Kirsten Dunst on Becoming a Scamming, Cult-Leading Beauty Queen: ‘I Respond to These Things’
The “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” star is giving the performance of her career in a very weird new TV show. As she tells Kevin Fallon, weird is just the way she likes it.
Kirsten Dunst, Hollywood’s favorite beauty queen, is back under the floodlights. It’s been a while—decades, actually—and the stage, in a dusty, Orlando-adjacent garage, lacks the sparkle we remember from last time. But those lights are on, and the audience is rapt.
She is wearing a drab concert T-shirt and baggy red sweatpants, but she is the definition of glamorous. Her face, painted for the cheap seats, is framed in an Aqua Net helmet, teased out so wide she may not clear a standard doorjamb. There are bangs. They are big. They are curled. This is 1992, after all.
With a seasoned confidence, she explains to her pupil, a goth teenager whose father is pressuring into a beauty pageant, that the trick to winning a pageant is to “dazzle, by any means necessary.” We quickly learn what, exactly, she is referring to. There’s a quick change into a bright red leotard, the music cue—Heart’s “Straight On”—starts, and out she saunters with her—well, could you call them background dancers?
Carefully mounted between eight thin rods, four on each side of Dunst’s body, are limp puppets, mannequins in gaudy, glittery silver cocktail dresses, dark pantyhose, and teased wigs. Eyes and mouths are painted on their white, lifeless faces. As Dunst shimmies, they shimmy, the actress manipulating the rods in a complicated tangle of marionette choreography that has the trio—Dunst and her two puppets—dancing in unison.
It is all entirely ridiculous, yet spellbinding. There’s something darkly upsetting about it, but it is also quite possibly the most fantastic thing ever. It is unlike anything you’ve seen before, something that, coincidentally sums up On Becoming a God in Central Florida, the Showtime series that Dunst is starring in and for which she perfected this broomstick-puppet-dance travesty/extravaganza.
The series, in which Dunst plays Krystal, a new mother who calls on her pageant training—among other surprising skills—to pull her out of personal and financial catastrophe, premieres just weeks after the actress’s cult-classic 1999 dark comedy, Drop Dead Gorgeous, was finally made available for streaming on Hulu.
The timing certainly invites comparison, but also reflection about an actress at two very different stages of her career, with different goals, ambitions, and skills. Amber in Drop Dead Gorgeous was hopeful, her unflinching goodness the armor that kept her alive as her competitors literally, as the title suggests, drop dead around her. In On Becoming a God… Krystal’s ingénue days are behind her, and she’s hardened, yet wiser for it. There’s a desperation in both, but it’s harnessed in wildly different ways, dictated by wildly different life circumstances.
Watching the projects so close together, not only does this connection click, but so too does something that may have seemed intangible about Dunst’s career thus far, her particular skills as an actress, and why, as the reviews for On Becoming a God… come in, it is being hailed as the best performance of her career.
This is the perfect role, for the perfect actress, at the perfect moment in her career, for an audience that has spent 30 years watching her on screen.
“I didn’t even think about that correlation,” Dunst says when I bring up the timing of playing Krystal, a retired beauty queen, 20 years after Drop Dead Gorgeous came out—and in the midst of renewed nostalgia for the film after its Hulu premiere, to boot.
She talks about how, when she read the script for On Becoming a God… it just made sense that Krystal would have “pageantness” in her. As for any other connection between the projects: “Listen, there’s a reason why. I like satire. I respond to these things.”
We’re sitting outside in the garden of a Beverly Hills hotel, both baking in the summer sun and grateful for it. She is trying to sweat out a bit of a cold she’s been suffering, she explains. Also, doing a day of press in a windowless hotel conference room sounded like a pretty shitty day to her.
She is exuberant and enthusiastic, dressed in a light and flouncy daisy-printed marigold dress with a black lace collar, the absolute perfect answer to an answerless question: “Are you the most impossibly and fabulously effortless boho-chic person there’s ever been, or are you wearing actual curtains?” Over and over she reiterates how proud she is of On Becoming a God in Central Florida, in which she stars and which she executive produced, and shepherded through various stages of development on its way to its premiere Aug. 25 on Showtime.
The show had originally been announced by AMC, with George Clooney producing and The Favourite’s Yorgos Lanthimos directing. It then moved to YouTube Premium, where it was meant to be a cornerstone of the streamer’s foray into prestige #PeakTV content. After that fell through, Showtime picked it up; on its third network, On Becoming a God… rose again.
