Kirsten Dunst

GQ, Apr 2002

Kiss of the Spider Woman: Suddenly Kirsten Dunst is the sexiest thing in Hollywood. Still just 19, she’s at the center of the web of hype that surrounds this year’s biggest movie, Spider-Man.

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Photograph by Cliff Watts

In the corner of a bijou coffee house on Sunset Boulevard, where Alcoholics Anonymous holds its star-studded meetings, there’s a pretty young girl in a bright pink top waving a white hankie at me. It’s Spiderman’s girlfriend, although today, she’s suffering from a different kind of bug. She’s dabbing her nose and sucking on a sachet of some sort. “It’s honey,” she croaks, really working on the sachet. “For my throat.”

So I turn all remedial, as you do when a pretty girl feels poorly. Maybe try some ginger tea, have you had your vitamin C, how’s your temperature, do you want to postpone, I mean if you’re sick, you’re sick… But she turns to me, smiling weakly through her watery blue eyes. “No, no, thank you,” she bleats, “I’ll soldier on.” She coughs and points to the tape recorder. “Shall we move somewhere quieter away from the coffee machine?”

Kirsten Dunst has every reason to feel a little rundown, the poor girl hasn’t stopped working barely since she could walk. Since she was three in fact when her mum started putting her in for commercials in New Jersey. By the age of eight she’d done 70. Then her parents split up and she followed her mother out to Los Angeles, but not for the sunshine and beaches, oh no. “I came out here to work,” she says, sniffing. And she did, fitting the serious business of stardom in between high school classes. By the end of this year she’ll have supported her family for the last decade, she’ll have completed roughly 30 movies and set up a production company called Wooden Spoon. And by the end of this week, with or without a cold, she’ll have moved into her first house, completed a raft of interviews for Spiderman, learnt a whole new set of lines and flown to Montreal to shoot her next movie, a moody drama called Levity, featuring Billy Bob Thornton. And she’s only 19.

“I think out of everything I’ve done so far,” she says, plucking another sachet from the tub, “Spiderman is definitely the biggest deal. Biggest budget, biggest profile, biggest everything. I’ve already signed up for two sequels.” Indeed, as Mary Jane Watson, Peter Parker’s bombshell classmate, Dunst will become a household name and as rich as a teenager can dream. For the last six months, she has attended to the feverish hype,  stoked constantly by a global and beavering Marvel fanbase. She has spent lunch breaks cooped up in a trailer with shrill Japanese reporters – “Miss Kirsten! Miss Kirsten! Which spider is favourite?” And she has been presented with, during morning make-up, a macabre collection of dolls heads, her own included. This voodoo gesture is in fact a merchandising obligation – she was to comment and return them to the dollmakers. “The makers all said that they’ve never had such intricate notes on the dolls faces – cheekbones too high, nose too wide… I don’t know why we didn’t get the bodies too, but I do know that she’s got huge boobs, Mary Jane.” So it’s definitely based on you then. “Yeah, I don’t need any help in that department.”

Since Spiderman promises to be such a clamour of special effects, the acting obligations of Spiderman fringe on the bizarre, all that acting-to-nothing in front of variously coloured screens. She recalls dodging imaginary pumpkin bombs against a blue background listening to the director shout, “OK see the air conditioner, that’s the goblin. Scream!” She also spent an inordinate time hanging from harnesses, an exercise she’s glad to be done with. “You know where they go…” She points delicately to the general area. “Well, I was only wearing thin tights. It chafed.” Her favourite time, however, was the falling scene. “I was lying back in a chair, looking at the ceiling, shaking my legs and arms in the air and screaming.”

Mary Jane Watson is the kind of high school role that Dunst has made her own in recent years – while she was at high school in fact. As a former child star, Dunst has grown through her parts and in so doing fairly sewn up the teen-girl franchise. She does a passable dumb teen in “Dick”, in which she goes from walking the White House dog to advising the Nixon government. She does a great tantrum teen, in Crazy/Beautiful, which finds her popping pills, screaming on porches and dragging young hispanic boys to bed in full view of her father. But her most bankable roles have been the feelgood blondes of those tweenie popcorn hits like American Pie. You may remember her inspirational cheerleader captain in the unrestrained knickerfest of Bring It On. And a perfect high school belle in the romantic comedy, Get Over It, in which she developed an off-screen thing with her co-star, the dorky Ben Foster.

