Kirsten Dunst's hidden depths

VENICE • The main things Kirsten Dunst wanted out of her trip to Italy were to sleep soundly on the plane and to drink a Bellini upon arrival. She would have considered anything else to be a bonus - and, as it turned out, those bonuses were considerable.

Dunst had gone to Italy for the Venice Film Festival, where she was premiering The Power Of The Dog, a new Netflix movie directed by Jane Campion that features one of the 39-year-old actress' best performances.

She arrived on the last day of August after months at home raising a newborn baby and a year before that stuck at home.

So, one can imagine how Dunst felt when she got off the plane, boarded a boat at sunset and sped towards her hotel with the lights of Venice twinkling on the horizon.

As she took it in, Dunst began to well up. A full day of air travel, four sleepless months of child-rearing and one of the world's most beautiful cities can do that to a person.

The next 48 hours were a whirlwind. Dunst tried to overcome her jet lag and hung out at the hotel pool. The next day, she donned an Armani Prive gown that made her feel bulletproof and accompanied Campion and the film's lead, Benedict Cumberbatch, to the premiere at the Sala Grande.

After the film ended, the audience gave The Power Of The Dog a several-minutes-long standing ovation. Campion would go on to win the Best Director award at the festival. Things could not have gone better. Was Dunst thrilled?

"I was so high on the experience," she said afterwards, "with crippling exhaustion inside."

Even when she is smiling, Dunst can suggest something much more complicated going on beneath the surface.

That gift serves her well in The Power Of The Dog, based on the Thomas Savage novel and starring Cumberbatch as Phil, a sadistic ranch owner in 1925 Montana, and her real-life spouse Jesse Plemons as her husband.

A few days before Dunst flew to Italy, I visited her ranch-style Los Angeles home. For the past few months, her husband had been away filming the Martin Scorsese drama Killers Of The Flower Moon and Dunst had mostly handled wake-up duties of her four-month old baby by herself.

"I'm so tired. I haven't slept through the night in four months," she said. "I've developed an eye twitch too. Yeah, I'm in a really special place."

Dunst has a one-to-one connection with the audience that proves just as direct with whomever she is speaking to in real life. In conversation, she is candid and matter-of-fact, like the sort of friend who would level with you if you were wearing something hideous.

It has been more than 11/2 years since she last acted and she is honest about the allure of that down time. "There's a part of me that's like, 'I've done this for so long. When can I just relax?'"

When she was three, Dunst began modelling. By eight, she had appeared in The Bonfire Of The Vanities and a short film directed by Woody Allen.

In her mid-20s, as she came off three Spider-Man films, Dunst had begun to feel hollow.

Although she had found an important collaborator in Sofia Coppola, who cast Dunst in The Virgin Suicides (2000) and Marie Antoinette (2006), movie shoots that really satisfied her were rare. Acting no longer brought her joy.

In 2008, after checking into the Cirque Lodge rehabilitation facility to treat her depression, Dunst came to some surprising realisations about the way being a child performer had affected her adult personality.

"For a long time, I never got angry with anybody," she said. "I just swallowed a lot down. When you're on set, it's performative, it's pleasing.

"At a certain point, you've got to get angry and I think that eventually builds up in someone. You can't survive like that. Your body stops you."

That is why Dunst has found a cathartic new connection with her work. She wants to take all the messy things people bottle up and let the audience see them in her performances.

"That's what acting should be," she said. "Those are the performances I love, that are the most revealing about human beings and the hardest things we go through in life."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2021, with the headline 'Kirsten Dunst's hidden depths'. Subscribe