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For Kirsten Dunst, 'The Power of the Dog' is a cinematic love letter to her children

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Kirsten Dunst, is one of the stars of the new film "The Power Of The Dog," which is streaming on Netflix. It's been turning up on many 10-best lists, including Justin Chang's, our film critic, who called the film a magnificent Western psychodrama. Dunst was described in the November issue of Vogue as the current frontrunner for 2022's best supporting actress Oscar.

She got her start in movies at age 8 in "Bonfire Of The Vanities." At 11, she played a vampire in "Interview With The Vampire." She starred in arthouse films, like Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" and Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides" and "Marie Antoinette," as well as in more mainstream films like "Bring It On" and the Spider-Man movies. Her new film, "The Power Of The Dog," was directed by Jane Campion and is set in Montana in 1925.

Dunst plays a widow who runs a small inn in a one-street town with the help of her son, who's a young adult. Two brothers, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, who own a ranch, are leading a cattle drive, herding the cattle to market. On the way, they stop at Dunst's inn and dining hall. Cumberbatch is macho and is condescending and nasty to others, including his brother. Plemons is soft-spoken and businesslike. When Dunst's son serves them dinner, Cumberbatch mocks him for being effeminate. Plemons stays to pay the bill and finds Dunst in tears, upset by how Plemons' brother treated her son. Plemons soon marries her and brings her back to the ranch, where his brother torments her and her son when he visits.

The story has many surprising twists and turns as Campion explores the image of rugged masculinity that Cumberbatch embodies and slowly reveals what's going on beneath that surface. Although Dunst is living on the ranch in a well-appointed home, home offers no comfort, as she's constantly insulted and ridiculed by Cumberbatch - becomes increasingly lonely and depressed and turns to alcohol. In a New York Times review of the film, A.O. Scott wrote, few performers can break your heart like Dunst, whose face becomes a landscape of pain as all Rose's initial happiness drains away. This is the second time that Dunst has starred opposite her now-husband, Jesse Plemons, with whom she has two children. The first time was on the FX series "Fargo."

Kirsten Dunst, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the film.

KIRSTEN DUNST: Thank you.

GROSS: Your character Rose starts as incredibly capable. And as her situation changes and she goes to the ranch and feels isolated and alone and ridiculed, she becomes profoundly depressed. Did you behave differently when you were on set but not on camera - you know, when you're just, like, waiting to be called - when you were capable - when your character was capable versus when your character was depressed?

DUNST: Yes. That definitely rubs off into the way that you are on set. I don't consciously do that unless I feel the need that I have to really isolate for some reason, like in the dinner scene with the parents that come to visit. I remember not talking much that day, just so that the first time that I spoke, my voice sounded really, like, choked up - you know, like there was a lump in my throat, which - it worked. Shoot. We didn't - it didn't end up in the film. But it happened. So that was worth it (laughter). But Benedict and I - we didn't talk on set, which - it was helpful. We didn't have many scenes together. But it was just - I think those things that are helpful for him as an actor also helped set - bring another energy to the set as well.

GROSS: The movie made me think, among other things, about what marriage was like then for a lot of people. I mean, Jesse Plemons' character proposes to you because, you know, you seem like a very nice, very decent, very caring individual. And he kind of needs a wife. And you enthusiastically say yes because you're a widow or you're on your own basically in the middle of nowhere, and you could really use a husband. And I mean, you have feelings for each other. But it's not like it is now, where you really get to know a person beforehand and maybe you move in together (laughter) before you actually get married.

So it made me think about that distance between many people as they're getting married. But it also made me think about how well you know Jesse Plemons and how well he knows you because you actually are married. And you're playing these two people who are very careful around each other because you hardly know each other.

DUNST: Yes, for me, that - what they recognize immediately in their souls as characters is that they both have such a deep loneliness. And there's kindness there that - you know - yeah. But it's - you know, it would be improper to live together before getting married.

GROSS: Oh, of course. Yes. Right.

