Kirsten Dunst didn’t really know her All Good Things co-star Ryan Gosling when, three years ago, they took a walk up the east side of Manhattan, starting at 66th Street. The film’s director, Oscar nominee Andrew Jarecki, trailed behind Dunst and Gosling, observing the chemistry between his two leads. Whether by design or coincidence, he watched them walk 22 blocks to Gracie Mansion, New York’s mayoral estate since 1942. This is where Gosling’s character, not-too-loosely based on real estate heir Robert Durst, takes Dunst’s character, inspired by Kathleen McCormack, his future wife and a missing person to this day, on their first date. That was before Durst is alleged to have killed McCormack, and before he moved to Galveston, Texas, where he disguised himself as an old lady and befriended his neighbor, Morris Black, whose body parts were found floating in Galveston Bay in 2001.
Dunst and Gosling, like Durst and McCormack before them, wandered the grounds, taking in the flowerbeds and footbridges. Then the strangest thing happened. A freight truck loaded with shipping boxes came barreling up First Avenue. One of the boxes fell off the truck and onto the street, split open, and released hundreds of sheets of bubble wrap that were then propelled into the sky by the day’s breeze. As they landed, they were run over by passing cars at different angles, setting off a symphony of tiny sonic explosions. “I remember thinking,” Jarecki says, “That’s the kind of thing that would happen on the greatest first date of your life.”
My first encounter with Dunst isn’t taken straight from a Douglas Sirk movie—if anything, we’re in an episode of Blind Date. It’s five o’clock on a warm afternoon in October when the 28-year-old actor arrives at a casual Mexican restaurant on the second floor of a strip mall in Studio City, Los Angeles. The place is empty save for a few early-bird eaters and some ladies who look like they belong to an intramural fake-tanning league. Dunst, dressed in dark jeans, a faded denim shirt, and black Converse sneakers, is a bit breathless. She has come straight from the airport, where she said goodbye to her boyfriend, Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel, who’ll be touring Europe for the next month. “I’m going to miss him,” she says soberly before taking off her sunglasses to reveal kind, if weary eyes.
Despite the nearby no-smoking signs, she lights a cigarette and, grinning, says, “I’ll just keep smoking them until they tell me not to.” (She does, by the way, and they don’t.) Without warning, Dunst then bolts from her chair and walks the perimeter of the patio, putting her ear up to, among other things, a brick column, a metallic outdoor heater, and a nearby table. Looking back at me, she says, “Do you hear that?” I don’t. “It’s like this really awful electric guitar noise, like a constant drone. Oh, god, now you’re going to think I’m this crazy person.”
It wouldn’t be the first time she was wrongly pegged as a loose cannon. Perhaps it all started in 1994, when Dunst, then a precocious 12-year-old child star, threw back pints of blood in her Golden Globe-nominated turn as an immortal opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles. Or maybe it was her portrayal of a reckless and free-spirited teenager in Crazy/Beautiful, which had her getting wasted and parading around in her panties for much of the film. In truth, Dunst is closest in temperament to Lux Lisbon, her character in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides: giggly, effervescent, and blonde, but with a dark side that, for the past few years, has captivated the interest of gossip rags.
Dunst has been a subject of media fascination for almost two decades now, but the tabloid circus really came to town in 2008 when she checked herself into Cirque Lodge, a rehab facility in Sundance, Utah, to deal with depression. (According to Dunst, her treatment program had nothing to do with alcohol or drugs, an assertion that’s been met with general incredulity.) All Good Things, her first post-Cirque film, was meant to be a comeback of sorts, or at least a reminder that Dunst—best known for her starring roles in Bring It On and the Spider-Man franchise—could carry a serious movie without the help of pom-poms, powdered wigs, or superheroes.
Owing to financial troubles, the Weinstein Company shelved the film it was meant to distribute, and with it Dunst’s first real bid for adult credibility. “Although it’s probably been dramatized, I knew All Good Things would change people’s perceptions of me,” she says between sips of tequila mixed with lime and agave nectar. “I was excited for people to see me in a different light and so, yeah, it was a bummer when I thought it wasn’t going to get released.” Jarecki was bummed, too, so he bought back the rights to his film and then sold them to Magnolia Pictures, who rescued All Good Things from post-production purgatory.
