If there’s one word that’s probably never been used to describe a Kirsten Dunst movie, it’s “challenging.” Not that she hasn’t been in some entertaining films over the years. She was great as vampire jailbait in Interview With a Vampire, and a cheerleader with strong opinions about racism in Bring It On, and an archduchess with a taste for 80s New Wave in Marie Antoinette. But even her finer cinematic moments have been less about Oscar buzz and more about Teen Choice Award buzz. Her most famous movie role, as Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man and its two blockbuster sequels, nabbed her an MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss in 2002, and even the least snarky of critics had to concede that it might be the top of the accolades mountain for her.
But everything you thought you knew about Kirsten Dunst might be about to change. After a two year hiatus, the now 28-year-old Dunst is staging a comeback, and not of the “signing on to the inevitable Spider-Man sequel” variety. It started earlier this year, when she appeared in a bizarre art video for an exhibit at London’s Tate Modern, in which Dunst wore a blue wig and Sailor Moon costume and danced through Tokyo’s Akihabara shopping district to the tune of “I’m Turning Japanese” for some reason. Opening nationwide tomorrow, she co-stars (along with Ryan Gosling) in All Good Things, a feel-not-good romance and docu-drama, loosely based on the true story of New York real estate millionaire/drag queen Robert Durst and his disappearing wife. It’s the perfect film for anyone who loved Elizabethtown but wished it had more emotional abuse and uxoricide. Dunst has also been working on two new film projects — On the Road, adapted from the novel that inspired thousands of useless poetry MFAs, and Melancholia, from filmmaker Lars von Trier, whose last movie featured Willem Dafoe ejaculating blood. It’s possible that Dunst is maturing as an artist, finally taking on roles that ask more of her than flashing her dimples and being adored by her male co-stars. Or maybe she’s going through a stage, like all young adults do, forging an identity by pretending to be interested in beat poetry and art house films. Regardless of whether she succeeds, it’s admirable that she’s wandered so far outside her comfort zone. Even if her fanbase accepts her new “adult” direction, there isn’t a Teen Choice Award for Best Dysphoric Topless Scene.
When I called Dunst to talk about All Good Things, it was like talking to any of her movie characters. The meter of her voice, the inflections — it was all intimately familiar. The only difference between Dunst the actress and her on-screen persona(s) was that when she laughed, she actually said the word “Ha”, like she was reading stage directions.
Eric Spitznagel: The first thing I heard about All Good Things is that there’s a scene where you’re doing cocaine in a bathroom with Kristen Wiig. A set-up like that comes with certain expectations of hilarity. But it was profoundly unfunny.
Kirsten Dunst: Yeah, but it wasn’t supposed to be funny.
Was that a missed opportunity? For such an otherwise gloomy movie, it would’ve been a great excuse for some wacky hijinks.
It’s a pretty dark moment for my character. She’s looking for anything to get her mind off of what she just did.
Were you at least having fun when the cameras weren’t rolling?
We had more fun on other days. That was a day when I had to be pretty emotionally unhinged. So I wasn’t really in the mood for hanging out and having fun. But Kristen is awesome. I love her, she’s so hilarious. There’s a scene where I visit a divorce lawyer and that was really funny. I was definitely cracking up with her in that scene.
Divorce lawyers always give me the giggles.
There were lots of times when we’d hang out in the trailer and laugh. We’d play pranks on Ryan Gosling all the time. We abducted his dog one day.
Yikes. You didn’t kill it, did you?
No, no, no!
Okay. It’s just… there’s a scene in the movie where a dog gets butchered and dumped in a lake. Seems an odd time to kidnap a co-star’s dog.
No, this was all in good fun. We dressed him up in high heels and funny hats. And then we sent all these funny pictures to Ryan on his cellphone, with these weird messages from his dog.
So the whole time I’m watching All Good Things, I’m convinced that Gosling is going to reveal at some point that he’s the Green Goblin.
And then I’m thinking, “Jesus, Kirsten Dunst is clearly in peril! Where the hell is Spider-Man?”
I think if I had come from that perspective, then I wouldn’t have been as vulnerable. These two characters really were in love with each other. Obviously she knew she had to get out of that relationship.
Cause she was married to a murdering douche?
Yeah, yeah. But by the time she realizes that, they’re so emotionally meshed. She’s weakened by all the things that’ve happened to her, the abortion and the hard choices she had to make. But also, maybe her thought process was, “Maybe he’s just not ready to be a father yet but we’ll still have a baby down the line.” Or “maybe I’ll get divorced and have a baby with somebody else.”
Or “maybe he’s really Dr. Octopus and he’d make a lousy dad because of those stupid metal tentacles?”
He actually manages to be worse. By the end, even I’m ready to kill him. That’s what I like about her. Even though she was suffering, I didn’t want to make her a victim.
You have a history in your movies of falling for bad boys. You’ve been romantically linked with Louis XVI, Trip Fontaine, and at least one pedophile vampire. Has dating jerks on film helped you make better decisions in your personal life?
(Laughs.) Oh god, that’s funny. Luckily, I’m not in that position right now in my life. I know to go for the good dudes.
Can you offer any tips? How do you know if a guy you’re involved with might be secretly plotting your homicide?
I think if your girlfriends don’t like him, it’s probably for a good reason. You’re not picking up on something.
All Good Things is set in New York City during the 70s, when Times Square was all about peep booths and hookers. You were born in 1982, so you’re probably too young to be sentimental about New York filth.
No, I hear what you’re saying. I remember when I was younger, driving around New York with my Mom and going to auditions. I’d be like, “Mom drive us by the hookies!” And then we’d-
Wait, wait, slow down. The hookies?
Hookers. I called them hookies.
