Kirsten Dunst on ‘Power of the Dog,’ Campion & Jesse Plemons – Los Angeles Times

Kirsten Dunst has done something more than just grow up on screen. In her choice of roles, she has let viewers in on each phase of her life, from child actor to teenager to young adult and now a fully grown woman, exploring the internal lives of her characters with a subtle emotional acuity and offhanded charm.

Having first gained acclaim for her role as a child vampire in 1994s Interview With the Vampire, Dunst went on to act in more than 80 films, including Little Women, Bring It On, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Dick, Crazy/Beautiful, Spider-Man, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Melancholia, Woodshock and the TV series Fargo and On Becoming a God in Central Florida. Her ongoing collaboration with filmmaker Sofia Coppola in The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette and The Beguiled has resulted in some of the most notable performances of her career. Working on Fargo, she met actor Jesse Plemons; the two became a couple sometime after and now have two children together.

Dunsts latest collaboration is with director Jane Campion (The Piano, Bright Star) in The Power of the Dog (in theaters now and streaming on Netflix beginning Dec. 1). Set in 1920s Montana, its an adaptation of the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage and Campions first feature film in 12 years. Dunst plays Rose Gordon, a lonely widow who impulsively marries George Burbank (played by Plemons) and goes to live with him on his familys ranch. There she immediately runs afoul of Georges brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose roughneck exterior hides a more complicated identity. Phil begins to psychologically torture Rose, driving her to drink to excess. When her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), comes to stay for a summer, the tension only builds.

The role has brought strong reviews and growing awards momentum for Dunst, who has never been nominated for an Oscar. Recently, she sat down for an interview that will launch the L.A. Times second season of The Envelope podcast beginning Nov. 30. On what it would mean to her if she were recognized by the Motion Picture Academy, Dunst says, I dont really think about it too much because I just cant. So it feels like, if I get nominated or something like that, incredible. But if not, I got to work with Jane Campion. That trumps any other thing to me.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity. Listen to the full conversation at

Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon in Jane Campions The Power of the Dog.


Jane Campion reached out to you with a letter many years ago, and the two of you have long wanted to work together. What was it like to finally work with her? Did it meet your expectations?

KIRSTEN DUNST: Very much so, and then some. And I still kind of fan out when Im hanging out with her sometimes. I mean, there are things embedded in my brain from The Piano that will live with me for the rest of my life that immediately flood me with emotion when I think of them.

What was it about her earlier films that spoke to you?

The female performances in her films have been such an inspiration for me as an actress. Kate Winslet in Holy Smoke, I mean, the woman was peeing in a field on camera. I love female performances that are just let-it-all-hang-out. Thats the kind of acting, those are the kinds of performances that inspire me. So working with her, I knew wed get down to some real things. To be part of one of her films was just life-altering. And now I have her as a mentor.

You also have a long-running collaboration with Sofia Coppola. And Sofia and Jane recently had a conversation at the New York Film Festival where Sofia referred to Jane as her big sister filmmaker. How does working with the two of them compare?

At 16, that age where you dont feel cool or pretty, Sofia gave me confidence. She made me feel good about myself for entering this, like, more male gaze in Hollywood. So I always felt like I didnt have to do anything to try and be like a Hollywood blond, like fix my teeth perfectly or anything like that. I didnt feel that pressure because Sofia thought I was beautiful, and I thought she was the coolest, you know? ... [Compared to Jane,] I think Sofias more reserved in the way that maybe my acting has been in her films. And Jane is like, hmm Jane likes to get down and dirty. I think she wants to see the ugliest parts of people.

Is it difficult for you to show those parts of yourself in a performance?

I like it. Its cathartic for me. I feel like I get to shed past things in my life and kind of exorcise them out of myself, and I think it just helps me in my life at the end of the day. Or thats the goal, that a role could be actually cathartic for you.

Do you have some sense of what the character of Rose has done for you?

I think Rose is a very old part of myself that I had to rehash of just feeling really bad about myself, or allowing myself to feel bad about myself because of other peoples comments or control. In your early 20s, its very easy to get swayed into different things or thinking about yourself in a certain way, especially when youre putting yourself out there as an actress and youre in a public light. So there are definitely things I can relate to in terms of feeling really badly about yourself.

Was there something cathartic for you in Rose?

I dont know. Rose wasnt really, like, joyful to play, and then when Id come home, I just would think about my work that day, and I dont know I wasnt as confident. Im happy that Jesse was there with me because I had someone to give me a hug or have lunch with. I remember this one scene I did, and Noriko [Watanabe], who did my makeup and my wig in the movie, Ive worked with on a couple films, and I just remember crying in her arms one day after some takes. Because it doesnt stop just because somebody yells cut. Its not like, Oh, my tears just dry right up, and OK, out to lunch. I just felt with Rose it was a very painful experience to play her. Not a role Id migrate to if it wasnt in the hands of Jane Campion.

Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon with Jesse Plemons as George Burbank in The Power of the Dog.