But it was the making of the film, and the opportunities it afforded her to mine the shadowy corridors of her psyche, that really freed Dunst. “There was an atmosphere around Kirsten on set,” Gosling says, “like she was treating this as an opportunity to prove to herself what she was capable of.” Dunst admits that the experience was a turning point for her. “I used to assume that I’d do this forever, and then there came a point in my life when I was like, Why am I doing this at all?” she says. “With All Good Things, I realized that acting is what I’m meant to be doing, and not for the money or to make a hit, but because I love it. For the first time, acting became more about me than everybody else, and that was amazingly cathartic.”
In the role of Katie McCarthy, Dunst first appears onscreen as an 18-year-old girl who falls for Durst after they cross paths in her apartment building. Before Katie goes missing closer to the end of All Good Things, she is a 28-year-old woman who, having endured all varieties of abuse at the hands of her husband, seems to anticipate her own demise. The last thing she says before her disappearance is, “If anything happens to me, don’t let him get away.” Dunst, delivering her most seasoned performance to date, alternates between fragility, fear, and the desperate strength of a scorned woman. She understood the character. “Katie had been torn down, and I know what it’s like to lose yourself, to no longer know the difference between right and wrong,” she says. “I was ready to play something like that. I had been living life on the surface, emotionally, and I was feeling really vulnerable, so I was prepared to do anything at that point.”
“Anything,” as luck would have it, came to Dunst in the form of cinematic provocateur Lars von Trier. Earlier this year, Dunst traveled to Sweden to film von Trier’s upcoming apocalypse drama, Melancholia. She was thrilled to be cast in the film, even though the Danish auteur is notorious for putting his female stars through the wringer. (Björk, pushed to the edge on the set of Dancer in the Dark, famously threatened to eat her sweater in protest.) “I was literally jumping up and down when I got the call,” she says. “I wasn’t at all apprehensive about working with him, but I can definitely understand why he and Björk, two geniuses who came together to make something, wouldn’t exactly get along. There was bound to be some friction.”
Melancholia, like all of von Trier’s projects, has been shrouded in secrecy, but Dunst, who next stars as Eve opposite Jim Sturgess’ Adam in the gravity-defying sci-fi romance Upsidedown, will say this: “Basically, it’s the end of world, although not on too grand a scale. I inflict most of the film’s pain on everyone else, but not in a physical way. Emotionally and mentally, I’m the one who puts everyone through it. I think the apocalypse is a metaphor for what’s happening in my character’s life, but if Lars ever heard me say that he’d be like, ‘Metaphor?’ He’ll probably laugh at whatever I say about it.” She won’t go into further detail about the film for fear of angering von Trier, but, alluding to his crippling phobia of air travel, she says, “He can’t get over here, so I should be fine.” Dipping a tortilla chip into a bowl of salsa, she adds, “He said he’d consider taking a ship with a helicopter on it, just in case it sinks. It would be so hilarious if I were the one who somehow got him to come to America. I keep telling him he has to visit Big Sur.”
The words barely out of her mouth, Dunst smiles, realizing that she has accidentally segued into another highly anticipated film in which she’s set to star: an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, directed by Walter Salles. The film stars Sam Riley as Sal Paradise and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, in addition to Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Terrence Howard, Steve Buscemi, and Elisabeth Moss. Dunst rounds out the cast as Camille, a character inspired by Beat writer Carolyn Cassady. “I haven’t met her, but I know she lives in a trailer park in London,” Dunst says of Cassady. “I read On the Road when I was, like, 16, because it was a favorite of the boy I was in love with at the time. This past summer, I bought the audiotape so that my dad and I could listen to it when we went to Germany to visit my grandpa. My dad was like, ‘All these people do is drink!’ He wasn’t impressed.”