(If you believe the whispers, Dunst did it again – that is, she got busy with Spidey, aka Tobey Maguire, another vaunted young overachiever. But she denies it all. “We’re just friends,” she says, bluntly. “I swear to God.”)

I suggest that of all the schoolgirl babes she has played, Mary Jane Watson is the ultimate archetype – after all she is the fantasy of a boffin who in his secret life activates his wrist and jets forth a silken rope of sticky organic matter. But she shies from her own pinup potential.

“You know what, I’m so over that whole sex symbol thing,” she says, bashfully. “I’d rather be recognised as a good actress that moves people rather than a hot chick.” It doesn’t help that she has recently played a cheerleader and a beauty pageant winner, of course, but she has a point. Dunst is a truly accomplished actress. “Oh yeah I’ve done some doozies,” she says, “but so far it’s been a pretty smooth ride.” In addition to her cheerleaders and high school heartthrobs, she’s been a vampire, a brat, a tragic Russian peasant woman, William Randolph Hearst’s mistress in The Cat’s Meow and a young Amy March in Little Women. Which is not to say she doesn’t look terrific in a bikini. She does. But as for taking her top off, that’s quite out of the question. “I won’t do nudity because it’s not necessary,” she bristles. “You don’t have to go nude to be sexual.”

I tell her that Holly Hunter, with whom she’ll be working on Levity, got her ya-yas out in Crash without compromising herself as an artist. But she won’t have it. After watching the sex scenes In Crazy/Beautiful with her mother – not “the sex scenes with her mother”, wash your brain out – she even demanded that 2 minutes of nookie be excised.

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Admittedly, she doesn’t ooze sexuality in person. Rather she’s a self-confessed girly girl in a pink top and politely long denim skirt, who once collected Barbies, the old-fashioned kind. Though conventionally pretty – slim, blonde and curvy – her round, cherubic doll-face has a wholesome ordinary repose. Nobody comes rushing up to our table to gawp and fawn. You could easily miss Dunst in a crowd.

Having said that, she can turn it on. In the Virgin Suicides, for example, she plays the most sexually voracious of a houseful of sisters, who all eventually kill themselves – it’s an enigmatic downer, the antidote to Bring It On. Dunst’s role is quiet and ambiguous and finds her on the roof of the house humping all-comers to the delight of her neighbours, a gang of (again) teenage boys. “I had white tights on for that!” She laughs. “And when I was in that scene with Josh Hartnett” – she had him on a football field – “you can totally see them! It’s hilarious.”

It is an aspect of Dunst’s sheer talent, that she can transform her pleasant, open features from pale, dowdy teen with issues, to a lithe, glowing siren in a strapless dress and kick-off heels, beckoning you hither as she leads you upstairs. Growing up has helped, too. While she looked every inch the teen doll when she was voted one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in 1995 – at 14! – now she has grown longer of leg and fuller of breast – without the surgeon’s knife either, unlike many of her LA peers.

“Why would I get a boob job?” she asks, mentioning her rack once again. “I got plenty of boobs.” She looks down to make a quick check. “Now, my nose, though, I hate my nose.” It’s a buttony nose, I tell her, dinky and cute. “I don’t know, do you think so? I hate it. But you spend so much time looking at yourself as an actress, you get sick of it all after a while.”

Dunst first sat in front of make-up mirrors for a living at around the age she could shit without a chaperone. From commercials to movies, she kept climbing all the way. Aged 8, she was Tom Hanks’ daughter in Bonfire of the Vanities, way back in 1990. And then she had her ‘big break’, which came the way that a million teenage girls would dream it – snogging Brad Pitt in Interview With A Vampire, a role for which she won a Golden Globe nomination and all kinds of Best Young Actress awards. (And rightly so, she acted most of ‘Vampire’s adults off the screen.) But young Kiki, as her mother calls her, was too young to enjoy it.

