Kirsten Dunst has been acting almost as long as she’s been alive. From early starring roles in films like Interview with the Vampire and Jumanji through Bring It On and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, she’s gotten to work with some of the best directors in the business: Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, Sofia Coppola, Jeff Nichols—the list goes on. However, one filmmaker who was at the top of her bucket list and has always eluded her was Jane Campion.
The opportunity to work with the Palme d’Or and Oscar winning force behind films like The Piano, In the Cut, and Bright Star almost passed Dunst by yet again. Her role as Rose Gordon in The Power of the Dog, Campion’s adaptation of the novel by Thomas Savage, was originally occupied by Elisabeth Moss, who had recently worked with Campion on the Top of the Lake television series. Scheduling conflicts with The Handmaid’s Tale caused Moss to drop out, and so swooped in Dunst to work with this dream director in what would end up being one of the finest roles she’s had to date.
In Campion’s film, which has been racking up awards recognition and topping myriad critics top ten lists, Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) find themselves at the mercy of menacing rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) after Rose falls in love with and marries Phil’s brother George (Jesse Plemons, Dunst’s real-life partner). Secluded on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, Rose constantly feels the specter of Phil’s rage and jealousy looming over her. It’s a heavy character to take on, one who becomes increasingly isolated as the strain of this toxic environment becomes too much for her to take.
Dunst delivers a staggering performance, capturing not only the devastating weight that Rose is under, but also the humanity of the character, and the hope she feels when she first finds her connection with George. Her and Plemons have a remarkable chemistry on screen, a true gift for the film as Plemons coincidentally was also originally not supposed to be the one taking on his role—that was Paul Dano, who had to drop out due to scheduling issues with The Batman. It all worked out for the best, as Dunst and Plemons bring to life the heart at the core of the film, right before it all takes a major turn to wrenching terror.
As Dunst continues to pick up nominations and wins left and right during this awards season, likely on the way to finally netting her long-overdue first Oscar nomination, I had an incredibly pleasant and jovial conversation with the actress about one of the most grueling roles of her career.
Mitchell Beaupre: Hi Kirsten, how are you doing today?
Kirsten Dunst: Oh, I’m good. Chilling out in bed. Just taking care of babies. [laughs] I’m starting to work on this other movie that I’m going to do, so I’m watching some documentaries trying to get into a new zone, which is fun. I feel like I’ve got some purpose now other than just putting a bottle in someone’s mouth. [laughs]
MB: Sounds like a good way to ring in the new year. It’s like a fresh new start, right?
KD: Yeah, I started with some anxiety over getting back into the swing of things. I had to do this interview on camera and it was just like, “Oh, I’ve been relaxing and not doing anything. Can I say anything smart?” I don’t know, I just felt like I was in this Christmas bubble that suddenly got burst.
MB: How do the holidays go in the Dunst-Plemons household? Do you do it up big, or is it more low-key cozy?
KD: Oh, we drove all over Texas. Basically, my mom got into town and then my brother got into town on Christmas Eve. We picked him up at the airport, I rented a van, and me, the kids, Jesse, my mom and my brother all drove to Mart, Texas, which is just 20 minutes outside of Waco. Then the next day, we drove to granny’s house, which is in Ferris, Texas, another hour and a half away for like a huge Christmas. What we did not know was that my mom had COVID the whole time. We just thought she had bad allergies. And yet none of us got sick.
MB: Oh wow.
KD: She was totally fine, we literally all thought she had bad allergies. None of us even second guessed it. She was the most sick at Christmas, then she flew home to LA, and I guess my brother was like, “maybe you should get tested”, and she did, and yeah she had COVID the whole time, and none of us got it. We were in vans together for long rides and no one got it from her. Not Jesse’s parents, nobody. It’s very strange.
MB: It’s super strange. I had a similar situation happen. It’s wild how random it can seem, because then someone does get it without even having a clue where they got it from.
KD: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s thanks to immune systems or whatever. I have no idea, but I haven’t gotten anything yet. Knock on wood. I’ve also loaded myself with every booster imaginable and everything. Literally, my armpit was swollen for days. It was so painful.
