Kirsten Dunst: The Acting Process That Made Her One of Hollywood’s Best

If you ever need tips on how to play drunk, Kirsten Dunst has you covered. 

For Jane Campion’s 12-time Oscar-nominated Western “The Power of the Dog,” Dunst had to become a master of drunk acting; her character, Rose Gordon, descends into alcoholism to cope with her new brother-in-law’s psychological abuse. 

So what’s Dunst’s secret? 

“I spun around in circles to feel off-balance when I was running out of the house,” she recalls with a chuckle. “Just spin a bunch with your eyes closed. That works for feeling out of sorts or overwhelmed. It’s perfect for drunk acting.”

As she shares how she tapped into Rose’s inner turmoil, maternal love, and loneliness, it becomes clear that Dunst is open to unconventional methods for getting herself to the right place. 

Kirsten Dunst in “The Power of the Dog,” Courtesy Netflix 

“I honestly gagged myself with a toothbrush once because I was supposed to be on the verge of throwing up,” she says. “I know it’s not ‘good’ to do that, but sometimes I do things like that just to evoke certain physical feelings. I’m very much like: Whatever works.”

This anything-goes, results-first mentality has served her well in her nearly 35 years of screen acting. Her résumé includes a host of special skills she’s learned for various roles: She recalls training in cheerleading for “Bring It On,” tennis-playing for “Wimbledon,” horseback riding for “Melancholia,” and, most recently, piano-playing for “The Power of the Dog.” She also teases one she picked up for her leading role in Alex Garland’s upcoming “Civil War,” saying, “I think I’ve got to keep it a secret, but this is probably my favorite skill that I’ve learned.”

Her many roles have required plenty of emotional heft, but Dunst admits that she hasn’t always been methodical when it comes to crafting her characters’ inner lives. It makes sense; she first gained major awards recognition when she earned a Golden Globe nomination for “Interview With the Vampire” at age 12. Does a child ever really consider the tenets of craft or the evolution of acting—let alone when given an opportunity to wear fangs and play make-believe? 

Her career took off “before I even knew what movie taste I had,” she says. “Before I had seen ‘The Godfather,’ before I knew what the Criterion Collection was. I made my own taste as I was in the business, so I really had to grow as an actor, performer—all of it—while I was doing it.”

She remembers working with an acting coach when she was younger, but it was short-lived. “I stopped doing it, and I think I stopped learning,” Dunst says. “I relied on my instincts, which is good to a certain extent, but then I don’t think they carry you through anymore.” 

A turning point came with 2010’s “All Good Things,” Andrew Jarecki’s crime drama inspired by the Robert Durst murders; she starred as Katie Marks, the ill-fated wife of a powerful real-estate scion. Dunst had just finished her time as Mary Jane Watson with “Spider-Man 3” and starred in the Simon Pegg–led comedy “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.” It was also around this time when she took a step back from the industry. 

“I was a little bit tired of the way I was working on a script; it felt like it was more for other people rather than for myself,” Dunst says. When she began working with her current acting coach, Greta Seacat, things opened up. “I tried three or four of the ‘best acting teachers’ people work with, and she was the one that I felt the most kinship with,” Dunst explains, adding that she’s reluctant to call Seacat just an acting coach—“she’s so much more than that.”

Seacat’s mother, Sandra Seacat, is also a famed acting teacher; she’s known for blending the teachings of Lee Strasberg with the dream-analysis theories of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and is widely credited with bringing “dream work” as we know it to Hollywood. Dunst’s “All Good Things” co-star Ryan Gosling and her frequent collaborator Sofia Coppola are also among Greta Seacat’s award-winning clientele. 

The result of Dunst’s collaboration with Seacat over the last decade has been nothing short of transformative. She’s learned to rely on music, sense memory, and dream work to construct the tender, complex women she’s best known for playing. 

“I do dream work just to get into the unconscious parts of myself that will help me better understand the role in a way that my brain doesn’t get into as much,” she says. While some find explicit meaning in dream interpretation, dream work is more creatively analytical, breaking down a dream’s semiotics, taking notes before and after sleep, and pseudo-therapizing with one’s acting coach on the other side. 

