Kirsten Dunst: Far from an ingénue

Kirsten Dunst plays the reluctant celebrity but she's been on the stardom trail since she was three. By Stephen Applebaum
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The Independent Culture

"Um, I don't have a boyfriend," Dunst replies, beaming sweetly. "Who are you talking about?" Gyllenhaal, of course. "Oh, I'd love to meet him," she chortles, apparently enjoying playing the role of ingénue. "He sounds like a nice guy."

At 23, Dunst is a veteran of the media encounter. By the time that playing Spider-Man's girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson, propelled the popular blonde onto the covers of glossies around the world, she had already spent much of her life in front of cameras. "I was answering questions in interviews like this when I was 12," she tells me.

Does she have any regrets about the way she spent her childhood? "Well, it's not a natural way to grow up," she admits, "but it's the way I grew up and I wouldn't change it. I have my stuff to work out, but so does my girlfriend who went to high school, went to college, and had a different life from mine. I don't think anybody can sit around and say: 'My life is more screwed up than yours.' Everybody has their issues."

Dunst was born in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, in 1982, and was just three when her Swedish mother, Inez, signed her up with the prestigious Ford modelling agency in New York. An instant hit, she filmed more than 70 TV commercials before making her feature film debut in Woody Allen's New York Stories, aged seven.

"Mum's the one who helped me get where I am," Dunst said later. "She'd drive me every day to New York City to go to auditions. My dad [Klaus] was supportive but he didn't think the TV commercials would lead to anything. He didn't realise my mum and I were on a mission. But he's proud of me."

After Dunst made her transition to the big screen, the family moved to LA, where her rise began in earnest. In 1994 she shocked and thrilled as the curly-haired vampire child-woman, Claudia, in Neil Jordan's Interview With The Vampire. She was 11 - although she seemed preternaturally mature, making her perfect for the part - so locking lips with Brad Pitt, 20 years her senior, inevitably caused a hoo-ha. Just a kid, she said of the experience: "I hated it. It was gross. It was like kissing your brother. His lips were so dry." Four years later, though, the thought of smooching Kevin Spacey proved too much, and she turned down the role of the cheerleader in American Beauty that gave Mena Suvari her breakthrough.

Instead, Dunst went on to win acclaim as the free-spirited Lux in Sofia Coppola's poetic directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides. For her, the best movie moments are often when, as an audience, you sense that an actor is revealing something about themselves, and Coppola, says Dunst, tapped into something in her that other directors have missed.

"A lot of people I worked with before and since have seen me as a very cute, bubbly, sweet girl, and Sofia really saw the darkness in me as well as the light," she says. "She saw that I was sad and scared, and she saw that I was a woman. Sofia just let me be my truest self, which no director had let me do before."

They reunited recently on Marie-Antoinette. The film casts Dunst in the eponymous role, alongside Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI. "Marie Antoinette has a lot of light and she loves partying, and then there's a very sad and lonely part, too," she says, making her sound a little like Lux, or even Scarlett Johansson's character from Coppola's Lost In Translation.

"Sofia relates to her, and I do too. It is very lonely to grow up the way Sofia did." I notice that Dunst is growing agitated. She is talking faster, and her foot is shaking. "Can you imagine being a little girl and everywhere you go everyone kisses your butt and you haven't done anything, and when you do do something, everyone is waiting to tear you down and compare you with your father? And then being a woman director and getting questions like 'When do you want to have kids?' My God," she groans, "it's not an easy environment to grow up in, and neither was it for me."

Dunst recently found herself the subject of baby-related speculation herself when she and Gyllenhaal were photographed innocently looking at prenatal vitamins at a health food market. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know if she was pregnant (she wasn't).

Dunst then found herself assailed by a rumour that she had had an affair with her Elizabethtown co-star, Orlando Bloom. As much as Dunst likes to pretend that she is not famous and tries to live a normal life, escaping the insatiable hunger that people have for celebrity tittle-tattle, real or manufactured, is almost impossible. And it does not just affect her.

"My mum called me and said: 'Everybody is asking me if you are pregnant. I know it's not true, but call me anyway.' I was like: 'Yeah, mum, I am pregnant, I am engaged to Jake and I just made out with Orlando...'" Dunst laughs hollowly. "Oh my God, are you kidding me? Please, I hate it."

The stories alleging a fling with Bloom reflect the strong chemistry that they share in Cameron Crowe's much denigrated new film. She plays a garrulous air stewardess who saves Bloom's suicidal training shoe-designer from himself during a trip to arrange his dead father's funeral.

Working with Crowe on Elizabethtown was enjoyable, says Dunst, but, you sense, a lot tougher than she was expecting. "He does a lot of takes and he really pushes you. Sometimes it is amazing and he gets great results, and sometimes it is frustrating and I get angry."

Next up is Spider-Man 3 which, according to recent reports, is likely to be her last outing with the web-throwing superhero. She has just signed on to play Marla Ruzicka, a US relief worker killed by a suicide bomb in Baghdad, in a film about the Iraq war.

If playing Marie Antoinette does not earn her an Oscar nomination, then the Ruzicka role might. Dunst, though, seems happy to wait. "It would be great. If it comes, it comes. There's a time for everybody in life. Hopefully, I'll be doing this for a while, so I don't need to win now. I'd rather make an amazing movie that moves people than win an award."

'Elizabethtown' is out today