Kirsten Dunst:
Bigger Than Small Soldiers

by Michelle Erica Green

Considering the number of wise-beyond-their-years girls Kirsten Dunst has played in her short but stellar career, it's not surprising that the 16-year-old actress comes across as mature, focused, and very smart. What's more surprising is how much she enjoys performing what are, by her standards, pretty light roles. Not that they're easy: in Small Soldiers, she had to perform with imaginary CGI foes, like "all these little dolls climbing up me and jabbing forks into me and stuff like that."

But her more recent parts sound like comic relief compared to Interview With the Vampire, in which she had to slit Tom Cruise's throat and cuddle with Brad Pitt in a coffin, or even the television film Fifteen and Pregnant. It's ironic that Small Soldiers is a breakout part for Dunst in which she plays a fairly typical teenager, despite being beseiged by toy soldiers that go haywire and start a war which affects the humans around them.

In many of her past roles, Dunst played children dealing with complex adult situations, with sophisticated desires and fears. Christy, the heroine of the new, dark toy story, is "the tough girl" who rides a motorcycle and repeatedly rescues the wimpy hero - but she's also an adolescent looking for affection. Dunst bristled at a press release for the film which characterizes Christy as secondary to the hero, Alan, whom she has to save from household nails and corn picks.

"We're partners - I actually save him all through the movie, I'm the heroine," she insisted. "At the beginning I think he's a total loser. At the end I'm his girlfriend, he gets me, I don't know how. But they call me 'his friend' like I'm some girlfriend in the movie? This is a stronger role than that!"

Dunst agreed to do this film before the script had even been completed, because she was so impressed with the director's plans. "I met Joe Dante, and he was showing me all the sketches and everything, what they were going to do. I wanted to work with him and I thought it was such a cool concept, and the soldiers looked so amazing."

Small Soldiers was shot on a tight schedule to leave time for the computer graphics, which meant the performers had to get used to some pretty strange working conditions. Dunst was used to working on effects-intensive sets from Jumanji, but still had moments of performing against villains who weren't present for the scene.

"I had to lie on the ground and all these little dolls are climbing up me - but none of them are there - and they're supposed to be jabbing forks into me and stuff like that, I have to pretend they were doing all this to me. I think to myself, I can't believe I'm doing this! But I just have to use my imagination." Not a situation which most acting classes would prepare one for.

Phil Hartman had played Dunst's father twice before, so she was happy to work with him again (this interview took place before his tragic death last month). But because Chip Hazard's voice was not added until postproduction, she did not even meet Tommy Lee Jones. "In filming, the puppeteers did the voice of Chip," she explained. "Sometimes you do the scenes with the puppets, sometimes you don't, it depends on what the puppets are doing. If it's something where the puppets have to move very intricately then they CG the whole thing. They come in the room and they bring in this thing, one side's like mirrored and one side's gray, and they just flip it over, they go around where the soldiers would be, and that's how they CG it in, but don't ask me how because I have no clue!"

On the telephone, Dunst is witty, energetic, and personable, though her vocabulary and manners belie her age. Get her talking about her goals, however, and the intensity she brings to her film roles begins to surface. "I definitely want to write and direct, I want to have my own production company - I already have books I want to make into movies," she announced last month. "I like comedies and drama, but only some suspenseful movies - no suspense movies have good roles for women! They should make more movies where the women are the heroines of the film - I'll write them, don't worry. When I have a production company, it's going to be an all-women effort."

The New Jersey-born actress has been in Canada much of this summer working on Dick, a comedy about a pair of ditzy teenage girls who become unintentionally embroiled in the Watergate scandal. As a result, she has been cramming schoolwork into all her days off. "This other girl and I are in like every scene in the movie, and it's really hard to get all my schoolwork in on weekends and my days off. I've been doing schoolwork all morning - I'm really tired. Tomorrow I'm working, but today I had off because they're doing some scene with Woodward and Bernstein."

Dunst, whose father works for a medical company and whose mother takes care of her brother and herself, has every intention of graduating from high school on schedule. She would like to attend USC or UCLA, where she intends to expand her knowledge of performing and production. "I've been really busy this year - maximum, I've probably been in school four weeks - but my school deals with it really well. I just fax my work back and forth to the school. When I'm home, I want to go to a regular school, I don't want to do home schooling because I want to be with my friends and have a regular life when I'm not working. But it's hard."

It's been worth it, however, because Dunst seems to be making the transition from youthful roles to adult parts very successfully. "It's hard to go from being a young girl to having adult roles and having people realize that you can handle them. A lot of people look at my name and think Interview With the Vampire, then they look at me and go, wow, I didn't know you were so tall! I think that it's good that I start to get into heavier roles so I show people that I can handle mature roles."

This sort of thinking led her to take on Fifteen and Pregnant though she readily admits she has no experience with the sorts of problems her character, Tina, faced. "I thought it would be a big challenge to play a pregnant teenager, and that doing that movie would make people see I'm not ten anymore - I also thought it was a really interesting script," she noted. "It was hard giving birth, but when people give birth for the first time they have no experience with it either, like Tina." As for getting used to feeling pregnant, "those false bellies are so uncomfortable; it was really sweaty, and don't even bother going to the bathroom because it will take a half an hour! But it's kind of funny how you actually start thinking you're pregnant when you're wearing it - you eat more and get more tired more easily."