DUNST: Yeah. And she's a - and yeah, all of those things. And in terms of Jesse's and my relationship, it was - yeah, it's funny to have a child together and then be so proper and reserved with each other within the scenes. It's - I think it's - it was funny to me. I mean, it just, like - it's very - it was very sweet. You know, I'm happy that - being on that mountaintop, to me - I almost feel like it's just, like, a cinematic love letter to our children one day or something. It just - to be able to be in a Jane Campion movie together - first of all, just being in a Jane Campion - and then to be in it with your husband is - it was very special. I'll never forget this time. And also, Jesse and I are - we love working with each other. So it's the ideal situation. And he's my favorite actor to work with.

GROSS: Why?

DUNST: Well, we fell in love creatively first, I think, in "Fargo." We just immediately clicked in the way we approach things and don't judge each other - and not in it for anything but trying to create the most real thing, which - there's no competition. There's no ego. There's a sharing of ideas. And we were very present with each other. And when you have that - it's very exciting to act with a person when they're as free and want to explore things with you and change things and surprise each other.

And so we had that immediately. I mean, we'd rehearsed almost every night running lines together because the dialogue in "Fargo" was very - there was a lot of musicality to it and a lot of - 'cause it's a dark comedy - was a lot of, like, little, quick back-and-forth. So we worked really hard together. And we really enjoyed it and inspired each other. So I think the first step in our relationship was falling in love creatively.

GROSS: Is it ever strange to see somebody you know so well be somebody else, you know, like when they're in character?

DUNST: Again, George and Rose - like, we have such limited scenes together. And a lot was cut out, too. I think in the edit, when I first watched "The Power Of The Dog," I was surprised at how, like, economized the film had become. But also, it had such a better pace and such a better, like, edge-of-your-seat feeling of this energy that I think would have gone away if you had a lot of the scenes that we had filmed, like me telling George that I don't really - I don't think his brother likes me. And things like that kind of let the air out of the tension. And there was a scene where I'd also asked Benedict, like - in, like, kind of a broken-doll kind of drunky (ph) situation, you know, why don't you like me, basically? And those things were cut out. And I think it's good for the feeling and the mystery of the film.

GROSS: A lot of people want to work with Jane Campion, which, of course, you got to do when she directed you in "The Power Of The Dog." Is there something special about her directing technique that you can talk about?

DUNST: Jane is someone who - well, her films have inspired me tremendously just, like, from an acting standpoint. Just the female performances, the courage of them - that has been a huge inspiration for me as an actress. So I knew to be part of one of her films would be - I could be one of those women - you know what I mean? - in one of her movies. When I was in my early 20s, she wrote me a letter about possibly working together on a film in developing - workshopping this short film. It never came to fruition, but I kept the letter in my email. And so it had been a dream of mine for a long time. But, you know, you never know. Great directors make a movie, like, every - you know, not very often.

So, you know, what you give her and what she wants - she wants the unfiltered truth. She wants the ugly. She wants the real. She wants - she doesn't need to see women in a pretty light, you know? And that's the kind of people that I want to work with, too, because I don't - I don't know. I don't find it interesting to play other types of roles. So to me, working with her meant ultimate acting freedom and that that - and that she'll choose the takes and the performance that feels the most real and raw and - you know?

One thing she does, which is kind of funny, is she'll act along in the scene. When I saw her - when I'd watch her and - say I wasn't in the scene, but I was on set and watching - she'll, like, say, the dialogue (laughter). She's actually a really good actress, which is very funny. When we were improvising and, like, the old lady and the old gent - when they weren't, you know, there to rehearse in the scenes and things like that, Jane would play all the characters, and she'd play them so well. So when she's writing, I'm sure she acts it out, which makes a lot of sense.

GROSS: That's really interesting.

DUNST: So that's something that - it's almost like when you have a stage mom and they're, like, mouthing the words to you when you're up on stage. It's a little bit like that. Like, she's, like, so in the scene with you but also kind of a little bit acting it out and, like, getting joy from the way you say it. And watching her watch us is really fun.

