Kirsten Dunst is queuing for her lunch when I walk into the café she has chosen for our interview.
She is not queuing in that self-consciously starry way which would draw attention to herself, complete with oversized sunglasses and a haughty expression. Nor is she queuing with the faux nonchalance of an off-duty famous person who secretly wants to be recognised. Most celebrities probably wouldn’t be queuing at all.
I don’t immediately recognise Dunst amid the lunchtime rush. Her shoulders are hunched and she is fiddling nervously with her small leather handbag, an uncertain smile on her face. In the end she’s the one who waves me over. She shakes my hand and orders a chicken salad, then suggests we sit outside. Los Angeles is in the middle of a heat wave and Dunst is wearing a navy-blue long-sleeved shirt and jeans. She doesn’t seem to mind.
This is possibly the most low-key start to any interview with an actor I’ve experienced, I say.
“Really?” She sounds surprised. “There are a few of us.” She gives an impish grin, revealing the slight irregularity of her front teeth. The planes of her face change and you are given a glimpse, suddenly, of how the angularity of her features can work on screen. When the smile fades, her face shifts back.
“There are some of us who maintain, like, not having to put on a façade. You know what I mean?” The way she speaks is almost as if she is talking to herself, trying to work things out for her own benefit. “I think that, for a lot of people, they put on their ‘interview face’ – they come in all smiles and always have the perfect answer. Maybe they’re trying to protect themselves. I just think that I’ve never been able to not be myself – it would drive me crazy if I couldn’t be. So I just, you know…” she trails off. “I don’t know. That’s all.”
There is a guilelessness to Dunst, a sort of offbeat pensiveness that makes her an interesting presence, both on screen and off. A film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle once wrote that she “beautifully balances innocence and wantonness” and, at 33, she still has that curious ability to be both womanly and childlike. Perhaps this is because she started out as a child actor – she made her feature film debut at the age of six with a minor role in Oedipus Wrecks, Woody Allen’s segment of the 1989 anthology film New York Stories, but it was her appearance in Interview with the Vampire alongside Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise at the age of 11 that garnered her worldwide attention.
From there she has gone on to star in a dazzling variety of films – from the dreamy coming-of-age movie The Virgin Suicides (1999) and the guilty-pleasure cheerleading flick Bring It On (2000) to the big-budget glitz of the Spider-Man franchise (Dunst played Mary Jane Watson in the first three films directed by Sam Raimi) and the arthouse rigour of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011).
She is about to appear on the small screen in the second series of Channel 4’s highly lauded Fargo, loosely based on the 1996 Coen Brothers film of the same name. Dunst’s character, Peggy, is a frustrated 70s small-town wife who dreams of being a celebrity hairdresser. The first series, which starred Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, scooped three Emmys and two Golden Globes.
“Doing a television show is much, much harder work than film, because you’re doing 10 pages a day. You don’t get that many takes,” she says. “And my character does not stop talking.”
She says her technique for learning lines is “doing it a bunch of times the night before, right before bed… and then you sleep and it’s like: ‘Oh my God, it’s all in my brain.’ It’s amazing!”
Dunst believes a lot of the most interesting work now comes from television rather than film. “People don’t go to the cinema unless it’s an event any more,” she says, picking at the edges of her chicken salad. “So the movie industry is in a weird place, for sure, and the creative people are blossoming on television.”
Why is that? “There are just too many movies being made, I think. So many of them get lost. Too many cooks in the kitchen – the studio’s editing it, the producers are editing it, the director’s editing, too. But everyone has their hand in it, so whose movie is it at the end of the day?” The result, Dunst says, is too much “homogenised” fare, where creativity is suffocated by money.
“People don’t need all the money they’re using. That’s the other thing: when you have too much time, too much money, the creative starts to slip away. It just does.”
If she sounds disillusioned, it’s because Dunst has been around the block. Although barely in her 30s, she has been in 44 full-length features – and that’s not counting the short films or the TV series or the animated movies to which she has lent her voice.
It was her Swedish mother Inez, a former Lufthansa flight attendant, who decided Dunst was “destined to be an actress”. Strangers would comment in grocery stores on Dunst’s happy, outgoing nature as a child, and her parents started putting her forward for television adverts.
