Kirsten Dunst Confronts ‘Civil War’ Hysteria, Hollywood Pay Gaps and the Media Dividing America: ‘Everything Is Broken’

Kirsten Dunst
Before I watched “Civil War,” two publicists working on the dystopian thriller assured me that it isn’t a political film.

In the movie, Kirsten Dunst plays a dogged photojournalist muscling her way through a smoldering Washington D.C., trying to document the bitter conflict between two heavily armed factions tearing America apart. I didn’t buy that it didn’t have something to say about this moment. And neither does Dunst.

“So, do you believe that it’s not political? I mean … it’s an anti war film,” Dunst tells me with a shrug. “This movie, after you see it, you want to talk about it for a while with people. And I think any movie that does that is incredible.”

We’re having lunch in Toluca Lake, where Dunst is sipping a bottle of apple juice she’s been carrying in her purse (“Moms always need to keep it on hand,” she whispers conspiratorially) and gearing up for what may be her most controversial movie since, at 11, she upstaged Tom Cruise and kissed Brad Pitt in “Interview With the Vampire.” “Civil War” is going to be debated, all right — on cable news, in op-eds and across social media. When the film premiered at SXSW in March, audience members were groaning and cheering at its bloody, shocking finale.

Jason Hetherington for Variety

The buzzy film represents a high-stakes gamble for A24. The company will unleash “Civil War” in 3,000 theaters on April 12, marking A24’s widest release ever, and with a $55 million budget, it’s the most expensive feature yet for the indie studio behind “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Hereditary.” It’s a risk, too, for Dunst, who hasn’t been in a movie since her Oscar-nominated turn in Jane Campion’s 2021 drama “The Power of the Dog.” Now 41, Dunst is that rare child star of the ’90s with career longevity and not too much heavy baggage. (Her peers in this include Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman.)

Dunst emerged from “The Power of the Dog” on a career high — little wonder that, in speaking about the culture-war elements of her new film, a usually blunt star speaks gingerly. “The whole movie is open to interpretation,” Dunst says. “For me, there were things I just accepted that were unexplained. It allows the audience to fill in their own feelings about what they’re watching.”

But it’s impossible to watch “Civil War” without being reminded of this year’s presidential election — you know, the one where democracy and maybe the fate of the free world hangs in the balance? As we sit in a crowded café about a mile from the home Dunst shares with husband Jesse Plemons and their children, she sometimes struggles to accept that she and Garland are lobbing a cinematic stick of dynamite. For instance, Dunst won’t admit that the film’s president, played by Nick Offerman as a narcissist with an authoritarian streak, resembles the 45th, and perhaps 47th, Oval Office occupant.

“It feels fictitious to me,” she says of any connection between Offerman’s character and Donald Trump. “I don’t want to compare because that’s the antithesis of the film. It’s just a fascist president. But I didn’t think about Nick’s character being any certain political figure. I just thought this is this president, in this world, who will not abide by the Constitution and democracy.”

Still, “Civil War” contains plenty of parallels to the characters that dominate our national drama. Take the defiant president who disbands the FBI and refuses to leave the White House, or the gun-toting soldiers of fortune who wear crosses (shades of the Proud Boys, perhaps?).

Garland didn’t fill in the blanks for the cast. “I have my own answers to these questions. And if someone asked me, I’d answer it,” says the director, who conceived the film as Trump left office. “But if Kirsten didn’t ask me, I wouldn’t answer.”

For her part, Dunst isn’t shy about answering questions about real-world politics. On the looming election: “I’m gonna vote for Biden. That’s my only option. Right?” (Though she laments that Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke, a home-state politician for her Dallas-born husband, didn’t go the distance in the 2020 presidential primary.) Or take her stance on Jonathan Glazer’s polarizing Oscar speech, which Dunst watched from the Dolby Theatre audience. In an open letter, more than 1,000 Jewish creatives slammed “The Zone of Interest” director’s remarks, which faulted Israel’s government for its conduct in Gaza. But Dunst was more receptive. “My interpretation was he was saying that genocide is bad,” she says. On religion, a subject many in Hollywood try to avoid, she doesn’t hide that she’s a practicing Christian: “I did have both my children baptized because I love the tradition. I believe in God.”

Jason Hetherington for Variety

While Dunst insists “Civil War” is entirely fictional, the great divide in America that it dramatizes is all too real. “Media really stokes it big time,” she says. “The media is forcing us to choose a side. Everything’s a lot more complicated than that.”

