Welcome to Career Watch, a vocational checkup of top actors and directors, and those who hope to get there. In this edition we take on Kirsten Dunst, who steals the show from Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in Cannes director-winner Sofia Coppola’s Civil War potboiler “The Beguiled” (June 23, Focus Features). It’s her fourth collaboration with Coppola.
Bottom Line: Dunst steered toward playing strong women from an early age, with films that include political comedy “Dick” with Michelle Williams, John Stockwell’s “Crazy/Beautiful” with Jay Hernandez, and Peyton Reed and Jessica Bendinger’s cheerleader sleeper “Bring It On,” shot the year she graduated from Los Angeles’ Catholic high school Notre Dame. She has never settled for The Girlfriend or romantic lead, although she made a memorable Mary Jane Watson in the “Spider-Man” franchise. “Looking back, I’m proud of the choices that I’ve made,” she said. “A long career is up to you. It’s your barometer of taste and the choices you make as an actress inform how other people look at you and if they want you in their movies. So you have to be wise.”
Career Peaks: A model from the age of three, the child actress shot out of a cannon when she won a worldwide search for 11-year-old Claudia, starring opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in “Interview with the Vampire,” Neil Jordan’s fabulously kinky 1994 take on the Anne Rice classic. Dunst has long leaned into women’s subjects and directors, from Gillian Armstrong and Robin Swicord’s “Little Women” and Leslye Hedland’s raucous “Bachelorette,” to Coppola’s Cannes breakout “The Virgin Suicides,” shot when she was 16.
That film marked her segue to more adult roles. “I was sexualized,” Dunst told me, “but through her lens, which was such a wonderful way to be transitioned. There was nothing grotesque, even though I was doing things in that film that I was uncomfortable doing. I’d stress out about ‘Oh, I have to make out with that boy on the roof,’ but Sofia would just have me nuzzle into the side of their face. Even though I was blossoming, it was not something I was comfortable with yet. She really opened that door for me.”
Dunst went on to star for Coppola as a coquettish queen in the title role “Marie Antoinette,” and cameoed in “The Bling Ring.”
Assets: Beyond sexual allure, Dunst brings depth and mystery. She can play the girl next door (“Spider-Man”), a drunk bride peeing on the lawn in the moonlight in her wedding dress (“Melancholia”), an imperious 18th-century queen (“Marie Antoinette”), or a racist NASA administrator (“Hidden Figures”). She has a steely edge, as well as a wicked sense of humor. Her career pivot came before 2010 Ryan Gosling two-hander “All Good Things,” when she started to meet with acting coach/therapist Greta Seacat (who also works with Coppola).
While Dunst always picks projects based on directors, she credits Seacat with a total game change “in terms of acting and how I approach things,” said Dunst. “And now it’s all about me. It’s cathartic for me. It’s my thing, it’s my experience, it’s nothing about pleasing anyone else but myself. And it all comes from me, so I have so much more control than anybody else; it’s all about my own inner life. By the time I get to set, I’m so prepared no one needs to direct me. No one needs to tell me anything. I feel so powerful with what I have to bring, that making movies is for myself now and it’s like getting rid of poisons. Like if you went to a therapist all the time, but I get to do it by acting out anything I want to, so that’s a powerful tool.”
She draws the line at too much nudity, and turned down a sexy role in another Lars von Trier movie. “I would work with him again,” she said. “It just depends on the part because he loves exposing… like Charlotte Gainsbourg, she has a less curvaceous body, so it’s less assaulting to see than if someone with larger breasts and more womanly-shaped did some of the things she did in movies.”
Biggest Problem: As she has come into a strong sense of her own identity, Dunst is making career choices for herself, not her fans. She’s not looking to please anyone else or playing the movie-star game, as evidenced by her maverick choices, from “Melancholia” to “Fargo.” “Only Lars and Pedro Almodovar write these incredible, messy roles for women,” she has said.
Awards Attention: She won Best Actress at Cannes for her hilariously depressed bride in Lars von Trier’s comedic end-of-the-world tragedy, “Melancholia,” after being quick enough on her feet to survive a disastrous Cannes press conference when her director went off the rails. While she earned plaudits and a Golden Globe nomination for Season Two of “Fargo” as the deeply flawed murderess Peggy Blumquist, she’s never earned an Oscar nomination. “The Beguiled” could be her first — she’s earning raves across the board.
Next page: Dunst scribes her character in “The Beguiled”: “Edwina would be me at my worst, working on a film that I don’t want to be on.”