Film: The oldest teenager in Hollywood

She's been in show business for 14 years, and she's just 17. But somehow, Kirsten Dunst has survived.

Kirsten Dunst has a list of co-stars that would be envied by an actress three times her age. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Interview With the Vampire, Dustin Hoffman and Robert de Niro in Wag the Dog, George Clooney in ER (she played the throat-slashing child-woman, an Albanian refugee, and a recurring teenage runaway respectively).

Dunst was three when she started in the business, 11 when she got her break with Interview, a progression she seems to find rather slow. Nothing in the next five years - Little Women, Jamanji, Small Soldiers - lived up to that award-nominated turn. But Dunst is 17 now, and at the age when the child-actress turns into an actress pure and simple - or fails to. It is already quite clear which way she is going to go. "Dunst is growing up and her film career is going to pop," said the LA Times, who should know.

Dunst has four films due out in the US. OK, one of them is a sequel to The Crow. But any one of the remaining three could be considered a potential star-maker, while Dunst's protective family background leaves no room for the problems that have tripped other young stars in flight. Drew Barrymore is not a helpful image here - but one is reminded of Jodie Foster, forcibly.

"Jodie Foster is one of my role models!" says Dunst brightly. "She does pretty much all the things I want to do." Acting, writing, directing, running her own production company. "Except that I also want my own fashion and make-up line. And I want to get married and have kids some day, too." She knows the rest of the world doesn't always feel so confident, but only in that academic sort of way unwounded kids do.

"I've never had that sort of insecurity, because I've got a whole team behind me who've never looked at the down side. I've never put that sort of negative energy into my frame of thinking. As soon as I came out of my mom's stomach I knew what I wanted to do. Perhaps I'm an old soul - that's what psychics say to me. Anyway, I have this whole plan in my head. Yes, I do."

It could easily sound brattish, but doesn't. Dunst - cramming down cream cheese-laden bagels and with a curious tick in her left eye that seems to signal complicity - is enormously likeable. After each bold statement she giggles, apologetically. She does know she's riding for a fall... as we speak, literally.

She's talking on the set of All Forgotten, an American-made amalgam of Turgenev's novel First Love and Chekhov's The Peasant Woman. Dunst apart, the cast is largely British (James Fox, Julie Walters), and the shooting takes place near Prague where Dunst, uninstructed but game, is playing her first horseback role. Side-saddle and severely habited she looks unrecognisable and totally adult. "I carry myself older here, I've been doing breathing exercises to get more air into my belly and a deeper voice. My father saw my picture and thought I was 24," she says proudly.

"The majority of my roles recently have been edging towards adulthood, but this one goes all the way. Things like this don't usually come along for girls my age. It's usually more teen movies, where it's all geared commercially. Nothing going on underneath, just top-level story."

She plays a young woman who needs to marry money, manipulating and manipulated by the suitors all around her. A girl with "some very bad characteristics", Dunst says primly. But you feel she may make a success even of the elements of abuse in the story. "She thinks if the man feels enough emotion towards her to hit her, it means he cares. Even his hate is tender to me. It isn't hard to understand." Evidently.

The dark side seems to come easily to Dunst - surprising in one whose own disposition is so sunny. "The love stories where people don't end up together are the best" - and that open European face (her father's heritage is German, her mother's Dutch via New Jersey) has nonetheless a kind of secrecy. That's why, as a tot, she was hired to pose for commercials in the first place. She has a look that tells a story.

Of her other forthcoming films, Drop Dead Gorgeous is "really funny but dark, definitely". The battle of a small-town beauty queen ends in murder - ambition in whatever field should always be taken seriously. "I never had to go that route - I'd hate to be known as the pretty one. But I've always had competition all my life and I always will do, probably."

Dick is a comedy cast from the Saturday Night Live stable, postulating two teenage girls (Dunst and Michelle Williams) as Deep Throat of Watergate fame. "We're like the girls from Clueless. I just had to play ditzy." They are Nixon's dog-walkers and "secret youth advisers", and yes, one of them has a crush on Nixon, but Dunst has spent enough time answering questions about Monica Lewinsky... Better than answering questions about the original Watergate, though. "I was born in 1982, and it's not something they really tell you about in history."

It was The Virgin Suicides, directed by Francis Coppola's daughter Sofia, which recently took Dunst from Prague to Cannes. Based on a novel about a family of sisters whose smiling image is shattered when one attempts suicide, Cannes greeted the film with unexpected acclaim. Which is more than Dunst did Cannes... "It's as if they've brought all Hollywood down there and just built a French set. And all night they play that stupid techno music people like in Europe." She prefers Jimi Hendrix, personally. But the papers quoted her as saying she wanted a tube-top bathing-suit and some Haagen Dazs before she went back to Prague. One of our perceptions about teen stars is that they really are the girls from Clueless.

The other perception about young stars is that their life cannot be wholesome. Again, comparisons with Jodie Foster - another girl who played a sexual role young (Dunst had to do "gross" open-mouthed kisses with Pitt in Interview) and survived triumphantly. Another girl whose dominant influence was her mother. Film is full of actresses hostile towards their mothers, from Meg Ryan to Demi Moore. Brandy and Jodie Foster seem to have struck a balance between anger and over-closeness. But even that relationship was not perfect, Jodie Foster has admitted recently.

"My mother is always, always there for me," says Kirsten Dunst, 100 per cent behind me. She always flies with me everywhere I go, and gets food we know and makes it homey." Her younger brother Christian often comes along for the ride, which helps keep Dunst just one of the kids in her personal life. Paradoxically, she's mature enough to value that.

A minor hobby-horse of hers is the number of show-business kids who are officially emancipating themselves from their parents. They then don't need chaperones, or restricted hours, or school work on set. It makes it cheaper for the film company. "But the more it happens, the less kids are going to get a high-school education in this business. We don't want a bunch of stupid actors. When you're 15 years old, you shouldn't be living in a hotel room by yourself. That's when you start getting into trouble going out drinking with the crew. It's important to have your mom around." Say that most of us don't have such easy parental relationships, and she receives it like rumour from a far country.

"I know." She's heard all this before. "But it's true. My mom is so cool. She was in fashion design but I think she could definitely be an actress. She gives me good ideas. My whole life she's been there for me. My Dad has too, but they got divorced so she's been the one who's done all this stuff for me.

"She basically sacrificed her life for me, driving me into New York from New Jersey every day for auditions so I could try to make it as an actress. She has sacrificed so much, the least I can do is start a production company with her. Which I really want to do, anyway." Dunst starts laughing again, embarrassed. So, the production company?

Wooden Spoon Productions will be named after the grandmother who always carried one in her purse to keep Dunst and her brother in order. Again, the name is reminiscent of Foster's domestic Egg production company. "And it's mixing and stirring and creating, and it's very female. We want to have a power-house women's film company. We're going to hire women in high, high positions, make better scripts for girls." They have a script about the female fighter pilots of the Second World War, but she says it may be a hard sell. "I can already feel the negativity. I'll probably have to go to Nora Ephron. She's a power-house woman producer. She'll help me out." On the whole, I think Dunst means it seriously. "When I finish school next year, that's when I'll be able to really start."

Someone should warn Ephron.

`Drop Dead Gorgeous' is released 17 September

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