THIS YEAR KIRSTEN DUNST HAS DECIDED TO KICK ASS. She has a new house, new management, new attitude and a new ‘do. No more bottled-up blond pixie for her. Turning up the heat as redheaded Mary Jane Watson, the feisty love match for Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man – the first blockbuster of summer 2002 – also had an effect. “I feel like a ballsier kind of woman,” says Dunst, who worked with director Sam Raimi, “to make Mary Jane a hero for girls. The boys are going to have Spider-Man, and we want Mary Jane to be someone the audience can look up to and believe in.” Dunst describes a key scene: “These thugs come and try to steal my purse and, yeah, Spider-Man does end up saving me, but this is four guys I take on – I’m not a wimpy girl. They pin me up against the wall, but I kick one in the dick, and I slap another one…. I’m just a little fireball.”
A little fireball, maybe, but a doll no more, even on the day she literally started to become one. The process began while she was on the set of Spider-Man: Tiny toy heads designed to look like her Mary Jane character would arrive for her inspection, a courtesy afforded Dunst by the manufacturer of the movie’s licensed action figures. Most actors sign off after a few nips and tucks. Dunst was more obliging, sending back copious notes about the shape of her doll’s face and the fact that she has only one dimple and it’s on her left cheek. The actress who has vowed never to do a nude scene was a little surprised that she did not get the opportunity to examine the doll’s body for other dimples.
Do not for a moment imagine that the twenty-year-old star whom friends and family call Kiki – a professional for seventeen years, with more than thirty films and nearly Ioo commercials on her résumé – has suddenly emerged from the cocoon of child stardom to become an imperious iron butterfly. True, Spider-Man has spun her into the major leagues (she just signed for the sequel), and she has left the house in the burbs that she bought for her mother and brother to feather a nest of her own in the Hollywood Hills. But Dunst is still a Valley girl at heart. It’s where she grew up, after leaving Point Pleasant, New Jersey, in elementary school. It’s where she can see her pals, have an In-N-Out Burger and be her happy-go-lucky self. She still hangs out at Mom’s or invites friends to sleep over at her new place, which is more of a cottage in the woods than a movie-star mansion. A doll’s house, if you will.
Dunst knows a thing or two about being a doll. As a little girl, she was the very embodiment of the mid-Eighties beautiful baby: porcelain skin and sparkling blue-green eyes framed by ringlets of golden hair. She was so striking that when her mother took her to the prestigious Ford modeling agency at age three, she was immediately sent out to audition for commercials. “I did a baby doll that peed and pooped in its diaper,” she recalls one day over coffee at a deli in the San Fernando Valley. “That was really gross. And then I did this commercial for a pregnant doll, which was really morbid, if you think about it. You’d press its tummy and this doll would shoot out a little baby with this nice little smile on its face.” Dunst shudders. “Creepy.”
In Spider-Man, Dunst plays a doll from the wrong side of the tracks with a weakness for creepy men. “Mary Jane’s always with the cool guy who’s wrong for her but is handsome, maybe with more money,” Dunst says, offering a quick yet accurate psychological reading of her character, a girl drawn to the mystery of Spider-Man, not Peter Parker, the shy, devoted Everyman hiding inside the Spidey drag. Maguire, who plays both roles, praises his co-star. “She’s not very self-conscious in front of the camera or offscreen,” he says. “She exposes her true self, which is very admirable. What is that quote? I think it’s from Dangerous Liaisons: ‘Vanity and happiness cannot coexist.’ She’s a happy girl. She’s not worried about that stuff. If you’re too involved in ‘How do I look?’ then you’re too preoccupied to live and be free. She seems like a really sweet, aware, open person, who’s really talented, knows how to focus her energy and makes intelligent decisions beyond her years.”
One decision Dunst made when she found out Maguire had been cast as Peter was to become his Mary Jane.
“I had wanted to work with Tobey for the longest time,” Dunst confesses. “I always found something very appealing about him. I just had a feeling we’d be really good onscreen together. As soon as I heard they were making Spider-Man with Tobey and Sam Raimi, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I want this role so badly.’ So I met with Sam. It was a very brief meeting, but I thought we hit it off.”