Dunst stuck with the project through each incarnation. She first read the pilot, from series creators Robert Funke and Matt Lusky, three years ago, a factoid she reveals with dramatically bulging eyes that risk shattering the lenses of her slick, oversized sunglasses.
At a time when more TV is being produced than ever, more money is being spent on major TV productions, and more A-list movie stars are being seduced by boffo streaming and cable deals, Dunst has been targeted by countless projects in development—especially after her Golden Globe-nominated work in season two of Fargo—but has turned offer after offer down.
There’s something as peculiar as it is refreshing, then, that the one she said yes to is not the flashy, globe-trotting thriller, or meditation on rich-lady angst, that her movie-star colleagues have been flocking to, but… this. This is a weird show. A great one. But, yeah, weird.
“I like the weirder shows,” she says. “I love Baskets,” marking perhaps the first time an A-list movie star has name-checked the absurdist Zach Galifianakis comedy about clown ennui as the inspiration to make the move to the small screen.
The pilot script for On Becoming a God… is the best one she’s read at this phase of her career, she says. After years as a child star and a foray into superhero movies, she is carefully selecting the auteurs she’s wanted to work with—be it Sofia Coppola, Leslye Headland, or Lars von Trier—and, more importantly, the characters she’s wanted to play.
“The movies and television shows I read, and some of them are very successful today, I just wasn’t into the roles,” she says. “To me, this was so unique and the trajectory of Krystal is right up my alley. Acting-wise, I knew I was going to be fulfilled and, as a viewer, I want to see this show.”
At the center of On Becoming a God in Central Florida is a multi-level marketing (MLM) scheme resembling the ones that preyed on suburban families and the lower-middle-class in the ‘90s—think Amway or Herbalife—and drained them of what little money they had on the promise of getting rich quick.
When Krystal’s husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgard), gets in over his head in a MLM scheme, rather than allow her family to be crushed by the pyramid, she crafts clever ways to scale it.
The show’s own pyramid scheme, called FAM, isn’t based on one in particular. Still, everyone involved knows that based on the fictional circumstances—based in central Florida, a cult-like following, the idea of ascending up the ladder to new “levels,” family members who disavow the company start to go missing—that some viewers might associate the show with Scientology.
“I think any kind of cult kind of thing could apply,” Dunst says. “Anything that sweeps up people where they have real issues, maybe missing family members and things that just tear people apart, it could be any religion that could do that.”
Showrunner Esta Spalding says that the intention was for the show’s MLM scheme and its followers to feel universal based on each viewer’s own connection to the phenomenon. “Somebody might come to it and say, ‘Oh, this reminds of that Going Clear movie or whatever, but I think it’s cultiness in whatever form.”
The show is, in every way, a period piece, with cringe-inducing details about life in the early ‘90s blanketing every frame.
“The ‘90s felt like the moment that America bailed on the working class,” Spalding says. “It’s when it started to become impossible to actually live on minimum wage.” Everyone needed more, and they needed it now. Hence the literal appeal of “get rich quick.”
But there’s also something evergreen and certainly topical today in the idea of capitalism exploiting hope. Pyramid schemes certainly have not gone away, as anyone knows who logs onto their Facebook accounts and is pitched “essential oils” from old acquaintances who have bought their way into being “entrepreneurs.”
“Even Instagram today, it’s like the more followers you get, the more paid advertising the person gets and the more money they get,” Dunst says, railing against the culture of today’s influencers. “Then you’re just buying the product they’re selling, but that they don’t even use. I don’t know how people fall for this stuff.”
That said, Dunst admits Krystal would be a natural social media influencer today. “One hundred percent she would be killing it on Instagram. She would make it all about her daughter.”
That kind of savvy is what makes Krystal so transfixing, and, in the world of On Becoming a God…, so great at climbing the MLM ladder.
As she connives, she charms. As she schemes, everyone swoons. Even those whose jobs it is to be suspicious of her are taken by her God-given gumption and natural ability to either win over or take down anyone standing in her way.
It’s a deep-rooted strength. Confronted with the possibility of eviction, she cuts her braces out of her own mouth to pay off debts. Later, when put on stage in front of hundreds of possible clients, her beauty-queen smile betrays no pain.
