Kirsten Dunst Is In Control

After decades in Hollywood, the Power of the Dog star is making her work personal—and discovering her own joy in the process.

Interview by Lynn Hirschberg
Photographs by Tim Walker
Styled by Sara Moonves

Kirsten Dunst wears a Prada dress, bag, and shoes; Bulgari bracelets.
Kirsten Dunst wears a Prada dress, bag, and shoes; Bulgari bracelets.

When Kirsten Dunst was in her early 20s, the director Jane Campion sent her a letter proposing that they collaborate. It took roughly two decades, but the pair linked up—and in a turn of events they’d never have foreseen back then, they did so with Dunst’s fiancé, fellow actor Jesse Plemons. The end result is The Power of the Dog, and Dunst’s performance in it just might lead to what would somehow be a first for the 39-year-old actor: an Oscar. For W’s Best Performances issue, she reveals the secret to acting drunk and revisits that legendary Spider-Man kiss.

Had you met Jane Campion before The Power of the Dog?

She wrote me a letter when I was in my early 20s about working with each other on [an adaptation of] this Alice Munro short story called “Runaway.” It never came to fruition, but I kept the letter in my phone. Jane and I actually have the same birthday, so it was destiny, I guess. She's always been one of my favorite filmmakers. When the script came in, it came to Jesse [Plemons], my partner, first. Before he read it, I was like, “You need to do this movie. You need to be in a Jane Campion movie.” So, that's how it came about. First, Jesse got the role.

Did you have to audition?

No, I didn't audition. [Campion] really loved [the 2011 Lars von Trier film] Melancholia a lot. She’d joke, like, “Just be as good as you were in Melancholia." And I was like, “Okay, Jane. It's a totally different character, but I'll just try my best.”

Your character, Rose, quickly unravels. She begins to drink to cope with an increasingly difficult situation. Was it hard to pretend to be drunk?

There are a lot of different phases in her drinking. At first, it's courage, and then it gets very bad. It takes her to this place of being this little girl who just wants to be loved. People who are drunk try not to talk drunk. It's a little mix of music, a little mix of my own personal experiences with drunk people and how they are. For scenes where I had to be really stumbly, I'd spin a bunch in circles before action and close my eyes so I would feel off-balance. That’s a trick that Allison Janney taught me [on the set of] Drop Dead Gorgeous. It makes you feel out of control in your body, which is perfect for playing drunk.

Dunst wears a Terrence Zhou dress; Bulgari bracelets; Prada bag and shoes.

It's such an interesting transition, because Rose goes from being so capable to losing her bearings. To me, it felt like such a statement about how people can do you in.

Yeah. I totally understand that feeling. It's a place where you're feeling vulnerable, where people can influence you and infiltrate your brain in such a way that is so dangerous for your psyche. And that's what happens to Rose. But, yes, in the beginning she runs her own inn. She's a widow, and she runs it with her son. So, all those things of cooking and cleaning and making a beautiful table and keeping an inn running, that's her pride and what gives her purpose in life. And when she goes to the ranch, she doesn't have to do any of that stuff—those creature comforts that give you purpose are stripped away from her. She’s not doing the things she’s most comfortable doing, and then she’s slowly being gaslit by my partner's brother [played by Benedict Cumberbatch].

Yes, that evil Mr. Burbank who calls your partner “fatso.” It's so mean.

I know. He calls me “fat face,” too, which was not nice. [Laughs] That was an improvised line, though.

Were you always committed to acting? You started when you were so young.

I was committed, but there was a point where I was like, the way I'm doing this isn't exciting to me anymore. My process [stopped being] fulfilling. And then I switched it up. I took a script to a bunch of different acting teachers, and I found one who I really love working with—who changed acting to something I do for myself rather than for anyone else. It made it personal, and it made it exciting. It was all about looking inward and satisfying yourself in your [own] creativity.

You were the first person I knew to join the Marvel universe, which I’ve always admired—I think it was brave at the time. Now it’s almost like doing Hamlet or something.

That's really funny.

Was it a big decision for you to do Spider-Man?

Not at all. I auditioned, and then Tobey [Maguire] and Sam [Raimi] and all the producers came to Berlin to screen-test me at this hotel. And I just knew that Sam [the director] was going to do something special. It felt like an indie. Just these choices Sam was making, like casting Tobey—he had only been in Wonder Boys and The Cider House Rules at the time—and Willem Dafoe. He set the tone for hiring really interesting actors for these Marvel movies.

And of course, there was the famous kiss. Did you feel like it was going to be a famous kiss at the time?

I did not feel like it was a famous kiss because Tobey was... Water was getting up his nose because of the rain, and then he couldn't breathe in the Spider-Man suit, and then... And it just felt very late at night. I didn't think about it that way. But the way it was presented to me, Sam gave me this book of famous kisses, so that made me realize how romantic and special Sam wanted this to be. Even though it wasn't necessarily feeling that way with Tobey hanging upside down.

And now it’s in every montage of famous kisses.

Well, I'm proud to be a part of that.

It's a good kiss.

Yeah. It looked like a great kiss.

Hair by Ali Pirzadeh for Dyson Hair at CLM; makeup by Daniel Sallstrom for Chanel at MA+ Group; manicure by Michelle Saunders for Nailtopia. Set Design by Gary Card at Streeters. Produced by Wes Olson and Hannah Murphy at Connect the Dots; production manager: Zack Higginbottom at Connect the Dots; photo assistants: Antonio Perricone, Jeff Gros, Morgan Pierre; digital technician: Michael Preman; lighting technician: Keith Coleman; key grip: Scott Froschauer; retouching: Graeme Bulcraig at Touch Digital; senior style editor: Allia Alliata di Montereale; senior fashion market editor: Jenna Wojciechowski; fashion assistants: Julia McClatchy, Antonio Soto, Nycole Sariol, Sage McKee, Josephine Chumley, Rosa Schorr; production assistants: Tchad Cousins, Juan Diego Calvo, Gina York, Brandon Fried, Nico Robledo, Kein Milledge; hair assistants: Tommy Stanton, Sol Rodriquez, Andi Ojeda; makeup assistants: Tami Elsombati, Bridgett O’Donnell; manicure assistant: Pilar Lafargue; set coordinator: Sarah Hein; set assistants: Olivia Giles, Seth Powsner, King Owusu; tailors: Suzi Bezik, Cardi Mooshool Alvaji; tailor assistant: Elma Click