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Kirsten Dunst
Thriving with Suicides

Kirsten Dunst as Lux Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides

One of the first images one sees in Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides is a closeup of Kirsten Dunst's face as she gives a teasing wink and smile to the camera. This is perhaps the one screen moment that most closely captures the real-life Dunst. Sitting down for a loosely organized chat with the press, Dunst is open, outgoing, funny, and infectiously energetic. In short, she's very much, to use her own words, "like a regular girl."

That fact is easy to forget considering that the actress has assembled a very impressive body of work since wowing audiences and critics with her Golden Globe-nominated turn as a vampire doomed to an eternal childhood in 1994's Interview with the Vampire. In the years since, the 17-year-old Dunst has managed to carve out an unusually varied career not just for an actress of her age, but of any age. She has appeared in the expected family-friendly fare such as the an update of the Louisa May Alcott classic Little Women, the fantasy Jumanji, the sci-fi adventure Small Soldiers, and the underseen '60s girl power tale All I Wanna Do! But Dunst has added to that more adult-skewing films like the Kurt Vonnegut adaptation Mother Night, the acclaimed Hollywood/political satire Wag the Dog and, just last year, the Watergate sendup Dick and the beauty pageant mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous. Somewhere along the way, she squeezed in a stint as a teen prostitute with a jones for George Clooney on TV's ER.

Dunst returns to the dark side that sparked her career in Suicides, based on Jeffrey Eugenides' novel. Her role as the promiscuous and--yes--doomed teen Lux Lisbon would appear to be a conscious move into more adult parts, but Dunst doesn't necessarily see it as part of a grand, calculated career scheme. "This role just came and kind of fell in my lap, and I knew that it would be perfect for me to play. It isn't even really an adult role," she states. Even so, she did see the part as an opportunity to shatter some preconceived notions. "It just shows that I can handle more mature subjects. I always have been able to; I just think it's important to reinforce it. I always have to keep proving myself; because I started out so young, you're judged harder, I think."

Dunst's start came at age three, when she landed her first screen part in a television commercial. Having been so widely seen as a child, the brazen sexuality of her Suicides character will come as a surprise to many. "A lot of people have never seen me in this light before because I am more like the sex symbol of this movie. That's a role I hadn't really played yet, so it was important for me." However, more important to her was that she maintain a certain dignity. "It wasn't like a cheesy sex symbol, like the girl who shows her tits in the movie," she says with a laugh. "It was a classy sex symbol; the guys were obsessing over her, but she had this casual sexiness about her that wasn't so overt or anything like that, so that's why I liked [the role]."

Dunst describes herself with an innocent smile as "a pretty good girl, you know? I stayed in school; I don't smoke; I don't drink." Even so, she was able to identify with Lux, a girl who does the opposite of every one of those statements. "The thing I identified with most was that she has such a worldliness about her but an innocence at the same time. I've been in this business for so long, and I've always had to be mature because adults always treated me like I'm an adult--when I'm like 10 or 13. I think that's the one thing that I could relate to: she is innocent but she has an old soul about her."

Finding such a point of connection is the basis of this veteran actress's technique, which she developed with an acting coach. "When I was younger, he helped me so much with the foundation of how I work now, with how I relate to my characters and how I make emotional connections with them. The one thing he really helped me do is to find things inside of me to bring to my character."

Director Coppola gave Dunst and the rest of the Suicides cast ample latitude to add personal touches to their roles. "Sofia was totally open to [improvisation]. We did a lot of improv the first week to kind of loosen us all up together and feel free to ad lib during our scenes and to make sure that we were all comfortable with each other. She was just so open to everyone's ideas."

That is but one compliment Dunst is eager to give Coppola, daughter of famed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. "Sofia's wonderful. She had her heart so into this film, and when someone does, you just want to do such a good job for them, and it really motivates you to be the best you can be." The fact that this was Coppola's first feature directorial effort didn't faze Dunst at all. "Sofia has been around sets all her life, so I knew she wasn't going to be [bad]; I could see the talent in her when I was talking to her. This was like her baby, this movie, so I knew that she would make it good. I don't think anyone could've handled the subject matter better than she did."

It's hard to imagine anyone handling the delicate juggling act of school and career better than Dunst, a senior whose attendance at a regular local high school is often interrupted by location shoots. She admits, "It's very stressful. You have a tutor on the set, but it's like no one cares. They're like, 'We need Kirsten on set,' but I'm trying to finish my final, so it's really hard." Nonetheless, she's managed to make it work. "Luckily I've had really good tutors who've helped me out, and my school has been so understanding of me going away and coming back; my teachers have been really cool about it." In fact, having a normal high school experience has just better prepared Dunst for her Hollywood affairs. "This business is like high school, really, with the gossip and all that! It's true; everyone has their little cliques, and the bathroom stall writing is like magazines. It's so true!"

Also true is that Dunst's next screen appearance is her biggest career departure to date: a top-billed role in The Crow: Salvation, the third installment in the action-horror series. "I get to kick ass! It's my first shooting with a gun and all that stuff. It's the most action hero kind of thing I've ever done." As enthusiastic as she is recounting the experience, don't expect her to make regular forays into the genre. "Sometimes it was just like, 'OK, so how many more running scenes do we have?' I don't think I'm gonna be doing an action thing for a little while now; I've learned my lessons, I think," she says, only partly joking.

More valuable lessons are to come if Dunst sticks to her current plans, which include college somewhere down the line. In her more immediate future, however, are more roles in film, in front of and even behind the camera. "Definitely I want to direct. I have this one thing, actually--Stephen Baldwin is producing dot-com movies, and he wants me to write and direct my own, so I think I'm gonna do that."

Even sooner than that, though, Dunst would like to indulge other passions. "I love to go bowling. I love to go to the movies. I just love to hang out with my friends because I hardly ever get to see them."

In other words, Kirsten Dunst just wants to be "like a regular girl."

(written April 22, 2000)

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Kirsten Dunst: Thriving with Suicides/© Michael Dequina
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