Dunst waited; no call. “I was getting really depressed. I was, ‘Oh, God, I don’t have red hair, and they’re looking at all these redheads.’ ” She went to Berlin to film The Cat’s Meow for director Peter Bogdanovich, taking on the daunting role of Marion Davies, the silent-film star who was the mistress of the much older newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann) and the love toy of Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). Still no call. Until the one that informed her the director and star were flying over to audition her again, to see if there was any onscreen chemistry. “How intimidating, right?” Dunst says. “And I have three pages to do; two of them are crying scenes. I’d worked since five in the morning and had to get up at five the next day, and here I am in this makeshift meeting room with this little camcorder. I was so nervous. I had to go to the bathroom and have a little breathing session, get focused. I was listening to Coldplay the whole way there, getting myself in a state of mind to be emotional.” So what happened? “I kicked ass!”
(A few more words about music. And Coldplay. Dunst likes music with substance: Joni Mitchell, Jeff Buckley, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Bebel Gilberto, Jimi Hendrix and Patti Smith. But it is the British band Coldplay that has played a seminal role in the Dunst career of late; the group not only helped Dunst land her role in Spider-Man, it also helped her break the ice with Maguire. She took him to a Coldplay concert during the filming of Spider-Man. It was not a date, per se, but the show did fall on Valentine’s Day. Tongues wagged, as they do. Since then, both parties coldly play the same routine when asked whether they are an item. “I understand your curiosity,” Maguire starts. “But we’re just good friends,” Dunst finishes.)
I FIRST MET KIRSTEN DUNST in the fall of 2000. She was eighteen and the princess of both the megaplex and the art house. Bring It On, her cheerleader epic, had brought in nearly $100 million, and she’d won raves for Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Dunst was still living at home with her mother, Inez, and her brother, Christian, five years younger than Kirsten, plus a dog named Beauty and four cats.
We sit outside, having coffee by the pool, Kirsten in a green leopard-print sweater and comfy sweats. Inez bustles in. “Hey, can we make more coffee, Mommy?” Kirsten asks, pointing to my empty cup.
“I feel kinda bad. I poured him, like, a sip.”
“I don’t know if you noticed the blockades?” she says, pointing out some bunkers on the far side of the pool, where, she says, she does her laps. “My brother is a major paint-ball and soft-air-gun player.” “I don’t know that I want that your brother has his war games back here written up in ROLLING STONE,” booms Inez, returning with the coffee.
“Hey,” Kirsten replies, “at least it’s that instead of drugs.”
Inez smiles. “True.”
“My mom is very cool,” Kirsten says, beaming back. “I’m lucky. We’re more like friends than mother and daughter.”
WHEN DUNST AND I MEET again, months later, it is on the Valentine’s Day that she took Maguire to see Coldplay. She had time off from shooting Spider-Man, and over a bagel (which she scooped the center out of and stuffed with cream cheese), I surprised Dunst with a book called The Secret Language of Birthdays. She’s seen it before, but she gamely reads the entry for April 30th, the day she made her world debut. It is the birthday of Willie Nelson, Alice B. Toklas, Isiah Thomas and two European queens. “The Day of Dutiful Overload,” she begins reading. “For many born on this day, duty is a god.” She stops, looks at me. “God, I can relate to that.”
There’s more. “The need for April 30th people for affection from family and friends is also great,” she continues. “What they prize in relationships is freedom from irritations and strife, wishing both to be cared for and left alone.” True again, she notes. “I like people, but I like them better when they’re not with me. I’m not saying that I’m anti-social, but that’s the only thing I don’t like about going on sets for the first time, all that polite chitchat. You only get to know people on such a superficial level.”
Which, Dunst adds, is part of the problem with interviews, too. “How can anybody really know you, even if you spent five days with me? This is only pieces of me that they’re reading.”
Dunst knows this much: “I’m a caring person,” she says. “I always give money to homeless people, unless they look like they’re really just going to spend it on booze – then I buy them McDonald’s. I like tunafish sandwiches and pizza and bowling. I’m a big dork. People think I’m really mature for my age; then I can be so immature, it’s ridiculous.”