Dunst, a onetime Bernie Sanders supporter, may be voting for the Democrat in the upcoming presidential race, but she’s not thrilled with her choices. “It’s just shocking that we’re in this position again,” she says of the rematch between Trump and Joe Biden. “It’s just money, money, money, money, money.” Then, Dunst’s voice cracks with emotion: “Everything is broken. Everything needs to be fixed.”

As for “Civil War,” it’s possible — even likely — that the movie will be seen as another example of liberal Hollywood banging on about how fringe conservatives are torching America. The world premiere was met with a rapturous standing ovation. But that was in Austin, a blue dot in the sea of red that is Texas. Regardless of the reception, the film offered Dunst another chance to act opposite Plemons, who has a small role in “Civil War,” after they worked together in “The Power of the Dog” and the second season of FX’s “Fargo,” where they met in 2015.

“I’m very picky,” Dunst says as she stabs a poached egg with her fork. “But that also means I have long breaks where I don’t work. Like, I can’t do a project for the money. It’s just very hard for me to be like, ‘Yes!’ If it’s not in my heart, I can’t do it because I’ve been doing this for so long.”

Thirty-six years, to be exact. In 1988, at the age of 6, Dunst shot her first movie, Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks,” one-third of the anthology “New York Stories.” The middle segment, “Life Without Zoë,” was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and written with his daughter, Sofia Coppola, who became Dunst’s frequent collaborator years later.

“I remember they wanted to send a car down to New Jersey to pick me up to play with Dylan [Farrow],” Dunst recalls, referencing Allen’s daughter, who later accused him of sexual abuse. “My mom was like, ‘I’m not sending my daughter in a town car to go on some play date without me.’”

Although some of Dunst’s early roles placed her in adult-sounding situations, her mother and “an acting teacher who was like my father” made sure she was insulated. She played a child prostitute in 1996 on “ER,” but to this day, she doesn’t realize that her character was presented to audiences as such. “I thought I was like a street kid. I didn’t know I was a prostitute. Really?” When asked about being 11 and getting to kiss Pitt in “Interview With the Vampire,” Dunst spins the question. “How about Brad Pitt got to kiss me?” she says with a laugh.

But Dunst’s mom couldn’t safeguard her entirely from Hollywood’s darker side. She shares an unsettling encounter that took place when she was 16. “I did one meeting once with a director, and he asked me an inappropriate question. And that was the only time. I was like, ‘That’s not cool.’ But I didn’t say that [to him]. I was freaked out. I didn’t know if I should answer or not.” (She declines to name the director.)

That close call reminds Dunst of the thin line separating her from the child stars depicted in the recent Max docuseries “Quiet on Set,” which examines the abuse suffered by young Nickelodeon actors in the ’90s and early aughts. Dunst brings up the show. “It sounds real bad,” she says. “A lot of grooming and weird stuff going on.” She already was familiar with the hardships faced by actress Jennette McCurdy, who is featured in “Quiet on the Set.” “I read [her] book ‘I’m Glad My Mom Died.’ Good book.”

Dunst may have spent a substantial portion of her childhood on film sets with Robert De Niro (“Wag the Dog”), Susan Sarandon (“Little Women”) or Robin Williams (“Jumanji”). But the picture she paints in conversation is that of a relatable upbringing. She and her pal Molly — her best friend to this day — explored the Valley on foot, tracked carefully by her mother.

“We didn’t know my mom would follow us in the car,” she says. “We were into the Psychic Eye, a store on Ventura Boulevard, and doing angel cards and lighting candles. We’d write like, ‘An angel is watching over you’ on little pieces of paper and then put a penny in it, throw it off the balcony of the apartment building we were staying at and watch for people to pick them up.”

Jason Hetherington for Variety

It was the mild rebellion of kids acting out just a little (Dunst attended a traditional Catholic high school in Sherman Oaks). But there were reminders that she wasn’t an average teenager.

“I was walking to like the convenience store and talking to some kids, and they’re like, ‘Well, my agent says I’m the next Kirsten Dunst.’ I just thought, ‘Y’all crazy. I have a Jersey mother. Very East Coast.’ I never thought, ‘I’m famous.’ Like, I went to normal schools.”

But most of her classmates didn’t enjoy the perks that came with Dunst’s extracurricular activities. “There’d be a gorgeous Christmas tree fully decorated in my dressing room from Tom. He treated me like a princess,” she says of Cruise. As a wrap gift for “Jumanji,” Williams bought a 13-year-old Dunst her first computer. “It was an Apple, the ones that came in all those different colors. He was like the most generous, kind, funny person.” While shooting “Little Women” in the dead of summer, Dunst and Sarandon’s daughter, Eva Amurri, ran a lemonade stand that attracted co-stars Winona Ryder and Christian Bale as customers.