READ: 9 A-list Actors Who Are Long Overdue for Their First Oscar Nomination

“I think it helps ground the role, and I think it gives you a sense of owning your part,” Dunst says. Today, the biggest hurdles faced by many actors—fear, self-consciousness, preciousness—are not as prominent in her as they once were. “I’ve just learned to use the whole thing, and there’s always another take. The more you shed any of that, the better you can be.”

Her acting process also involves putting parts of herself under a microscope. “I think certain experiences set you up for understanding things more,” she says, referencing the teachings of Strasberg and the Actors Studio. Her frustrations with the entertainment industry, as well as having a son with partner Jesse Plemons, for instance, enhanced her approach to playing Krystal Stubbs on the series “On Becoming a God in Central Florida.” Her 2011 collaboration with Lars von Trier, “Melancholia,” similarly saw her mining her well-documented experience with depression to play a newlywed on the brink of self-destruction. 

“It’s something that I’ve been familiar with in my life, depression. I knew what it was like, and I could use those things,” she says. Dunst emphasizes that she wouldn’t have been able to use her own struggle if she hadn’t overcome it; ironically, she remembers her time filming “Melancholia” as being “alive,” “fun,” “free,” and “cathartic.” 

“I felt very safe and like I was part of something where I could express and share those things that made my performance better,” she says. “But you don’t need to be in a bad place in order to act. I think that actually hinders you.”

She’s earned multiple acting award nominations for Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog,” including the Oscar for supporting actress. She plays Rose, a single mother and innkeeper in 1925 Montana who breaks easily under the watchful manipulation of cowhand and ranch owner Phil, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. In order to embody Rose’s sweetness and insecurity, Dunst says she turned to another version of her past self.  

“It felt like a lot of the feelings that Rose was going through were things I felt at, like, 18, early 20s—that age group where someone would say something and it would really affect me,” she says. “It helps, getting older, to not worry about that stuff as much.” She turned back the emotional clock in order to play Rose, especially when it came to fear: “That’s the hardest stuff to do, because Benedict’s not scary! I had to really create my own terror in my brain.”

One trick she used was to lean into the two characters’ shared artistic abilities. Rose plays piano, though not very well; Phil is an unassuming whiz at the banjo. He uses that imbalance to his advantage, playing his instrument all through the house as Rose practices her chords, to ruinous results. 

“I feel like I’m the only one that hasn’t joined [the MCU]. I’m like, ‘Please put me in. Put me in the lineup.’ I need to pay for my house and kids.”

“I remember in that scene, I thought about listening to someone else [whose work] is so far superior to what you can ever achieve as an artist that it crushes you,” Dunst says. “In my head, I was overhearing an audition that was going really well for someone, and I knew that I had no chance. I used a little bit of that; I made up a scenario. It makes you want to give it up.”

But the fact that she’s able to articulate the necessary steps to get her there doesn’t mean that operating in an emotionally fragile state all day comes easily.

“It was hard, because I had to live in this really insecure, crappy place about myself, which also influenced the way I felt about my work sometimes,” Dunst says. “Just like, ‘Ugh, I want to be great for Jane,’ you know? When you work with Jane Campion, you cannot fuck up.”

As for what she uses to decompress after hours spent in that headspace, she says, simply: “A glass of wine. That’s what I want at the end of a workday—I feel like that’s what most people want at the end of a workday!” While filming, she’d cope through meditation, breathing exercises, and occasional seclusion—“just to prepare for a scene or open myself up, ground myself so that I can be present and receptive to whatever’s happening in the scene. That really helps me.”

Looking ahead, Dunst aims to continue tackling roles that challenge her, free her, and give her something to examine anew. “I’ll probably stay in the less-structured zone of acting and filmmaking,” she says. “I like when it feels alive.” Does that mean more indies? ​​“The jobs that don’t pay you are the best ones,” she quips. 

But don’t count her out of the world of more structured blockbusters—or even Marvel’s brewing “Spider-Man” multiverse—quite yet. 

“You know I’d join that multiverse!” she exclaims. “I feel like I’m the only one that hasn’t joined it. I’m like, ‘Please put me in. Put me in the lineup.’ I need to pay for my house and kids.”

This story originally appeared in the Mar. 17 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

Photographs by Peggy Sirota / Trunk Archive/Kristy Griffin/Netflix. Cover designed by Ian Robinson