Dunst can also be so flirtatious and fun, witty and wise. Possessed by candor, she lets opinions fly on movies and music, sex and violence, even politics and religion.
What was your first, and your all-time favorite, film?
The first one I saw in a theater was Lady and the Tramp, with my father. Edward Scissorhands is my favorite. It makes me cry. I’m such a sap; my mother and I were sobbing in the airplane when we watched Stuart Little. Oh, but Edward Scissorhands! Had a crush on Johnny Depp when I was younger. I’ve always had a crush on him.
Did you ever have a guilty boy-band crush?
No. Even when I was younger and they were big, I could not stand New Kids on the Block. I remember my birthday party, when I got this hot-neon-pink New Kids hat, and I was so disgusted. [Sweetly, to me] You know, I made you a Lance Bass valentine because I know you like ‘NSync.
Do you find it easy to be frank and honest with men?
Not at all. Guys and girls can’t really be friends. They’re always thinking – and you’re thinking – what would it be like to be with them? I want to be like those Hollywood guys who are considered cool, dark and mysterious and get all the girls. If I was a man, I’d be such a player. Girls are never like that, really. Then you’re just considered a slut. That pisses me off.
What is your strangest possession? Most people screw around with you, right? Most people would say something like, “My dildo.” I seriously try to think, “What is the weirdest thing?” Maybe it’s my CD of German country music? It’s the funniest stuff you’ve ever heard – “Ich bin ein cowboy.”
What are the most ingenious inventions?
I don’t know why this springs into my head, but I watch infomercials sometimes. And there’s this mop that cleans up on the ceiling. It’s not even really ingenious. And then there’s this other stuff: They pour all this crap on a carpet and it goes away like . . . that. Even though it’s good for communication, the telephone’s an ingenious invention that I hate.
What couldn’t you live without?
My cats. I think maybe I was one in one of my previous lives.
Do you believe in reincarnation?
Absolutely. I’d like to go on John Edward’s Crossing Over and see if I can establish contact with Inky, my cat. I’m just waiting to hear the little footsteps of hers in the night.
How do you picture the end of the world?
I think we’ll just destroy ourselves.
Do you think that’s because we live in an era of spiritual bankruptcy?
I think a lot of people are losing their religion. Definitely. Even me, I know that when I grew up, I used to go to church every Sunday, and now it’s become holidays. But I think as long as you have your own thing, whether it’s meditation – anything that centers you in life is good. Do I pray? Yeah, I do.
Has God ever answered back?
I speak to him. I believe he guides me.
You have said you wanted to play a serial killer. Do you believe in “a life for a life”?
It’s a touchy thing. A lot of these people are so mentally unstable, I think they’re too quick with the death penalty. I almost think it’s worse to sit out your life in jail, in a lonely room, living with what you did. And then again, if someone murdered my child, I would want to kill them.
Are you pro-choice?
You could say you’re pro-life. But if your daughter was raped, how could you say you would want that growing inside your daughter’s belly?
When riled, do you sulk or speak out?
I can do both. I’m definitely one to kick and tear up things. I love to scream, but sometimes to piss people off it works so much better if you’re calm. Even though I hate people who are passive-aggressive. I wanna kick their ass.
WANT TO MAKE KIRSTEN DUNST MAD? Ask her about the whole food chain of the movie biz. “People don’t know who you are, so they treat you like shit,” she says. “And then, when they do find out, they suck up to you. It’s just so pathetic. I don’t like being treated any differently than any other person. And if I call somewhere and then I say my name, they’re like, ‘Why didn’t you say that?’ Like I’m gonna call up and say, ‘My name is Kirsten Dunst, I don’t know if you’ve seen my films, but. . .’ That grosses me out.”
Dunst has equal distaste for the fish-bowl effect that distorts romantic relationships between actors. “That’s why I’ve decided I’m not going to talk about love relationships anymore,” she says. (Dunst had already been down that road when she talked about dating Ben Foster, her co-star in the little-seen musical Get Over It, a title that, unfortunately, turned out to be accurate; when I ran into Dunst at an awards show and congratulated her on the convincing scene in which their characters fall in love, she replied, “That was a re-shoot. We’d already broken up by then.”)
