Kirsten Dunst stands beneath a spotlight wearing a fringed Rodarte leather jacket that would look more at home on a Hells Angel than a movie star. Her fingers are twisted to read “blood,” and her side- swept blond hair exposes a dragon-shaped cuff adorning the perimeter of her left ear. When someone dares to suggest that it might be too much—making a gang sign for a fashion magazine—Dunst drops her runway-ready pout. “Come on, guys,” she says. “Let’s make this controversial. Let’s sell magazines!”
The actress, who, at 30, has both box-office appeal and indie clout, was born to werk it. She’s been the object of national attention since age 11, when she held her own against Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire. She’s since cemented her A-list status, not only by balancing commercial work with independent fare, but also by injecting Hollywood blockbusters with art-house talent has attracted some of the great auteurs of our time: Sofia Coppola, Michel Gondry, and Lars von Trier. In the process, she’s become America’s edgiest sweetheart.
The oldest child of Klaus, a retired businessman, and Inez, co-owner of a Los Angeles spa, Dunst was raised in a typical middle class household. Although her family had no ties to show business, Dunst’s expressiveness and abundance of energy compelled her mother to sign her up for acting classes. Before long, a 7-year-old Dunst made her silver-screen debut in Woody Allen’s New York Stories, a role that was quickly followed by another small part in Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. In light of their daughter’s blossoming cinematic career, the Dunst family relocated from their native New Jersey to L.A., where Dunst has been chasing down and devouring that beast called Hollywood ever since.
At the moment, though, Dunst is busy with a more reasonable meal: a sandwich from Lamill Coffee on Silver Lake Boulevard. Across from her sits her boyfriend, actor Garrett Hedlund, whose broad shoulders—covered with a brown leather jacket over a gray hoodie—block her from common sight. Dunst looks effortlessly stylish in a flower-patterned dress and brown ankle boots, her blond hair cascading over a prairie- chic cardigan. Dunst and Hedlund met in 2010 on the set of Walter Salles’ ode to the Beats, On the Road, and have been dating for a year now. Hedlund—who’s been known to refer to Dunst as his “gal”—packs up half of her sandwich for himself before politely making his exit. Dunst, clearly smitten, watches him walk away.
Hedlund has been labeled by the likes of W and Vanity Fair as Brad Pitt’s successor, an ironic comparison when one considers Dunst’s first real- life kiss. “It was just a peck,” she says of the smooch she and Pitt shared in Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire. In the 1994 cinematic adaptation of Anne Rice’s classic novel, Dunst delivered a Golden Globe–nominated performance as Claudia, an undead woman trapped in a young girl’s body. Dunst, then 11, was tasked with channeling a grown woman’s desires, sexual yearnings, and cruel manipulations through a body frozen in pre-adolescence. Her recollection of the experience is accordingly innocent. “I remember Brad would watch lots of Real World episodes,” she says. “He had this long hair. He was just a hippie- ish cool dude. Everyone at the time was like, ‘You’re so lucky you kissed Brad Pitt,’ but I thought it was disgusting. I didn’t kiss anyone else until I was 16, I think. I was a late bloomer.”
It was Dunst’s chastity that endeared her to filmmaker Sofia Coppola, who cast the dimpled actor in her feature-length directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, as Lux Lisbon, the small-town Lolita who—along with her sisters—reacts to her angst and isolation by taking her own life. Adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel of the same name, The Virgin Suicides offered a freshly dark, post–John Hughes look into the turmoil of adolescence, and instantly became a cult classic. In a famous scene that’s since become emblematic of the film’s romantic ennui, a doctor tells the youngest sister Cecilia (Hanna Hall) that she isn’t old enough to know how bad life really gets. “Obviously, doctor,” Cecilia responds, “you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.”
The Virgin Suicides was a major turning point for both Coppola, who triumphantly emerged from the shadow of her legendary father, and Dunst, who was in the process of transitioning into womanhood. “She had that all-American blonde look and a depth behind her eyes,” says Coppola of Dunst. “She had wisdom beyond her age.” For her part, Dunst says, “I trusted Sofia a lot,” which was integral to the success of a film rife with scandalous scenes of sex and suicide. “It was the first time someone wanted me to be more sexual, to be the object of desire. I myself was starting to change, but I hadn’t yet been able to express that in a film. Because Sofia was a woman, too, I felt so much more comfortable doing that.”
The Virgin Suicides was full of visual paradox: plastic bangles adorning botched suicide–scarred wrists; a cherubic face floating in a bathtub full of blood; a gaggle of 15-year-old, chain- smoking blondes. Recently, these images have reemerged across the blogosphere, embraced by a new generation of fans smitten by the film’s winsome palette and bubbly-goth aesthetic. “I was so surprised when someone told me recently that their 14-year-old daughter loved it,” says Coppola about the film’s renewed attention. “I wondered how they knew about it since they weren’t even born when it came out. Then I realized it was probably from [style blogger and magazine editor] Tavi being into it.”
Ten years later, the tale of the tragic Lisbon girls still strikes a cultural chord. “It makes me happy because the film barely had a release when it came out,” says the director. “The studio [Paramount Classics] didn’t know what to do with it and not many people saw it, so it’s nice that it now has an audience and connects to girls the way I connected to the book.” Dunst doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that one of her most notable films came so early in her career. “To be in one of so many people’s favorite movies is all you want as an actor,” she says.
Shortly after The Virgin Suicides, Dunst starred in a string of satirical comedies including Bring it On, Dick, and Drop Dead Gorgeous. Owing to her exceptional comedic timing, the otherwise run-of-the-mill movies became bona fide hits. In 2002, she was tapped by Sam Raimi to play Mary Jane opposite Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker in the blockbuster franchise Spider-Man. Raimi’s trilogy went on to gross $2.5 billion worldwide, and made Dunst a household name in the process. “I wish we could have done a fourth movie,” says Dunst of the comic book saga, which Sony Pictures rebooted in 2012 with Andrew Garfield as the arachno-friendly superhero and Emma Stone as his love interest. “We were like a family,” she says. “Plus, those movies gave me the means to not work as much, help my family, and do little indie projects that I made no money on. To many people, I’m still ‘that girl from Spider-Man.’”
Between filming the original and its sequel, Spider-Man 2, Dunst appeared in a supporting role in the surrealist romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Helmed by French filmmaker Michel Gondry, the indie favorite starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet confirmed Dunst as a rare breed: an actor willing to sacrifice top- billing for the chance to work with an auteur. On the heels of Spider-Man 2, Dunst reunited with Coppola to play the titular queen in Marie Antoinette, a grrrl power–tinged salute to the famous monarch. The film didn’t sit well with its viewers, especially the French ones: the Cannes crowd was divided when the Cure– accompanied closing credits rolled during its 2006 screening.
Photography by Frederik Heyman