There's always been more to Kirsten Dunst

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

VENICE (NYTIMES) - 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 because, well, duh.

So you can imagine how Dunst felt when she got off the plane, boarded a boat at sunset and sped toward her hotel with the lights of Venice twinkling on the horizon. As she took it all in, Dunst began to well up: A full day of air travel, four sleepless months of child-rearing and the most beautiful city you ever saw 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, Dunst 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-minute standing ovation. Campion would go on to win the best director award at the festival. Things couldn't have gone better. Was Dunst thrilled?

"I was so high on the experience," she told me afterward, "with crippling exhaustion inside."

The Power Of The Dog is the first feature Campion has made in more than a decade and is shaping up to be the director’s most acclaimed film since The Piano (1993), but it also serves as the latest example of one of Hollywood’s most remarkable career reinventions: After years of being called upon to project blond, sunny sweetness, Dunst has somehow become one of our foremost chroniclers of finely etched despair.

Even when she's 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. 

For all their lives, Phil has kept his younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons), under his thumb, but when George meets and impulsively marries the melancholy Rose ( Dunst), Phil resents the intrusion of this woman and sets out to destroy her.

Thus, a trap is set for poor Rose: George adores his new bride and encourages her to open up, but anything Rose exposes of herself is a point of vulnerability that Phil can use against her. Even as Rose turns to alcohol to cope with Phil’s domineering ways, we hear her mutter, “He’s just a man.” But the way Dunst delivers the line, as though she barely believes what she’s saying, suggests that Rose knows all too well the evil that men can do.

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." Dunst let out a little chuckle. "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's speaking to in real life. In conversation, she is candid and matter of fact, like the sort of friend who'd level with you if you were wearing something hideous.

It's been more than a year and a half since she last acted, and she's honest about the allure of all 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. And by eight, she had appeared in The Bonfire Of The Vanities and a short film directed by Woody Allen.  “I clearly had something old inside of me that was a little bit more than your average commercial kid,” she said. At 10, that old soul helped her land the breakthrough role of a precocious bloodsucker in Interview With The Vampire.

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 Coppola, who cast Dunst in The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, movie shoots that really satisfied her were rare. Acting no longer brought her joy.

In 2008, after checking into the Cirque L odge rehab facility to treat her depression, Dunst came to some surprising realisations about the way being a child performer had affected her grown-up 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's why Dunst has found a cathartic new connection with her work: She wants to take all the messy things that people bottle up and let us 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."