(Kirsty Griffin / Netflix)

Especially with Jesse being in this movie Im going to assume you enjoy watching him perform it must be difficult to have parts of it you dont want to watch.

I wish I could watch this just as a Jane Campion fan, because Im sad I dont get that experience. I mean, when I watch Jesse and I on the mountaintop, Im like, Oh, my God, were so dorky, because we have to act so reserved with each other, and we have [children] together. Its just funny to pretend theres no history with someone you have a tremendous amount of history with. Its just weird.

Tell me more about that scene. Its kind of the romantic high point of the film. Its the first time youre going to his familys ranch, and you stop on the mountaintop and the camera swirls around the two of you. Its a beautiful moment. Does it feel more romantic to be doing that with your actual partner? Does it feel silly?

Its not romantic when theres a bunch of crew around. Maybe if we were alone on the mountaintop and having a nice cocktail, itd be great. But it was just, hes in his little outfit and Im teaching him how to waltz, and its all really old-timey and cute. But also his line, when he says, Its just so nice to not be alone, is, I think, one of the best lines of the film. When he did that, I cried off camera. I was so moved by his performance that day. And also, I feel I wasnt that good of a dance teacher. That waltz. I mean, I got it together. I did it. I figured out how to teach him.

Do the two of you have a similar process? Can you rehearse together? Especially with going down to New Zealand to shoot, what was it like making the film together?

We fell in love creatively first. He was like a creative soul mate to me and the way we both work. On Fargo, I knew after two weeks. I didnt remember saying this, but one of my best friends told me that I said to her that I will know this man for the rest of my life. I just know it. Just because I felt such an immediate connection. Working together on this, its just easy. We love working together. So, its really, really easy to work with each other. Were very honest. Were very down to try anything. No one judges anybody. Theres no ego. Its just, how do we make this the most alive together and the most real? And then, Ive been working with my dreams for quite some time now. And I introduced the method to Jesse, and then Jane and Benedict did it for the first time on this film.

Kirsten Dunst began her professional career at age 3 and scored a breakthrough performance in 1994s Interview with the Vampire, released when she was 12.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

I want to back up just a little bit. Before you had done All Good Things, which came out in 2010, youd taken a break from acting for a couple of years. What was that time like for you, and what brought you back to acting?

When you do it for so long I started doing this as a little girl. People know me from Interview, but I started before that things have to change. I learned about movies while I was making movies. I didnt know about my taste in film. I was learning it as I was growing in this industry, and I think the older you get when something means so much to you, you can work yourself up. I did have to audition when I was older for certain things. I think it was just because it meant so much to me and I wanted the parts so badly that it was worth auditioning, but it also came with a lot of stress. So in doing that, I think more and more, I realized, Oh, the way that Im approaching this isnt giving me anything back. It felt like more outputting for other people or performing for the director or something like that. It just was meaningless for me.

Youve been pretty open that during that time you were treated for depression. Back then around 2008 to 2011 people were not talking about mental health issues as much as they are now. Was it a challenge for you to decide to talk about that publicly?

Its so personal. But I do feel like its so mishandled. I personally was so terrified of taking an antidepressant at that time. Like, terrified. And it really just helped me clear something so I could start to see things again. So Im willing to talk at length with anyone whos struggling.

Was there a moment when you recognized that you were having a problem and that you needed help?

It wasnt really a "problem. I wasnt, like, using drugs or anything. It was just literally my brain got depressed. It was just like, the old way of being and working within the world didnt work anymore. I just never really got angry. I was just never really angry about things. So that is the definition of depression pretty much. Anger turned inward.

Is that something that you still draw from when youre playing a character like Rose or your part in Lars von Triers Melancholia? Is it that much of a one-to-one connection to some of the things youve been through?

I think that being given the gift of Melancholia and being asked to play that and Lars has been through a lot of depression in his life, and because we both know it so well in our own ways it was such a freeing experience. I had the best time making Melancholia, if that makes any sense. Like, in order to play depressed, you cant be depressed. You have to be in such a good place and so open in order to access these things. And so I have to say, doing that was probably the most cathartic for me at the end of the day.

And when you came back to acting after that break, did you feel something new happening?

I think I felt pretty fragile at first, and so I had to rethink and restart studying acting in a different way than I had learned it before. I had worked with coaches before and worked on it. And I had my certain ways of doing things, but those ways didnt work anymore. So I had to find a new way in, or would probably not be doing it if I hadnt. I felt such a revitalization of why I do what I do and loving what I do again. And it became something that now is for myself rather than for anyone else.

Listen to the full interview with Dunst on the premiere episode of The Envelope podcasts second season beginning Nov. 30. Other upcoming guests include Halle Berry, Daniel Dae Kim, Jennifer Coolidge, Mahershala Ali and Adam McKay. The lead podcast producer for this interview was Heba Elorbany.

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Kirsten Dunst on 'Power of the Dog,' Campion & Jesse Plemons - Los Angeles Times

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