MB: You got to work with Jesse again on The Power of the Dog, several years after being together on Fargo. How was that process for you this time around? Particularly when you’re working on a film that’s as heavy as this one is, how does that impact your relationship off-set? Does it help to have a partner at home who you feel is right there in it with you, working on the same project?
KD: So, so much. Usually you’re on different films, you’re not always together, and you’re calling each other and trying to explain the dynamics or what’s happening in the film or how you feel like the day went. It can be tough. With this though, he knew everything already exactly, and vice versa for me with him. I feel like we’ll always find things to work on together. For us, it’s one of our greatest joys, getting to work together. That’s how we first fell in love, creatively on Fargo. It’s just like having your best friend with you, the person who you know is going to be the realest about everything, who will give you the best ideas, and who wants you to succeed. There’s no ego.
Our roles on this one were very reserved as well. I like getting a little more crazy, you know? I loved doing Fargo with Jesse. Getting to go crazier together was more satisfying. Sometimes on this one there are scenes where they’re communicating to each other, but they’re not actually communicating at all. So, it can be a little frustrating to do that with someone that you actually communicate with so well.
MB: The first act of Power of the Dog really centers on this lovely courting between Rose and George, which crescendos with that gorgeous scene on the mountaintop with the two of you. Jesse has that line, “How nice it is not to be alone”, which I think is probably the best line of any film last year. And Jesse’s delivery is phenomenal—
KD: It’s the best! I totally agree. Even thinking about it right now, I could well up.
MB: Same! The second he said it, I broke into tears. What was the energy like on set the day the two of you were shooting that scene together?
KD: It was very relaxing. We were there all day, but we were waiting for the light to be just right so that it would be really beautiful, so we had a lot of downtime. There wasn’t much to do in that scene, there wasn’t a ton of shoot setups or coverage or anything. So, we were on this really high mountain, and it was a very calm, sweet day. I feel like it was an important scene because it clearly shows how lonely these people were, and how you hope for their life to get better and to flourish. It’s so heartwarming. Then you can have the rest of the film to suffer. [laughs] But, you hope it’s all gonna work out.
MB: The film is a really tough watch, which I was somewhat prepared for going into it just from the way other people were talking about it. What surprised me, though, was seeing in the beginning that connection between Rose and George. It’s this achingly beautiful romance between two people who were in these miserable circumstances, and were able to find solace in one another. How did you view the connection between them in relation to everything else going on in the film?
KD: Yeah, I think when they first meet there’s this recognizing of loneliness in their souls, and a kindness and sweetness that surprises her—and a sense of humor. Then moving to the ranch, and the dynamics with the brother really messes things up. I mean, Jesse’s role was sleeping next to his brother before I came into the house. Phil, I think, is terribly jealous of what’s going on, and George is trying to remedy that, but he also has to go and work. It’s not a time where Rose feels like she has a voice, because Phil is George’s brother, and you don’t want to make waves in the family. I think there’s a politeness to Rose, and this belief that it’s gonna get better, or that Phil will get used to her, and see that she’s not just here for the money. There’s a hopefulness and a sweetness to Rose where she just wants to keep her chin up for as long as she can, until she can’t take it anymore.
MB: That’s when she starts to become really isolated. What was that like for you on a day-to-day basis, having to inhabit this character who is living under this aura of constant menace? Does that become tough to shake off?
KD: Some days were harder than others. It was harder on the ranch for the exteriors, because I didn’t work every day. I had to do these really intense scenes like once a week, but I couldn’t get into a rhythm when I was in the middle of nowhere and not working those other days. I was mostly taking care of my son, but then I had to come in with all of this gusto, so I was a bit overwhelmed. And of course, I wanted to do a good job because Jane Campion is one of my heroes, so I was pretty stressed.
MB: I know you and Benedict didn’t talk much during filming for the sake of finding that character dynamic. Did you have a lot of conversations with Jane during the shoot? Or was Rose’s isolation reflected in your experience on set?
