When Will Kirsten Dunst Get Her Due?

In the new Showtime comedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida, the perennially underrated actor echoes the rage and fear of so many older millennials.

The extravagantly titled new series On Becoming a God in Central Florida, which premieres on Showtime this Sunday, is set in 1992. But its star, Kirsten Dunst, plays the most trendy millennial role right now: a scammer. She’s Krystal Stubbs, a young mother working a minimum wage job in a dingy water park near Orlando, surrounded by the hucksters and victims of the local cultlike multilevel marketing (MLM) pyramid scheme, FAM (which stands for Founders American Merchandising and is a parody of the real-life company Amway).

The story kicks off when Krystal enters the world of FAM, in her own persnickety, unique way, to exact revenge on the hawks who pushed her family into untenable poverty. It’s a comedy, ostensibly, but really more of a story about the elusiveness of the American dream, as played out in the surreal, hothouse environment of Florida. Or, as Jia Tolentino writes in her recent book Trick Mirror, summing up the ethos of this story and the seductiveness of MLM, “one of the best bids a person can make for financial stability in America is to get really good at exploiting other people.”

Dunst is — above and beyond — the reason to watch On Becoming a God, which, to its credit, is a consistently surprising show, and to its detriment is not directed by the Coen brothers or David Lynch. The worries that plague Krystal’s everyday life feel more relevant than ever. How do you live a life of ease in a society where the cards are stacked against you? What are the lies and confidence tricks that someone can use to get to the top? If the show keeps going, it could be an iconic role for Dunst, dressed in airbrushed Florida kitsch and sporting a twangy accent. But mostly, watching it made me realize how much I missed seeing the name “Kirsten Dunst” on the screen — and how underrated Dunst remains as an actor and artist.

If the show keeps going, it could be an iconic role for Dunst, dressed in airbrushed Florida kitsch and sporting a twangy accent.

It feels like a weird thing to say about an actor who’s been working steadily since she was 3 years old, who has headlined superhero blockbusters and used her name recognition to help bring small indie films (All Good Things, Bachelorette, Woodshock) by first-time directors to life. But unlike other women actors her age — Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman — Dunst didn’t win an Oscar in her ingenue phase (which, notably, is usually accompanied by a six-month marketing campaign arguing for excellence via method acting). Her most memorable role in the past few years has been her Emmy-nominated performance in Season 2 of FX’s Fargo, in which she costarred with her now-fiancé Jesse Plemons (who, for a certain crowd, will always be Landry from Friday Night Lights or creepy Todd from the final season of Breaking Bad).

In March 2018, Dunst gave birth to their son. So it’s understandable that she’s been working less frequently, save for the occasional role with friends (in Rodarte founders Laura and Kate Mulleavy’s 2017 debut film, Woodshock, and in Sofia Coppola’s controversial 2017 remake of The Beguiled). Dunst is now an actor at an interesting stage: a young mom, on the “wrong side” of 30, too old to play the ingenue but still too young to get the big, meaty, Frances McDormand roles.

In some ways, the manner in which Dunst is underrated feels germane to a very specific subgeneration of “old” millennials: They are burned out, working too hard, born in the early ’80s, now in their late thirties, with 40 looming and not too much to show for it, financially or otherwise. They are saddled with student loans, trying to get a toehold in rapidly contracting industries. They know how to use the post office and how to keep some things private. You can see this with Dunst’s, Hathaway’s, and Portman’s awkward social media presences on Instagram, where they’re uninterested in playing the influencer game and mostly post funny throwback photos and the occasional professional promo or earnest charity request.

Over the years, Dunst has evolved from a wise child actor to the embodiment of turn-of-the-century optimism in Bring It On’s Torrance and the barely contained rage in saltier roles like Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette. Dunst doesn’t change too much, physically, for a role. But she’s compelling onscreen because she combines talent with a knack for choosing strange characters and works with great directors. She could rest on mere prettiness, the fact that the camera loves her, but instead she showcases the roiling emotions inside, creating people who are ambitious, weird, sad, angry, and inexplicable.

Dunst was 11 years old and already a working actor and model when she landed the role of Claudia in the film adaptation of Anne Rice’s bestseller Interview With the Vampire in 1994. The movie, directed by Neil Jordan, depicted a gothic world of sexy vampires as played by Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt (the latter in the midst of his first flush of being a collective crush). Dunst’s Claudia was the tragedy, a grown woman trapped in the body of a little girl. Her performance is remarkable for what it contains: She has the face of an angel and the anger and manipulation of an adult. She even received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress for the role, and yet the main takeaway from the film is a question that has trailed her for years: What is it like to kiss Brad Pitt?

