Kirsten Dunst: why I would do anything to work with Jane Campion

By Stephanie Bunbury

New Zealand’s Central Otago masquerades as Montana : Campion (right) on the set with 1st assistant director Phil Jones.Credit:Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

“I would have played any part for Jane Campion,” says Kirsten Dunst, backing her chair into a small square of shade. We are on a hot terrace on the Venice Lido; Dunst, along with her fellow actor Benedict Cumberbatch and her director, are that day’s toast of the town for Campion’s first film in a decade, an atmospheric western called The Power of the Dog.

Dunst is trussed in inappropriately autumnal clothes, ready for a string of television interviews. “It’s fun to come out and do this stuff right now because I haven’t done this in like, a few years,” she says, not entirely convincingly, then gives one of her trademark sideways smiles. “It’s a little … well, even to hear myself talk this much is like … meh.”

In The Power of the Dog, Dunst embodies the force of the feminine. The story is set in Montana in 1925, an era when trains and automobiles had already transformed the country. Brothers Phil and George Burbank have taken over the family ranch from their politically well-connected parents, who have retired to town life. The Burbank homestead is isolated but opulent. George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) runs the business side of the ranch. Placid, obliging and always neatly dressed, he is the face of modern agribusiness.

Actor Kirsten Dunst and director Jane Campion at a screening in New York this month.Credit:Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank, however, holds to a belief in the supposed ways of the Old West that is nothing less than fanatical. Permanently dressed in filthy chaps, expert in making ropes, whittling and riding, he rejoices in his own stench and the company of rough men. Nobody hearing him talk would guess he went to Yale, that he reads Latin, that he has ever done anything more intellectually demanding than castrate a calf. The men who work for him revere him.

His feelings for them are more complicated. They might well be surprised if they knew that Phil and George still sleep side-by-side in their childhood bedroom. Phil taunts George for his dull wits – he didn’t make it to Yale or any other hall of learning – while George suggests stoically that he might try having a bath. Both are lonely, but they are lonely together.

So when George suddenly marries Rose Gordon, hitherto the proprietor of the one local restaurant, Phil is predictably moved to bilious fury. She is not welcome on the ranch, neither her nor her effete teenage son Peter (Cody Smit-McPhee) nor the horses they came in on. He will do everything to drive them out or drive them mad, whichever works first.

Benedict Cumberbatch, left, and Jesse Plemons play the very different Burbank brothers.Credit:Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

The film is based on an almost forgotten 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, who grew up in Montana and put a good deal of his own life into the story. It might seem an unlikely subject for multi- award-winning Campion, whose films have revolved around the emotional vicissitudes and secret, sometimes perverse desires of women, but she brushes that question away. “I’m a creative person. I don’t calculate about gender,” Campion says in Venice. “I just read this book, and it had a really powerful impact on me.”

But she did expand Rose’s role from Savage’s version of the story, in which she was essentially a pawn in the brothers’ endgame. Rose, first seen as a confident businesswoman, buckles under Phil’s savage attention. “Rose was hard to play because she was so repressed,” says Dunst. “She has nothing that is how I feel about myself. I would never talk to Benedict on set; sometimes I wouldn’t talk to anyone all day. You know how, when you don’t talk for a while, your voice catches in your throat. I wanted that feeling for Rose, like when you’re afraid even to speak.”

Jane Campion expanded the role of Rose Gordon (played by Kirsten Dunst): “at that time it was very difficult for her to complain to anyone.”Credit:Netflix

“As a woman, I was really interested in Rose,” Campion says. “I think at that time it was very difficult for her to complain to anyone. And her lack of confidence would make her think ‘I’m a target because there is something wrong with me’ and give her a sense of shame that would build to a point where she thinks no one would listen to her. There is nowhere to go but to try to see this through.”

Dunst saw her as a repository for Phil’s buried pain; every barb that hurts her gives him some relief. “I sort of saw her as a picture of all this relatable pain that comes from being gaslit.” And that could happen at any time, not just in the back-blocks in 1925. “To be honest, I’ve been in situations where I’ve felt gaslit before, so I don’t think it’s that foreign,” she says.

“You’re 20. You have to learn a lot of shit in your 20s. Isn’t that part of it, like dating bad people who are bad for you and then figuring that out? I mean, that to me is just life.” It is that truthfulness, she says, that makes Campion’s films compelling. “The female characters feel like real women to me,” she says. “And there is a sensitivity and rawness to all her characters. As an actor, these are the kinds of performances I aspire to give.”

She and Plemons are also partners – and parents of two small children – in real life. On screen, they have a relaxed rapport that provides substance to their rather hastily sketched romance. “I think Jesse always has a very grounding presence in his films, and he is such a kind, good soul. I think that comes through,” Dunst says. “To be a couple already in love who fall in love on screen was just such a thing of the past. People don’t get to do that these days, so to us, it felt very special that we could do this together.”

Not welcome: Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Rose’s son Peter.Credit:Netflix

Filming took place in New Zealand, with Central Otago looking “as if it were a dream Montana once had”, to quote one critic. It would be difficult, says Campion, to find anywhere as empty or remote in Montana now.

“You would look around 360 degrees and see no signs of civilisation. You really felt you were on a little boat in the ocean – except you were in a landscape. Actually, the location happened to have the highest wind value for anywhere in New Zealand, which is anyway a very windy place, so it was devastatingly difficult to shoot there. Sometimes we had trouble standing up.”

Central Otago is Campion’s favourite place in her native country, she admits; the first series of Top of the Lake, the long-form series that took up much of her decade away from cinema, was also shot there. Dunst says that where she comes from, people still equate New Zealand with the Lord of the Rings movies’ Middle Earth. “But we were in a really arid, mountainous, Montana-looking New Zealand. We were in a sort of desert. There were a lot of sheep. There was a KFC and a Subway. We stayed in a little town which had a little winery. Sam Neill has his winery not too far away. But then we shot about 45 minutes outside of that town.”

Filming stopped for four months when New Zealand closed its borders. Dunst returned to Los Angeles and maternity; Cumberbatch stayed in New Zealand and worked on playing the banjo, one of Phil Burbank’s many cowpoke skills. He had already been sent to Montana to immerse himself in a life dominated by horses and cattle. On set, he says, Campion introduced him as Phil. “Saying ‘you’ll meet Benedict at the end of the shoot’. She gives you every opportunity to go where you need to go.” Not that it could have been a nice place to be.

Jane Campion, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst at the Venice Film Festival, where Campion won the Silver Lion for best director.Credit:AP

The commitment Campion brings and expects paid off, of course; The Power of the Dog won the Silver Lion for best director in Venice and was reviewed with huge enthusiasm and a sort of relief that she was back; there were still too few women bringing their perspective to cinema to want to lose her to television forever. Is the western viewed through the female gaze a different beast? Dunst looks dubious.

“I’ve worked with so many female directors and so I don’t feel a difference in terms of the female gaze,” she says. “Each artist is so individual. I think, though, that when it comes to sexuality, Jane has a very intriguing mind. In Holy Smoke and The Piano and this, there is a tension, a visceral quality, an aliveness, an anger, there’s so much in it and it feels very raw. And I think it is very specific — to her, to Jane Campion.”

The Power of the Dog is screening at the Sydney Film Festival this week and will stream on Netflix from November 11.

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