GROSS: So one of the things your character has to do is play piano badly. Your character tells Jesse Plemons' character that she used to play for silent movies. And so once they get married and they move into the big home that he and his brother own, he wants to impress the governor when the governor comes over to dinner. This is a well-to-do ranch. So he actually buys you a piano and you keep telling him, no, I really don't play very well. And he thinks you're just being, you know, kind of shy and modest. But you really don't play very well (laughter).

DUNST: No (laughter). I think - well, listen, I think whatever's happening in the house is really making her feel so insecure about even, like, working on her stuff. It's like when you have - when you're under a microscope and there's scrutiny and you feel - he - Phil's character is disassembling her psyche in a way where she can't even play like how she probably normally would play, you know? She's learning her - the pressure. She's just - she can't deal with this pressure of playing for these fancy people, of getting this, like, huge gift and having the pressure of playing for these people. It's really crippling to her.

GROSS: But I read that you actually did your own piano playing, but you don't know how to play piano. So you had to learn how to play badly (laughter).

DUNST: Well, I just learned how to play. And then, you know, played it badly for the scene. Because I learned the piece that I had to learn for the film - two pieces. One got cut out. But, yeah, I played - I mean, just to play - I don't know. Do you play the piano?

GROSS: I did as a child. You know, very mediocrely. I was just, like, your average kid who took piano lessons and didn't play very well. But I did sometimes have to play in front of the auditorium. Me and my best friend sometimes, like, on Arbor Day, we had to play a couple of tree songs.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It sounds really sad. And I'd get so nervous and so uncomfortable and always feel like I was going to blow it.

DUNST: Yeah, it's a lot of pressure to be on stage. And it's not for me either. I - like, my worst - I hate going up on stage and speaking and things like that. Like, Jane actually gave me good advice. She told me that, you know, pretend it's your living room and you're inviting everyone into your living room. And then it kind of becomes less intimidating if you kind of make it your space rather than, like, I have to be something for these people.

GROSS: Right. No, I actually know what you mean. You know, with the piano, I have to say, the piece that you play in it - I don't like the piece. And I wonder if you like it, because to spend so much time learning how to play a piece that you don't like would be really rough.

DUNST: Yeah, no. I - yeah, it was - you know what helped me? I had a really cool piano teacher. He works with Julian Casablancas, and he's in his band. And so his name's Jeff Kite. And he was - just like having a cool friend come over and teach me the piece. But, yeah, it's not something that I'm - you know, I don't - it was, like, a German march song, you know what I mean? It's not something that is very easy to learn.

It's very - it was hard for me, to be honest, to put both hands together. When that finally happened, I literally thanked to God and the heavens above because it was just - you know, I'd do one hand all day - one hand, one hand, one hand every time. And then I'd do the second hand over and over and over and over and over again. So when the brain comes together and you can combo the two hands, I mean, that was really just - yeah.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kirsten Dunst. She's one of the stars of the new film "The Power Of The Dog." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "WEST ALONE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kirsten Dunst, one of the stars of the new film "The Power Of The Dog."

Your character in "The Power Of The Dog" gets very depressed and turns to alcohol. And it's not the first time you've played a very depressed character. Your character in "Melancholia," as the title implies, was very depressed and so is the world because there was - was it a planet heading toward Earth that might end life as we know it or a meteor, a planet?

DUNST: Yes. Yes, planets were going to collide.

GROSS: Yeah, it's a beautiful film. I love that film, though it's been a few years since I saw it. But, you know, you've publicly stated that you've had to deal with depression and that you want to mention it because a lot of people think that it's, like, a personal flaw or that they shouldn't go get treatment for it. And you want to encourage people, like, it's nothing to be ashamed of and seek treatment. To the extent that you're comfortable talking about this, can I ask you how you recognized that what you were dealing with wasn't, like, sadness or just, like, you know, insecurity or something - that it was depression?

