and their 3-year-old son, Ennis, were all together when COVID-19 struck, Dunst says sweetly, “It’s nice to have your friend there, you know? We had lunch together every day— usually I eat lunch alone.”
Academy Award winner Benedict Cumberbatch held obvious appeal, and the wicked power he wields in novelist Thomas Savage’s story is exquisite. On rising Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Dunst’s son, she bestows the compliment: “He’s not very actor-y. Neither are me and Jesse—we were like, ‘Oh, you’re like us: chill.’” It felt natural to feel motherly toward him because “he’s a lovely human who I do care about.”
Dunst calls the Oscar-winning set designer Grant Major “a genius on another level” for his meticulously thoughtful work on the film. And “what Ari [Wegner] did was just incredible,” Dunst says of the cinematographer, “so that’s another career that will now take off, too, because of this, I think.” Set in 1925 Montana—but shot across untouched parts of New Zealand—The Power of the Dog brims with outrageously beautiful scenes, strongly contrasting the narrative’s tense energy.
But none of this would have come to pass without Campion, the acclaimed Kiwi writer and director (The Piano) whose allure was overwhelming to an admittedly “director-driven” actress. “Jane wrote me a letter in my early 20s about doing a project together, and I saved it,” says Dunst of “one of the great filmmakers of our time.” The Power of the Dog is Campion’s first film in more than a decade, so the opportunity to act for her is a rare one. “She really captures women in a very honest and brutal way,” says Dunst, calling those performances inspiring. “There’s a poetry to what she does that I don’t think many filmmakers have; it’s kind of a lost art. To be part of one of her creations was a dream and I would have played any role for her, like ranch hand No. 3.”
Instead, Dunst became Rose, a happy enough widow and mother who crumples into alcoholism under the mocking psychological trauma of her new brother-in-law, Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch), after marrying Plemons’ George. Smit-McPhee’s nuanced portrayal of Peter, her sensitive and tender teenage son, feels heartbreakingly doomed at times. In the hands of Campion, the brilliant yet cruel protagonist is the picture of toxic masculinity, behavior that still loudly echoes 100 years later.
Their director, Dunst says, “economized this movie in a way that made it have so much tension.” There are uncomfortable scenes, and disturbing ones for audiences, but as one of the actors she, too, felt its heavy emotional toll. Insecurities that bubbled up for Rose caused Dunst to “relive a very old part of Kirsten.” In your 20s, she says, “you’re more susceptible— things or people could really affect your selfesteem. So that’s a very painful experience. I mean, it’s cathartic at the end of the day, but actually shooting it I did notice myself sometimes being like, ‘I’m not this insecure, what’s going on!?’ Beating myself up, overanalyzing what I did, being harder on myself than I maybe normally would be.”
There’s no doubt the film gets under your skin, which is perhaps why it’s part of awards conversations. Dunst calls this “flattering” and “awesome,” but says the real thrill is “the fact that I got to make a Jane Campion movie and I get to go on this ride with her.” Campion, after all, was only the second woman to ever be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, in 1994. Progress on that front has been eye-roll slow, with that count only now up to seven, with two in 2021. “They’re trying to make up for it all now,” says Dunst.
Sofia Coppola, a close conspirator for decades, helped put a 16-year-old Dunst on the map with millennials who quickly became obsessed with 1999’s The Virgin Suicides, and later Marie Antoinette. Dunst adds, ”[Hollywood has] always heralded a certain female. I feel like men were threatened by a Sofia probably, or a Jane. And every once in a while they would give it to the girl. It’s just, we live in a patriarchy, so hopefully this will continue to change, but…” she trails off, sounding uncertain.
To be clear, Dunst has absolutely nothing against male directors. PTA (Paul Thomas Anderson) is at the top of her wish list, and she calls it “a big deal for me” that he recommended her to Lars von Trier for Melancholia, which won her Best Actress at Cannes a decade ago. It’s more that women were there for her formative years— thank goodness. Dunst’s career was positively shaped by those earliest experiences with Coppola, playing for the first time a “sexual kind of girl— and Lux Lisbon was way more advanced than I was, I’ll tell you that,” she laughs.
“I was made to feel the most beautiful through Sofia’s eyes, not a man’s eyes.” In all the movies where “I looked the prettiest, like my beauty as a young girl is on display,” continues Dunst, “it has always been through a female’s eyes. I feel like that gave me a confidence that I didn’t need that validation from a male director.” Without making a thing of it, Dunst has naturally collaborated with women, including Gillian Armstrong (Little Women) and her friends, Rodarte’s Laura and Kate Mulleavy (Woodshock). “I think the difference is that female directors want an honest portrayal of women,” she explains.
As herself, Dunst is forthcoming about the highs and the lows, though she may not want to broadcast them 24/7. She, Plemons and their two boys live far from Los Angeles, where paparazzi isn’t a concern. “All they want is a bad picture of you going out in the world,” she jokes, but in all seriousness. “It’s just an easier life to live here.”
Still, the actress does not try to hide the fact that she’s an exhausted mother with a newborn whose partner was stuck out of state because of COVID. “I had friends or my brother sleep over every night because I don’t want to sleep alone in a house with two kids,” she says, sounding like any other mom in a tough spot. “I was doing the nights alone for five months; it was really hard. I just kind of put my head down and got through it, you know what I mean?”
Dunst’s frankness is absolutely part of her charm—that and her dimple, which she cracks that Campion gave so much screen time it could have been her co-star. And it’s quite evident in her voice that, sleeplessness notwithstanding, the former child actress is having the time of her life with her boys. “It’s so beautiful to watch the little one look up to the big one,” Dunst says. “He just thinks Ennis is, like, the coolest thing—the rock star of the family.”
To the world, Dunst is an artist with dozens and dozens of credits, plus bounteous nominations and awards for embodying wonderfully diverse, complex characters. But to her family, her role is simple: to be a source of joy. “Ennis always calls me the treat mom,” Dunst says through a warm laugh, “because I give him the most treats. I know kids who aren’t allowed to have anything overdo it when they’re older, so, yeah,” she says happily, “I’ll be the treat mom.”
Photography by: NINO MUNOZ/NETFLIX © 2021;
Hair by Bryce Scarlett;
Makeup by Jillian Dempsey;
Styled by Nina and Clare Hallworth