When Kirsten Dunst decides to get a little sillysomething she is wont to doshe contorts her voice. The vocal equivalent of scrunching up her nose like a little bunny, it sounds as far away as possible from her regal Marie Antoinette or her fickle-in-love Mary Jane Watson in the Spider-Man films. It's nasal, tuneful, high-pitched and distinctly Muppet-like.
"SkyMall!" she announces with a singsong intonation that's a cross between Kermit the Frog and the Swedish Chef. We're in a conversation lull, listening to some of Dunst's favorite tunes by Arcade Fire, Kate Bush and a group of singing kittens called the Jingle Cats (they mew holiday songs), when out of nowhere, the 24-year-old moppet-haired former child star reaches over to the desk in her New York hotel room for a copy of the friendly skies' favorite shopping magazine. She immediately shrugs off my disbelieving expression.
"Are you kidding me?" Dunst asks, having none of it. "It's hilarious, and there are the most genius gifts in here." She flips to a folded-over page. "Like popcorn machines." She points to a huge, fire-engine red, antique-looking popcorn maker with wheels, the kind you'd find on Main Street in Disney World: "Oh, come on. Like you wouldn't want that in your house?"
Performers who grew up in the movie business often forget to be a kid. Dakota Fanning, for instance, already has. This seems not the case with Dunst. In other words, she's actually fun. She has the mischievous giddiness of the eight-year-old who got her start with a minor role in The Bonfire of the Vanities and wound up wowing audiences four years later as a preteen bloodsucker in Interview With the Vampire.
"My best performance," Dunst deadpans, referring to the 1994 film that costarred Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt and earned her a Golden Globe nomination. "I've never been so good! After 11, it all went downhill."
Not quite. Last fall, after more than 15 years in the business, with credits as varied as Bring It On, The Virgin Suicides and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dunst gave the performance of her career as the young Austrian-born queen of France in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. It was an acute portrayal of a powerful woman who feels isolated from real life and completely alone. It cannily paralleled the life of a young celebrity in Hollywood, not far, one would imagine, from Dunst's own.
"I knew that Marie Antoinette was something that Kirsten could pull off, that she could relate to it," says Coppola, during a phone call from Paris. "I always liked that she looked like a bubbly blond but there was something more mysterious going on underneath. I even love her little vampire teeth." (Dunst has always insisted she would never get them fixed.)
Though the film had heaps of media attention, received some passionate critical support and screened at the prestigious New York Film Festival, it turned out to be a box-office flop, grossing a dismal $16 million. (Its estimated budget was $40 million.) It also failed to garner much in the way of awards-season accolades, with costume designer Milena Canonero receiving the film's only Oscar nomination and award.