Kirsten Dunst: ‘The Power of the Dog’

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SAG Supporting Actress nominee Kirsten Dunst. Photo by Nino Munoz/Netflix

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes SAG Supporting Actress nominee Kirsten Dunst, nominated for her role in Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog,” directed by Jane Campion. Dunst has appeared in many films including “The Virgin Suicides,” “Melancholia” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Dunst tells The Treatment her entire approach to acting has changed in recent years, including incorporating dreamwork into her preparation. She says acting opposite her partner in real life, Jesse Plemons, in “The Power of the Dog” helped her both on and off set. And after acting in so many different roles, Dunst talks about the dream project she has yet to do: a musical.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest today is SAG Supporting Actress nominee Kirsten Dunst, who has had a career that I think has made her a magnet for directors. She's worked with everyone from Neil Jordan to Michel Gondry to Sofia Coppola, to Sam Raimi to Lars Von Trier, to her most recent collaboration with Jane Campion for "The Power of the Dog." What do you look for when you sit down with directors? What kind of sense do you want from them when you have your first conversation?

Kirsten Dunst: Most of it is their previous body of work, which informs my decision, and then with the more new or up and coming directors I've worked with, it's just a sense that I get, a sensibility, that I feel that their references or what they're trying to do makes sense. And it feels like they will be interesting filmmakers trying to do something different.

KCRW: Do you think to yourself, Well, what have I not done? Who have I not worked with? What sensibility have I not been in contact with yet?

Dunst: One of my favorite directors is Paul Thomas Anderson, and he's kind of a dream director of mine. I hope I get to work with him at some point in my life, but I've always wanted to do a musical. That's something that I haven't been a part of. 

KCRW: What are some of your favorite musicals?

Dunst: On stage, "Les Mis" was my favorite, but movie wise, I love "All that Jazz." I actually really loved "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." I think I'd like to be part of an original musical. I love big shiny musicals, but we've done a lot of them. I think that there's room for "Gypsy." Yeah, that could be fun to do like a remake. See, I think people should spin these things on their head a little bit more.

KCRW: It's just funny because what you're talking about is watching somebody grow up in show business, which you’ve done, and you could bring a particular sensibility and point of view to a remake of "Gypsy."

Dunst: That's why I mentioned it. That's the one they haven't remade yet. And I often think they should reinvent some of these musicals and set them in a different time. Also, I know that there's a Charlie Kaufman script, an original musical about the industry that he wrote that's floating around somewhere, so that would be amazing.

KCRW: Well, let's put that out there, too. Let's see what we can conjure up for you. Let's talk a little bit about "The Power of the Dog." I want to ask you about your first meeting with Jane Campion. What was that conversation like?

Dunst: I was on FaceTime with her because she was in New Zealand at the time. I am such a fan of her work. So I think it was a pretty light conversation just like, "I just wanted to let you know, I'm so happy that you want to play Rose, and I'd love you to play her for me." And I think I couldn't wait to get off the FaceTime, so that I could just scream. I screamed like I won the lottery. 

It was one of those moments in life, I knew I was going to embark on something really special and creatively, just to be one of her actresses in one of her movies, the performances have always inspired my own career and the bravery of these performances and the realness of them: not many directors want that from women, and she wants that. So I knew that I was able to give something and that it will be received and it will be acknowledged.

Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon in The Power Of The Dog. Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021

KCRW: One of the things that you do so well is the way you play surprise. I was thinking about that scene in "Power of the Dog," where George decides he wants to help you out and starts basically being your waiter and just your look of: wait, you're actually helping me?

Dunst: What I try and do is make things feel as alive as possible and as real as possible. So whatever I can do to conjure up those feelings, and also, obviously working with Jesse Plemons, who's my partner, who's like, the best actor. I'll do things off camera for him; he'll do things off camera for me. So I'm sure in that element of surprise, he was definitely doing something goofier than just, you know, like, handing out plates. He probably did a thing for me that gave me a little bit more to work with than: here's your dinner. Working with him, it's like your greatest team player, that level of trust and zero ego and your best friend who has your back.

KCRW: Is that what made it easy to tap into the kind of vulnerability that Rose has?