In a David Letterman interview from 1995, Dunst is bubbly and vivacious, a cheerleader promoting Jumanji, and Letterman is busy asking her about the kiss. Her response is, “He has dry lips. I don’t know what else to say.” What’s more interesting about the interview is her focus: She wants to write and direct.

Beyond the immediate appeal of being a precocious kid actor, Dunst proved how interesting she was when, in short order, she appeared in a run of films that still hold up, including the pageant world’s Drop Dead Gorgeous and the Watergate-scandal rewrite Dick.

She then made two more films that really cemented her as not just another teen actor but as someone who could project more than just likability at the camera. In Sofia Coppola’s dreamy, classic 1999 debut The Virgin Suicides, an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, Dunst played the central dream girl the neighborhood boys are infatuated with: Lux Lisbon, “a stone fox” hungry to experience something like life. Coppola, in the first of what would become a string of collaborations with Dunst, films her in gauzy, luminous shots. She’s mesmerizing in the role — her sharp, feral teeth stick out, balancing her cloud of golden hair and feline, seen-it-all eyes.

Bring It On (2000), the other iconic movie from that time period Dunst starred in, appears to be just a cheesy cheerleading movie, with Dunst as Torrance, the leader of the all-white cheerleading squad the Toros. Her over-the-top commitment to the sport is funny and endearing, and once she realizes that her team stole its competition-winning moves from the Clovers, a team of black and Latina cheerleaders in East Compton, she does the right thing. Dunst’s sincerity and enthusiasm in the role provides a lot of the comedy in Bring It On, and the “Citizen Kane of cheerleading movies,” as Roger Ebert called it in 2012, has yielded plenty of sequels and a musical stage adaptation.

In a June 2000 feature in Interview magazine, Dunst laid out her approach to acting, which she described as almost the absence of any intentional approach: “I try to make it so I’m not really aware of what I am doing,” she said, adding that she found it “harder to be not conscious of what you are doing than to be conscious. It’s hard to get lost in a scene, to get into a character, when everyone’s standing around you on a set.” And it shows in her work; she appears so natural in her roles.

Bring It On and The Virgin Suicides are two films that capture Dunst’s onscreen innocence. There’s a hopefulness in these movies, in the way that Dunst is at her sparkliest and in the movies’ idealizations of girlhood and pluckiness, whether in the context of cheerleading or of yearning for a way out of an oppressive household. If you were the same age as these characters when these films were released, as I was, it was easy to relate to these cheerful millennials, in The Virgin Suicides’ recalibration of the camera’s gaze as something that is inherently female or, in Bring It On, with the idea that you could counter bad actions with moral authority, and the best team (the Clovers, of course) would win.

When Dunst’s generation of child actors headed to college — straight-A student Natalie Portman at Harvard, while others ended up at Columbia (Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — she skipped it, busy with her role as Mary Jane to Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man. She began playing cute, twentysomething ingenue roles, but even then, she had hidden depths, giving small characters full lives as she alternated between sadness and rage onscreen. As Mary, the cheerful receptionist at the memory-erasing company Lacuna Inc. in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, she deftly plays a girl in love with Tom Wilkinson’s Dr. Mierzwiak, trying to impress him with poetry plucked from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, when the truth is that they had an affair and he used the memory-erasing tool on Mary and she didn’t know it. When she finds out, Dunst is devastating. And then there’s 2005’s Elizabethtown.

Dunst doesn’t change too much, physically, for a role. But she’s compelling onscreen because she combines talent with a knack for choosing strange characters and works with great directors.

Elizabethtown is Dunst’s nearly heroic attempt to make a real girl out of a mediocre script’s collection of tics and nonsensical koans. Her character, a friendly flight attendant named Claire, is obsessed with Drew, Orlando Bloom’s mopey, suicidal shoe designer. She can put together a scrapbook, the perfect mix CD, and a guide for a 41-hour road trip at a moment’s notice. Her courting includes long talks on the phone, doing some weird click movement of a fake camera when she wants to remember something, claiming that Claire and Drew are “the substitute people,” not the stars of the movie, and saying things like, “I’m impossible to forget, but I’m hard to remember.” The film did modest box office business when it was released, but it has lived on in incoherent infamy as the ne plus ultra of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliché on film (it basically inspired the term).

But even as Dunst’s role in that film became shorthand for the vapidity of how Hollywood treats twentysomething women, she had a leading role in Coppola’s underrated 2006 movie Marie Antoinette, a lush evocation of the out-of-touch bubble of Versailles, rendered in soft pastels to a post-punk soundtrack. Coppola’s visual indulgence makes it clear that Marie is a poor little rich girl, out of touch and a tragedy in her own life, but the drama of the intentionally anachronistic work comes from Dunst’s ability to project womanly wisdom and girlishness, often at the same time — a recurring theme in her roles. She’s all-American in her accent and her appearance, beginning as a believable 14-year-old girl, all naivete, who becomes a spoiled, trapped woman living in a cage.

