Kirsten Dunst | We Gotta Keep the Fire Burning, Come On, We Gotta Keep the Fire Burning

Featuring Gucci Ancora Spring-Summer 2024 via Issue 191, Fresh Cuts

Written by

Matthew Bedard

Photographed by

David Roemer

Styled by

Samantha McMillen

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All clothing, jewelry, and accessories by GUCCI.

Ever strolled the Century City Mall on a Thursday morning in February as the rest of the country grinds through its annualized cold, gritty, and gray? It’s awesome. Courtyard finches chirping. Spotless steel and glass. Some smiley dude manning a caviar cart near the escalators. Freelance couples, cheeks aglow, patiently waiting each others’ respective try-ons at H&M.The garlic and sesame-toasted come hither of Din Tai Fung. It’s industry. It’s freedom. It’s American dreaming.

Then you sit down inside AMC for a press screening of Kirsten Dunst’s latest film via A24, Civil War—a violent, near future, photojournalist-focused road movie that dutifully depicts what its title decrees. Written and directed by maximalist mood-shifter Alex Garland [Annihilation (2018), Ex Machina (2014)], the throttling drama leaves you upset, psychologically disemboweled, and shockingly unsure if even the delicious oolong boba tea you promised yourself post-film will actually assuage these unanticipated emotional rumblings. And frankly, you’re without words—at least discernible ones.

Alas, the babble elicited has an appointment with Kirsten Dunst mere hours later. She handles this predicament—as she so often seems to the straining contexts of her rangy filmic scenes— with grace and ease. “It really stays with you, doesn’t it?” she affirms of the film in a calming response to my rather tongue-tied description of what I’d just just seen (“it was... a fucking ride.”) I imagine the idyllic Century City scene hours prior descending into the cacophonous hellfire of Garland’s searing yet calculatedly unspecified prophecy.

“I hadn’t played a role like this,” Dunst says of what compelled her to Civil War, beyond a strong desire to work with Garland, “and I just knew whatever movie he’d make would be like something I’d never seen before. I mean, I haven’t seen anything like that.” 


Is there anyone in the Hollywood sphere that can be at once as ethereally effervescent yet tough as tacks as Kirsten Dunst?

Here she is, nimbly tip-toeing over corpses whose bright, fresh entrails fan out across the crumbling streets of Manhattan, unflinching through the smoke and screeching siren aftermath of a bombing that has just split a police-versus-civilian skirmish apart like a machete to a cantaloupe. What’s she doing? Taking pictures. And despite the self-possession, she appears almost ghost-like.

In her face, though, in the moment before all this, are those powerful eyes we’ve come to know are capable of so much, unwavering and cast in cerulean blue, framed by the softly splintering grooves of time spent in the journey’s proverbial saddle. She is weightless. She is weighted. She emits a hue that is distinctly her own. We are in her corner without thinking about it. 

You see, Kirsten Dunst casts spells. Or she’s under something of one. Where her artistry plows its own lane is in the ambiguity of this. It’s sparkly yet droll-eyed, floating through the poplars and silver maples of The Virgin Suicides (1999); the dismay at her realizing she’d previously elected to erase her own memory of an affair in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); succumbing to the heaviest repose her young journey has ever known, awaiting apocalypse in Melancholia (2011); the indulgent glee in her brilliant puppet dance performance via the charming series, On Becoming a God in Central Florida (2019); the Academy Award-nominated dedication to suicide by drink in The Power of the Dog (2021).

These moments are many, commencing in bits and bobs of commercial work as a child before a Golden Globe nomination for Interview with the Vampire (1994) at age 12 sent her CV stratospheric. Since then, there’s been hits like Bring it On (2000) and Spider-Man (2002); there’s been fame and luxury ambassadorships and red carpet severity. There’s been a pair of sons had over the last few years with fellow actor, Jesse Plemons— whom she met on the set of loved and lauded series, Fargo—the younger of whom she’ll tell me is something of “a bruiser” and is currently convinced, without irony, that he’s Spider-Man, casting “graceful webs” about the family home.