The alternate history of Dunst’s career is nearly as intriguing as the string of films that elevated her to the A-list. She was approached for a role in “American Beauty” where her naked body would be covered in red roses (a part eventually played by Mena Suvari). Dunst wasn’t interested in playing the teenager lusted after by her middle-aged neighbor (Kevin Spacey). “I don’t know if I necessarily turned it down,” she says. “I think I just turned down the meeting or something. But yeah, I just didn’t feel comfortable with the sexuality.”

Dunst instead took on a lead role in Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides,” an offbeat, sexually charged coming-of-age story. “I was very nervous,” Dunst says. “Because there’s a sequence where I’m making out with all these boys on a roof of the house. [Sofia] was like, ‘Don’t worry. You don’t have to make out with any of them. Just cover your hair and nestle into their neck. We’ll make it all work.’”

For Dunst, the most stressful part of the scene was having to jump on Josh Hartnett. “His wig fell off one take,” she remembers. “I was just like, ‘I’ve never done anything like that — you know what I mean? — in real life. Josh was very sweet, but it still was … you know?” She trails off, growing shy as she thinks about shooting a love scene from more than 25 years ago.

Coppola offers her own take on those awkward scenes. “I always felt protective towards her and sensitive to what it might be like for her and that she was young,” the director says.

“The Virgin Suicides,” released in 2000, established Dunst as an art-house leading lady and critical favorite. Later that year, she proved that she could carry a studio film with the cheerleader comedy “Bring It On,” a hit that spawned six sequels — none of them involving Dunst. “I didn’t even think about it then, but these days, I would have been a producer on ‘Bring It On,’” she says ruefully. “But I wasn’t.” She has no desire to revisit the franchise. “People keep saying we should do another ‘Bring It On.’ I’m like, ‘No. What would we do?’”

No amount of success, though, could have prepared Dunst for “Spider-Man” and her role as Mary Jane in the first (and arguably best) of the many iterations of the web-spinning franchise. Dunst was filming the teen romance “Crazy/Beautiful” when she had her first meeting with director Sam Raimi. “It was so innocent, the reasons I wanted to be in that film,” she says, sounding nostalgic. “The story lived within Sam in such a deep way that I needed to be a part of that feeling, I guess.”

Dunst did her screen test with her eventual co-star Tobey Maguire in a hotel banquet hall in Berlin. (She was shooting Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Cat’s Meow” in the city.) “Tobey and I immediately had a connection,” she recalls.

When the film became a massive blockbuster, grossing $825 million globally and kicking off the modern era of superhero films, a sequel became a fait accompli. That’s where things get messy. Maguire pulled down a reported $17 million to reprise his role. “It might have been more, actually,” Dunst speculates. As for her salary, “It was different. A lot different. And I was in ‘Bring It On’ and had a track record.” It was another example of how, in Hollywood, young women didn’t receive pay parity.

Jason Hetherington for Variety

Despite Dunst’s frustration over the salary gap, money wasn’t — and isn’t — a big motivator for her. When she’s prioritized big paydays, it’s been a mistake. “When I was younger, in my 20s, I didn’t have the best guidance, I would say, and I did a couple of duds for money reasons, but nothing that I would have actually done otherwise,” she says. “I get offered the most money on things I don’t want to do. As soon as I took the reins and started to develop my tastes and who I wanted to work with, everything shifted.”

That meant collaborating with unconventional auteurs, from Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) to Lars von Trier (“Melancholia”), along with a pair of Coppola reunions (“Marie Antoinette” and “The Beguiled”). As she moved from one challenging project to the next, she kept growing as an actress. Coppola remembers being struck by the depth Dunst displayed as the sexually repressed schoolteacher in “The Beguiled.”

“She had an intense scene with Colin Farrell, and she was able to convey so much desperation, something I’ve never seen in her,” Coppola says. “She’s just matured as a person and a woman. She has more life experience that comes through in her roles, and she’s more assured of herself so a strength comes through.”

When Garland was looking for his “Civil War” heroine in 2021, Dunst raised her hand, months ahead of her first Oscar nomination for “The Power of the Dog.” As she tore through the script, she wasn’t just reading it to see how meaty her part would be. She wanted to know how the story unfolded. “I was fully immersed. I just remember feeling like I had never read anything like this before,” she says. “I haven’t done anything like this. And I know it was between me and another actress.” As for the other actress, Dunst won’t divulge her name — but says they are very different.

