An interview with Kirsten Dunst from an old issue of Total Film! A very old issue, which is why the scans are so crinkly.
Originally published in Total Film #90, July 2004.
“I’m not a fan of sequels,” Kirsten Dunst firmly declares. “Sometimes when a thing is good they should just let it be.” Lucky she’s not appearing in the most wildly anticipated sequel of the summer, then. Oh, hang on...
“This is different,” she laughs knowingly. “Different” being the operative word with the Spider-Man movies. “Different” is hiring a director (Sam Raimi) and two stars (Dunst, Tobey Maguire) who have never previously been in sniffing distance of a blockbuster and entrusting them with a megabucks franchise. “Different” is a comic-book movie that satisfies the aficionados, the critics and the multiplex crowds to the tune of $820 million. If it hadn’t been “different”, Dunst would never have agreed to play Spidey love interest Mary Jane Watson in the first place.
“I don’t like doing stunts and action stuff,” shesays. “It doesn’t excite me that much. But I loved the story. Spider-Man at heart is a very simple love story. I think that’s why it was so successful. It’s a smaller story in a big, fantastical film.”
In the absence of MJ’s scarlet barnet and any cackling, psychotic scientists holding her captive, the former child actress looks less like her Spider-Man character and more like someone who might work in publishing. Tucked away in one of the cosier rooms on the penthouse level of LA’s Century Plaza hotel, she wears a grey sweater, a pastel-striped shirt and jeans and, framed by boyishly short blonde hair, her face looks even more European than usual.
You can see why she was the right choice for Raimi, if not the obvious one. Just as Tobey Maguire’s nervy unease feeds perfectly into Peter Parker, Dunst exudes the old-before-her-time toughness of Mary Jane. Unlike the numerous assembly line cuties who might have got the role, she brings a melancholic gravity to it. We have to believe Mary Jane has had a tricky upbringing, and we do.
Panting around Dunst’s feet — and Total Film’s tape recorder — is Atticus, the one-year-old German Shepherd she shares with boyfriend Jake Gyllenhaal. “He’s biting and I’m trying to teach him not to,” she says, presumably referring to Atticus rather than Gyllenhaal. “I have to become the alpha female.”
Dunst is currently in line to be one of Hollywood’s alpha females, too. Provided, of course, that’s what she really wants...
Kirsten Dunst’s life changed on Spider-Man’s record-breaking opening weekend. She remembers that the studio flew the stars home on a private jet. “We started to get the perks after that one,” she laughs.
Such as? “Well, I knew that I didn’t have to do all the stunts I did in the first movie . I was like “No, I’m not doing that. No, I’m not doing that...’ Plus, I could have the resources that I wamted instead of what they told me I was going to have. l could be a little bit more [searching for the right word]. Diva-esque. I could choose my hair and make-up and everyone who worked on Mary Jane’s look. I had the best wigmaker in London do the wig.”
She can thank her red hairpiece for cushioning her sudden transition to worldwide recognition. Filmgoers might have recognised her from her first major role, aged 11, as the ghoulish Claudia in Interview With The Vampire. Maybe they placed her as the scrappy adolescent in Jumanji and Small Soldiers, as the co-star of teen flicks like Drop Dead Gorgeous and Dick or, most memorably, as doomed suburban seductress Lux Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides.
Spider-Man, however, has given her an international profile — which is where the wig comes in handy. "People recognise me from other movies, not just Spider-Man," she says. "But I think if I really had red hair then I'd get it more frequently."
Since the first Spider-Man, Dunst has been happy to play ensemble roles rather than chasing leads. She's the poetry-quoting lab assistant in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and the rich-bitch student under the wing of art lecturer Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile. "You can have the most amazing time with a small role," she says. "It's so fun to come in for two or three weeks and leave and not have the pressure of doing a whole movie. You definitely want a calmer atmosphere after a movie like Spider-Man."
Spider-Man 2 picks up two years after the end of the first film. Peter Parker is an experienced web- slinger and photographer. Mary Jane is at college, engaged to John Jameson (Daniel Gillies), son of stogie-chomping Daily Bugle editor Jonah, but still keen on Peter. Meanwhile, yet another scientific genius (Alfred Molina as Otto "Dr Octopus" Octavius) has misplaced his marbles and Harry Osborne (James Franco) enlists the robo-armed loon to kill Spider-Man, who he blames for his dad's death. .. You can't say it's not eventful.
This time, however, Dunst had some input into the storyline and politely but firmly requested that Mary Jane cut down on being thrown off tall buildings. "There's a lot less of that. I'm not a fan of heights. This one involved a lot more of being tied up, not so much being dropped, and I'm definitely more aggressive with the evil-doer in this one. I've grown up and I'm not as scared."
