Kirsten Dunst has been here before. The 39-year-old veteran has had one of the most expansive careers in Hollywood, and on the heels of a big, buzzy film release — this time it’s Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, streaming now on Netflix — she’s once again taken on a complicated role that’s brought her to the center of awards chatter.
In The Power of the Dog, Dunst plays Rose, a widow who remarries a gentle, wealthy man (her real-life partner Jesse Plemons) and is then subjected to the spirit-breaking abuse of her new brutish brother-in-law (Benedict Cumberbatch). It’s the sort of role she’s familiar with — and didn’t think she’d do again. “It wasn’t a role that I was dying to play,” she says. “It’s a really old part of myself — a very insecure woman — and not a fun place to rehash and try and psychologically frighten yourself in a way or make yourself feel so less than, and just live in a shallow place, self-esteem-wise.” But, as she says, “that’s also my job.”
It’s that matter-of-fact introspection, the sort that develops only after years’ worth of putting in the literal and figurative work, that makes this moment distinct most of all. As any fan of Dunst knows, her Oscars moment is long overdue, but Dunst seems concerned only with not getting ahead of herself or life and being content on her own terms. And as life would have it, at the Cut, we’ve been having conversations about the end of this year and all that’s happened or hasn’t that we wanted, so it’s refreshing to hear Dunst find validation in her abilities, her family, and her life outside of Hollywood and the awards and glamour.
Dunst sat down with close friends and collaborators Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind fashion label Rodarte, to talk about being a child actor and growing in her craft, her biggest fears, and the legacy she wants to leave behind.
Kate: It feels natural to start with how we “met.” You had just done Marie Antoinette with Sofia Coppola, and I remember being completely floored by the film watching you play a misunderstood woman. I knew at that moment I was seeing something that was ahead of its time. I didn’t know if I had a vocabulary for talking about it.
Kirsten: Now we talk and hold each other like sisters, but it’s hard to think of when we were strangers — I remember I wore a few things of yours, three dresses in particular, for the Spider-Man press tour.
Kate: And that was all you, by the way; we were just starting and weren’t sure how you knew what Rodarte was. And we realized that you’ve worked with more female directors than most actresses, Sofia Coppola, a very iconic one with whom you’ve done three films. What’s your relationship like with Sofia now, and how have your female friendships informed your work?
Kirsten: Working with Sofia and having her look at me for the first time as a young woman, putting me in a space to have more sexuality and blossoming into womanhood, changed everything.
Having that done through her eyes set me up to not feel like my beauty, and my womanhood or how I felt about myself, was weighed by what a man felt about me or what a director felt about me, or what I wore on the carpet. So I never felt like I had to dress sexy because I had a Sofia to look up to.
I also have a very Jersey mother, who’s very, like, matter-of-fact, funny and free and so welcoming and nonjudgmental, and just protected me. So I had a very family-oriented strong base and unit of protection and love that has sustained me throughout my career because no one’s career is perfect. Everything goes up and down. Everyone ebbs and flows. So if you don’t have your life and normalcy and the people who love you no matter what, this industry can be very difficult to navigate.
Laura: What was it like being a child actor while still trying to have a life? Especially when you’re starring in a movie like Interview With the Vampire alongside such big-name actors.
Kirsten: Still to this day, I have not been on a set of that magnitude. But I felt very supported and very loved. And Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were so sweet to me. They just treated me like a little sister. I remember the worst thing I had to do on that film was suck this person’s blood from their neck. And the person was sweating so badly, and I was dying. I was like, “Oh my God, please don’t make me. How am I going to do this?” They were just sweating so badly. And I put my mouth on their neck, and I was dying. You can see that even my funniest memory is something very normal and very kidlike.
Laura: Did Tom give you advice?
Kirsten: Well, we’re both from New Jersey. And we had this screen test where he had to pick up each little girl. I was the tallest one, and he was like, “Tuck in your legs,” so that I looked really tiny in his arms. He was trying to help me out since Neil Jordan, the director, wanted to see how each girl looked when Tom picked us up because they wanted the character to look like a bit like a doll, a little girl. Jersey got Jersey’s back.
Laura: If you had to start your life over again, would you still choose child acting?
Kirsten: I would, but I’d say a lot of it was because my mom was so protective of me and a crucial part of my creativity. I remember on sets, like Little Women and Jumanji, she’d bring along stuff like pasta makers to try to make everything feel cozy even though we weren’t home.
But this is the gift I’ve been given. And I feel like I’ve learned to grow with it, and hopefully, just keep growing and becoming better. Because that’s what all of us want to do in our jobs. It’s just like, keep pushing and keep getting better and taking risks.
Kate: You can go deep into a part, doing the work it takes to give a great performance and giving over that part of yourself, but you also have made a space that keeps things for you, without putting all of your value in one area of your life.
