During the past few years, accolades have routinely fallen on a quintet of Kirsten Dunst’s twentysomething colleagues—Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway, Scarlett Johansson, Carey Mulligan, and Michelle Williams—while little Kiki has festered in the background, a victim of too much, and too mainstream, success ( Spider-Man), and too many projects that missed the mark with both critics and consumers ( Elizabethtown, Wimbledon). And then her recent two-year absence from the screen was accompanied by wild tabloid talk suggesting she was heading for a Lindsay Lohan showbiz netherworld.
But now she is back. Over the next year, no fewer than four Kirsten Dunst projects will reach screens, a parade of dramatic movies that seem likely to showcase that a serious actress has been developing under our noses. The festivities kicked off last month with All Good Things, the first fiction film by Capturing the Friedmans director Andrew Jarecki. Inspired by the notorious case of Robert Durst, a Manhattan real-estate scion suspected of, but never charged with, killing his wife, Dunst plays Katie, the presumably offed wife, opposite Ryan Gosling as her disintegrating husband. The thankless role of victimized spouse is one that has ground to dust many a fine actress, but in All Good Things, Dunst gives the character a quiet power, persistently making her a more compelling presence than the showy part of the psychopath at the center of the story.
Chatting over breakfast on a rainy morning in Los Angeles, Dunst, now 28, talked about how she and director Jarecki broke the victim role free of its teary outlines. “The thing with this role is that it’s easy just to be a Lifetime kind of story. So there were a few decisions that made her into someone of strength, a fighter going into the ring who knows she has to keep standing up.”
Immediately after taking the job, Dunst and Jarecki embarked on a year-long seminar to get inside the motivations of the Katie character. Dunst recalled of working with Jarecki, the son of a Yale psychology professor, “You're basically doing therapy with yourself and the person you're playing. We sat for hours talking about everything.”
“When you know the darkness in yourself, you have to be able to access that, but being in a good place and accessing that is much better than just being in that place,” says Dunst.
The clearest example of the results of these methods is an extraordinary sequence in the middle of the film when Dunst’s character acquiesces to pressure from Gosling’s to terminate her long-hoped-for pregnancy. The subject matter is breathtakingly dark, but with almost no dialogue, Dunst radiates a determination strikingly at odds with the pathos-laden subject.
• The Year’s 11 Most Anticipated FilmsJarecki and Dunst wrestled to put Katie through this experience without making her pathetic. As easily as they could have played the scene for tears, they grappled for a better way, before Dunst had a revelation. She recalled: “I had said to Andrew, let’s look at it like this is her decision, because she does not want to have a child with this man who is violent and would not be a good father. I remember at the end of filming, too, I was crying. I remember it was, like, ‘I’m doing this for myself and that is it.’”
No actress of her generation has developed so much experience working with as many of the great directors as Dunst. Since 1994’s Interview With the Vampire, directed by Neil Jordan at his height, Dunst’s directors’ roster reads like a Who’s Who of the auteurs of our time. Her credits include roles for Sofia Coppola, Barry Levinson, Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Newell, Michel Gondry, Sam Raimi, and Cameron Crowe, as well as a voice role for the legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki.
And now, in addition to Jarecki, she’s added a few more to her collection. She just finished shooting a part in Walter Salles’ long-awaited adaptation of On the Road, as well as the lead role in the upcoming movie from the enfant terrible of the festival circuit, Lars Von Trier.
Compared to the decision to do All Good Things, where she immediately felt “gripped and haunted by the story,” stepping into the world of Von Trier, known for subjecting audiences to some of the most elaborate cerebral contortions ever filmed, was a journey down a rabbit hole. Careful not to reveal any plot points, she said, “I was given Lars' script, and there was a lot you could put into it. After the first read, it was like discovering it over and over again and finding the layers of poetry. It was like the hardest and longest I’ve ever looked at a script, it was so difficult.”
While re-reading, the director and his star chatted late at night on Skype about the story and about her possible co-stars, including the icon Charlotte Rampling. “ The Night Porter is one of my favorite movies, and we talked about how he gave the director of that flowers. It was a very civil conversation and we broke up a lot, but basically he was formally asking me to be in his film and I was like, yes, of course. I was jumping up and down when I heard he wanted me to do it.
“Then I went to Denmark to meet him for the first time. I was so nervous, because you hear these stories about other actors and their relationships. And he was—I think he was nervous, too. It was like a very intense first date.”
While there have been reports of other actors (Nicole Kidman in particular) going through nightmarish ordeals with Von Trier, Dunst paints her time on the set as an idyllic actor’s paradise. “He just had a way, has great ideas. On the set it’s a small crew. It’s all pretty much practical lighting and there’s just a fluidity of performance that you're just not able to get otherwise. I think that’s the closest I’ll be able to get to a Gena Rowlands-Cassavetes relationship, you know, like very free.”
Dunst has been a star since she was 12, but it is only in the last few years, by her account, that she has truly begun to act, a process that has involved not just outgrowing her youthful, intuitive tools, but becoming more at peace with herself. She said: “When you're little, you're open to things. It’s not like you get into this rehearsed zone when you're a child. At first you play different sides of yourself. And I think it will be really exciting one day to have a character to go into that’s not anything like me whatsoever. Virgin Suicides was very close to a side of myself that I didn't show to the world, or even to my family. It almost helped me grow up in a certain way.”
Of late, Dunst’s growth as an actress has also coincided with her personal path. In 2008, during part of her break from the screen, she underwent a widely covered treatment for depression at a Colorado clinic. The title of the upcoming Von Trier movie, Melancholia, is remarkably in sync with the particular quality Dunst brings to her roles. When asked, however, if she fears that letting go of past issues will jeopardize her ability to summon that range, Dunst disputed the premise of the question.
“I’ve let go of a lot of stuff. I feel like I’m able to look at it from a much better perspective. I remember reading an article about another actress and her saying that everyone thinks to be a great actress you have to be depressed, but she said my best work when I was feeling great about myself and in my best place. Because you need that confidence to try things and not be afraid of things. Of anything. When you feel good is when you're not afraid to feel the worst. On All Good Things I definitely felt fragile. But afterward it felt very cathartic. When I was younger, I would hold on to insecurities because I thought it would help me in some sort of way or to think badly about yourself in order to give something. But now it doesn't come from that.
“When you know the darkness in yourself, you have to be able to access that, but being in a good place and accessing that is much better than just being in that place. I think you see in people’s eyes what they've been through. Anything in their lives shows up in their eyes.”
While her peers have gotten attention and nomination certificates with showier parts, Dunst has quietly been doing the journeyman’s work of finding ways to make every her character human and real. Even in her one massive paycheck role as Mary Jane in the Spider-Man movies, she created the most memorable, fully fleshed-out love-interest character in a superhero film since Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane.
Dunst’s long apprenticeship is about to bear fruit in what looks to be her reputation-making year. In addition to her acting roles, she also is writing a screenplay with friends (an adventure), and has made her directorial debut with a six-minute short, shot guerrilla style on the streets of Southern California’s Inland Empire, which is making the rounds at festivals. (More directing, she says, is definitely in her future.) Asked about how she views the coming storm, Dunst again takes it back to the process. “I’m not hoping that people’s perceptions of me will change. I think that just happens naturally over time. If I saw Virgin Suicides or Eternal Sunshine, I’m so proud to be in those movies. They are such great movies. I felt so free on those sets.”
Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a recent memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost.