When Kirsten Dunst decides to get a little silly—something she is wont to do—she 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.
Maybe this Marie Antoinette was just too hip. "I knew that it wasn't going to be huge," admits Dunst of the film, as she pours herself a Coke. But she had high hopes, she says: "I did so many magazine covers and so much press for it. [Costar] Jason Schwartzman and I even went on MTV. We chopped dolls' heads off! We're like"—and here's that Muppet voice again—" 'Any gimmick! Come see our movie.' "
Despite Dunst's inclination toward self-mockery, she is clearly frustrated by the film's failure to connect with a wider audience. "I'm really disappointed in taste right now. I hope I don't sound weird," she explains. "I'm not bitter. I'm just a little, Well, that sucks because I really liked the movie. Whatevs. It'll live on."
Schwartzman, who starred as an awkward Louis XVI and is one of Dunst's few close actor friends, echoes her sentiments. "Marie Antoinette was a major experience for the both of us, without a doubt," he says. "Kirsten worked so hard every day, all day long. And it can be frustrating if your time or your work isn't viewed the way you view it."
Though the film will likely find a wider audience in DVD release, its lack of success makes her next move a little tricky. Indeed, if you're an actress trying to make intellectually creative choices in Hollywood and those choices are not received in the way you hoped, what's next?
"After Marie Antoinette, I was feeling that I had to prove myself," she says, pulling the sleeves of her V-neck sweater down over her hands. She sniffles a little. "Ugh. Like, I didn't do it. I didn't prove myself enough." But she says she quickly snapped herself out of it: "Then I thought, Whatever. I'm in a really happy place, and I want to do a fun movie. Why do I want to be superserious chick all the time? I have a dark side, but I also like comedy, so I think next I want to do something that's super over-the-top."
If all goes as she hopes, her "super over-the-top" next project will be a musical. She can't provide any details, as she's currently in negotiation for the role. Though she isn't known for her pipes, Dunst has sung onscreen before, in the little-seen romantic drama The Cat's Meow, in the teen comedy Get Over It and in one scene in Marie Antoinette. Dunst reveals she will also be singing a bit in Spider-Man 3, the third installment of the hugely successful Marvel franchise.
When we last left Mary Jane, she had just jilted her fiancé at the altar for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), whom she now knows is Spider-Man. The chapter to be released on May 4 is "pretty jam-packed," says Dunst. "There's a lot going on. A lot of things are solved and resolved, and, well, that's the same thing." Dunst laughs, recognizing her flub and realizing she can't offer anything, really, in the way of plot points. "I'm sure there are snipers listening," she explains, looking out the window to the roof across the street from her 60 Thompson hotel room. Her spy voice sounds sort of like a pirate: " 'What's she giving away? She's going to crash the box office with W!' " The usually reticent Maguire, who has been working with Dunst on these films for the past six years, has nothing but praise for his costar. "She's just a pro," he says. "We're all there to make the best movie, and she's one of the leaders of that spirit and camaraderie."
One thing Dunst likes about playing Mary Jane is the way the series has created a cultural touchstone for a younger generation that has grown up loving Spider-Man. "If that brings somebody else that much joy, I'm happy to be in this business," she announces. "When I'm an old lady, I'm going to have my pick of the young men," she adds with a grin. "They'll be like, 'She's Miss Mary Jane!' The young boys will think I'm a hot old lady."
Dunst gets sentimental about her own cultural touchstones. A current obsession is the 1980s cult classic Faerie Tale Theatre with Shelley Duvall. She gave the DVD set to friends last Christmas. And recently she has revisited the 1990 film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ("They say 'awesome' a lot," she quips) and the 1984 fantasy flick The NeverEnding Story ("I wanted to be that princess so badly!").
Offers Spider-Man 3 costar Bryce Dallas Howard of Dunst's seemingly eclectic, even nerdy taste, "She's one of those people who's incredibly cool and has her finger on the pulse, but she doesn't recognize it. She thinks she's a big dork, but she's actually the coolest." (Case in point: On a recent Halloween Dunst dressed up as Charlotte Rampling's character in The Night Porter.)
As for her much speculated-about love life, Dunst keeps mum. Her long-term relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal ended almost two years ago, and since then she's been mentioned in the same breath as actor Adrian Grenier, Fabrizio Moretti (of the Strokes), Elizabethtown costar Orlando Bloom and Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg. "I don't want to get into any of that because I don't want to ruin my life," she says. "I'm done talking about anybody until I'm married." As for dating: "I'm a person who likes to hang out. I would never go on a blind date. That sounds like the most uncomfortable thing on the planet earth. It's like, 'Hi. Nice to meet you. So, what kind of music do you like?' Date ended." The type of man she imagines she'll end up with? "I need to eat a piece of pizza on a stoop in New York, and I cannot be with anybody fancy."
At the moment, Dunst is more than happy to go it alone. She says this past year she decided to stop reading scripts for a while and explore some other passions. When we meet, she's spending a few weeks in New York to look for an apartment—her primary residence is a two-and-a-half-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills—as well as take an art class. The class, which she describes as an intense, nine-to-six daily mixture of painting and drawing, is not for a role, just for her personal gratification.
"It's really about finding your style, rather than 'Hold the pencil like this,' " she adds. "I just need to learn the tools so that I can do the things that I want to do." She likes painting women, she says—mostly faces—and she explains she's inspired by portrait artists Karen Kilimnik and Elizabeth Peyton. "I wish my style was like theirs," she says, sighing.
She's hesitant to talk much about the class or even reveal where it is. "It's so private and I love it so much and it's like a little secret in my heart," she explains. "And the more I talk about it, the less control I feel I have.
"I don't think everyone has to go to college," she adds. (Dunst herself did not.) "Just explore other things."
It's hard not to find Dunst's enthusiasm about adult ed infectious, especially when she gets wound up over the kinds of things an ordinary student wouldn't think twice about. "I have my ID—it's so exciting," she says. "I was showing it to my girlfriends in the restaurant last night. I'm like, 'I can get money off movie tickets now!' " She erupts into giggles.
Dunst will tell you that she wasn't always this happy. She mentions making the 2001 film Crazy/Beautiful, in which she played a rich girl with a substance abuse problem, as a particularly somber period in her life. "That was obviously a darker character. I was obviously struggling with things in my life," she recalls. "I was reading Bukowski's Ham on Rye and thinking I was supersad and I wanted to do something like that because I knew I had so much pain in myself. Does it help get it out? I don't think roles help you resolve your issues. I just think they're good markers."
Though Dunst doesn't elaborate very much about those "issues," she speaks obliquely about the complications of growing up in the business. "When you get to be 17, 18, you realize, Oh, I'm famous and everyone knows who I am and maybe that wasn't my choice completely," she says. "And that is a hard thing. Because when you're 11, you don't think of those consequences. Your parents should think of them for you."
Dunst says she's grateful that her handlers protected her from having to understand the implicit sexuality of some of her earlier work. For a few of her scenes in Vampire, for instance, an acting coach would tell her to pretend she was hiding a toy from her brother. That look, says Dunst, would be enacting "sneaky, but it reads sexy."
Fanning recently pushed similar boundaries with a rape scene in her film Hounddog, which premiered at Sundance. "She's an amazing little actress," Dunst says. "I just hope she takes the time in life to explore other things. It's hard to keep acting, keep acting, keep acting."
Dunst has a very close relationship with her mother, who now co-owns a spa in Studio City, California, and credits her with keeping her childhood as normal as possible. She grew up in the Valley, went to Catholic schools and shared a bedroom with her brother for "far too long," she says. "Even though I was making tons of money and doing movies," maintains Dunst, "I would still be excited to go with $20 to Contempo Casuals."
And Dunst, it seems, has come to peace with what celebrity and making movies mean. "I'm okay with it. I love what I do, and I know that I've been given this gift," she says. "But there was a time when I wasn't, of course. And if I didn't struggle with it, I probably wouldn't be a good actress at all. I used to feel like I had to be the best at what I did, but I realized I don't have to be the best. It's so freeing. I've never been this happy."
Schwartzman observes that Dunst is as adjusted as can be. "She doesn't have an assistant and some limo driving her around," he notes. "For a person as successful as she is and as famous as she is, she's pretty low-key. I just say, 'Hey, do you want to meet me at this restaurant?' and she just shows up."
Dunst's desire to drop it all "comes and goes. Of course it does," she says, adding that she'd like to try her hand at directing music videos. In an interview Dunst did with People magazine back in 1994, besides remarking how gross it was to kiss Brad Pitt while filming Interview With the Vampire, she told a reporter that her hopes were to have two children and a house overlooking Sunset Boulevard. She said, "I want to be an actress for practically all my life."
Hearing the aspirations of her former self, Dunst lets out a huge Muppet laugh.
"Practically?" She ruminates on the word a little. "Practically?" she asks again. "See, I was even smart back then."