DUNST: I think - I mean, I feel like there's a lot of different levels of depression. And I think when you're 27 and you're an artist, it's an age where a lot of people kind of - I think something happens where you kind of - maybe in life, too, just, you know - it just is an age where, like, I think things really shift inside you - your brain, everything. And I think I just sat in it. I just sat in it. And so that's why I would encourage people to get help because I just didn't - I don't know. There's so much help, and then there's not really good help. And it's hard to find good - it's like - so yeah. I was - I definitely - I understood.

I feel like in "Melancholia," I would - you know, on the other side of it and could really access everything. And it was such a - it's such a cathartic feeling to do that and to be able to use your art, you know, to show your experiences or your - and Lars' experiences 'cause he's someone who struggles with that a lot.

GROSS: This is Lars von Trier, the director.

DUNST: Yeah. Yes.

GROSS: You said that when you were making "Melancholia," you were able to access feelings of depression from earlier when you had had depression. Can you talk a little bit about what you were able to understand that you might not have understood had you not dealt with it yourself?

DUNST: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting the way - there's a few things that are coming to my mind. Like, just the incapability to, like, bathe yourself is something that I think is a very vulnerable thing that you don't see in - or hear about, really. Or I don't know. It's something that in cinema - first of all, depression's a very boring thing to watch. It's not like - the way Lars did it is kind of a miracle because it's not cinematic to watch someone be depressed, you know? It's a very boring thing. It's all internal. It's all mentally.

So the thing - like, how hard it was for her to take a bath or how everything tasted like nothing, like, things like that. And it's just - it's - I also don't ever remember crying in that movie. There's something that just, like - you kind of wish you could, you know? So there's things that I feel like he portrayed that I really - or he wrote in his script that, like, were very dead-on to me in terms of how hard that can be.

GROSS: Did you go through a period of, like, not feeling things?

DUNST: Mine, I feel like - I feel like it took on a lot of different things. But I honestly was mostly, like - and I'm sure - you know, I know that other people have experienced this, too, is like - just, like, the self-hatred. It's just - was a really - that wheel inside your brain was very strong for me.

GROSS: So when you're going through that, does it help to say, but I'm an acclaimed actress. I've been in movies.

DUNST: Not at all, Terry (laughter).

GROSS: People say I'm beautiful. Yeah, not at all?

DUNST: You know (laughter) - not at all. It's - I think - how I was raised and this - in this industry and, I think, starting so young, I'm not really impressed by it in a way where it gives me my self-confidence. Like, it doesn't. It - I'm proud of myself and the work I've done. But there have been times when, like - I think when I was younger, when "Marie Antoinette" or - didn't do so well or things like that where I really took it, and it really affected my self-esteem.

And I think that that's just the - that - this industry can be very hard if you're - if you don't have a good base of friends and, you know, people around you and family, it can be very - and I even have that. It can be very isolating in that way because it also feels weird to be, like, why didn't you like my movie (laughter)? You know what I mean? Like, you're hurt about it. It's not really - you know, there's no room to express that either, you know, of, like, feeling, like, that disappointment within your community kind of because you're just being judged by the outside. So it's - you only have your experience, and that's it, you know?

GROSS: So you said it was exhilarating. Maybe exhilarating wasn't the word that you used, but you liked playing the depressed character in "Melancholia." I take that to mean it wasn't, like, triggering in any way.

DUNST: No, not at all. I think in order to play - to be the best at accessing - for me, to be in a place to access the most pain and everything, you kind of have to be in the most present and strong kind of place in your life to access these things, I think - to be fearless in those things, I think. I was in a very good place making that movie. I had a lot of fun (laughter) making that film, you know? I really did. I had so much fun. So if - if it's in your wheelhouse and you're a sensitive person and you're - I'm kind of like a little bit, I feel like, I'm ready to go. Like, I've done all my prep. And I'm always kind of ready to go, and I don't really need to - you know, I didn't really feel like I had to wallow in anything to be able to perform that role, you know?

