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Kirsten Dunst loved getting 'ugly' for her Oscar-nominated role in 'The Power of The Dog'

Kirsten Dunst in "The Power of the Dog." (Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)
Kirsten Dunst in "The Power of the Dog." (Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)

As Academy Awards season begins in earnest, “The Power of the Dog” leads the pack.

Jane Campion’s menacing take on masculinity in the American West got 12 nominations including best picture and best director.

The film is set on a 1920’s cattle ranch in Montana run by two brothers, George and Phil Burbank, played by Jesse Plemmons and Benedict Cumberbatch. This is a place dominated by men, so what happens when George marries the widow Rose and brings his new bride home to live on the ranch?

His brother Phil sets out to destroy her.

Cumberbatch and Plemmons are up for Oscars, as is Kirsten Dunst, who plays Rose. And the Oscars were very much on her mind when she talked to host Peter O’Dowd in December.

The script drew Dunst to the role, she said. She recalls running out screaming in one scene where even the horses seemed startled.

“I like when there is room to have private moments with characters and really a lot to fill in emotionally like for the screen, not just with words,” she said. “And I love whenever you see a woman start to lose it. It’s fun to play and it’s fun to see, so it’s nice to be ugly.”

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In one scene where Rose practices piano, Phil comes in — without saying a word — destroys Rose’s confidence by playing the same tune she’s struggling with on the banjo.

Dunst said she excels at conveying emotion without words. For a creative practicing a skill, hearing someone make it sound easy can be “soul-crushing,” she said.

Phil and Rose hardly interact in the film. In preparation for their roles, Cumberbatch and Dunst didn’t speak to each other on set. Their choice not to interact set the tone and Cumberbatch influenced the whole set by staying in character, she said.

“It was all about creating what that feeling is for Rose and how people can gaslight other people, whether in work or relationships or whatever it is,” Dunst said. “If your brain is vulnerable, people can really get in there and worm their way in and really, psychologically damage someone.”

Masculinity is one of the main themes of the film. One of the few women in the movie, Dunst said Phil’s toxic male energy comes from pain.

Moments in the movie like when the audience sees the mid-30s brothers sleep in the same room in the opening scene convey the strangeness of their toxic relationship, she said.

“There’s so many weird things happening that make someone act out in the way that Phil does. He’s like a big baby that’s just a hurt crying child,” she said. “It’s just that’s a very easy thing to see from an outsider. But when you’re in it with the people, that family dynamic is very ingrained.”

When it comes to her two sons, Dunst said she’s lucky to have Plemmons as a partner to lead by example.

“All you can do is love your kids,” she said.

Dunst wants to raise her kids in Texas rather than Los Angeles so they don’t turn into entitled “kids of actors” in the one-industry town, she said. When one of Dunst’s friends was in school, he said one kid would say things like, “My dad didn’t hire your mom for this job,” she said.

At the time of the interview, Dunst revealed Plemmons hadn’t seen the movie yet — despite its Netflix release.

“Sometimes you make a movie and it feels like it almost feels like a little death when you watch it because you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s over with and that happened, and I can’t change it,’ ” Dunst said. “I find I enjoy everyone else’s performances and then just really pick apart mine.”

Dunst has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal, marking her first Academy Award nomination.

“It’s just like one of those things when you’re an actor, one of your dreams in life is to win an Academy Award,” she said in December. “It’s just part of it. I’d like to be cool and be like, ‘No, I don’t care,’ but obviously, I’d love to be nominated.”

“The Power of the Dog” is a “perfect storm” of talented creatives that Dunst feels fortunate to be a part of, she said.

After three decades of making movies, Dunst said she’s gained confidence with age. Now, she just wants to have fun experiences making exciting work with other creatives and be a good person.

“You question yourself less, you give yourself permission to fail and all these things,” she says, “because it doesn’t really matter.”

For the original conversation, click here


Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleyAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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