Still, despite the gossips and the poseurs, she has decided to take up residence on the other side of the Valley in Los Angeles. She doesn’t make good tabloid fodder in any case. She’s unfailingly nice, even to the most gauche sycophants, and she doesn’t party, doesn’t have a personal trainer and doesn’t live on cigarettes and diet cola. Nevertheless, despite a winning girlieness, Dunst has grown up. She has reached that stage of self-awareness where the validation of nearly two decades as a successful actress has begun to edge out her adolescent anxieties. Sure, she worries, like every young woman, about finding Mr. Right, even while she concedes that when it comes to men, she is “picky.” She would like to be married and have kids someday. But mostly she wants “to connect with someone where it’s more than just physical; to be understood and to be listened to.”
Dunst has also stopped long enough to listen to her heart and understands that by trying to please other people you may not be able to please yourself. “It’s not that I’m insecure,” she says. “A lot of people are like, ‘I don’t give a shit what people think about me.’ I do, and I wish I didn’t as much. I know that I am strong. I can handle just about anything.”
And she has. First, there was the teasing by the other schoolchildren in New Jersey who made fun of little Kirsten because her mom would pick her up from school and drive her into New York to be an actress. Then, after she had played Tom Hanks’ daughter in The Bonfire of the Vanities, there was the move to California with her mom and brother. And then the meeting with Iris Burton, the famed child-actor agent who discovered River Phoenix. “We met at Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset,” Dunst recalls. “I was nine. She made me get up, turn around and walk back. She was so excited for me to meet River.” (They were both cast in Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, but he died tragically before they could meet.)
As Claudia, the baby ghoul raised by Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, Dunst was nominated for a Golden Globe and imprinted herself on a generation of moviegoers. Some experiences were a little more ardent – and goth – than a twelve-year-old should have to deal with. The following year, her parents, Inez and Klaus, who met and married while students at Carnegie Mellon, ended their estrangement with a divorce. (Though he never imagined that his daughter’s acting hobby would develop into a career, Klaus, who sells medical equipment to hospitals, lives in the Los Angeles area and sees his daughter and son often.)
Dunst took the divorce in stride, reasoning that opposites such as her parents would be better off apart. “I love my dad to death, but my dad is very conservative and reserved, while my mom is a free spirit, very vivacious. I look at her, and I’m like, ‘Ma, you should have been with some rockin’ musician.’ Maybe they were different together when they were younger. Or maybe they just had to get together to have my brother and me.”
The divorce left Kirsten the family breadwinner. “It doesn’t bother me that I support my family,” she says. “Of course, I do have some pressure on me, but we’re very blessed with our lifestyle. The thing I’m proud of is that I don’t feel like I’ve gotten here on an easy road. I come from this little town in New Jersey, and I’m proud to say that no one helped us and that I’ve lasted this long.”
Along the way, there have been unwise choices. “Accepting a movie that didn’t go anywhere,” she says, offering an example. “Not knowing all the information before I agree to do something, and not standing up for what I believe in and being influenced by other people.” Even in the last two years, after the twin triumphs of The Virgin Suicides and Bring It On, she has made a few straight-to-video films.
To ensure her longevity, Dunst has made some sweeping changes in her life in the past year. Once the biggest fish in her small pond, she has recently signed with Tobey Maguire’s manager and hired Jennifer Aniston’s publicist. She would like to get a place in New York, maybe a loft, so “I could be bicoastal.” Dunst has formed her own production company and has a corporate credit card. She tells her financial adviser, “I make it and spend it; you can deal with it. I hate dealing with numbers or money.”
Kirsten Dunst is twenty years old and many times a millionaire; she’s the survivor of a career as a child actor and a teen dream, stepping confidently into adulthood. Or almost. Though she has played the sex kitten in films, Dunst is uncomfortable with the idea of herself as calendar art. “I don’t try to be sexy,” she says. “If you’re sexy, it comes out. If you’re not, you’re not. And if you try to be, it just makes it too much.”
You could disagree. But these days, Kirsten Dunst just might kick your ass.