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kirsten Dunst, and she's one of the stars of the new film "The Power Of The Dog." We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "25 YEARS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Kirsten Dunst. She stars with her husband, Jesse Plemons, and Benedict Cumberbatch in the new film "The Power Of The Dog." Her other films include "The Virgin Suicides," "Marie Antoinette," "Melancholia," "Bring It On" and the first three "Spider-Man" movies.

Can I ask how you first met your husband, Jesse Plemons, with whom you star in "The Power Of The Dog" and with whom you starred in a season of "Fargo"?

DUNST: I met Jesse at the airport at LAX. And I walked up to him, and he was carrying a carton of cigarettes. And I was like, oh, no, you smoke the cigarettes that I used to smoke, and I quit. So (laughter) I just knew that, like, working with someone that smoked - and I was just like, oh, God, please don't become a smoker again on this show. But, yeah, I remember seeing his eyes and our eyes meeting, and I still remember to this day - and it's happened to me very occasionally in life where I, like, really have that moment of remembering our eye connection of meeting for the first time.

GROSS: So how did you meet at the airport? Were you just both there, or...

DUNST: We were both flying to Calgary to shoot the show.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

DUNST: So we were on the same flight.

GROSS: I see. Did you sit next to each other?

DUNST: No, we didn't sit next to each other. But when we got off the plane, I knew to rush to get my workers permit to work in Canada. So I knew, like, get off the plane and just go get it because the line can really, like, pile up and then you're stuck there for an hour. So I was, like, running to get there. And I saw Jesse was at the - behind the line. I was like, come up. Come up. Come with me. So we were, you know - I wanted to - I didn't want him to feel - we were playing husband and wife, and I'm someone who just, like, wanted to have an ally immediately and wanted to have a friend because we were going to be working really intimately together. And so I, you know, I pulled him - I was like, come cut with me. And that was the beginning (laughter).

GROSS: Is he still smoking?

DUNST: No, we're not. No.

GROSS: Good. And you didn't start because you were around him?

DUNST: I did (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, that's hard. That's really hard.

DUNST: Sets are the worst. It's just the worst. It's, like, a moment to yourself. It's the worst habit and the worst place to be, you know - yeah, it's just the worst. It's, like, the only time people leave you alone - you know? - because they're always, like, on their walkie-talkies, like, she went 10-1. She went 10-1. (Laughter) It's like, you can only go to the bathroom really to, like, not be around people. It's just - so smoking on set becomes kind of, like, a break from everybody.

GROSS: How did you both stop?

DUNST: Children.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

DUNST: (Laughter).

GROSS: Your husband, Jesse Plemons - I read that he described his father as a cowboy who rides and ropes. You're from New Jersey. So you're from New Jersey, but you're in this, like, 1925 small-town Montana setting. He's a rancher and rides a horse and actually knew something about that life.

DUNST: Oh, very much so. Jesse knows how to rope. He - there was a scene that got cut out that Jesse came up with of just roping a chair by himself. But, yeah, I mean, when we - we were pretty isolated where we were living in New Zealand, and Jesse would just rope a chair in the backyard a bunch (laughter) and try to teach me how to rope a chair. But, yes, Jesse's father is a real cowboy, and a liberal cowboy at that, which is impressive.

GROSS: I know you work with your dreams as one of your tools for acting, as - for insight into acting. Can you explain, like, how that works and how you manage to dream enough and remember the dreams for them to be helpful?

DUNST: I write myself a note before I go to sleep on what I want to understand about who I'm playing. And if I don't dream that night, I'll just rewrite it again the next night until I do get a dream.

And, like, for - OK, I'll give an example. Like for "Fargo," I asked my inner self about Peggy's characteristics. And in my dream that night, I had - I saw a "Scooby-Doo" tape. And I would talk to my acting coach about it, and we - you know, we analyzed it together. And she's like, you know, what do you think about when you think about "Scooby-Doo"? And I, you know, just think about the way they run, you know? They're always, like, scurrying around from place to place, like out of their van or into wherever situation. They're - they have that little scurrying walk. And so I talked about that, and she's like, there you go. That's how Peggy walks.

