Kirsten Dunst dot Org » Blog Archive » For Kirsten Dunst, The Power Of The Dog Marks A Culmination – And A New Beginning


John / February 22nd, 2022

Like her director, Jane Campion, Kirsten Dunst liked to take naps during filming breaks on The Power of the Dog. “I’ve become resentful of the morning, which is really bad for an actress, because we wake up so early for work,” Dunst says. “The older I get, the grumpier I am – so that nap at lunch is way more important. I’d rather shove food in my mouth while I’m getting my makeup or hair retouched than waste that time not napping.”

Words of wisdom, I came to realize near the end of our conversation over Zoom, from an actor who’s learned how she prefers to operate in this business. Dunst, 39, was already a consistently working actor before she turned 10 years old. As a child, she stole scenes from the likes of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise (Interview With the Vampire); into adulthood, she served as the muse for one of the aughts’ most exciting breakout directors, Sofia Coppola, and won major awards for everything from art house cinema (Melancholia) to prestige TV (Fargo). Yet 2021 felt like the year her place in the industry crystallized, with her stunning supporting turn in Campion’s Western masterpiece. After decades of great work, The Power of the Dog has earned Dunst her first Oscar nomination.

Is napping what got her here? Surely not – but also, maybe, just a little bit. She brought to Power’s shoot about 50 feature-film credits’ worth of experience – of honing her craft, of navigating sets, of acting before a wide range of directors. “Because I grew up in this industry and had to learn about movies while I was making movies – and what I liked about performances and movies – I had to grow into myself as an actress,” she says. Campion, Dunst continues, creates a unique space for actors to do their best work. Dunst knew what she needed to do, and she had the freedom to do it. Naps included.

“She just says whatever she’s feeling and thinking,” Campion tells me of Dunst. “It’s really a blessing.”

Her performance in The Power of the Dog has snuck up on me each time I’ve watched the movie. The ’20s-set film concerns her character Rose’s arrival on the Burbank ranch in hilly Montana, run by her mild-mannered new husband, George (Jesse Plemons, Dunst’s real-life partner), and his mysteriously cruel brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Rose walks into more of a nightmare than a fairy tale – a kind of psychological thriller in which she can’t escape Phil’s web of rage. She’s recovering from tragedy too: She’s a widow, and her tight bond with son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) indicates they’ve been through hell and back. Dunst plays it all quietly on her face: hope, pain, grief, depression, and a subtle resilience through even Rose’s darkest moments.

These aren’t always the easiest modes to play. We meet Rose as capable and self-sufficient, running a busy restaurant and raising her oddball son, before she descends into alcoholism and withdraws from everyday life. Dunst carefully “mapped out” Rose’s decline in her portrayal, maintaining the character’s wit and agency throughout. “It was a really intense part to play emotionally,” she says. “It’s not a fun place to live inside of myself, but I’m also proud to be able to release that into Rose. The response to that has been really rewarding. It’s moved people.”

Campion recalls shooting the first scene where Rose takes a drink, at a dinner party gone mortifyingly awry. She directed Dunst to have a few sips earlier in the evening, but was challenged. “[Kirsten] said, ‘No, no, I really want Rose only to drink at the end, or everyone will think that she’s just a big drinker,’” the director tells me. “And she was absolutely right about it. We set it up that the drink was there, and then at the end, she guzzles it.” Watching the sequence, you get why Dunst insisted on that. It’s overbearing. You see a woman trapped, unable to cope; she chugs the cocktail fast and long enough to break your heart.

“It doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, we’re movie acting,’” Dunst says of working with Campion. “It feels like it’s happening in real life rather than performative…she wants things to live and breathe and that’s some of my favorite acting.” Dunst also appreciated Campion’s bluntness. (“I don’t want to stand around and talk about things for hours.”) A crucial final-act scene finds Rose, drunkenly but also determinedly, undermining Phil, and she’s at her most emotional by the end of it. Dunst remembers finishing one take, still teary, and Campion suggesting, simply, “Okay, well now let’s try one, but more drunk.” Happily, Dunst took the note.

The Power of the Dog was Dunst’s first film credit in four years. She’s had two children with Plemons since 2017’s The Beguiled, but the slowdown also reflects a certain change in philosophy. When I relay to Dunst that, in the early 2000s, it was typical for her to appear in four films in a single year, she’s taken aback. “That’s a lot! Slow your roll, Kirsten,” she cracks to her younger self. “Now, one movie a year is plenty for me.”

But what was going on back then? “There’s definitely a mentality of, ‘You’re making money, you’re doing good, keep working,’” she says. “I was making sure everyone else was happy, and I didn’t really make it so much for myself. I didn’t know how to navigate that relationship between the director and me, where I didn’t feel like I was just trying to get it right for them rather than fully experiencing it for myself.” She takes a pause. “It was becoming not fun anymore.” For the 2010 romantic drama All Good Things, costarring Ryan Gosling, Dunst hunted for an acting teacher until she found the one best suited to her methods. She discovered a new way of doing what she loved, and started having fun again (and also, making movies less frequently).

The next year, Dunst starred in Melancholia, for which she won Cannes’s prestigious best-actress prize and seemingly graduated to a new phase of her career. (Campion says it’s the performance that made her want to cast Dunst in Power.) The Lars von Trier drama, which brilliantly explores depression on a world-ending scale, found Dunst at her most expressive and commanding. “It just felt so vulnerable and open and everyone was very collaborative,” she says. “It was a cozy set. I know that sounds weird, but it was!”

She speaks about The Power of the Dog in a similar way, crediting a level of behind-the-scenes trust and camaraderie that allows her to let go and reveal her best work. She considers the welcoming environments Coppola fostered too, having appeared in her movies across three different decades, from adolescence to adulthood. (“Always having Sofia to go back to was good for my confidence as a woman in this industry,” she says.) Put simply, Dunst has worked with many of Hollywood’s best, in terms of exploring dark, painful material on sets that were comfortable, forgiving, and encouraging.

Still, the roles aren’t always easy to shake off. “It’s not like I wanted to bring Rose home or live in Rose, but it does seep into your life until the movie is over, it does. It just – it has to,” Dunst says. Maybe more so here, given the weight of the material: “I questioned myself more and I was way more insecure. Like, ‘Did I get that right?’” Going to and from set with her “best friend” in Plemons, though, helped matters: “I had him to come home to, and he totally understood everything I was talking about.”

But now Power is over, and Dunst is an Oscar nominee – a thrilling moment for a veteran actor entering another new chapter. “It’s so rare to be in a good movie that everyone likes – that’s lightning in a bottle,” she says. “I know how special this time is.” As she looks ahead, she sounds as excited as an actor just getting their first big break. “It opens new doors for me,” she says with a smile. It’s a testament to Dunst’s singular talent that, despite so many iconic performances already to her name, there’s only room to grow.

David Canfield, Vanity Fair



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