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Kirsten Dunst on The Power of the Dog: ‘When I play a role, I feel like I’m doing therapy’

Kirsten Dunst is one of those rare former child actors whose work has only grown in intensity and confidence with age. Now 39, she delivers a mesmerising performance in The Power of the Dog, as a tormented rancher’s wife who turns to alcohol to cope with the cruelty of her husband’s brother.

Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, the film marks the return to the big screen of acclaimed director Jane Campion after 12 years.

The brooding Western psychodrama – set in 20s Montana, but filmed in the director’s native New Zealand – is filled with unspoken menace, as Dunst’s widowed Rose navigates her way between her kindly new husband George – played by her real-life partner Jesse Plemons – and Benedict Cumberbatch’s

bullying Phil, while she tries to protect her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

If falling in love with Plemons’s George was hardly a challenge for Dunst, portraying her inner torment at the hands of Cumberbatch’s malevolent Phil was more difficult. In the end, they chose to ignore each other on set. “But sometimes I’d mess up and I’d see Ben and be like, ‘Hi.’ And then he’d be doing that ‘Hi’ that you swallow, and I’d make a point of not looking at him.”

“I feel like [Hollywood] men were threatened by a Sofia Coppola or a Jane Campion. We live in a patriarchy, so hopefully this will continue to change’ (Photo: Araya Doheny/FilmMagic)

Dunst’s dedication to the role also led her to take piano lessons, as she worked to perfect Johann Strauss’s Radetzky March, which Rose plays repeatedly in the film while Phil taunts her by playing the same piece on his banjo. “So that was really annoying in our household,” she says, “our friends hearing the same piece of music over and over every night. Playing with two hands when you are older and learning a new instrument is very difficult.”

Before each piano scene, she would plunge her hands in buckets of ice to ensure they were stiff and shaky. “But most of my prep was about finding Rose’s deep psychological pain and her source of insecurity to allow this man to infiltrate her brain. I feel like Rose is almost in The Shining. She’s in a house of horrors.”

Dunst began her career at the age of three and appeared in 70 commercials throughout her childhood. She was just 11 when she made her breakthrough opposite Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, and we meet at the same Beverly Hills hotel where I first interviewed her 27 years ago, when she shyly said she didn’t really believe in vampires as her watchful mother, Inez, sat quietly beside her.

Today it is Plemons, 33, at her side and their joy in one another’s company is palpable. While many of her scenes in the film are traumatic, there is a memorable moment of levity when the couple waltz together in open pasture. “The fact that that’s captured on film is just so beautiful,” she says. “It will go down in our history as probably one of the most special scenes that we’ll ever do together.”

Dedicated to their craft, Dunst and Plemons often work with the renowned method acting coach Greta Seacat, with whom Dunst first collaborated on the 2011 film Melancholia. “She does a lot of dream work between you and the character to help dig up old things. It’s a really fun process, making yourself feel terrible about yourself,” she laughs, self-consciously. “Whenever I do a role, I feel like I’m doing therapy between me and the character I’m playing.

“Rose is very people-pleasing, not wanting to upset her husband about what’s happening. So she turns to alcohol to help her just be in the home, and not worry terribly about her son. But that isolation spins her out, so it was about finding what that is for me.”

She credits her fellow actress Allison Janney with teaching her how to appear drunk on screen. “Allison taught me that trick on Drop Dead Gorgeous. There was a scene where I had to be out of it, and she was like, ‘Just spin a bunch in circles.’ It really helps make you feel wobbly.”

Dunst prefers to work with female directors such as Campion and Sofia Coppola (with whom she made The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette and The Beguiled). “I feel like [Hollywood] men were threatened by a Sofia or a Jane,” she says. “It’s just, we live in a patriarchy, so hopefully this will continue to change… I was made to feel the most beautiful through Sofia’s eyes, not a man’s eyes.”

She was 19 when she landed her best-known role, as Peter Parker’s love interest, Mary Jane Watson, in the Spider-Man trilogy. Burned by the attention of blockbuster fame, she has largely pursued independent dramas ever since, with notable roles in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Bring it On and Hidden Figures.

Along the way, there have been high-profile relationships: she dated Jake Gyllenhaal for two years, then her On The Road co-star Garrett Hedlund, and Razorlight rocker Johnny Borrell. She is grateful for having grown up in Hollywood pre-social media. “There’s so much more pressure now, but it’s just up to you to tell your children, ‘All of this is fake, you don’t know that this person is actually happy.’ But I will use it to promote my show. It’s a necessary evil in this time.”

‘I don’t creatively feel like I’ve done it all. I’ve worked really hard all my life and now it’s just about the movies that I want to make’ (Photo: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

She met Plemons in 2015 when playing Peggy Blumquist in Fargo, in which he played her husband. They got engaged in 2017 and had a son, Ennis, in 2018. Their joint casting in The Power of the Dog was pure serendipity: Campion had cast Elisabeth Moss as Rose and Paul Dano as George Burbank, but both dropped out because of scheduling conflicts.

They welcomed a second son, James, in May this year, but Covid restrictions forced them apart for five months: Plemons was stuck in Oklahoma, shooting Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon with Leonardo DiCaprio.

Today, Dunst flies a little below the radar. “I stay in my little bubble with my friends and family. I guess it’s having a baby, not leaving the house very much. I’m very happy with the choices I’ve made, so I feel secure in my career. But I don’t creatively feel like I’ve done it all. I’ve worked really hard all my life and now it’s just about the movies that I want to make,” she says. “That’s the biggest luxury.”

The Power of the Dog is in cinemas now and on Netflix

from 1 December

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