Then again, is there anyone else quite like Dunst? Garland had been watching her movies for years and was familiar with what she could do — to the extent that he never asked her to audition to play Lee, a stoic war photographer carrying the grief of capturing mass death and suffering in the streets. “I know people are skeptical about actors. Like ‘That’s an easy job. You roll out of your trailer, and you kind of make-believe in front of a lens for a bit and then go back,’” Garland says. “It’s harder than that. And one of the things Kirsten had to be was tough and vulnerable on camera, and I think also in herself, and I think that she just did it very brilliantly.”

Plemons came along for the ride, appearing opposite Dunst in one pivotal scene in which he plays a frightening xenophobe in fatigues (it’s never clear which team he’s on). “Civil War” was shot in Atlanta, with the final act unfolding in and around the replica White House at Tyler Perry’s studio — the same place Madea once held a satirical press conference to announce she was Trump’s new communications director. “We fell in love working together, and we will always have that check and balance with each other,” she says of Plemons. “And honestly, he did us a favor, because Alex had another actor for Jesse’s role and that actor couldn’t do it. So I feel like we lucked out.”

Co-star Wagner Moura was struck by the ease with which the couple navigated their tense scene together. “They gave each other lots of space, and they didn’t invade each other’s moment as actors,” Moura recalls. “Kirsten is just very cool, and I don’t say that about many people.”

When they’re not working, Dunst and Plemons are focused on raising their two sons, ages 5 and 2. Theirs is an analog lifestyle. “We’ve got record players,” Dunst says. “We’re just not a ‘Siri, play whatever’ household. Our kids don’t have iPads either. If they want to use an iPad on the plane, it’s Dad’s iPad. And we’re not phone-at-restaurant kind of people.” She glances down at her own device for the first time in two hours. “I’m not raising a kid that can’t have conversations at the table.” As for the two subsequent “Spider-Man” trilogies, she never bothered to check them out — or any Marvel movies for that matter. “It’s just not my thing. But I did see ‘Paw Patrol,’” she says with a classic, deflating, Coppola-heroine eye roll.

Director Alex Garland and Kirsten Dunst
Murray Close/A24

The Dunst-Plemons clan doesn’t hang out with a lot of Hollywood types outside of Plemons’ fellow Texas pal Glen Powell. Her closest friend in the business is Gloria Sanchez Productions co-founder Jessica Elbaum, whom she met while filming 2012’s “Bachelorette.” The pair are developing a dark comedy together; Dunst plans to meet with writers after our lunch. She’s juggling some other potential projects. Margot Robbie is developing a movie for Dunst via her LuckyChap production company. It’s easy to see in Robbie a sort of heir to Dunst — ebullient but wickedly clever, slyly in on the joke. Robbie, who has produced “Barbie” and “I, Tonya,” has had opportunities that Dunst, eight years her senior, is only now seizing. Dunst credits Robbie as a trailblazer, who has “done so much for all of us” by becoming a power broker as well as a star. “I’m wildly impressed,” she says.

As the hours tick by and we delve deeper into her home life and artistic ambitions, Dunst grows uncomfortable, scratching her wrist when the conversation lingers on her. “I really don’t like talking about myself,” she says. But she’s not being modest. Dunst knows that anything she says can be misunderstood or misinterpreted, fodder for a culture that thrives on outrage. That’s especially true of an explosive movie like “Civil War.”

“It feels like I have to be on guard,” Dunst says. “The fact that people are losing their agents because they have a political standpoint — it feels scary.” She pauses for what feels like a full minute, exploiting the tension, turning it into a crafty dodge. “Now I’m, like, so tired of talking,” she says before looking back at me and hitting the table. “Your turn!”

Set Design: Peter Gueracague; Styling: Samantha McMillen/The Wall Group; Makeup: Nina Park/Kalpana; Hair: Bryce Scarlett/The Wall Group; Manicure: Emi Kudo/A Frame Agency; Look 1 (lead image): Dress: Jil Sander; Earrings: Sophie Bille Brahe; Look 2 (cover): Dress: Jil Sander; Earrings: Anita Ko; Look 3 (green dress): Dress and shoes: Bottega Veneta; Earrings: Grace Lee; Ring: Starling; Look 4 (blue background with red shoes): Dress and shoes: Prada; Earrings and Ring: Irene Neuwirth;

From Variety US