Dick is a romp by comparison - the story of two naive and "daffy" girls who stumble into the middle of the Watergate conspiracy. "It's just so much fun, because they're kind of hyper and they're very funny together. We wander through the White House and bump into Nixon and we end up being Deep Throat - we feed Woodward and Bernstein all their information!" Dunst laughed. Though she's much too young to remember Watergate, she said her relative lack of background worked in her favor for the role: "I am not supposed to realize what is going on, we're just supposed to love Nixon and not really understand - they get ahold of this CREEP list and they have no idea what it is, and let their dog eat it! So I didn't really do research."

In addition to Small Soldiers, Dunst has another film coming out this summer: Strike, the story of a group of girls who fight to stop their boarding school from becoming co-ed. "It happened in the '60s, they wanted better jobs and better education, and they didn't want the boys to take over their school," she explained. "It's funny, because the guys come for a dance and we spike the punch and make them look horrible so our schools won't merge, and it's sad too - I get kicked out, because I want our school to stay all-girl, but our school doesn't have enough money because none of the men want to invest in an all-girls' school. This is a good women's film, it's going to be a really good movie for young girls."

Like most women in Hollywood, the actress is concerned about the number of women's roles which are little more than babes and girlfriends - "I am so sick of that, and I hope it ends" - but says the scripts she has been seeing for girls her age have been getting better and better. "They have more and more roles for teenagers because they're the people who go see the movies," she pointed out. "We're lucky, all the teenage actors and actresses right now. I'm flattered if people think of me as a role model. I think it's so great if you're a little girl and you look up to people - I remember when I was younger, I would look up to different people in movies, I loved The Wizard of Oz and Annie - the girl in Annie, I loved her. I even looked up to cartoon characters, there were Lady Lovelylocks and Rainbow Brite, I loved them. And then there was Gem, this rocker babe."

Who are her role models now? "I'd like to work with Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster," she said immediately. "I want to do more films for women, good roles. I haven't gotten to work with a lot of big-names actresses except for Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder in Little Women, that was really fun because it was all-girls, but I usually work with guys, like Brad and Tom and George - I'd like to go back to E.R., because I loved working with everyone there."

Speaking of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, how intimidating was it playing opposite two huge screen heartthrobs when she was still a kid? "I think because I was so young I didn't realize who I was working with - I knew it was Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, of course, but I never was intimidated by them because I thought of them as actors doing the same job I was doing," she said. Her part was particularly difficult because she was playing a decades-old vampire trapped in the body of a small child, with adult perceptions of sexuality and the complexity of relationships. "I worked a lot with my acting coach so I would understand it better, because I was only ten - he didn't want me to think I was doing all this sexual stuff," she recalled. "There were little undertones, but I understood it the best I could at ten years old."

Dunst calls her acting coach "the best on the planet" and tries to go to class twice a week when she's home, but this year she's spent a lot of time on location. "I would never get so into a character that I'd take it home with me, you know? That would have been too weird, if I did Vampire and I would come home and want to suck blood or something!"

Still, she's more comfortable working than not. "I remember being younger and I would almost cry when I wasn't working, I'm so drawn to getting different characters and working with other actors. You keep learning forever, and I don't think I would ever do anything else - my brother's out here right now, my mom too, so I'm still home, we just make it somewhere else. I love doing films in L.A. so be with my family and my friends and my animals, but sometimes you have to go away to do movies, and that's OK too."

A performer since the age of three, Dunst got started in commercials and small movies in New York, then went out to L.A. for pilot season the year she auditioned for Vampire. She got that role and a part on Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing Hedril in the episode "Dark Page," in rapid succession. "It was a role I knew I'd have to get all this special effects makeup, it was the first time I'd ever done stuff like that," she recalled - good preparation for the stylized makeup and costumes of Vampire. "And I got to meet everyone on the cast, which was really fun."

Does she ever need a break? "I haven't wanted to stop, I really love it," she demurred. "I don't like that celebrity thing - I dated this one person and everyone knew about it - I didn't like that. I've seen pictures that I didn't even know people took, my friend saw these pictures on the web of me and my family, and they knew what my nickname was - it's kind of weird that people know about you." She doesn't often get recognized because she often looks so different in her roles - Claudia and Hedril, for example, and Charlie on E.R. who was in pretty bad shape. She suspects that when Small Soldiers comes out, she may be approached by a lot of kids who've seen the movie, "but I don't mind that at all - fans are the people who make you what you are."

"I never have a second thought in my mind of anything else that would come along that I would enjoy better, because I know this is probably my path in life," she concluded. "All my friends are right now wondering what are they going to do or be in life...and I already know." Not even eighteen, and already nearing the top of her profession, Kirsten Dunst seems likely to be making an impression for many years to come.

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