The Civil War synopsis: Dunst’s Lee is a brazen war and conflict photographer in the not-so-distant American future. Lee’s career was made famous in its infancy by her captures during the purposefully ambiguous “ANTIFA Massacre.” We learn about her industry notoriety through photography upstart and tagalong, Jessie, played by Cailee Spaeny. Lee and Jessie, along with contemporary, Joel (Wagner Moura), and industry veteran, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), embark on a road trip in their beat-up Reuters-issued press van from NYC to Washington DC for a chance to photograph and interview the President (Nick Offerman), all before the seemingly strengthening Western Front, a radical secessionist alliance of California and Texas (you read that correctly), overtakes the Oval Office and re-charts the future of the Republic. The scenario reads somewhat implausible from our comfortable cinema seat, yes, but history will tell us the inherent collapse of empire yields unforeseen alliances and dissolution.

En route to the Capitol, we learn US currency is useless. There’s civilian air strikes, vigilante violence and vigils, suicide bombings (two potent scenes in the film feature actual Suicide songs, go figure), and endless destruction, decay, and danger. Despite the dizzying dystopia, and a highly effective scrambling of who we, the viewer—beyond the press van—are supposed to be rooting for, the objective remains clear: get the shot, tell the story. 

“Journalists are the center of this,” Dunst remarks of the film’s point of view, and therefore its intensity. “You see their sacrifice, and what journalists go through to tell the truth, and so you’re left to draw your conclusions between the content, or any real-world things. What’s scary and exhilarating and terrifying about the film is in the way Alex shot it. Nothing feels phony or forced and that’s what makes it so disturbing.”

Civil War’s scene treatment is indeed a hyper-technical, boundary-pushing exercise in actual front lines immersion—along with the sinister concept of ‘collateral damage’ of modern warfare. We ingest this, of course, at a moment in history when our 24-hour feeds are filled with brutal and bloody offenses in territorially disputed zones across the world, when children are starving because of civil war, when bodies are flying home to be wrapped in flags of origin for reasons with which many of us continue to grapple.

In one of the few reflective moments in the film, Lee expresses dismay that the pictures she’s created—intended as warnings for what not to do—have done so little to discourage the carnage lain out before her, the incensed factions they continue to encounter. “It’s a fable and a warning,” Dunst considers when I ask her what Civil War says about disturbing imagery and our nonstop news cycles. “And it’s so disturbing to see this sort of thing on American soil, and that’s why Alex did it here. It’s about what war brings out in countries, because there’s division all over the world.”

Division is trickier to distill in Lee herself. Any show of dualism—a personality trait perhaps more common in people than it is rare—has been carved down to an arrowhead. I make the somewhat ill-phrased remark that Lee feels almost without exposition. Dunst is tonally measured, but counters firmly. “Hmmmmm, that’s interesting,” she affords me, kindly. “I had it [exposition] for myself, obviously. I think you feel Lee’s burden of what she’s been through, and I think you feel that she’s the kind of person that doesn’t even, like, enjoy going to dinner anymore. Simple life pleasures are gone. And I think you have that deadness in part of Lee that starts to kind of come alive by meeting Jessie, and it pains Lee in a way, because she knows what Jessie will end up being. To me, I was able to put that into the nuance of what I was dealing with in the film.”

Again, a film like this warrants time to process. But more than that, everything that Kirsten Dunst does is about nuance, and nuance, too, takes marination. It’s not at all that Lee is without exposition; it’s that her history and the world she now occupies are fucking harrowing, plotted on a completely unrelatable continuum. She shares, though, that when she viewed the final cut about a year ago, she was pleased that some of the script’s expositional dialogue had been struck, that the film had turned a corner into “more of an action film.” Performances and strong storytelling, Dunst will share, are often about “what isn’t being said”—much more preferred than overt overtures.

Whether it’s this deliberate restraint—or participating in something she doesn’t feel possesses a likeness in the filmic canon—Dunst will tell me below that above any story, it’s the directors that truly compel her to do projects. She’ll tell me about the freeing nature of motherhood. About that moment in mentorship when equity glints through the exchange. About our sometimes fraught need to find groups and belong. And afterward, I’ll shake my head at her cool demeanor, at her ability to listen and consider and defy to delightful lengths.


What’s your thinking on the higher calling of these war photographers?