The family (Dunst has a younger brother, Christian) lived in New Jersey. Her German father, Klaus, was a medical services executive, but her parents separated when Dunst was 11 and her mother moved to Los Angeles, where Dunst attended the private Notre Dame High School.
She had to grow up quickly. It was “nerve-wracking” starting a new school. The same year as the move to LA, Dunst was filming Interview With the Vampire and had to kiss Brad Pitt on the lips – it was fairly chaste, but did it feel uncomfortable?
“It wasn’t like I was making out with him. It was literally: push his face towards me and give him a peck on the lips. It was nothing. But yeah, of course, I was like: ‘Don’t make me do it!’”
She’s not surprised, looking back, that her parents’ marriage didn’t work out. Her mother is “like an Italian or a Jewish mother. Her house is loud and there’s tonnes of food”, whereas her father is “pretty German. I have from him such a strong work ethic. I see how hard he is on himself, you know what I mean?” Is that something she has inherited? “I think in the past I have been really hard on myself, but only for work and to do my best. The work ethic he gave me is good, but also it’s good to relax and be proud of what you’ve done.
“Whenever I’m exhausted, I’m like: ‘God, I’m so tired, Dad…’ And he’s like: ‘That’s good, that’s good!’ I’m like: ‘No, I’m tired. I want you to say: Aw, you should take a break.’”
Later she refers in passing to her treatment for depression at a Utah rehab centre in 2008. She chose to speak out about it at the time but now prefers not to cover old territory. She looks away as she touches on it, her eyes vague and cloudy.
These days Dunst is a homebody. She has a house in Burbank, Los Angeles, which she shares with her boyfriend of four years, the actor Garrett Hedlund, and their cats. She’s so open about her desire to get married and start a family that it’s almost regressive. “That’s what I want,” she says chirpily. “And I’m 33 – I’m not going to mess around, you know what I mean? So, yes. That’s the goal.”
When I ask what her worst attribute is, Dunst thinks for a moment and replies: “I don’t cook. And I feel like guys love it when girls cook for them.”
Yes, I say, but that’s why it’s good not to cook, so that you fuck the system.
“Fuck the system, but it’s also nice to be able to cook. That doesn’t sound very feminist of me, though… But that’s the only thing [Garrett] teases me about, that I can’t cook.” Her ex-boyfriends include Jake Gyllenhaal and Razorlight frontman Johnny Borrell, but “every time I’ve fallen immediately in lust or whatever it is, you think it’s love, but it has always ended badly. Always. It’s always when I’ve grown to love someone that it’s a real relationship. And not fantasyland.”
Hedlund is, she says, “a very good person. He’s just kind; a kind man.” She values kindness, goodness and stability and mentions, more than once, how it has been a rootedness in her friendships and family life that has enabled her to weather the notorious fickleness of the acting business. When someone suggested she fix her crooked teeth on the set of the first Spider-Man movie, Dunst had enough self- confidence to refuse.
“I was like: ‘No, my teeth are cool!’” she says. “The biggest fault for any actor is vanity, and I’ve never fallen prey to that. I don’t think about it. Sometimes I should, because I look at myself and I’m like: ‘Urgh, I gained a little weight’ or whatever. But I think about that after the fact. When I’m acting, I just don’t care.”
We start talking about whether the pressure to look a certain way is stronger for women than it is for men. Does she think the film industry is sexist? “God. These conversations are always so, like…” She pauses and I see her actively decide to say what she really feels. “I mean, yeah,” she concludes. She recalls that, when she was filming Spider-Man at the age of 18, the older men on set – including director Raimi – would call her “Girly-girl”.
“I didn’t like that at all. I mean, I think they meant it as endearing, but at my age I took it as dismissive.” At the time she was too intimidated to speak up for herself. But recently she found herself working with the same first assistant director on another film. “I told him how much that upset me,” she says. “And he treated me completely differently on this movie and we got along really well. He’s a great guy.”
She puts down her fork and asks for the rest of her lunch to be boxed up so she can take it home. It’s probably a wise move. Like she says, she can’t cook. Besides, she’s done with being a girly-girl.
Elizabeth Day; guardian.com
Fargo premieres in the U.S on FX on October 12th & in the UK on Channel 4 on October 19th.