About that. From time to time, Dunst likes to let loose, and she offers no apologies for her lifestyle. “When you’re a single girl in your twenties, yeah, you go out with your friends,” she says. “And sometimes you drink too much. I don’t know anybody else, with any type of job, who doesn’t do that.” She’s right, of course, although enough photos of a red-eyed, wobbly Dunst have appeared online to brand her with a party-girl reputation. “She’s had some difficult times in her life, but she is not somebody who’s out of control,” Jarecki says. “And, frankly, the gossip has never been that bad for Kirsten. Even at her most challenged, she was never seen as one of those burlesque tabloid types.”
Burlesque, no, but there was a time when her nocturnal misadventures gave the impression of a train on the verge of derailing. That she didn’t derail—at least not irrevocably—makes her all the more relatable to fans who understand the lessons inherent in stumbling down the road to adulthood. Still, for every loyal fan (one woman even approached her on the street to show Dunst her chest-covering Lux Lisbon tattoo), there are critics who refuse to forgive Dunst for her wilder phase. She was recently at Manhattan’s Jane hotel when a stranger walked past and whispered, “She’s so over.” Dunst leans forward and, readying her claws, says, “I was with my friend who was like, ‘What did you just say?’ I wasn’t sure if she was going to cry or punch that bitch in the face.”
Those closest to Dunst became considerably more protective of their Kiki during her time at Cirque Lodge, one period in her life she’d rather not discuss. “My friends and family were put in a position where they had to defend me, and it was an awful time,” she says. For someone whose career has been so inextricably linked to the spotlight, Dunst is in the uncommon position of being able to help people by being honest about her own personal struggles—were she not so circumspect. “I totally agree with you,” she says. “And on a personal level, I would talk to anybody about it, but not on a public level. If I do that, then the next person feels like they can ask me about it, and the person after that, until everyone then feels entitled to ask me about it, and that’s not coming from a good place.”
Dunst now owns a one-bedroom apartment in the “no-man’s land by Don Hill’s,” which is to say New York’s Tribeca neighborhood, but for the past month she has been staying with her mother, Inez, in LA. Inez, the co-owner of Belle Visage Spa in Studio City, began taking her daughter to model casting calls when she was 3, but Dunst insists, “She was never my manager, and she wasn’t like, ‘Oh, my famous little girl!’” Similarly, photos of her father Klaus, who retired from his sales position at Siemens One in 2008, show a man who would rather play ball with his dog than mug for photographers. Since she moved to Manhattan, the attention has died down a little—not that she really minds the odd intrusion. “I just don’t want to look bad in those pictures,” she says. “Paparazzi don’t have as much interest in you when you’re not wearing big sunglasses and carrying a $5,000 bag. I have no interest in wearing a tracksuit every day like Madonna does, but I understand why she does it.”
She wore black during her two courtroom appearances—in September 2009, and again in May 2010—where she testified against mechanic Jimmy Jimenez, who stole, among other items belonging to the cast of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, her Balenciaga handbag. “It became such a spectacle,” she says. “It should have been so simple—put the guys who jacked our stuff in jail. But then I had to go to court, where I was made to look like a stupid actress.” Sure enough, the New York Post nicknamed her “Kirsten Dunce” based on her “ditzy testimony,” and said she was “apparently at sea when it comes to speaking in public without the help of a Hollywood script.” At her second court appearance, however, a wiser Dunst “barely betrayed a smile,” according to The New York Times. Jimenez was convicted of burglary and sentenced to four years in prison.
Dunst, often considered a muse to Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, has now shifted her attention from Balenciaga to Bulgari, in whose ad campaign she will next appear. Of his star’s all-American yet unconventional looks, Jarecki says, “She doesn’t come off as a manicured Hollywood beauty. Twenty agents in a row would have told any aspiring Hollywood actor, ‘Kid, you’ve got to fix those teeth.’ And yet, that’s obviously one of the most distinctive things about her, that she doesn’t look like a machine put her together.”
Jarecki is right, but at this table, on this patio, in this strip mall, a machine won’t stop tearing her apart. “This buzzing noise is really unbelievable,” she says, by now endearingly exasperated. Her annoyance manifests in a tight, manic smile, and it’s clear that Dunst isn’t so sure the drone even exists anymore. If it does, though, she’d better get used to it. At the rate she’s going, the buzz will only get louder.
Photography by Simon Lekias. Styling by Christopher Campbell.