Dunst overpowers on court, in film

`Wimbledon' shows actress 10 years after first big role

Movies: On Screen/DVD/Video

September 16, 2004|By Margy Rochlin | Margy Rochlin,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - Kirsten Dunst tells a story about the strangeness of fame.

She was 12 and had landed what would be her breakthrough role as an aging woman in a child's body in Interview With the Vampire. At the time, she lived with her family near the Warner Brothers lot that is famous as a way station for stage parents and their child-star offspring and as a hotbed of competition. One day, Dunst recalled, a young girl approached her and bragged, "My agent says I'm going to be the next Kirsten Dunst."

Dunst frowns at the memory. "She had no idea who I was," she says, adding that all she could do was shrug and agree. "I knew it was so weird. Even at that age, I had perspective."

These days, Dunst would be unlikely to meet someone who didn't know her proletarian-pretty face. For the past decade, she has been building on the promise of her Interview With the Vampire splash by taking roles that emphasize versatility over insta-stardom.

She has tried harder than other actors of her age to avoid routine parts, allowing her imperfections - a doughy brow, crooked teeth and a distinctively reedy voice - to amplify the dramatic context of her roles.

And unlike most young Hollywood actresses, Dunst is willing to show herself in less-than-flattering lights: Her performance as an emotionally lost rich girl in Crazy/Beautiful was uncompromisingly glitzless. And what put her on the A-list was her role as one of the comic book genre's more famous superhero love interests, Peter Parker's Mary Jane, in the two Spider-Man films, which together grossed more than $760 million domestically. But when Dunst first met with the British director Richard Loncraine about a part in Wimbledon (opening tomorrow), the first Spider-Man had not yet been released.

Wimbledon tells the story of Peter Colt (Paul Bettany), a veteran tennis player in what he figures will be an uneventful last hurrah at the famed championship. Through a fling with Dunst's Lizzie, Peter learns that a bit of distraction improves his game. Earlier this year, when Loncraine showed Wimbledon to test audiences, he experienced firsthand Dunst's moviegoer pull.

Wimbledon is "really about Paul's journey, but people wanted to know more about her," he said from London.

He wound up expanding Dunst's role, making her more of a co-lead. And judging from Wimbledon marketing, who is the bigger star is more important than which character is actually driving the story. In the prerelease poster, a laughing, racket-bearing Dunst stands in the foreground, while the relative Hollywood newcomer Bettany lurks slightly behind.

On this August afternoon, at the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood, Dunst, 22, chose to deflect questions about how her role was fortified in favor of detailing how an actress - a rather delicate one at that - fakes being a tennis whiz for the cameras.

"What was I supposed to do?" she asked. "I'm not a pro. Really, it was about how I moved across court, the grunting and the intensity. So I sold a lot of it like this," she said, framing the top of her head to her waist and twisting her face into a grimace. The expression looks comic now, but Dunst's scene partners have learned she can take charge of a movie with such energy alone.

What gave an extra kick to her Bring It On performance, for example, is how she seemed out of sync when she was supposedly busting the same pep-squad moves as everyone else. She pulled off the same trick in Peter Bogdanovich's old-Hollywood docudrama The Cat's Meow, stealing a dance sequence from older, accomplished stars by throwing herself into a Charleston with pure, flying-elbows vigor.

Today, though, most of her energy seemed concentrated in her hands: For the last hour, she had been nervously hoisting up the front of her black slip dress and playing with the thin chain hanging from her long neck. She was furiously twirling a lock of her hair around her finger when an expression of alarm settled over her face.

"Oh, God, they keep falling out," she said. She held up a 10-inch-long hank of blond hair. It was one of dozens of extensions laboriously pinch-braided into her own hair for a role Dunst is currently playing in Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown. Dunst handed the swatch over to a reporter. "I want you to have it," she said, playfully. Then, a split second later, she seemed to regret her gift. "You'll probably smell cigarettes and think, `Wow, she's been smoking.'"

For film events, see Page 41.

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