So it's like you're getting things from yourself, and that is really the most genuine - like, connecting your inner self to who you're playing - your unconscious minds and marrying that together is really the most authentic, I feel like, you can feel in your choices. And so it gives you kind of confidence that you can do no wrong.

GROSS: Do you feel like your dreaming mind actually picks up on that? Is it helpful to write it down? - because you're saying, here, brain, here, dreaming self; this is what I want to know about. Tell me something. But your dreaming self might not pay any attention to that.

DUNST: Well, sometimes I've had no dreams and then, you know, I have found another method. Like, OK, you know that already. You don't need to find that out. Like, what do you think it - like, you don't need to work on that because it's already kind of - you've already found it, maybe certain things. But I think your dreaming mind gives you another layer of what's going on that you don't always see, you know, just in your own - thinking about it on your own. I feel like it reveals deeper truths.

GROSS: You started working when you were how old? Was it 3? Do I have that right?

DUNST: I'm from New Jersey, and we'd drive into New York and I'd start - I did little kid modeling at 3.

GROSS: What were you modeling?

DUNST: Like, clothes and things like that. Just - I was a Ford model for their baby division, and I would just, you know, do catalog shoots or, like, a Dillard's campaign and things like that or Macy's. You know, that kind of stuff. And then eventually they were like, she should get a commercial agent. It's kind of the next step. And I booked the first commercial I went on, which was Kix cereal. So it was kind of like, you know, a no-brainer to everybody that, oh, she also can, you know, act like she likes cereal.

GROSS: Whose idea was it that you should become a model at age 3?

DUNST: Well, my mom would just be in the grocery store and things and people would come up and be like, your daughter is so cute. You should try little kid modeling. And she thought, you know, why not? Like, I think that it was - New York was close. And at first it was just fun to do and put away some college money - you know? - and not really - you know, just, like, a fun thing for her to do with me and go into New York. And she got told I was cute enough times to go try and do something (laughter) about it, I guess. I don't know. I think also that attention as a mother is probably - you know, if people are always saying how, like, cute your kid is, you kind of feel maybe the pressure to do something about it maybe.

GROSS: I think you were 8 when you were in "Bonfire Of The Vanities" with Tom Hanks and 11 - "Interview With The Vampire" with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. I mean, these are big movies. Did you get good advice from the adults you were working with?

DUNST: Well, on "Interview With The Vampire," I was treated like a little princess. Tom and Brad, they were just so lovely to me. And everyone protected me on that set, and I felt very safe. And then after that - after working with, like, the biggest men in the industry, I got to work with the biggest women in the industry doing "Little Women." So that shift was really, I think, such a good education that I wasn't even really aware of. And kind of - because I worked with Gillian Armstrong, who directed "Little Women," right after "Interview With The Vampire," it really, I think - you know, going from Neil Jordan to then her, I never really had any thought about female director, male director.

Like, I think that kind of just set me up for a life of not really worrying about or thinking, you know, oh, I'm working with a female director or - so that, I think, was very helpful in my education of the industry and film and my own kind of all my experience because I worked with Susan Sarandon and Claire Danes and Winona Ryder. And, you know, it just was really exciting to work with, like, some of the best actresses right after you work with some of the best actors. You know, it was a very good unconscious learning experience, I think, for me because I wasn't clocking that. I was just experiencing it. But I think that getting into my system so young was very helpful to be around these strong women like Susan Sarandon.

GROSS: Are there, like, gender differences in how you were treated or what the atmosphere was like?