She may be pageant-trained—playing dumb, it turns out, can be a Florida girl’s most useful tool—but she’s no sucker. At one point, a character clocks this. “You have fearsome energy,” he tells her.
You could argue the same of several of Dunst’s recent characters. After watching her work in Fargo, Slate’s Matthew Dessem wrote that Dunst has “developed an uncanny ability to weaponize positivity,” a vocation that couldn’t be better suited to a multilevel marketing scheme in ‘90s Florida.
Dunst is visibly flattered by that compliment, a singular bit of praise that no other actress could own—or maybe even thought to seek out.
“You know what, I was always taught you get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar,” she says. “Maybe that’s it. I feel like I’m probably like that in life too. It’s like, what? I’m going to be sick and miserable all day and talk to everyone, or I’m just going to be like, let’s do this. I probably have that a little naturally and maybe I migrate to people that are like that. It’s not just positivity. It’s like, you gotta keep working.”
Dunst’s characters don’t just possess a sunniness, which can sometimes be misconstrued as naiveté, Spalding says. “There’s that undercurrent of hustle.”
On Becoming a God… was by no means an easy shoot. Dunst had just given birth to her first son, Ennis, with fiancé Jesse Plemons. The scrappiness in production necessitated by all the network and producer changes had its creative advantages. “Because it wasn’t some big-budget whatever, we were free to make this weirder thing,” Spalding says.
It was also exhausting, with Dunst on location with a newborn leading a cable drama series, and also elbow-deep in solving the myriad production crises that arose as the show’s producer.
She jokes about the arduous spray tan schedule she had to keep—once a week, on Sundays—that made her not want to touch her baby out of fear that she would get fake tanner all over him. But other challenges weren’t superficial.
A fall production schedule in Louisiana, which subbed for central Florida, meant cold temperatures and unpredictable weather. When Krystal is teaching water aerobics outside at a water park, Dunst was shivering. And when she shot a scene where Krystal is hunting at a swamp, a hurricane was approaching and production had to shoot around lightning in the sky.
Then there was the puppet dance.
Originally, Krystal was going to demonstrate a snake dance from her pageant glory days, a non-starter with Dunst.
“I was like, you’re going to have to get a rubber snake,” she says. “I’m not touching a snake. Like, I wouldn’t be able to move if I was holding a snake. I’d just be like, take it off. There’s no way. There’s no way in hell you’re going to put a snake on me.”
With days left before shooting, Funke went over to the house where Dunst was staying and the two of them, in one night, finagled the puppet contraption and choreographed that bizarre dance.
Dunst was relieved, not just because it meant no more snakes, but also because she felt the scene was crucial in establishing who Krystal is. “I love the Dolly Parton aspect of her that can turn on that charm. Where she comes from and where she grew up, that would be pageant training.”
After shooting the dance, Dunst started crying. It was a surreal moment in the script that everyone thought would offer a comedic break, but which ended up being this melancholy, almost tragic window into the soul of a character we may have been judging: Tacky clothes, hick accent, beauty queen, baby named “Destinee.”
To Dunst, the moment encapsulated just how hard Krystal is trying to make a better life for her daughter. “There was something kind of moving and sad about the whole thing.”
That’s the key to what makes Dunst’s performance in On Becoming a God… so remarkable, and so different from what’s on TV right now—and may even be the through line to Drop Dead Gorgeous’s Amber, Fargo’s Peggy, and, well, all of the great roles that Dunst hasn’t just played, but specifically curated over the course of her career.
Krystal is someone who, on any other series, may have been the butt of the joke. Here, she isn’t just the heart of the drama, but the universal entry point.
Dunst likes to point out that Krystal is a character for which she watched Here Comes Honey Boo Boo for inspiration, but who also carries more rage than the characters in scripts she’s normally sent are allowed to express.
A series of traumatically bleak things happen to Krystal in the On Becoming a God… pilot, events that you might expect would send a housewife into the throes of self-pity, or cause her to wallow. But Krystal grabs a gun and heads to the swamp. Holding a rifle, she lets out a banshee wail and fires at an alligator—yes, an alligator—with which she has a very personal vendetta.
It is one of the most gratifying single moments I remember watching on TV this year. And that’s because it’s Dunst, and all the history you have with her and her career, who is doing it. If you look closely, that alligator hide is draped in the corner when Dunst performs the puppet dance, a reminder of the grit behind this sunny former beauty queen. That fits.