Sofia Coppola Praises Kirsten Dunst’s ‘The Power of the Dog’ Performance: “I’m So Proud of You”
Jane Campion has said she fell in love with Kirsten Dunst as an actress after seeing her turn in 1999’s The Virgin Suicides , a film that marked Dunst’s first of three collaborations with Sofia Coppola . “Seriously, in love,” Campion said last November after the Hollywood premiere of The Power of the Dog , a film that finally brought them together. “She’s an actress I was deeply interested in. I love her, and she is that brilliant actress. She has to just put clothes on a line, and I’m riveted.”
Critics and awards groups have also been captivated by Dunst’s turn as Rose in the Netflix film. Based on the novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog finds Benedict Cumberbatch playing Phil Burbank, a charismatic yet troubled rancher who torments his brother, played by Jesse Plemons , his surprise sister-in-law, Dunst, and her young son, newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Dunst’s performance was the focus of an American Cinematheque tribute Sunday and it delivered a nice full-circle moment in that it was moderated by Coppola, for whom she also starred in Marie Antoinette and The Beguiled (not to mention an uncredited cameo in The Bling Ring ). Dunst mentioned the connection straight out of the gate by reminding Coppola that Campion had long wanted to work with her “because of our work together.” Coppola said Campion has “always been so encouraging” to her.
After asking how she got the Power of the Dog part — which included a bit of musical chairs with actors Elisabeth Moss and Paul Dano dropping in and out before the combo of Dunst and real-life partner Plemons came to life — Coppola asked Dunst how she found Rose as a character and molded her performance. The actress said she prepares in a variety of ways, almost like a stew. She detailed how she worked with her dreams, pulled from past experiences and even listened to Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood score to prep for a scene in which she offers cowhides to Native Americans.
During the scenes that featured Rose’s battle with the bottle, Dunst said she relied on something Allison Janney taught her on 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeou s, the black comedy mockumentary set in the world of beauty pageants. To play a convincing drunk, spin around until you spin out.
Another acting tip she borrowed from Susan Sarandon after working with her on the set of 1994’s Little Women . “Susan picked a scent for every role she played,” Dunst said. “I liked that and I took that with me after.” Coppola then said her father, Francis Ford Coppola, often encouraged actors to rely on something similar that only they know about. For example, she said her father encouraged actors on a film to wear silk charmeuse lingerie under their costumes, though she didn’t specify the film.
And while Dunst said that she benefited from Campion’s extensive two-week rehearsal process, much of her performance was discovered while cameras were rolling. “The older I get, you let it go because you want it to be the most authentic,” she explained. “With Rose, really, it’s about acting in a Jane Campion movie, too. She wants to live in these moments for a really long time. She doesn’t want to edit them up.”
She added that it’s not her favorite thing to spend a lot of time talking about a performance before it’s time to do the work, especially with other actors. “The biggest talkers are not always the biggest doers,” she said.
Coppola asked Dunst how she picks her projects. “I’m director-driven, mostly,” she answered. “You can be so good in a movie and work so hard and if you’re not in the right hands, it doesn’t really matter. I worked with you at such a young age and that gave me a different confidence that maybe most young actresses don’t get to have because they’re always seen through a male gaze.”
Dunst continued to compliment her friend, calling her “Sof” throughout, by saying that the environment Coppola creates on her sets is always very open. “You want a safe environment for your actors, for them to be vulnerable, for them to express,” she praised. “You’re good at guiding and you’re good at expressing something you want with an example. Not everyone knows how to do it and how to talk to actors. That’s an art in itself.”
Coppola then said it’s a tricky thing in navigating how to give others space. “I feel like you and I don’t have to talk,” she said. “There’s a shorthand and I can say a little thing. … I am always so excited to see what you’re doing to do — it’s so fun. You always surprise me.”
During the audience Q&A portion, Coppola asked Dunst to look back on her “rich and successful journey” and point out things that have or have not changed for women. Dunst first spoke to the characterization that her path has been all home runs.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my career,” she explained. “Looking back now, I think people have embraced certain films that maybe weren’t as big of a success at the time. Whoever watched me growing up, those peers have appreciated past movies that maybe people older than me didn’t. I feel like I’m coming into this other world where my fan base has grown up. We’re in it together, in a way. That’s the coolest thing about getting older, right now, in this business for me.”
“I’m so proud of you,” Coppola said near the end of the chat, adding that she first saw The Power of the Dog when it screened at the New York Film Festival. “Of course, I love Jane, and seeing you and Jesse together. It’s so fun to hear about your work.”