Dunst: it definitely helped me for the end of the day when I went home. We didn't always work together or have scenes, but to have someone who knows exactly the work environment, exactly the dynamics on set, to really have that be understood. Because you're usually trying to explain it through a phone. Every set is like its own weird little organism. And so, yeah, I think in this movie, I definitely had to conjure up really dark insecurities, like really feeling terrible about myself. And so that naturally just seeps into your life.

 I'm not someone who wants to take this stuff home, but it just does. I feel like I second guessed myself. I was working with Jane, and I didn't want to disappoint her. It was a lot of living in those kinds of feelings, which isn't my normal feeling on set.

KCRW: I don't recall you ever playing a character who didn't seem to quite know what to do with her body in the way that Rose doesn't?

Dunst: Yeah, I think you're right, Elvis. I don't think I have. She's in the perfect vulnerable space where she's basically had all of her creature comforts taken away, all of her purpose in life, like running her inn, making the tables beautiful, cooking, cleaning, making the beds, like, this is her purpose. She's an innkeeper; this grounds her and gives her purpose. And all of that's taken away. She tries to go to the kitchen. Everyone's like, what are you doing here? Don't dry that dish. She tries to immerse herself in a way that is comforting to her, and she's shut down and then on top of it, she has this pressure on her to perform. And then this brother just trumps her in such a way with his beautiful artistry, and it's so effortless for him that I think that just makes you want to give up, so she turns to drinking. I think that those feelings of just being crushed by another human with subtle mental tricks, that gaslighting feeling, I think people have felt that in work, relationships, whatever. So I could tap into that idea and really make a meal out of it. 

KCRW: I was thinking about that early scene that she has with Peter, which is another scene where we get to see her pure pleasure in the moment when she's looking at those albums that he's putting together and looking at his art, and we get a chance to see how she reacts to purity. The moments of happiness that she has, we can almost chart because they're so rare in the movie. 

Dunst: When you only have small moments to express a character quickly, it has to be full. It can't be a reserved performance. Everything has to be out there. This is her son, and this is her son's art. She's a mother that loves her son's art and encourages it and encourages who he is, which is very unique, too, for that time. With all these cowboys around, to have a son who's homosexual is very scary for a mother. You know that the world around them is going to be tough. So I think having a mother who's still supportive of all of that is really beautiful during that time. And they have each other's back in a very intimate way that I think is surprising for a movie of this era.

KCRW: One of my favorite things that you did is that season of "On Becoming a God in Central Florida," where you have to chart Krystal really fast because she's somebody who's trying to figure out who she is, as the world is changing under her feet. There's this thing about you that is vivid really quickly.

Dunst: I think that that's what makes performances. There's a style of acting; it's very reserved, and people don't do anything. And then you get performative things where it's like, oh, wow, you're really acting right now. But my favorite things are when everything feels real, like you're watching a real human on screen go through this. I like when things feel so real it gets under your skin.

I feel like Jesse's such a good actor. I always feel like when I watch him on screen, I'm shocked at how grounded he is. He's just in it. He just lives and breathes in the space in a way that just feels so much more grounded than so many actors. I just don't know how he does it.

KCRW: I think you both have this kind of ability to be in the moment that expresses itself in really interesting and different ways. 

Dunst: To me, that's the goal. I want a performance to feel alive, and if it doesn't, then something's wrong. Either it's written badly or something's not working. There's a flow that’s supposed to happen between actors and in the environment that I feel like when you're intuitive and you've done your homework, those things really stand out when they're not working as well. But then you'll work with people that do it the same towards you every time, and you're like: Oh wow, you really have a plan and you're sticking to that plan. Which for me is not exciting as an actress to work with that type of performer, but when it's someone like Jesse who just lives and breathes in what you're doing and really makes you feel like you're there and in that space and open to anything that happens, that is what makes a great scene or performance or actor.

KCRW: You find a way to dial into the immediacy of the character, and I wonder when you're talking and looking at these scripts if you think about how do I find a way to make this person live in the moment in a way that makes sense to me?

Dunst: That's the goal. But my approach is using my own inner self. I use dreamwork to do that with somebody, so I really get into my own unconscious to find out the emotions of what my character is going through within a specific scene. So I'm able to use that unconscious work and plug it into the script. It's all coming from me. I'm not putting anything into this role; it's coming from myself.