Kirsten: Once you put all your heart and soul in and you don’t know how everyone’s going to perceive it … maybe it felt so right, but then it’s like, “Did we miss something? And was it my fault in my performance?” I think that’s a very young thing to feel in your 20s. I took that on then, which I wouldn’t do now.
Kate: Most people that have created something that ends up being great, or memorable, or necessary, probably at some point in the process, ask themselves, “Did I do something wrong?” But I’ve seen your unwillingness to compromise — how do you make the choices you’ve made in your career?
Kirsten: Well, firstly, I’m director-driven — I’m not dying to play a specific person or a particular part because, ultimately, your performance is in the director’s hands; that’s all you have.
But I have worked with a lot of first-time directors. Like, at the time, Sofia, or the woman I’m confidentially working with on a film for next year, is her first time as well. Female directors and I are attracted to each other because there is a realness that women want from a female performance that I don’t always think men understand. It’s a different light.
There are still things that are unfair to us women or that we’re still really working against. But great strides are being made, and we have a long way to go; and because of Time’s Up and Me Too, these things help push forward huge changes on problems in the industry that felt like they were never going to be brought to light. I just feel lucky to be a part of this time in the industry that I get to see that change happen and be a part of that change.
Kate: There is 100 percent different artistry coming out when you work with a female director. And even the storytelling — how important is it to you when you get a project where you connect to the story on some level?
Kirsten: I read this script recently, and it was, Oh my God. It’s so well-written about what it’s really like to be a mother. But there was part of me that was so overwhelmed by the idea of playing it because it just felt so raw. And I’m going to have to give it my all in a way that I’m like, Oh, God, it’s so close. It’s so emotionally there how this woman wrote the script that I was sobbing on the airplane after I read it. But there was part of me that was so overwhelmed by the idea of playing it because it just felt so raw.
I was almost a little bit scared because I knew how close it is to being a mother. It kind of freaked me out. I’m going to do it, but there was part of my instinct that was like, Oh, no. I can’t protect myself. This is too vulnerable of a thing to do. And then it’s like, Well, what are we, what am I supposed to do as a performer? That’s what you’re supposed to do.
And even playing Rose for Jane Campion, it wasn’t a role that I was dying to play. It’s a really old part of myself — a very insecure woman — and not a fun place to rehash and psychologically frighten yourself in a way or make yourself feel so less than, and just live in a shallow place, self-esteem-wise. But that’s also my job, too. And maybe there was a part of me that needed to relive certain things, to feel better about things, because acting can be very cathartic. I like to use these experiences almost as if I’m purging something, or like therapy between the person I’m playing and myself.
Laura: How does the wardrobe play into these roles and help you project the character, and what’s the tension like between your own wardrobe versus costumes?
Kirsten: There were significant moments of wanting Rose to look a certain way. I wanted Rose to be in pajamas or a slipping robe most of the time because when you’re that hung-over or drinking or you’re in this psychological state of being terrified of leaving your room. So, I think that shows you mentally where Rose is, and the color palette was fragile and pale like a rose. It was rose-colored.
What’s funny about fashion in real life, though, is I went from Birkenstocks and sweatpants to high heels and lashes. It’s like there’s been no in-between. When I first put on high heels for press, I was like, “No, I can’t do it. My foot doesn’t know how to do this anymore.”
Kate: We went to one thing recently, and I told Laura, I was like, “Everyone keeps saying they’re so over wearing sweatpants and they can’t wait to be dressing up.” I was like, “How long is this hair and makeup thing?” I was like, “I got to get back in these other things.” I was like, “I don’t want to stress anymore.” But we did it to see you in this film, so it was worth it!
Laura: The other day, I was just thinking about the script we’re working on together and knowing what I knew you could do, especially after seeing Power of the Dog, but also leaving room for you to do more. Kate and I also have that dynamic because we have this partnership where she surprises me, but I also know what she’s capable of. And it’s that interaction that leads to our creativity between each other and with you.
Kirsten: It takes my girlfriends to give me an opportunity that I will never get necessarily from someone who doesn’t know me. After Melancholia, I got offered all these depressing roles, and that’s kind of why I did a comedy, because that’s not exciting to me to just play the same kind of person. That’s not who I am.
I think a lot about how you don’t make many new friends after a certain age, and we hit each other in our 20s, in our early 20s. But I did think I was like, “Oh.” There are very few times, with you guys and Jesse, that I knew I would know you for the rest of my life. Laura would sleep in the bed and spend the night and help me with the babies when Jesse was gone, for the people reading this. When Jesse was working with Scorsese, no big deal; Laura was helping me on the home front.
Laura: Since you brought him up, can we talk about the dancing scene between you and Jesse? Because I know how hard it was to do that and make it not your typical version of that.