After that era, Dunst’s acting got stronger and stranger, with Dunst playing one of her best roles in a film that attracted lots of attention — Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Dunst won the prestigious Best Actress award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where the film premiered, for her role as a depressed young bride, but her triumph was overlooked by von Trier’s notorious press conference for the film, where (among other things) he told the audience, “I understand Hitler. … I sympathize with him quite a bit.” As these words came out of his mouth, Dunst, resplendent in a yellow dress, squirmed next to him. You can see her Oscar hopes fading in real time.

In Melancholia, Dunst plays a sick woman trying hard to maintain a facade of normality throughout the ritual of a wedding. She tries to be useful to her family, comforting her sister and nephew as the rogue planet Melancholia (a metaphor for depression) approaches Earth. Dunst doesn’t change too much, physically, for the role. Part of the appeal of the movie comes from how beautiful she is as a young bride, how she can put on the performance of looking happy and normal. The drama lies in her eyes and the curve of her mouth, the way it’s clear that her vision of the world is much different from anyone else’s. As someone who’s spent months prone on a couch, I can say it’s one of the most visceral representations of depression I’ve seen on film, and it certified my appreciation of Dunst as an actor.

Around the same time that Dunst’s Oscar hopes went down the drain with that press conference, her peers — Portman and Hathaway — won Oscars less for the quality of their performances per se than for the narratives that surrounded them: the work and suffering that went into playing a tortured ballerina in Black Swan and a selfless prostitute in Les Misérables.

I believe Dunst deserved the Oscar that Meryl Streep won for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, and she was thwarted by an idiot director and the fact that Melancholia was released through a small distributor like IFC, the type of company that can’t put its money behind the six-month march toward an Oscar. And yet her role has stuck in the public consciousness, with Reddit boards still discussing its portrayal of depression, perhaps because of its accuracy. A month ago, IndieWire ranked it No. 20 among the 50 Best Performances of the 2010s. The times we live in are more depressive than ever, and few films have gotten the operatic, dramatic, and mundane aspects of this sadness like Melancholia.

On the other side of depression, there’s anger, and seeing a seething Dunst in Headland’s acerbic debut film, 2012’s Bachelorette, feels emblematic of what it’s like to be in your early thirties and part of a generation set up to be disappointed by the impossibility of achieving the personal and professional stability our boomer parents enjoyed. Based on Headland’s play of the same name, the film comments on women’s anger, frustration, and competitiveness through the familiar narrative framework of one crazy night before a wedding. Dunst, along with Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan, jokes and worries and, underneath all the sarcasm, embodies what it’s like to feel the mutual jealousy of not hitting particular life events in the right, expected order — unlike the friend they bullied in high school (Rebel Wilson) who’s due to be happily married.

In Bachelorette, Dunst feels like a revelation. She’s a sour cherry as Regan, the type of overachiever who is composed on the outside, only to reveal a blazing rage roiling underneath — the type of rage that seems to sum up a generation. But there is a bright (or at least brightly burning) side to that feeling, as seen in the final scenes of this film, where Regan gives a motivational speech to the bride: “Fuck everybody! Fuck everybody!”

That’s what I love, right now, about seeing Dunst in On Becoming a God in Central Florida: her visible anger. “I couldn’t let the character go,” Dunst recently told Entertainment Weekly. She stuck with the project through the birth of her first child and was a producer on it as it lost directors (The Favourite’s Yorgos Lanthimos) and bounced around from AMC to YouTube to Showtime. “I read other shows I could’ve done, but this was just so different. I don’t have to be crying about some man or what that man did to me.” The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ethos of American ingenuity and individualism may be at the root of some inspirational tales, but all too often it’s used for bald-faced lies and cons, selling a seductive myth, building a cult of personality, until the marks realize that there’s nothing left.

Sometimes I see that con play itself out in Dunst’s roles as an actor. She’s cute on the outside, blonde with high cheekbones and impossibly chipper; but she’s most interesting when she’s angry, edgy, and voicing the feelings of what it’s like to be an old millennial, stuck between two eras, and not quite achieving the level of power where people listen to you. A generation has grown up with Kirsten Dunst, and a generation has watched her as she turned away from the expectations of chasing an Oscar and acclaim and followed her instincts regarding her career, prioritizing her talent and her art.

The only way to get by — in this case — is to find a scam you can run yourself. ●

Elisabeth Donnelly is a journalist and screenwriter. She has written about books, culture, and other passions for numerous places from Oprah to Topic Magazine to New York City Ballet. You can find her writing at elisabethdonnelly.com. She’s currently working on a nonfiction book about wellness.

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