Dunst has been instructed by the studio to keep her lips sealed on plot details and scene specifics, but assures us that, "I think, honestly, we've made a better movie. We just went deeper into all the things that people loved in the first one. Everybody's kind of growing up around Peter, but he has such a responsibility to do what he does, it's kind of taking over his life, and MJ is moving on and she's
definitely trying to wake Peter up to that fact."
Rumours already abound that there's a follow-up moment to the first movie's memorably moist, upside-down kiss scene, but Dunst is quick to scotch those. "In one scene there is some rain trickling down," she laughs, "but, you know, there are no see-through tops. I'm not as wet in this one."
She's even cagier when quizzed about the brief period when it looked as if Spider-Man would be recast, either because of back injuries Maguire sustained during Seabiscuit or because of his behaviour, depending on which reports you believe. To make things doubly confusing for Dunst, the prime candidate to don the mask was her significant other, Jake Gyllenhaal.
"Well, Tobey was having some back issues so it was thrown around there," she says cautiously. "It was definitely a complicated time. It was weird."
How long did the weirdness go on? "I don't know. I'm sure it's not something anybody wants me to talk about, so I'd rather stay away from that area." She laughs nervously. "The right man played Spider-Man."
And so Dunst and Gyllenhaal narrowly avoided becoming an on-screen couple, which would surely have invited tabloid attention. As it is, they're smart, credible and sufficiently private to disappoint the gossips. "It's not like we're a 'famous couple' and that's all we are," she adds. "I don't think people even pay attention to us that much."
She's intensely ambivalent about fame in general. "Everybody treats you like you're a baby," she says disdainfully. "They're like, 'Oh, are you okay?' if you sneeze or something. I definitely think some actors are the biggest babies that I've ever met in my entire life. Because I've grown up in the industry I've seen a lot of people and their behaviour. I just don't want to become one of those stars that the people walking behind them roll their eyes at."
With 34 films to her name, Dunst often sounds a great deal older than 21. "To grow up in this industry is not easy for later on in life," she sighs. "It kind of messes things up."
Kirsten Caroline Dunst made her big-screen debut at the age of six. A veteran of commercials since she was three, she was cast in Woody Allen's segment of the New York Stories triptych. "Woody Allen went and got his daughter Dylan an ice-cream but forgot about the other two kids in the movie, including me," she says. "I remember random little kid things like that. Like in The Bonfire Of The Vanities [in which she played the daughter of Tom Hanks and Kim Cattrall] the dog who was in the back of the car threw up on me..."
Undeterred by mutt vomit and frozen-dessert shortages, she hasn't stopped working since. "Now when I look back I'm like, 'I shouldn't have worked so much.' Working as a child complicates a lot of things — relationships with your parents and money and all those things. It's not the healthiest way to do it. I did enjoy it but I worked a lot when I was younger. Maybe too much. I'll make up for that now."
Her family life was also tough. Her parents, Klaus and Inez, were already estranged when Inez moved Dunst and her younger brother Christian from New Jersey to California to further her daughter's career. Shortly after Interview With The Vampire, which earned Dunst a Golden Globe nomination, they divorced. As the family's main breadwinner, Dunst didn't get to spend her first big paycheque on Barbies.
"No, no, no. Not at all. I helped my family out a lot when I was younger. Not a lot of my money was saved or put away or anything like that. Some of it was for college but then I didn't go to college."
She sounds despondent talking about it. Is there anything she wishes she'd known earlier? She thinks for a moment. "No, there's nothing. It's maybe good that I was naive about a lot of things, otherwise I would have been more fucked up."
Revealingly, the project with which Dunst would like to launch her own production company is a biopic of Jean Seberg, the tragic A Bout De Souffle star who was monitored by the FBI because of her involvement with the Black Panthers and died of a barbiturate overdose in 'mysterious circumstances'. "I'm interested in how she got swept up in this industry so fast," says Dunst. "I just feel like she acted her life for her family at home and for her husband. She was acting for everyone in a way."
Before that, though, there are some lighter roles. She's about to start filming the Cameron Crowe romcom Elizabethtown and we'll see her next in Wimbledon, a British tennis romance co-starring Paul Bettany. "I haven't picked up a racket since," she says. "I was so sick of tennis after that movie. I've got a really good backhand going. My serve isn't so great, but it's all in the grunting, you know."
Dunst becomes visibly excited about everyday things. She listens to music (current favourites: Rufus Wainwright and The Postal Service), she hangs out with her friends (none of whom are in the industry), she dances, she gets drunk and she tries to maintain an approximation of normality. That, above all else, is why she admires Mary Jane Watson. She looks somehow wistful as she says it: "I just felt like she was a regular girl..."