And these hookies were where exactly? On Sesame Street?
There was one street in the Meatpacking District where they all lined up. So I was definitely a part of the dangerous New York when I was younger. But now I feel like New York is so safe. I can walk down the street by myself. When I was younger, my mom was like, “Hold my hand!” It was always a little sketchy. But now Times Square is like Disneyland.
It’s sad, don’t you think? You have a better chance of catching an STD at Disneyland than Times Square.
Yeah, but things get gentrified. It’s what happens.
You did a nude scene in All Good Things, and I think it’s your first.
I was naked in Marie Antoinette, but that was just from behind.
The nudity in Marie Antoinette was cute by comparison. This was probably the saddest nude scene of all time. Why do it at all?
I don’t know. I was comfortable with it and it just felt more vulnerable, you know? There’s actually a very good reason for it. And the way we shot it went a lot further, but it ended up getting cut.
Further? Like how much further?
What happens is, I come into the shower with Ryan, and for my character, it’s a smart ploy. She just found out that she got accepted to a medical college, and he’s afraid he’s losing her. He’s threatened by everything that’s happening to her and he just had this weird moment when he jumps into the water and gets their boat and writes their telephone number on it. What happened in the shower scene, she comes in and we start making out, and I gesture that I’m going to go down on him. And then I do.
Wow. How Brown Bunny of you.
Well, it didn’t go that far. (Laughs.) But the scene did get cut out. Not that we showed everything, but you saw what I was doing to him. I thought it really made sense. In her own way, she’s being as manipulative as he is. She’s trying to get what she wants. They both are. That’s what the scene was about for me. It’s her gesture of coming into the shower and making him feel good, and in doing so, trying to get what she wanted. So I thought it was appropriate.
Well that blows my theory.
What was your theory?
I thought you went topless as a way of distracting from the fact that Ryan Gosling is always taking off his shirt.
Ha! Does he? I haven’t taken note.
The Notebook was like a shirtless tour de force. And I just saw Blue Valentine, which I’m pretty sure got an NC-17 just for the male nips.
(Laughs.) I don’t think that’s possible.
He’s even shirtless in the All Good Things poster!
That’s true. But so am I.
Yeah, but it’s not a recurring motif for you. Nobody says, “Oh look, Kirsten Dunst has a new movie. Can’t wait for all that gratuitous nudity!”
Well, they can start. After this, I also have a nude scene in Melancholia. So they’ll get used to seeing me naked. Trust me, they’ll be over it by the next film.
Let’s talk about Melancholia. Am I correct in thinking it’s based on the Smashing Pumpkins album?
(Long pause.) What? No.
So it has nothing to do with infinite sadness or the year 1979?
(Laughs.) No, sorry. God, I’ve never heard that one.
Melancholia is directed by Lars von Trier. Are you familiar with his work?
Oh yeah, I’ve seen most of his films. I saw Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Dancer in the Dark.
You saw the last one? The one with Willem Dafoe?
I did, yeah.
So you… I’m not sure how to ask this…. you are aware that he doesn’t have a track record for being gentle to genitals?
(Laughs.) I am aware. And I read the script for Melancholia, so I knew what I was getting myself into.
You didn’t need a rider in your contract? Something like, “No knives around my lady business?”
(Laughs.) Wasn’t necessary. But I appreciate your concern.
You’ve been out of the public eye for a few years. Your last movie was 2008’s How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Why’d you go all Brian Wilson on us?
Well, we made All Good Things two years ago, and it never got released for all kinds of reasons. If it’d come out a year and a half ago, would I still have taken a break? I honestly don’t know. I did take some time out, and I’m happy about it. I moved to New York and took a minute to just focus on myself. It was nice to slow down and not just jump into something. I could take a deep breathe and really think about what I wanted to do next, and wait for a project that I was really passionate about.
You didn’t quit making movies because people wouldn’t stop stealing your purse?
(Laughs.) That’s ridiculous. But it happened to me again! When I was in Montreal! I had my purse stolen in Montreal too!
Seriously? The last guy got four years. Don’t people realize that snatching your purse is just gonna end up in an AMBER alert?
I know, right? And I really liked the second purse that got stolen. I liked it a lot more than the first purse. I guess I’ve learned my lesson. I should stick with wallets.
What else do you have coming out next year? You’re in On The Road, right? You’re playing Camille?
Yeah, that’s right. We’re still working on it.
Has that been frustrating? Kerouac didn’t write memorable female characters. On The Road is mostly about dudes and the drugs that love them.
Well, I think Camille is pretty fascinating. She’s based on Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s wife, and their relationship is really complex. Neal grew up without a mother. I think he had two sides to him; he wanted the wild stuff, but also a wife and kids. I think there was a constant pull inside of him. He wanted to go out and do his thing but also wanted to be an upright man with a steady life.
But even the way you just explained it, it’s all about Neal. Carolyn is just one of his options, not a fully fleshed-out human being.
That’s true. The female characters kind of play supporting roles. I mean, obviously women drive men to a certain point. Their contributions are important. But the relationship between Jack and Neal is what really drives the book.
I heard that director Walter Salles sent the cast to a four-week “beatnik boot camp” in Montreal. Were you a part of that?
No, I didn’t make it. I’m getting the condensed version. I’ve just tried to do as much studying as I can, watching videos online of Neal and Jack. I also saw that movie Heart Beat with Sissy Spacek and Nick Nolte. And then I have the book that Carolyn wrote. I feel like I have a lot of information to draw on.
If you want to do your own beatnik boot camp, just smoke some weed and write some crappy stream-of-consciousness poetry. You’ll get the basic gist of it.
(Laughs.) Yeah, I guess so. That’s the Crib Notes version.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)