As soon as Kirsten Dunst checked out of Cirque Lodge rehab in Utah in March 2008, she moved out of her place in the Hollywood Hills, a three-bedroom house with massive entry gates to keep out intruders. She had bought it with the money from the first Spider-Man movie, only to spend the next few years growing increasingly isolated—Norma Desmond by the age of 25.
“Kirsten definitely had OD’d on Hollywood and needed to get away,” says Ryan Gosling, who, that spring, met with the actress for weeks of rehearsal in New York, where Dunst had relocated. She had accepted just one role in two years, opposite Gosling in the small, independent film All Good Things, opening December 3.The director, Andrew Jarecki, had made the startling Oscar-nominated documentary Capturing the Friedmans, about a New York family caught up in the child-abuse witch hunts of the mid-eighties. All Good Things revisits another scandal from those days, that of New York real-estate heir Robert Durst, who was investigated for the disappearance of his wife in 1982. Jarecki has refashioned the story as a sort of indie version of Sleeping With the Enemy, with Dunst starring as the teenager from Long Island who, after marrying the character based on Durst, is ushered into a seductive clan of millionaires, before realizing something is very wrong with her husband. Dunst ages nine years in the role, visibly crumbling in a way that feels lived.
“Whatever dragons she’d been chasing, she chased them and trapped and slew ’em between action and cut,” says Gosling. “You weren’t watching somebody who was unlocking something in themselves, and then because they’d finally exposed it maybe they could retire. You felt like you were watching somebody unlock something, and now that it had been exposed they could get started.”
Dunst, who now lives part time in L.A., meets me at a café in the gritty-chic neighborhood of Silver Lake, dropped off by her boyfriend, Jason Boesel, the drummer for the band Rilo Kiley. She’s gracious, a little shy, and keen to clarify the reason for her two-year hiatus from the screen and her stint in rehab—which, she emphasizes, was for depression, not addiction. “I think most people in their twenties go through some sort of depression,” she says. “If you’re successful at a young age, no matter the profession, there has to come a time when you reevaluate everything, what it means to you. Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?”
She has worked flat-out for the better part of two decades, ever since 1994’s Interview With the Vampire, which included the indelible scene of the angelic Dunst lapping up blood like a cat at a saucer of milk. With her two slightly pointed incisors, a smile that seems to begin and end at the corners of her mouth, and her drowsy, low-lidded gaze, Dunst has a face that is sphinxlike and luminous, somehow suggestive of great distances even in the tightest close-up—as in her doomed suburban Lolita in Sofia Coppola’s first film, The Virgin Suicides. Dunst followed that with a series of smarter-than-usual teen movies—Dick, Bring It On, Crazy/Beautiful—notable for the uncondescending sincerity of her performances, and culminating with her M.J. in Spider-Man, that most plastic of blockbuster franchises, lit up with Dunst’s silent-movie yearning. Her Best Kiss win with Tobey Maguire at the MTV Movie Awards might not be the stuff of Oscar campaigns, but it testifies to her formidable chemistry with co-stars.
“When people talk about her acting work they seldom use the word Spider-Man, but she makes those movies watchable,” says Jarecki. “You could argue Tobey Maguire doesn’t work in that part without her. And he might not have worked in that part with 50 other actresses, until you got to her. I think she started making this connection when she was 11 and kissed Brad Pitt in Interview With the Vampire. It’s something she’s been able to give at a lot of different ages: that sense of intrinsic connection we feel, that we’ll like the person she likes. But it’s also been a burden. The fact that she can do it means everyone around her insists that she does do it. It’s not a surprise that she might get to her mid-twenties and say ‘I want a break.’ ”
Things began to unravel after the critical pasting received by Marie Antoinette, Coppola’s air-kiss to the notorious French queen, reimagined as a sweet-souled shopaholic, self-medicating on macarons. “I loved doing it, but it came with weird, hurtful criticism as well,” says Dunst, “and I took it to heart.” Alone in her house in the Hills, she found herself a sitting duck for her insecurities. “Now I think I should have had a roommate. To be all the way alone, up there, in that house. But then I learned to be alone when I was very young,” she adds. “You grow up in a business where there’s a lot of people-pleasing. It’s hard to be firm in your own ground and not be afraid to rock the boat. I was swallowing a lot of stuff … In my relationships and personal life I absorbed things from other people, and then because of what I do for a living, I had to keep giving. It can dissolve you.” (As tempting as it is to see this as part of the usual growing pains of an ex-child star, does that even mean anything anymore? The narrow path carved out by Dunst—from her childhood in New Jersey to modeling in Manhattan to Vampire—has become a busy thoroughfare: Anne Hathaway, Lindsay Lohan, Scarlett Johansson, Kristen Stewart—they all began working as children.)
All Good Things feels as satisfying an act of career metempsychosis as can be imagined, taking Dunst’s molten powers of devotion—her ability not just to convey love for the person onscreen with her, but her ability to make the audience love that person too—and then running the whole lot over a cliff. “It’s her first adult role,” says Jarecki, who says he’s taken a number of calls from “very interesting directors—household names—saying, ‘You know I was just getting ready to cast this movie, but I’ve heard such great things about Kirsten’s performance … Would you show me a part of the movie?’ She’s acting opposite Ryan Gosling and Frank Langella, and it’s her performance people are talking about.”
Dunst seems happy to take her reemergence into the limelight slowly, with roles in the new Lars von Trier film, Melancholia, Juan Diego Solanas’s Upside Down, and a small part in the forthcoming adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. During the last year, she’s also spent time traveling in Germany with her father and accompanying Boesel on a tour with singer Jenny Lewis. “Doing All Good Things really felt like I was acting for myself rather than anyone else,” she says. “It gave me a freedom I’d never had before, or knew I had, to do whatever I want to, and to argue my opinions and not just feel like the cute girl on set or the girl in a boy’s club. I figured out how I could be both. And it’s been different ever since.”