“It was only a light kiss anyway.” she says. “And no, there were no tongues! I was only 11! Boys are kind of gross when you’re that young.” Did it ruin her honest teenage fantasies, constantly acting alongside the pinups of her classmates – your Pitts and Cruises and Hartnetts? “No, not really. I never really had pin-ups. I was never into New Kids On The Block or Take That. Johnny Depp was the only one.” She giggles. “I haven’t done a movie with him yet!”

‘Child star’ rings all kinds of alarms – Therapy! Prozac! Heroin! More Therapy! – but Dunst seems relatively unscathed by it all. If anything, she’s remarkably sane and sunny. “My mum like totally keeps me grounded,” she explains, betraying a hint of Valley Girl. She’s not without her demons though. “You know everyone perceives me as very sweet, I guess because I played a cheerleader, but everyone has a darker side. I love tormented love poetry,” she says. “I love Sylvia Plath, and Bukowski’s poetry just for the brutalness of it. And have you heard of Edna St Vincent Millay? She’s from the 19th century, she’s aahsum.”

Is Dunst similarly tortured, in spite of her terrific success? Is she prone to plummet into agonies untold? “No, no. And anyway your depression usually passes. Just go to therapy and you’re all good. I did!” She laughs. And then quickly makes that ‘oops’ face. “Oops, I said it. Didn’t mean to. Let’s say, I don’t go to therapy now but I have been to therapy.” As for Prozac or heroin, however, the answer is an emphatic no.

She won’t say what first drove her to therapy, only that “it was nothing to do with acting at all. Some people do things to you and… it’s not good.” But it’s not really that shocking – ‘child star seeks therapist’. Although her ineffable rise may not have struggled with party girl press (“I don’t really go to parties”), a lurid tabloid sex life or even speculations about her virginity (she dashed those last year, culprit unknown), her life hasn’t been without hiccup. Her parents’ divorce, for example, followed by years of being judged by juries and casting agents.

“I’m OK though, don’t worry! I feel like I’m in a good place right now,” she says, in fluent therapese. “I mean I’m not an insecure person, I just think I could have better self-esteem.” Wow. Esteem? She’s 19 with a massive 3 picture deal. When I was 19 I was whacking off and sponging off my parents.

“I’m a people-pleaser, that’s my trouble,” she explains, in her shruggy affable way. She once said she became a cheerleader to “kind of fit in more and be in the in-crowd.” And true enough, when I ask her to choose between Tupac or Biggie she is all at sixes and sevens. “Oh that’s so sad because they’re both dead, I feel bad to choose one. I enjoyed both of their music.” Which makes her a people-pleaser even if the people are dead. For some reason she didn’t hesitate in picking Meryl Streep over Julia Roberts, though. “And Britney beats Christina hands down”.

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It was unfair to ask Dunst about Tupac since rap’s not really her scene. She’s more of a Joni Mitchell fan, a self-proclaimed young fogey who grew up listening to whatever her mum listened to. “Les Miserables, the soundtrack, and Eric Clapton, Cat Stevens, Neil Young,” she rattles them off, demonstrating the opposite to insecurity – rather she seems immune to any pressure to be cool. But fogey or otherwise, Dunst is impossible to dislike. She’s cheerful, grateful and a little fragile but no less dedicated, polite and ridiculously well-adjusted to her sickening success. She’s an instinctive actress whose achievements in the spring of her career forecast imminent greatness before she reaches anything like my age. And yet with all those reflexes that bark against the little-miss-perfects of this world, even those who visit therapists, you can’t resent Kirsten. Rather you want to protect her. Particularly when she’s got this terrible cold. She’s leaving her mum’s for the first time, moving out into a little cottage of her own, on the other side of the Hollywood Hills. “I’m going to have to have a girlfriend sleep over every night,” she says. “I’m a bit scared to be in the house by myself.”

As she leaves for her slick black BMW X5, I tell her to drive safe, don’t get stopped. And she winds down the window. “You know what I got stopped last week. Those damn cops in Culver City. I was so mad. What my friend does, he never gets stopped, because when he went to take his picture for the driving licence he wore a priest’s outfit. It’s a good idea, huh?” She thinks for a moment. “Maybe I should dress up as a nun!”