Kirsten Dunst’s haunting performance in The Power of the Dog


Kirsten Dunst didn’t talk to co-star Benedict Cumberbatch during production of the haunting movie The Power of the Dog.

We’ve all heard of method actors who stay in their character’s mindset even when the cameras aren’t rolling.

On Jane Campion’s awards contender The Power of the Dog, a haunting and sly western, that method actor was Benedict Cumberbatch, whose character Phil is a cruel, cold and mocking cowboy.

Campion and Cumberbatch have even revealed in interviews that she would introduce him around on set as “Phil” followed by “You’ll meet Benedict later”.

While Phil’s disdain is sprayed almost indiscriminately to the people in his life, his most vitriolic barbs were reserved for his new sister-in-law Rose, played with a wounded loneliness by Kirsten Dunst.

Their characters’ on-screen enmity meant that during production, Dunst and Cumberbatch kept clear of each other so as to really let that hostility brew.

“When it came to filming, we kept very separate and didn’t talk on set and things like that, which I think is great,” Dunst told “Whatever helps anyone do the best job they do. I’m down for anything.

“So, I thought it was great that we didn’t talk. It immediately put the energy right where it was supposed to be.”

It worked, because that agonisingly uncomfortable dynamic between their characters is the foundation for The Power of the Dog.

But that didn’t mean Dunst and Cumberbatch weren’t actually on friendly terms, especially as both their families had joined them in New Zealand, where The Power of the Dog was filmed in Otago and Auckland before and during the pandemic in 2020.

Dunst’s partner Jesse Plemons portrays her onscreen husband in the film and the real-life couple’s first son Ennis, born 2017, was of a similar age to Cumberbatch’s middle son, Hal. Dunst and Plemons have since welcomed another son, James, earlier this year.

“We hung out a little bit, not every weekend but we hung out on a weekend here and there because he has sons and we had one son. Before rehearsals started, we had dinners and things like that, so we got to know each other a little bit.

“So, I knew what Benedict was like.”

Dunst is one of the great child actor success stories in Hollywood. Starting at the age of three as a model, she had sporadic credits before breaking out at 11 as a ringleted young vampire alongside Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Interview with a Vampire.

Roles as a child actor in Jumanji and Little Women were followed by Dunst’s cultural dominance in the late-1990s and 2000s with performances in Bring It On, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Spider-Man, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and more.

A creatively fulfilling collaboration with Sofia Coppola saw Dunst turn in career-defining performances in The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, the latter a seductive pop confection that recast the maligned French Queen as a naive, complex young woman.

An Oscar nomination was mooted for her eerie work in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which inexplicably didn’t happen, but her name is being mentioned in those same conversations again for The Power of the Dog.

As Rose, she is the film’s counterbalance to Cumberbatch’s domineering and emotionally repressed figure of masculine antagonism. Dunst’s Rose is tender and understated, but even a woman who has already experienced grief can be broken by isolation and malevolence.

Dunst renders Rose beautifully, and it’s working with Campion that made it possible for that character to dance.

She had been in contact with Campion for more than a decade, but the opportunity has only just rolled around, especially as The Power of the Dog is the Kiwi filmmaker’s first film project since Brightstar in 2009, although she’s made two seasons of Top of the Lake for TV.

“I didn’t have any expectations [for working with Campion],” Dunst said. “I just knew I wanted to work with Jane. She’s very honest, very direct, and so am I. I like that she’s also willing to share, she really wants to share the human experience together and really understand and find that.

“She makes poetic films and to be a part of that and to contribute to her vision is what my dream was as an actress.

“I know that I basically have the best mentor ever, you know what I mean? I can call up and ask for advice. Jane is just so real and so fully herself and so intelligent. She’s lived a lot of life and it’s beautiful to be able to go and listen to her talk about all these things and experiences.”

With the renewed interest in Dunst this awards season – and The Power of the Dog is a frontrunner in a swath of categories, including Cumberbatch, Campion, Dunst and Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Rose’s son – the actor is once again in the spotlight.

The New York Times called The Power of the Dog her “reinvention”, but Dunst isn’t comfortable with such labels.

“It’s weird to [think] about yourself in that way. It’s like if somebody said that about you, you’d be like, ‘Well, I’ve been here working’, you know what I mean?

“I don’t feel reinvented, personally. It’s just nice to be part of a film that people really like. And I got to be in a Jane Campion movie!”

As for whether she feels any pressure to seize the momentum created by a lauded role in a buzzy film, she doesn’t.

“I feel like I’ve established myself as an actress for a long time now, so I don’t have ups and downs,” she said. “That doesn’t mean anything to me. I’ll just keep my head down and keep trying to work on good projects and take care of my family and whatever else.

“I want to work with people that inspire me, and try to do interesting things. That’s all I really care about.”

The Power of the Dog is in cinemas and streaming on Netflix

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Originally published as Kirsten Dunst’s haunting performance in The Power of the Dog

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