KD: No, I really felt a little bit alone as Rose. Obviously, Jane was there to help me and give me ideas, but I mostly found myself listening to a lot of music. I was lucky to have Jesse to come home to and to talk to about anything that I was feeling. I also had Noriko [Watanabe] there, who did my hair and makeup. I remember her hugging me after the scene with the Native Americans, and me crying in her arms. I had worked with her since Eternal Sunshine. I met her on that, and then we worked together on Spider-Man, on the second one. So, I’d known Noriko for a long time.
I had my allies, but I also felt my own pressure. I felt a pressure to perform. I didn’t want to disappoint my other creatives around myself, but I think that pressure was also partly from the role. I don’t think I would have felt that same way if I had been playing Phil, for instance. It was because I was playing that kind of a woman that I felt a little bit more insecure about things that I normally wouldn’t be.
MB: There’s almost an osmosis there of you taking on the qualities of the character. It’s like the scene with the whole family around, and all that pressure is on Rose to play the piano and she just can’t bring herself to do it.
KD: Mhmm, and that scene I remember—well, actually, the scene before, when she listened to [Phil] play the banjo so effortlessly, and riff on it creatively and make it his own; it was like this feeling of someone trumping you in something that you can do very confidently. Rose can play the piano well, and then suddenly she can’t—she physically can’t do it anymore. It’s like when someone’s so much better than you, and so effortless with it, it just makes you not want to do it anymore.
MB: You’ve talked about working with your acting coach, who you’ve had for a while—
I’m working with her right after this phone call! [laughs]
MB: You’ve mentioned the process you have with her, where you do a lot of dream work.
KD: Oh yeah, I dreamed big last night! I was so happy, because sometimes you don’t get a dream every night, and I got a great one last night. Got really good stuff to start with.
MB: When you were working on finding Rose, what were some of those things you drew out from your unconscious mind that really helped you in that process?
KD: I think it was that feeling of—oh, the baby’s awake. Um, [laughs] let me just send a text to say I’m doing an interview. [pauses] Okay, sorry.
MB: Not a problem at all.
KD: Okay, Rose. I think I just had to go back to a younger place of myself, of feeling insecure or less than. Of being on sets where I felt like I didn’t speak up. Being a young woman in this industry is enough to give you some good mojo for Rose, some good ideas and sense memories—or “as if”s I do as well. There’s a lot of things that you can use to try and create the scene, and make it feel alive for yourself, and not feel like you’re reaching for anything. That it—oh, he went back to sleep. Good. Alright, okay. Just let me send this text to say he’s back asleep. So sorry.
MB: It’s totally fine. [laughs]
KD: The baby’s in a closet right now because we don’t have any place for him. [laughs] He lives in a closet. It’s a nice closet. It’s a nice size. It’s like a nice car.
MB: [laughs] I’m sure.
KD: It’s just not a house with that many rooms is all, let’s just put it that way.
MB: That’s going to be the headline for the interview, by the way: “Kirsten Dunst Keeps Baby In Closet”
KD: [laughs] It’s a walk-in closet with a window. [laughs] But yeah, he’s a closet baby.
MB: [laughs] Okay, so pulling this back together. Something that sets Jane Campion apart from other filmmakers is the tactile nature of her work. The audiences really feel her films in a way you don’t get with other directors. The fingers on piano keys or banjo strings. The texture of grass or of the rope.
KD: Yeah, totally.
MB: Is that something that you feel on set working with her? Are there details you find her focusing on that maybe other directors wouldn’t be giving the same attention to?
KD: Yes, yes. The blowing out of a candle, and the shot of that. The way Peter’s hands are delicately creating a flower, and just to see a mother of that time encouraging her son to do that. It was a beautiful thing to see. Also just every day on set with her production designer Grant Major, you would open every drawer and find little messages, notes, poems, newspapers, magazines. Everything felt that it was authentic to the time. It was a really majestic set to be on. I was pretty blown away by Grant’s work. He’s one of the best. I mean, he did Lord of the Rings. He’s a genius. That house he built in the middle of nowhere—it felt sturdy. It felt like a real home. I mean, the interiors were done in Auckland, in a studio, but it never felt fake or weird. Everything was so lux. I’ve been on sets where everything just feels super cheap. Like, you touch some wood and realize it’s styrofoam [laughs]. Couldn’t afford the wood.
