I lead to the second floor—she’s soon laughing off the spilled coffee I put down my leg negotiating the stairs—in search of a spot to settle for our interview. We lean about the deserted, stripped-down rooms, each space dressed with an orderly disarray of paraphernalia; electric blue glitter-paint Monkey bikes idle beside salvaged mannequins, and, all around, monumental lighting fixtures moor to the bare floors, readied for the shoot later.
Finally we’re colluding around a table on this East London roof terrace talking Dunst’s latest picture, until the uncharacteristic morning heat pushes us into an adjacent—though no less spartanly—lounge.
The Two Faces of January, by first-time director/screenwriting veteran Hossein Amini—an adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel—turns out to be a taut and handsome period thriller, skinning the knuckles with the kind of tense, sepia-haze set pieces that brought The Talented Mr. Ripley to life so vividly before it.
“Hoss is just a special man,” Dunst says. “I’ve worked with plenty of first-time directors before, but the material has to be what I want to do.” She says this knowingly, being in at such an early age, perhaps, having made her world more unique.
“That transition [from a child actor] doesn’t happen to many of us. When it does, I think that you’re really meant to be doing this. A lot of people stop or it’s too hard to transition,” she says, shuffling forward in her seat, leaning close. “But people don’t want to see you as an adult. I’m 32 now—that transition was done for me with [Sofia Coppola’s] The Virgin Suicides. That movie helped me go from a little girl to ‘growing up.’”
But no one enters or escapes Hollywood unscathed. One of the difficulties Dunst notes having is that of self-belief. She’s hesitant to write or direct movies, a job in which her current post might provide rare comprehension. “I don’t know if I have the confidence to do that,” she admits, “to be that open, to write, direct. It’s a vulnerable position.”
A problem possibly exasperated by the ever-ravenous media, “Our society just picks everything apart, so much that sometimes it takes the fun out of being creative.” Dunst seems to shrink as she stares into an exposed brick alcove across the floor, inside of which is the crumbling mural of some Boschian horrorscape. “It’s the Internet; the need for information all the time. So—not that I am—it just makes you very careful.” It’s a hypnotically austere space, this house, I realize, as we move on, discussing Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s requiem for depression, in which Dunst took home the Best Actress gong at Cannes in 2011.
Dunst relaxes into a kind of Beat rhythm. “Lars sets it up [so that] you want to make him happy.” And it’s perhaps this therapeutic side of performing that keeps alight her passion for cinema. “You’re having a great cathartic experience, and you really want to do your best for Lars. He’s one of the only directors [out] of [the] great filmmakers—[alongside] Pedro Almódovar and Sofia [Coppola]—that writes movies for women.
“Lars makes movies about complicated and dark women—the more interesting aspects of femininity, and the relationships between women and sexuality. You don’t really have that experience with anyone else but him. And I love that everyone says that he’s a tyrant or he puts women through miserable things. He’s the only one giving us an opportunity to be crazy and do things that are real but nobody writes about.”
Working with von Trier on Melancholia saw Dunst go through perhaps the most testing time in her career—not because of the film or its infamously protean director—but because she had suffered her own black fug not long before production. I’m left to wonder how much of that serenity is a façade, and that passing doubt itself confirms her media-wary prejudice.
“I don’t leave The Valley,” she says of home, leaning back into her brown leather armchair. “You kind of find your pocket and you just stay there. I feel like whenever I’m in London and I have my neighborhood, I never leave it unless I really have to—it’s just creature comforts.” With Dunst there are those occasional flashes of something kept hidden or protected; her sentences run on in a kind of paradoxical slow/staccato tempo, the occasional hands on closed knees, eyes sidelong—trapped, now and then, as if unable to talk freely for fear of reprisals. Even the neighborhood where she’s staying in London is only hesitantly revealed. And here, in that moment we find a second source of hesitation.
“There are great female roles out there [but] there’s only so much out there for all of us. Everyone has to audition when it comes to certain parts, and women have to the most. I still think it’s a boys' club in a lot of ways. And to be a strong female in this industry, you have to be really in touch with your masculine side, too. You have to be a pretty strong lady to survive it. You have to be very confident in yourself. Again, it’s that inherent dilemma of so public an art: “It’s hard to keep the professional separate, because it’s a very intermixed thing. You do use your life when you’re acting; you use everything that you can. But when I’m not working, I stay out of the industry as much as possible.” But that avoidance of the more toxic neon of Hollywood is perhaps what has kept the Dunst star rising; she’s just completed her turn in Jeff Nichols’ iteration of a sci-fi, Midnight Special—due out in November 2015—alongside Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, and Adam Driver. “Before we started making it,” she says, “I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There’s stuff in that you’ll see.”
Kirsten Dunst, it seems, is only truly hesitant when it comes to the subject of Internet gossip, about things not yet finalized, and yet at the same time she seems eager to move past that struggle. “I think I’m very open and honest,” she says, a trifle piqued. “I don’t have my acting persona and my normal life. I don’t feel like I need to hide anything. Of course things are written about you, you don’t have any control over that, that’s fine—it’s part of being an actor.”
And, indeed, things are written about her. Recently berated across Twitter, Jezebel, and all associated, for being quoted as saying women belong in the home.
“I was talking about my mother—obviously I’m a feminist,” she says, laughing. “It’s ridiculous that anyone would think other of me.” Her mother, the force that started Dunst on her way to the silverest of screens, is part of that tightly knit home life in The Valley. And she seems happiest returning there soon, hanging out, watching Jeopardy with her grandma, and ducking from the wilder heat of Los Angeles. But for now, as she heads downstairs to hair and makeup, it’ll be what Stoke Newington has to offer—Monkey bikes and mannequins.
“You do use your life when you’re acting; you use everything that you can.”
Photographer: Jason Hetherington for SerlinAssociates.com. Stylist: Leith Clark for dandvmanagement.com. Hair: George Northwood for emmadaviesagency.com. Makeup: Florrie White for dandvmanagement.com. Manicure: Shreen Gayle for Premierhairandmakeup.com. Digital Operator: Andrew Mayfield. Photography Assistant: Dan Benson. Styling Assistant: Kristina Golightly.
Beauty Notes: Photo Finish Foundation Primer, Liquid Halo HD Foundation Broad Spectrum SPF 15 in light warm beige, Always sharp waterproof kohl liner in brown with shimmer, and Be legendary lipstick in true red by Smashbox Cosmetics.