Kirsten Dunst wasnt sure about Power of the Dog: I wanted to play a really strong woman – USA TODAY

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Kirsten Dunst is no wallflower. 

In 1920s Western “The Power of the Dog” (in theaters Wednesday, streaming on Netflix Dec. 1), the “Spider-Man” actress plays Rose Gordon, the sweet, widowed owner of a boarding house who meets and marries a gentle rancher named George Burbank (Jesse Plemons). Soon after moving in together, Rose finds an unexpected adversary in George’s lonely, jealous brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who casually taunts and torments her and her effeminate teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). 

Rose slips into alcoholism as Phil’s bullying wears her down. It’s a seemingly passive role that Dunst hadn’t envisioned herself playing, coming off her go-for-broke turn in Showtime’s pyramid scheme satire “On Becoming a God in Central Florida.” 

“I wanted to play a really strong woman – I’m not at the place in my life where (Rose) is my ideal character,” Dunst says over Zoom. But after Elisabeth Moss dropped out for scheduling reasons, the chance towork with Plemons, her real-life partner of five years, and director Jane Campion was too marvelous to pass up. And soon, she found echoes of Rose in her own experience as a Hollywood up-and-comer. 

"I really would've played any role for Jane Campion," says Kirsten Dunst, who stars in the director's Netflix Western "The Power of the Dog."

“Being an actress in your 20s, doing ‘Spider-Man’ and all this stuff, there were definitely times when I could feel like a Rose,” Dunst says. “So it was going back to old places in myself, and that was definitely not an enjoyable experience. But at the end of the day, I’m sure there was a cathartic thing I had to exorcise and relive to really put it behind me.” 

Despite three Golden Globe nominations and critically acclaimed work in films like “Interview With the Vampire,” “Melancholia” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Dunst, 39, has somehow never been nominated for an Oscar. That should likely change this year, with most awards pundits predicting a best supporting actress nod for her heartbreaking performance in “Dog.” 

Rose (Kirsten Dunst) suffers in silence throughout "The Power of the Dog."

Rose shrinks into herself as the menacing Phil stalks the grounds of her Montana home: staring, whistling and making snide remarks about her drinking. Dunst and Cumberbatch purposefully avoided each other on the drama’s New Zealand set, although their families would socialize on weekends.

“We don’t really have that many scenes together, so I kind of had to create my own monster,” Dunst says. “This role is so not my personality, so I had to create a real psychological unwinding for myself.” 

Dunst has a way of “holding so much pain and angst, and yet she’s so lovely,” Campion says. “Her ways of exploring the character, I was surprised how intricate they were. She laid in little secrets for herself, even beyond the (script), so they would have empowerment and impact for her.” 

Kirsten Dunst, right, recalls crying on the set filming a "beautiful" scene with Jesse Plemons, her real-life partner and "The Power of the Dog" co-star.

The actress credits Plemons, 33, for helping her get into character. He’d film videos of Dunst on his smartphone when they’d go out for drinks, which she’d then study to better inhabit drunk Rose. He also endured hours of her learning piano, for a dinner party scene where a flustered Rose attempts to perform. 

“It was a dream project really, to be working with my favorite actor and have his support with a role like this,” Dunst says. “This would have been a much harder film for me if I didn’t have him there.” 

She hasn’t kept up with piano since filming wrapped, in part because of the couple’s two kids: Ennis, 3, and James, 7 months.

“When you have little children, half your brain kind of goes away for a little while,” Dunst says with a chuckle. “You just worry about them not hurting themselves and what time they’re going to take a nap.”

Kirsten Dunst, 39, is widely expected to earn her first Oscar nomination for "The Power of the Dog."

Dunst was introduced to Plemons in 2015 on the set of FX’s “Fargo,” for which they both earned Emmy nods playing husband and wife in the anthology series’ second season. They quickly became “creative soulmates.” 

“A year later, we got together and that never went away,” Dunst says. “I was conscientious, and so was he, of ‘set feelings,’ like when you’re working with someone on a set and that (connection) can not be reality. Two weeks into working with him, I said to one of my best friends, ‘I’ll know this man for the rest of my life. I just will.'” 

Dunst had hoped to direct Plemons in a big-screen adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” but the film fell through due to rights issues. Her plans to direct are currently on hold. 

“I can’t imagine spending a year of my life doing that with such young kids at the moment,” she says. “I have a barely 7-month-old. It’s such a full commitment, directing, that I don’t think I’d enjoy it, knowing that I was leaving my child so much. I think that will come at a different time in their lives and my life.”

Married couple Peggy (Kirsten Dunst, left) and Ed Blumquist (Jesse Plemons) get in over their heads as they try to cover up a crime in "Fargo" Season 2.

Lately, Dunst has been hit by a wave of nostalgia for the original “Spider-Man” movies, with a meme of her Mary Jane Watson “defending” Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker cropping up all over social media.

“I didn’t totally understand it,” she admits. “I was like, ‘This isn’t funny and I just look (irritated)?'”

She denies reports that she’s returning to the multiverse for next month’sTom Holland-starring “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” but says it’ll be “fun” to watch the original trilogy with her sons. 

“Or maybe it’ll be super embarrassing!” Dunst jokes. “I was at the beginning of all this superhero stuff, and I was lucky, because it gave me the opportunity to do ‘Marie Antoinette’ and smaller films. It was important to also have the balance of those bigger studio films, so it really gave me a different career.” 

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