The many faces of Kirsten Dunst

-- PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION
-- PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Star of The Two Faces Of January is a gifted Hollywood actress who giggles like a schoolgirl

At three, she starred in her first TV advertisement - an ode to a baby doll, before going on to make another 90 over the next nine years.

At 10, she lipsmacked no less than Brad Pitt in the movie Interview With The Vampire (1994), famously telling the world she was fearful of "catching cooties". Today at 32, she has acted in more than 30 films, grateful to "just work with a good director".

"It's what has always gotten me excited about acting," the actress Kirsten Dunst says. "I'd rather have a small part in a really good film, working with a great director, than being the lead in any old movie."

Dressed in a black cashmere sweater and grey cigarette pants, the American star travelled to London to promote her latest film, The Two Faces Of January. Starring Viggo Mortensen and rising newcomer Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013), the noir thriller is led by seasoned scriptwriter (The Wings Of The Dove, 1997, and Drive, 2011), but first-time helmsman Hossein Amini.

"He really knows how to communicate in a way that is, I think, rare," Dunst says of her Iranian-British colleague. "He's so kind, so supportive and collaborative. And so intelligent emotionally. I was just thinking he was going to be - 'this is the line, and do it.' But he totally went with the flow, he was open to every suggestion. He never felt like a first time director to me."

Dunst's words, all lightness and lilt, send a tickle into the looming, thickcarpeted hotel room. Her face, blotched pink by the rising heat of an early summer's day, is surprisingly make-up-free; it matches exactly your expectation of the marquee name - sunny cheerleader Torrance in Bring It On (2000); spunky wraith Mary Jane Watson in the Spider-Man trilogy.

Yet, on screen, there is the intimation of a darker edge, a wry, whimsical side to Dunst's all-American cheer. Indeed - Dogme director Lars Von Trier plumbed for this when he recently cast her as the flightily catatonic Justine in the surreal Melancholia (2011).

"After Lars - I kept on getting little indie offers. I kept on getting all these scripts that described her as… 'she looks so sad in her eyes…'" Dunst says, voice trailing off in mock pity, before snapping back.

"It's the Von Trier effect."

Or not.

In The Two Faces Of January, the actress attempts yet another kind of blonde as Colette, careless young wife to Mortensen's debt-ridden and ageing grandee Chester. Based on Patricia Highsmith's novel, the film mixes murder and intrigue with a hint of sex, all set in the harsh, sun-bleached landscape of Greece.

While Dunst's admittedly secondary character was first set up as "a nymphomaniac… that strange word people keep on using", the actress played an important role in reshaping her part as "an innocent ingenue".

"She needed to be filled in and fleshed out. If she wasn't a woman who didn't love her husband, the movie wouldn't work. That marriage needs to unravel; he needs to unravel," the actress tells.

"If she was just superficial and marrying him for money, you wouldn't care about her. She needs to be convincing. And you want to care about her."

In the flesh, the actress persuades you - of her naturalness; her heartiness - in other subtle ways. She unthinkingly places an arm on your elbow and grimaces about potential plot holes ("all those beautiful clothes in only one trunk? But you know, we did have scenes of many suitcases - maybe they got re-edited").

She tells you she hates yoga - twice, scrunching up her nose - when someone inquires about fitness routines.

She giggles unembarrassedly in her girlish 32-year-old burble, giving you the inside story to Viggo's alleged standup talents: "He's so funny and sweet. I adore him. Really, he should do a comedy. I'm serious, I'm not just saying."

She confesses she couldn't get into Greece's excellent seafood culture - "I want meat. I had a lot of moussaka".

And she talks about her perfect day - "ordering room service with my boyfriend (actor Garret Hedlund), a whole day of Netflix. I'm incredibly good at chilling. I'm a bed potato".

If it all sounds very standard and unambitiously American, that is what it probably is. The daughter of a medical executive and a sometime artist still lives in the San Fernando Valley neighbourhood in which she was brought up, and has kept all her mates from school.

"I've had the best girlfriends," she tells.

In an alternate universe, she'd be "an interior designer - I just love furniture, I don't really spend money on clothes".

You would have thought being a child star for close to three decades would have messed up her psyche, but Dunst is as grounded as she is refreshingly equal parts Hollywood, silliness and insecurity.

In passing, the actress reminisces the gorgeous clothes she has found herself wearing as a result of work - particularly, in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006) - before waxing lyrical over Coppola herself as a director, friend and general "fun" person to hang out with.

Then, she laments: "I definitely would love to work with her again. Whenever Sofia makes a movie and I'm not in it… I'm like" - (in a sudden, small voice) "okay...".

"Awww," the room goes.

But true to form, Dunst perks up. "I love what I do. I really do," she reassures you - or perhaps herself.

"I try to make movies that I feel will be a good experience for me. After that - you don't know if it will be good or bad. You just don't know. But it will have been worth the experience."

stlife@sph.com.sg

The Two Faces Of January opens in Singapore tomorrow.