Once you get a taste of it, nothing is as real as what you’ve experienced. After that, how can anything compare adrenaline-wise—all of it—to these horrors of what you’ve seen? Nothing can change that or take that out of you, and so you have to continue on the path.

This bonds Lee and the younger Jessie—this connection through adrenaline and purpose. What do you feel the film says about mentorship?

There’s a continuation of legacy and purpose, and a mutual soul understanding that happens between mentors and their mentees. The people in my life, those that I looked up to, I remember a distinct moment of kind of becoming equals. And that relationship is pretty rare—and pretty important with any job you have—or in life. I feel like I have that with Sofia [Coppola], I feel like I can be that for Cailee. When you have those real connections, and really understand each other’s truths, and what they’re trying to do in their lives or profession, and you have those people to call and ask for advice, or whatever it is... you listen. And you need that. It’s like those people you meet that open something in you up because they are so close to who you are. 

So mentorship, or that soulful connection, is about seeing yourself in someone else?

I think you don’t realize, though, that you’re seeing them... when you’re in it, you don’t think, ‘Oh, she’s like me.’ I think when Lee is in it, she’s more like, ‘Oh no, she’s igniting these feelings again in me, and now I have to look at myself.’

So Cailee embodies, maybe, a previous version of Lee?

I feel like my character is pretty asexual when it comes to, like, anything. I feel like she’s just on her own and has kind of made peace with that. But I think Cailee’s character ignites something very profound—and it could be love, friendship, anything that’s real and alive—a bond she hasn’t had in who knows how long.

Was there a discussion or prompt in your preparation for channeling this sort of extreme life philosophy in Lee?

There was a whole part where we were in the helicopter where I’m talking about that—it ended up cut out, that part—but you know, it’s all in there. I was meant to consider a heroin addict... and I remember looking at something online because it was so hard for me to connect with that feeling. I saw this family who lost their kids because they were just, like, fucking addicted to drugs. I was like, well, what if I had a family, and this is my world, and this is more important to me than potentially dying and leaving them all alone? And that’s really, really painful.

Being a fairly new mother, what are you bringing to projects that has been infused by your real-world experience of bringing kids up?

Right after I had my first kid, it just gave me a freedom I’d never felt before. I was like, ‘Fuck it.’ It made me a more free actress and someone who just didn’t care about messing up—it gave me more confidence as a performer. I mean, I haven’t worked as much because of having kids, but I’ve also always been a very picky person when it comes to the roles, or the directors, that I worked with, because to me, it’s all about the director. I don’t care. I really don’t. I would say it’s all director to me. That’s kind of a rule I’ve always lived by, and so it takes me a while until I meet that right person to work with.

When you talk about that confidence, is that because you’ve been through something so profound now that has superseded so many of life’s other experiences?

I think that when you’re a mom, it’s so much more weighted in the way you see the world for them—or your fears—everything gets so much more heightened. And also when you have time away from them and you’re working, you give more of yourself, I think, because you’re not with them. Time off to me is working at this point. And that time for myself is more meaningful. And so I think I’m able to give more. And I think it’s true: when you have children, they also make you face your own insecurities about whatever it is in life. Like they force you to really question a lot of things—how you live your life, what you do, it really brings all your own issues to the forefront, too. And so I think I just got less and less afraid of exposing myself.

Do you connect exposure to vulnerability when it comes to performance?

My favorite performances that I watch are always the most vulnerable. Like your heart aches almost, because when you’re watching something and you really feel it, you know that that person has really given you themselves. That’s why I love what I do. It’s surrounded by a really difficult industry, but I do love what I do, and much of that is said by having given to a kind of deep extent.

Your love of it is defined by how much you’ve given?

I think you have to not be afraid to just let it all hang out, basically. There’s zero vanity.You want to tell the truth for the crew, and for yourself, and for whoever’s watching it. You want the story to be as real as possible, I guess.

Journalists are thought to be truth-tellers, even if in today’s world that role tends to fuel the divides felt so much in the film... and yet the journalists have a sort of immunity here, no matter the side.

It’s interesting, because I think Alex wanted to not have that polarization, and to have it be up to the audience’s interpretation. I think the film appeals to our humanity in a way where we’re just not communicating with each other anymore. We’re not listening to each other, and we’re not treating each other like human beings. I really thought that was so moving—there’s something really moving underneath this whole movie, and it’s very sad to see as Americans. It’s an action film, but it also digs down into the horrors of war and how it divides people.

