Kirsten Dunst On Being Typecast After Turning 40 And Becoming A Mother

“I haven’t worked in two years. Every role I was being offered was the sad mom.”

It’s 2pm on a drizzly Thursday in Hollywood, and I’m rug shopping with Kirsten Dunst. In the grand tradition of celebrity profile activities – yoga, pottery, picking at salads at iconic hotels – I meet the Oscar-nominated actor and millennial touchstone at Nickey Kehoe, the chic cottagecore interiors institution filled with splattered dishware, squirrel salt-and-pepper shakers and vintage floral pillows.

This experience should be at least a little awkward, but Dunst (who turns 42 on April 30) makes it instantly, almost bizarrely, normal. After going in for the hug, she admits with the intimacy of an old friend that she’s kind of tired. I ask why, then start to answer my own question at the same time she does: “Children.”

Kirsten Dunst
Photography: Jonny Marlow. Styling: Rebecca Ramsey.

In the middle of the night, her two-year-old son, James, burst into her bedroom, demanding she make space for him in bed. A fellow survivalist parent, Dunst lets James sleep next to her while her husband, actor Jesse Plemons, is in New York. She enjoys the coziness, even his “stinky breath”.

But then her ageing beagle also woke her, needing to be let out. Dunst has a similarly relatable approach to the couple’s eldest son, five-year-old Ennis: “Look, he’s eating three lollipops at once,” she later showcases the camera roll evidence. “He discovered Weird Mario on YouTube.”

We only just met beside an ochre velvet couch, but I understand why Dunst suggested this luxuriously twee venue. When you have two kids under six, an unencumbered rug-hunting jaunt
counts as an indulgence. “I’m, like, a Volvo soccer mom right now,” she says of her current phase of life. “Selfishly, I was just like, I want to go shopping.”

Dunst sets aside the small woven rug she came for, plus a butter dish topped with a tiny ceramic bluebird and some striped hand towels that fit her antique aesthetic. “They already look dirty, which is nice,” she says. The gracious salespeople’s eyes brighten ever-so-slightly at the sight of her, but they treat her normally. Dunst seems to want to downplay herself, too. She’s wearing a red jumper that she pointedly tells me has a hole in it, wide-leg Levi’s khakis cuffed at the ankle that reveal white socks (“These are from Amazon,” she says, lifting her foot) and gifted high-end loafers. “I don’t spend money like that on shoes,” she says. The self-identified homebody in the low-key, ostensible suburb of Toluca Lake would “rather buy nice towels.”

Kirsten Dunst
Photography: Jonny Marlow. Styling: Rebecca Ramsey.

It’s only when we happen upon a $400 candle in the shape of a Marie Antoinette bust that we can no longer pretend Dunst is just a cool, off-duty mother. The wax queen is a reminder of who she once was – the It-girl of Sofia Coppola’s lush 2006 historical drama – and who she’s become: a young veteran with a sprawling filmography, who somehow managed to evolve from child star in 1995’s Jumanji to upside-down kissing Spider-Man in the rain in 2002 and indie darling in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Now, the actor known for wooing prestigious directors such as Coppola and Jane Campion is on the verge of another new frontier: dark action heroine in A24’s dystopian thriller Civil War (but more on that in a minute).

Dunst’s canon could (and perhaps should?) populate its own film festival, but even after more than three decades on-screen, she wears her status lightly, like the Dior loafers with the Amazon socks. “That’s hilarious,” she says off-handedly of the Marie Antoinette candle, but she doesn’t linger, seemingly more interested in an earthy incense known to mask the scent of her dog’s pee. Coppola’s French Revolution is almost 20 years in the past, and Dunst is confronting a new battle: what it means to age in an industry she knows all too well.

Kirsten Dunst
Photography: Jonny Marlow. Styling: Rebecca Ramsey.

This is Dunst’s first interview in two years, she tells me as we cross Beverly Boulevard to Angelini (a quaint Italian cafe from which she often orders food delivery). That’s because “I haven’t worked in two years,” she says over a necessary espresso. After Campion’s 2021 film The Power of the Dog, for which Dunst, long deemed underrated, finally got her best supporting actress nomination from the Academy, “every role I was being offered was the sad mom,” she whispers, lowering her voice, as if those casting directors are seated beside us.

Dunst had just portrayed a crumbling mother and wife of a ranch owner, played by Plemons. It was demoralising to see her options narrow; to experience firsthand Hollywood’s gender-specific ageism. There’s a twisted irony to it, too: to be typecast in a variation of the role she’s playing in real life – though, to be clear, Dunst is currently a “tired mom” not a sad one – even after she actively defied pigeonholing throughout her career.

Seeing the nuance in women over 40 is hardly her industry’s strong suit, but both of these things are undeniably true: Dunst is in the thick of it with her sons and she’s an Oscar-nominated Hollywood lifer who still wants to lose herself in the kind of meaty roles that are actually worthy of her.

Kirsten Dunst
Photography: Jonny Marlow. Styling: Rebecca Ramsey.