DUNST: I think the most on "Spider-Man," maybe, because I was playing the girl, you know, the quintessential girl. I mean, even the first AD called me girly girl. It was like - it annoyed me, but I never said anything. And then I worked with him again. I was like, you know that really annoyed me (laughter). And he was like, I'm so sorry. But yeah, I didn't really feel that way, I think, until I entered my late teens, you know, where it felt a little bit more like that. But also, I was playing, you know, Spider-Man's girlfriend.

GROSS: What do you think he meant by girly girl when he called you that?

DUNST: I think, you know, I was the only girl on the set. It was just like - it felt dismissive. It felt a little, you know, like - I don't know. It just felt like, yeah, a little bit like dismissive and disrespectful of me as an actress on the set.

GROSS: So let me introduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kirsten Dunst. She's one of the stars of the new film "The Power Of The Dog." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GREENWOOD'S "FIGURED IT OUT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kirsten Dunst, one of the stars of the new film "The Power Of The Dog."

When you were 16, you worked with Sofia Coppola for the first time, and it was her first outing as a director. This is on the film "Virgin Suicides." What did it mean to you to have a young woman directing you? And you were still getting your footing in the industry, but you'd been in it since you were a child, and she was born into the industry. But this was something brand-new for her, directing. So how did you connect with each other?

DUNST: Sofia was always, to me, when I was younger, an older sister that I looked up to and somebody who I really admired because, again, I was getting these lessons on "Virgin Suicides" that I realized later in life how it influenced me on, you know, what beauty looks like to people and how women perceive that as opposed to men and how she viewed me. And she kind of gave me my first role where I was seen as someone who was sexual.

And - but this was done through a female lens, which is - I think set me up for, like, a really positive - at 16, when you you don't feel good about yourself or you pick things apart or whatever, a 16-year-old, we do to ourselves - she gave me the confidence that I think this industry can really eat at or want to change you or make you the perfect blonde or something like that. And she liked all my imperfections. And she liked the things that, later in life, people wanted me to change.

GROSS: Like your teeth. Tell us the teeth story.

DUNST: One of the producers on "Spider-Man" took me to her dentist once to try and get me to fix my little fangs, basically.

(LAUGHTER)

DUNST: And Sofia always - she loves my teeth so much. She's like, don't ever fix your teeth. And when she - one of her daughters has a little bit of teeth like mine, too. She just loves crooked teeth. And, you know, when the coolest girl - when you think you're, you know, your cool older sister figure in your life, you know, thinks crooked teeth is cool, then, you know, it's like Kate Moss has crooked teeth. You know? It's like - I never wanted to be - whenever I tried to fit myself into this romantic comedy thing or to fit myself into some kind of ideal of an actress in this business, it always ended up not feeling good. So the pressure of that, I'm not into - and the vanity of it.

GROSS: My understanding of the story is that the producer drove you to the dentist without telling you what this was about, then told you you were going to get your teeth fixed and you didn't get out of the car and said that you weren't going to do it.

DUNST: (Laughter) She did it very subtly.

GROSS: Oh, OK. But how did you summon up the courage to say no to the producer of this blockbuster movie you were about to be in?

DUNST: It wasn't as dramatic. I went - she said, oh, you should go to my dentist, just like, oh, here's a dentist. And I was like, OK. Like, I guess I should get my teeth cleaned in Beverly Hills instead of the Valley. You know what I mean (laughter)? I don't know. I think I just was like, OK. So I went to her fancy Beverly Hills doctor, and then they suggested it there. And it was kind of like a suggestion, I think, you know, based on, you know, her. I think even in the second "Spider-Man" poster, my teeth are straighter, for sure. They straightened my teeth.

GROSS: What's your reaction to that?

DUNST: I mean, I knew it right away when I saw the poster. I was just like - I mean, honestly, I - well, I thought it was pretty cool that I was on the poster (laughter) at first. And I was like, oh, they fixed my teeth. And I was like, whatever. I mean, it just - it didn't surprise me. It just didn't surprise me. That's all. Just, like, that was more of an airbrushing era, though, too. Now everybody wants, like - well, not on Instagram, obviously. But, like, in terms of representation of people in magazines, it seems to have somewhat gone to a more realistic woman rather than, you know, an airbrushed, perfect image of someone. So...