 I think it immediately gives you symbols because your inner self will give you things in your dreams that your conscious mind won't. So it goes to the deepest parts that maybe you want to stifle. You get symbols from yourself and experiences during these dreams that help me fulfill the truest emotions for the character. So that's what I tried to do. Because then you get to set and I feel like you've worked so much on it, it's lived in you so much, you can not worry about that stuff anymore and have different ideas to keep things alive and exciting for you. 

KCRW: As you're saying that, I found myself thinking of your performance as Marion Davies in "The Cat's Meow."

Dunst: Peter [Bogdanovich] just passed away. I think that's probably why you thought about it as well, because I thought about him and working on that. He was a very good actor's director. I remember once he told me to replay what happened in my mind as I was doing the scene, and it gave me this whole extra layer. No one had given me a note like that before because a lot of people don't have the vocabulary. And also I feel like some people want to talk about acting, but usually the people that want to talk about it too much also don't always end up doing it. I actually don't like talking so much about it when I'm on set. I'm just like, let's just do this. I'm ready. I don't really need to talk about this anymore.

KCRW: You often play characters with a sense of awareness. And that awareness is so keen in somebody like Rose who knows where she doesn't fit and is trying to figure this out. And I wonder if that's one of the things that excites you about this, too, is bringing your ability to play your characters' awareness and use that in these situations.

Dunst: Well, I approached acting differently when I was doing "The Cat's Meow" than I do now. I learned about Marion and watched as many videos as I could and things like that. But I think I was just more instinct on the day rather than intense preparation, which I do now. I think instincts on the day just aren't enough. I also noticed an interesting thing with sound. When you're being mic-ed and the boom operator, all the sound guys when I was younger, would be like, can you speak a little louder? There's a fear when you feel like not in your character enough. You don't even speak as loud as you can because you're kind of questioning yourself. 

Sometimes I'll watch people act, and they'll shake their head "no," as they're saying it unconsciously because they know they don't believe in what they're saying. So now, the sound guys come up to me [and say] I'm so happy. You're someone who projects. I think that just came from working and feeling a sense of ownership in your role. And I think that comes with age and experience. And also just learning about your craft and always being a student of it and owning your place. I think that that comes with age though, too, and wanting to continue to get better at what you do, too. 

Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon in The Power Of The Dog. Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021

KCRW: One of the reasons I was talking about "Becoming a God in Central Florida" is that it felt like this new peak to me because there's so much stuff going on in that in performance terms. And you have to convey a lot of emotional information really fast. And then here in "Power of the Dog," we get a chance to see somebody who's still taking chances, but wants to get better at it, and has the added confidence now of knowing what is required of it, that you're not waiting to be visited just by magic anymore. You know it's as much about work and preparation as it is just showing up and being ready to act.

Dunst: Yeah, yeah. Everything you said. On "Becoming a God," the reason I did that and stuck with that show for so long was because of that role. I knew that I had so much to put in there. And there's not many roles that give you that opportunity. And I knew that this role, I could literally let it all hang out. I could be angry and frustrated. And I just could let out a lot of feelings that I hadn't been able to let out in a part before. And so when you're given that vessel, and you're ready to go and you're bubbling with all this stuff, it's freeing to play a role like that. 

KCRW: I think we could see the glee you took in the material, in the performance and that's something that's kind of thrilling, too, when you can feel an actor's excitement about doing something.

Dunst: Yeah, that's such a cool thing to think about. That that energy is contagious. That's why it makes it a character you want to watch. Sadly, we didn't continue because of COVID. And I got pregnant, and it was like the height of it, and I didn't want to work pregnant.

KCRW: This takes me back to where we started, which is these directors you work with who I think make you want to work hard in that way, make you want to step up and show that: I belong here. I belong with Jane Campion, and I belong with Sofia Coppola. Now, these people who want to invest in me, I want to show them that I take this as seriously as they do. And I think that ambition we're talking about, comes across not only in performance terms, but I think even in instinctive ways and the kinds of people you've chosen to work with.

Dunst: Well, I had to grow up and learn about film as I was in it, too. I had to figure out what my taste was while I was working. I had to become a student of film eventually. All that growing up that informs what you are drawn to as your taste and what you choose to do. I think whatever I've migrated to in performances that I've love, has informed my tastes and my choices in my own career. And I also feel like it doesn't matter who you play. If you're not in the right hands directorial wise, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. So, to me, it's all about the director, always.



Rebecca Mooney