Not working the past two years, Dunst reveals, “To be honest, that’s been hard for me … because I need to feed myself. The hardest thing is being a mom and … feeling like I have nothing for myself. That’s every mother – not just me.”

She adds matter-of-factly, “There’s definitely less good roles for women my age.” Incredulous on her behalf and also insulted because we are the same age, I ask, “Do you feel that already?” Dunst doesn’t blink. “Yes,” she replies. “That’s why I did Civil War.”

Instead of surrendering to sad motherhood, Dunst hard-pivoted to what she calls “elevated action” in the provocative new film from cult director and screenwriter Alex Garland (Ex Machina; Annihilation). In Civil War, a dystopian US is torn apart by an authoritarian third-term president (played by an eerie Nick Offerman) gutting governmental agencies. Nineteen states have seceded, with Texas and California forging a “Western Forces” alliance. Dunst stars as steely photojournalist Lee Smith, who consistently risks her life covering the American war zone on a harrowing, bloody odyssey with press colleagues played by Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura and Stephen McKinley Henderson.

“When I read the script, I thought, I’ve never done anything like this,” says Dunst. It was exciting to be offered something fresh, especially because Dunst – an admitted nerd for directors – admired Garland. “I just love that he’s someone who pushes boundaries.” For Garland, Dunst’s long career was an asset to a character he felt needed “to have lived”, he says in the film’s production notes. “Kirsten is just a first-class actor,” Garland tells me in an email. “She has a deep level of craft and, crucially for this role, she has soul. It’s in her eyes and her gaze, which felt perfect for a photographer.”

Civil War is explosive and graphic, filled with hyper-realistic battles, and because it’s A24, some are set to electro-punk music. Surreal shots like the ravaged Lincoln Memorial were green-screened, but the shoot in rural Georgia, including combat scenes and at least one car chase, “shook me to my core,” says Dunst. “I remember hearing them practise an explosion. We were in the hair and makeup trailer, which was very far away from set, and the whole trailer shook.” Another dramatic scene set in the White House hit disturbingly close to home. “There’s
so much gunfire, and then you look at the news and it’s a school shooting again,” says Dunst.

The film got under Dunst’s skin, as merely watching it did mine. She “had PTSD for a good two weeks after. I remember coming home and eating lunch and I felt really empty.” It seemed to Garland that she “let herself live inside the film, and feel the reality
of the moments”.

Kirsten Dunst
Photography: Jonny Marlow. Styling: Rebecca Ramsey.

As number-one on the call sheet, Dunst led on-screen and off, according to the director. “Kirsten is far more experienced at filmmaking than I am,” says Garland. “She’s been doing it longer and has made many more movies. Working with her was often educational. She would have an idea for a scene that didn’t just help with the drama, but made it easier to achieve.” His favourite was one of the film’s quietest, in which Dunst talks with fellow journalists (played by Moura and McKinley Henderson) in a hotel bar.

“It was a masterclass in acting ability,” says Garland. “Gently witty, very precise and very human.”

Perhaps the most disturbing part of Civil War is that it doesn’t feel quite as divorced from reality as it should. Riots flashing through the opening credits call to mind the attack on the US Capitol, though Garland wrote the script before January 6, 2021.

It’s not clear which factions are “good” or “bad”, and that’s precisely the point. Landing this April in a hotly divided election year, “I think it’s a cautionary tale,” says Dunst. “A fable of what happens when people don’t communicate with each other and stop seeing each other as human beings.”

I ask if Dunst, who endorsed Bernie Sanders for president in 2020 and has a German passport thanks to her German father, Klaus, would emigrate if Donald Trump is re-elected later this year. “He can’t win. I honestly feel like … we just need a fresh start. We need a woman,” says Dunst, although speaking generally and not as an endorsement of any particular candidate. “All the countries that are led by women do so much better.”

Kirsten Dunst
Photography: Jonny Marlow. Styling: Rebecca Ramsey.

In a rare move for a film about conflict, Civil War centres its female leads. Dunst’s grizzled Lee is thrust into the role of reluctant mentor to Spaeny’s Jessie, a wide-eyed aspiring photographer who worships her.

A version of that dynamic translated off-screen. “A lot of times when you’re working with established actors, they have a wall up, but with Kirsten, almost immediately you could tell that she wears her heart on her sleeve,” Spaeny, 25, told me of Dunst, who she grew up admiring in Jumanji and The Virgin Suicides. “I think that’s what makes her performances so heartbreaking and haunting. She gives a piece of herself to every film.”

Dunst became such an ardent supporter of Spaeny, she called Coppola to endorse her for the title role in her 2023 film Priscilla. “She was definitely like a little sister to me and still is,” says Dunst, as the waiter, smiling brightly at her, brings out a complimentary plate of focaccia and tomato.

Pick up a copy of the May issue of marie claire Australia on sale Thursday 18th April to read the full story!

Marie Claire Kirsten Dunst
Photography: Jonny Marlow. Styling: Rebecca Ramsey.

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