GROSS: Let me make a counterargument, which is instead of getting airbrushed in photographs - well, people are still getting Photoshop, but also, people are having work done. So, like, you don't even need to be airbrushed because a surgeon airbrushed you already.

DUNST: Yeah, no. I know. It's all because of these Instagram filters. People want to then look like a filter in real life, which - it's very depressing. I'm happy I don't have two little girls right now, to be honest. Like, I mean, men do it, too, but it's less so. I feel like it's something that I know that if I ever did - I'll always be able to work and work on good things if I don't mess with my face. I know that. I'll get better roles.

GROSS: Why do you say that?

DUNST: Because the real actresses, like, that are - I don't know. The ones that I look up to - they don't look crazy, and they can move their faces. I mean, look at Frances McDormand. Like, all the - you know, Laura Dern - I mean, the people that I love - like, they don't mess with their face.

GROSS: Yeah. It seems like if your face gets really tight from having work done, it's hard to have those facial expressions that you'd want to have to evoke feeling and emotion.

DUNST: Expression.

GROSS: Yeah.

DUNST: To act.

GROSS: Yeah, to act - right, exactly, exactly. So what are some of the movies that have had the biggest influence on you either as an actor or just as a viewer?

DUNST: I feel like when I was educating myself in film and watching movies like the Criterion Collection type of films - you know, I started in my teenage years watching those movies. And the first - I remember the first independent film I ever went to see in the theater was "Chuck And Buck." So that was kind of my first intro to indie films, and I just loved it. I just, you know, loved how real it felt.

And I think my biggest influence in acting has always been Gena Rowlands because of her freedom in her roles. She's just so alive and free, and you never know what she's going to do next, and it feels so real. So that's the kind of acting I've always liked the most is - and also very female. Like, I remember the movies like "Three Women" or "Persona," and seeing those movies for the first time were really exciting, just really interesting female roles. Watching "Still Alice" for the first time - I'm thinking more about, you know, like, actresses or - actually, for this role, I watched "Virginia Woolf" for the first time. I hadn't seen that yet.

GROSS: "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?"

DUNST: Yeah. That was the first time I saw it - was for this movie, actually.

GROSS: And why did you watch it for this movie?

DUNST: She was drunk, and she was really good at it.

GROSS: Oh, oh.

DUNST: But I think they might have been having, like, boozy lunches before they went to film that.

DUNST: Oh, seriously?

DUNST: I think so. I read a lot about it. It's very fun history on that film. Yeah, they were just - because they were together. They were, like, having fun with their friends, and they were like, OK, now let's go work.

GROSS: This is Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were...

DUNST: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Yeah.

GROSS: ...Married at the time, just as like you were married to Jesse Plemons. But you guys didn't go and get drunk.

DUNST: We didn't get boozy lunches before work.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: One last question. Does your mother feel like she was really, like, a prophet or a genius in getting you into, you know, modeling when you were 3 and then leading the way toward acting? I mean, you've really found a home in that.

DUNST: No, of course. As a mother, even Jesse's mother - it's funny because he was a child actor as well. So both of them are like, you know, I'm like, you really must be - yeah. They must be very proud of themselves. We joke that they should start their own children's agency.

(LAUGHTER)

DUNST: They're dying to take our son out, like, sneakily to, like, audition for - just because they have that in them. They've got it in them, the - it's really funny. But, yes, Jesse and I were both child actors, so I think that that probably bonds us deeper in some ways as well.

GROSS: Oh, sure. Well, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

DUNST: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Kirsten Dunst is one of the stars of the new film "The Power Of The Dog," which is streaming on Netflix. After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will review the new series "The Book Of Boba Fett." It's a spinoff of the "Star Wars" series "The Mandalorian." It's streaming on Disney+. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "MISS NANCY ARRIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.