MB: Is that something crucial for you in getting into the character? Having that real environment where you’re not surrounded by green screens.
KD: I think you’re just like, “Oh wow, this is a real movie”. You know? People spent money on making these things look good. And then seeing Ari [Wegner]’s camera shifts, setups and everything, I was blown away. And the landscapes, the way they used the specific lenses, or the way she shot different scenes. There’s so many lead characters in the film in a way, and they had to really create these dynamics with the lenses that they chose. I’m still blown away by Ari and Jane’s relationship and what they did together.
MB: As the film is so much about masculinity, it really benefited from having that female perspective at its head. You’ve always been very director-focused with the projects you take on, and you’ve had a long career of films with female directors. Bachelorette, Woodshock, obviously your whole relationship with Sofia Coppola. Is that something you seek out specifically, or do you not even put that kind of thought into it?
KD: After I did Interview with the Vampire, I worked with Gillian Armstrong on Little Women, and so I think from a young age I never really differentiated between working with a female director or working with a male director. It really never mattered to me. I think nowadays everyone’s more conscientious of that, but for me it was a gift I was given young to never even question it. I’d already worked with some of the most powerful men, and then I worked with some of the most powerful women in this industry. To have that experience at age 12 or 13 is a huge lesson that you don’t even realize is getting into your head. To me, it was always a very natural thing to work with females and female directors.
MB: One of my favorite films of yours is Melancholia, which just had its 10-year anniversary last year. Looking back on the film now, its themes of accepting the end of the world and also those deeper meanings of grappling with depression and mental health struggles have only become more potent than they already were. What are your reflections on that film when you think about it these days?
KD: I haven’t watched it since it came out, but I will say that working on that movie was one of the most joyful experiences I’ve ever had. [laughs] I really had so much fun making that movie. I just felt free with my creative people around me, and the way that Lars [von Trier] makes his films. I felt at home in the way he made that film. I feel like I’m drawn to a more European kind of aesthetic when it comes to filmmaking and the vibe on set. That movie is really special. I mean—hold on, I’ve got to turn off this baby sound. The machine is driving me nuts. [laughs]
Okay. Depression is a boring thing to film, and Lars made it extremely relatable and magnificent, you know what I mean? Even with the end of the world, and this subject matter, it was beautiful. He’s an incredible filmmaker, and I was so happy to be part of what is basically his Disney movie—when you compare them to his other ones. [laughs] Also, another funny thing to me is that me, Lars, and Jane Campion all have the same birthday. Which is very weird to me. It’s very witchy.
MB: That’s super serendipitous, right?
MB: I’ve got time for one more question, and I’d love to end with a fun one. I was watching this interview with you where you said that the one genre you’d most love to do is a musical.
MB: I wanted to ask you, if you could go back in time and be in any musical in the history of film, which would you want to be in and why?
KD: Woah! Huh… maybe All That Jazz. Hold on, let me just think. Hmm, I’m just trying to think. Yeah, I’d want to be in a Bob Fosse one for sure. I think All That Jazz. You know what, the other movie I loved is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. That was such a good movie. I loved that movie so much when it came out. I love the music so much. And listen, I know that there’s a Charlie Kaufman musical that he wrote that has never been made. It’s probably just a script and it hasn’t gotten made, and I’m so curious. I don’t think I would want to do a musical that we all love, because they’ve all kind of been done.
One of the movies that I watched over and over as a kid was Annie, and it was on TV recently with that special, you know? That was on TV, and I watched it with my son, and I was singing along, and he was kind of impressed that I knew the words to the songs. [laughs] He had never heard them before, and I just started crying because there is something so beautiful to hear someone’s emotions through song. I just love it. So yeah, being in an original one, that would be really cool.
MB: Well, you’ve got that connection to Charlie. Get Jesse to give you the hookup.
KD: [laughs] I wish! You know, I feel like with all of these creative people, you’ve just got to leave ‘em alone and hope for the best.
MB: I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we can see you in an original musical one day then. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, and congratulations on the film and on your performance, which is absolutely tremendous.
KD: Thank you, I’m very proud to be in a good movie that people like. [laughs]
The Power of the Dog is currently streaming now exclusively on Netflix.