It will no doubt stir some pots. It’s no doubt going to be talked about, right?

It will ignite a lot of issues. Nobody wants something like this to happen. I mean, maybe some people, I guess, but nobody truly wants it. Ultimately, it’s a piece of fiction. It’s not a forecast, but in the news and media, this has been drummed up a lot—these divisions—obviously. So I think it’s intended to shock people and wake people up rather than, you know, put politics at the center.

War knows endless sacrifice, and these front-line photo journalists’ version of sacrifice is fairly self-evident, but you hear sometimes about the notion of sacrifice with parenthood. What are your thoughts there?

I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing right now at all. I feel very fucking fortunate, to be honest. My husband’s doing really well in his work. I’m, for the first time, really trying to find what makes me fulfilled—not just as an actress, but making time for myself and doing things and finding hobbies, because I’ve grown up doing this my whole life, and I didn’t really have time to do that. I’ve never had to figure that out so much, plus I haven’t done a movie recently. I have things in development, but I haven’t done a movie since this movie. But I’m ready. I’m like a racehorse on the gates that’s waiting for that gun to go off. I am ready to do some shit.

I was shaking my head at the perhaps symbolic choice of Suicide by Alex Garland for some of the soundtrack. What does the film say about self-destruction to you?

I mean, it seems like self-destruction when it comes to war, which is all about religion—what God you’re fighting for—and that’s the problem. No one should be looked at as a lesser human being because of the God they grew up with. When I grew up, I grew up going to temple with my best friend across the street, and she’d go to church with me. That’s how I was raised. But when you’re in extremist situations, obviously you’re going to have very extreme, unrealistic ideals. No one’s born, you know, to hate someone, obviously, but if you’re raised that way... so I think, ‘Who’s your God?’ is basically the biggest question here.

And certainly violence is a kind of god in this film?

It’s just, like, pent-up stuff... like if everyone could go to a therapist or have people listen to them, or support for mental health—you know, help—things might be better. I think mental health issues are probably one of the biggest in our country. And that’s with good reason.

And a lot of that pent-up energy is derived from our endless feeds, right?

I don’t know. Anytime I go on Instagram, it never makes me feel good. Especially during the pandemic... I was like, ‘Who the fuck are these people going on yachts?’ People used to just be mindful to sit in the park, or wait for something, and just sit there with yourself, and observe and look around you, and acknowledge another person, but now you can just disappear into your phone.

I think that that can make people very vulnerable to being very depressed and turning to groups to feel like they’re part of something.

And yet, the Civil War message is not trying to beat you over the head with an ethical imperative... No, no. Or be like,‘We’re the liberal filmmakers...’ And that’s always the risk, I suppose, with Hollywood projects—taking on some of these topics is just gonna have inevitable kickback about elitism and things. Already the trailer kind of gave a lot of like, ‘Oh, Texas and California are united. Sure.’ But people can in fact join forces when things are so fractured or unpredictable.

You witness all that vitriol and anguish and still come back to those age-old realizations: people are just longing for connection, right?

Yeah, and that’s all we have when we’re on our deathbed. That’s it. All you have are the people that you did this ride with. I like that it doesn’t spell things out for you—like, where these people are coming from necessarily. I’m really excited. I haven’t been this excited for a movie to come out in a while that I’ve been a part of. 

Photographed by David Roemer at Atelier Management

Styled by Samantha McMillen at The Wall Group

Written by Matthew Bedard

Hair: Owen Gould using Oribe at The Wall Group

Makeup: Melanie Inglessis at Forward Artists

Set Designer: Danielle von Braun  at Art Department Agency

Flaunt Film: Mynxii White at Exclusive Artists Management

Digital Tech: Michael Seeley

Production: Chloe Cussen

Photo Assistant: Andy Lei

Production Assistant: Maria Kyriakos

Location: Dust Studios LA

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Flaunt Magazine, Issue 191, Fresh Cuts, Kirsten Dunst, Gucci, Gucci Ancora Spring-Summer 2024, Matthew Bedard, David Roemer, Samantha McMillen