Kirsten: I feel like it was funny that I was teaching Jesse because I remember learning that simple waltz. I think when you have a new child — I have a 2-year-old — your brain just doesn’t compute; it’s half with them, somehow. It’s just, sometimes it’s harder to learn things. I had to learn the piano for this, and I put them to bed, and I’d just do it over and over.
So, learning the waltz, I felt like Jesse was somehow better than me, and I had to be reminded just when we were practicing that I could waltz as good as him even though I’m the one teaching him, which, again, I think plays into being Rose and feeling those feelings of insecurity. A love like that, it’s very old-fashioned the way they fall in love very quickly. I think they recognize loneliness in each other.
And I also felt like it’s such a delicate scene that you have to try hard not to make it too mushy or corny.
But to do a scene with Jesse, I honestly just had to look at him and the beauty of the way he says that line, “It’s just nice not to be alone.” I was just like, Wow, I better step it up. Because he’s so good; I just was so moved by it. Rose is there to open up to this man, too, in this way and to share. It was big; it was the only time you get to see their love before she goes to this house of horrors. It’s The Shining bad houses for her.
Kate: What is your biggest fear in playing roles like Rose or really, any other roles you’ve taken?
Kirsten: As an actress, or creative person, I feel like I could go to a place of feeling pretty worthless in my creativity, which is to me the ultimate, the worst feeling I could ever feel. That feeling of I will never be the artist that I truly want to be.
Laura: What keeps you in that headspace of having to make something, having to get something out of yourself?
Kirsten: I can’t settle for anything less. Within yourself, there’s a bar, and if you don’t meet that bar, especially playing someone like Rose, you just feel terrible about yourself.
Laura: You end up having a competition with yourself.
Kirsten: Yes. That’s exactly what it is. There’s a reason why they say “healthy competition,” because it’s something that drives you. So you just keep going, keep motivating you and your art and what you can push yourself as a performer or as a designer or whatever that is.
Laura: When I saw The Power of the Dog, I realized that if your performance hadn’t done what it managed to do, then I wouldn’t have left that movie completely shaken. I remember asking what you gave up to play that role and what you felt when the film wrapped?
Kirsten: I was so relieved to be done, in a way. It was so great to have Jesse there, to know exactly what I was going through with the dynamics of how the set lived, which was Benedict and me not talking to each other. My instinct was to say, “Good morning.” And I’d stop it sometimes. I was like, “No, never mind.” It was good for making the movie. And I just want to be part of making great art, and that was working with Jane.
But I’m not going to lie: At the end of the day, I was happy to go home and put on my pajamas and watch some TV and zone out. To not think about feeling bad anymore. I just wanted to fill up the tank. That’s why I also can’t work back-to-back, because I like to marinate in something.
Kate: Even though you haven’t done films back-to-back, you’ve done so much: from Interview With the Vampire to Melancholia to Virgin Suicides to Bring It On to Drop Dead Gorgeous — I could go on! A lot of these films have come up in Oscars conversation … as has Power of the Dog.
Kirsten: You mean shrimp conversation?
Laura: Yes! Our secret language is that we refer to awards as shrimp.
Kate: When we saw this film, we said, “Give Kirsten some shrimps, come on.”
Laura: I’m just curious, how do you navigate that? Because you’ve dealt with so many performances in your career that people probably look back on and they’re like, “Why didn’t Kirsten get the Oscar for that or get nominated?”
Kirsten: I got to make this film with my person, with Jesse. When does a couple get to make a movie together? That was the thing of the bygone era where couples make great films together, like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. That’s a thing of the past.
I just am personally in a good place, so if it happens, that would be amazing. But if it doesn’t, it’s given me opportunities to have even better roles for myself and make choices that will hopefully sustain my career until I’m old.
In my mind, when I was younger and learning about film, my goal was to be part of movies that could be in the Criterion Collection. All I know is, Jane Campion, working with her is the shrimpiest thing I could have ever done. It’s like literally being part of a jewel in her crown. I’m good. I did something important to me.
Laura: We have to have one fashion question because we could talk about your movies forever! First, tell us about the costume designer you worked with on Power of the Dog.
Kirsten: Kirsty Cameron was fantastic, and there were significant moments of wanting Rose to look a certain way. I didn’t want Rose to show up at the house and look like she was spending money on new clothes. I wanted it to have the same feelings as her old clothes did, just a notch up. There’s one scene where I wear a pink shirt, a blouse, and try and look like a fancy cowgirl, but that’s also her putting on a face because she’s now become such an alcoholic, and I think that’s more about dressing up and putting on some makeup to hide what’s happening.
Laura: In watching you, when you weren’t in a scene, you were missed and it’s so there, when you miss something, I feel like it tells you a lot as a viewer about what kind of a performer is put into a film. And it’s a testament to Jane to weave and craft such a beautiful story with characters that flow in just the right way where when you take someone out, that emptiness, you’re left wondering about that person, and they come back.