The days of vampire flicks and plucky teenage cheerleader movies are long gone – Kirsten Dunst is all grown up and back on screen with a live-wire performance in pitch-black comedy series On Becoming a God in Central Florida.
Set in 1990s Florida, working mom Krystal has to scheme her way through a system set up for failure. ‘It is a story of false image, desperation and exploitation, one that gets at the core lie of the American dream,’ as Vanity Fair puts it. While Tiger King has its tigers, On Becoming a God in Central Florida features Kirsten firing a shotgun into a swamp of alligators and dismembering one to feed her daughter.
‘It’s about a mother trying to make it work!’ says the 38-year-old actress. ‘I get to put things that are ugly into my roles. I can express my rage through Krystal. It ends up almost being therapeutic in a way. I could play Krystal because I understand her, but also I get to release those things.’ Kirsten – who has a two-year-old son, Ennis – says that motherhood has ‘deepened her understanding of her character’. ‘The whole drive of Krystal is to really survive for her and her daughter.’ In one scene, she hands her infant daughter a roll of paper towel to play with – one of those things Kirsten says she wouldn’t have thought twice about if she hadn’t been a mom.
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She also felt that it was necessary for the writers to address where Krystal’s baby was in every scene, ‘because I would call that out if I was watching this show’. The actress injects her own cool-headed charm into the character, which has been touted as one of her finest portrayals yet. ‘It’s one of the best performances Dunst’s ever given, verbally, physically and emotionally,’ raved Rolling Stone. ‘Krystal’s personality is all sharp edges, in contrast to the post-pregnancy voluptuousness that she uses as a weapon of last resort.’ Kirsten revealed that she had watched Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Toddlers & Tiaras in preparation for her role. ‘I watched a little bit to get that freedom of not having poise and being out there a little bit more,’ she explains. ‘Krystal is doing anything to survive and make money for her daughter, and to save her house.
She’s getting hit on the head over and over again, so I think watching her struggle with such ferocity is fun because she doesn’t take anything lying down.’ Kirsten has never shied away from portraying complicated female characters. Her eclectic filmography ranges from the teen rebel spunk of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette to a depressed newlywed in Lars von Trier’s masterpiece Melancholia, for which she won the award for Best Actress at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. She’s clearly a successful film star – so why the move to television? ‘I think the movie star as an idea is kind of dead,’ she says. ‘I feel like I got to be a part of that in the ’90s… It felt like: “Movies are important!” Now it feels like a totally different time for film – it’s just remakes and action movies and kids’ movies.’ This is not Kirsten’s first venture into television. In 2016, her performance in the black comedy/crime series Fargo earned her an Emmy nomination. But since then she’s been ‘super picky’ about her next TV role.
‘Also, I wanted to do something fun,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to spend my time crying.’ The moment she read the pilot script for On Becoming a God in Central Florida by creators Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, Kirsten was hooked. She signed on right away, both as a cast member and as a producer. Her first idea was to bring her Melancholia co-star Alexander Skarsgård on board to play Krystal’s irresponsible husband. ‘I knew he was really funny and that this would be fun for him,’ she says. ‘Even on Melancholia, he was so fun and sweet, and he’s usually cast in more serious roles. People get to see him in a new light.’ Alexander can’t help but gush about his on-screen wife. ‘Kirsten is one of the funniest people I know,’ he says. ‘On the set of Melancholia, she had the cast and crew in stitches as the planet was about to be obliterated by a massive meteor, and we laughed our way through the last gasp of a withering marriage in On Becoming a God in Central Florida.
I eagerly await the third chapter of our death and destruction-themed collaboration – it’s gonna be a hoot!’ Her next project is The Power of the Dog, directed by Jane Campion, in which she will star alongside Paul Dano and Benedict Cumberbatch. The role was originally meant for Elisabeth Moss, who had to drop out reportedly due to scheduling conflicts. ‘I feel for her,’ Kirsten says. ‘It sucks, and it’s happened to me, too. But I’m also, like, “Great!”’ Despite an acting career that started when she was just six, Kirsten’s parents tried their utmost to give her a normal childhood. ‘Being a child actress can be unhealthy for your psyche,’ she says. ‘But my mom always sent me to normal school, so I never missed out on the prom or field trips or any of that stuff.’ Her family first lived in New Jersey, where her German father, Klaus, was a medical services executive; later, when her parents separated, 11-year-old Kirsten moved to Los Angeles with her mother. Her parents, she says, were an unlikely match from the start. Her mom, Inez, is ‘like an Italian or a Jewish mother – her house is loud and there’s tons of food’, whereas her father is ‘pretty German’. ‘I have, from him, such a strong work ethic. I see how hard he is on himself, you know what I mean? I think in the past I have been really hard on myself, but only for work and to do my best. The work ethic he gave me is good, but also it’s good to relax and be proud of what you have done.’
Kirsten has grown up before our eyes. The world watched her have her first on-screen smooch with Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire (well, she was 10 and he was 30; it was more of a peck, to be honest); get trapped in a magical board game in Jumanji; embody a teen cheerleader who leads her squad to victory in Bring It On (once dubbed ‘the Citizen Kane of cheerleader movies’ by a film critic); and portray an object of teen infatuation in The Virgin Suicides. And then, of course, there was ‘that kiss’ with Spider-Man. Upside-down, in the rain – is it any wonder it became an iconic moment in pop culture? Not that it’s an excuse, but it might even explain why, when Kirsten was recently awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame after about 25 years in showbiz, Reuters described her as ‘best known for her role as Spider-Man’s girlfriend’. Fans were not impressed, calling the news organisation out for its sexist swipe at Kirsten’s almost 30-year film career.
The post was deleted soon after. Kirsten seemed unsurprised by the tweet, lamenting to Larry Flick on his SiriusXM radio show that she’s ‘never been recognised’ in her industry. ‘I’ve never been nominated for anything. Maybe like twice for a Golden Globe when I was little and one for Fargo,’ she said. ‘Maybe they just think I’m the girl from Bring It On.’ She also noted that many of her roles became cult classics well after their release. ‘Remember when Marie Antoinette [came out] – y’all panned it? And now you all love it. Remember Drop Dead Gorgeous? Panned. Now you all love it.’ Controversy aside, Kirsten is thrilled to have her name on the Walk of Fame. Her fiancé – actor Jesse Plemons, who starred alongside Kirsten in Fargo, in which they played married couple Ed and Peggy Blumquist – and their son were there to support her when it was unveiled.
‘Somehow, I have had the ridiculously good fortune of getting to work with you as an actor and witnessing first-hand how unbelievably good you are at what you do,’ Jesse said at the ceremony. ‘The humanity, strength, vulnerability and humour you bring to every part is truly astonishing and inspiring. You make it all look so unbelievably easy and I know from experience that that’s not easy to do.’ In her induction speech, Kirsten recalled staying at a hotel around the corner with her family when she was younger. ‘We’d drive around these streets, and I always thought the stars were dedicated to the legends of the past,’ she said. ‘I never thought that someday I’d even be close to being part of that.’