Kirsten Dunst: 'Civil War' "Will Leave You With A Lot To Think About" [Interview]

There is a bluntness about Kirsten Dunst that has always been refreshing. You wanna know if she was asked to be in “Spider-Man: No Way Home”? She’s gonna tell you. Wanna know why you only see her in maybe one project a year? She’ll tell you why. And for her latest project, Alex Garland’s celebrated new thriller “Civil War,” she’s not going to minimize its political message.

READ MORE: ‘Civil War’ Review: Alex Garland’s latest is both unforgettable and challenging as hell [SXSW]

“I mean, it’s going on all over the world,” Dunst says. “The Ukrainian-Russian War started when we were rehearsing. This will always be a global issue: polarization. And I feel like this movie is haunting for people because it does leave you with a lot to think about. I mean, it is an anti-war film, in my opinion, and we’re not spoonfeeding the audience at all. It’s really for you to ingest. But I think what’s powerful about the film is it gets people talking about what’s wrong.”

Throughout our conversation last week, Dunst discusses the deep dive she did in order to portray Lee, a veteran war photographer, how co-star Wagner Moura’s COVID diagnosis affected filming, the toughest scene to shoot (it involves her husband and fellow Oscar nominee Jesse Plemmons in a very affecting cameo), and much, much more.


The Playlist: Hi Kirsten. Thank you so much for doing this phone!

Kirsten Dunst: Oh yeah, of course.

The Playlist: I’m not actually there in person because I am a bit sick, so if I ask a more stupid question than I would normally ask, I apologize in advance.

Kirsten Dunst: It’s okay. I’m exhausted. So we’re both in great places.

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The Playlist: We’re both in great places. Mr. Garland recently did an interview where he said he finished as a director. I think he said he would still screenwrite, but that was it. And having worked with so many great directors and seeing them go through difficult projects, are you surprised he said that after working on this? Do you think it’s just something he said out of frustration or do you believe him?

Kirsten Dunst: I have to take his word for it. I feel like he said that on set. He was like, “I’m never making a movie again.” I’m going to take it [as his word]. He’s actually helping Ray Mendoza, who was our Navy Seal advisor [on a movie based on his life story]. Alex is helping him, and he is going to be on set every day, but Ray is going to direct it, so he’s kind of shadowing Ray. So, it’s kind of directing, I dunno, he’s not, he’s helping.

The Playlist: You have worked on many big productions over your career. What was challenging about making this particular movie?

Kirsten Dunst: Honestly, I loved playing this role, and for me, roles aren’t challenging. I don’t look at them that way. They’re freeing to me. Yeah, I think, honestly, it was very loud the last two weeks because we did shoot in chronological order. So it’s just very, very, the level of noise you hear in the theater is the level of noise that we were hearing, and that’s just exhausting on your physical body. You know what I mean? To just be in that much noise for two weeks straight.

The Playlist: There is a scene toward the end of the movie when Lee is having sort of a panic attack. Maybe you would describe it as an anxiety attack. Was that in the script? Was that just something that you naturally reacted to?

Kirsten Dunst: No, that was in the script. Well, it’s interesting because it started out not in the script, and as Alex and I were taking this ride together, it almost was like, how I saw it, and I worked on with myself is that Lee is predicting something in her intuition or her body’s telling her “Don’t go in there,” and then she does it anyway because of what happens. I think that her body’s kind of telling her not to keep going.

The Playlist: Correct me if I’m wrong, but because of all the wars and events she’s been to, it appears as though she has some PTSD from her experiences and that she has sort of hidden that from the world. Is that accurate?

Kirsten Dunst: I think when you see that much death and the horrors of war, I think that really affects someone very, very deeply, and I can’t imagine being in an actual war zone and photographing the things that they are right there with the soldiers and with everybody. So, I just tried to infuse her as best as I could with the information I gathered through reading or documentaries. Ever seen that Marie Colvin documentary “Under The Wire”?

The Playlist: No, I haven’t.

Kirsten Dunst: It really informed me a lot about how I wanted to play Lee.

The Playlist: Did you talk to other photojournalists at all, or did you feel like you could just get the research on your own before you shot?

Kirsten Dunst: I talked, but it was still during COVID, so it felt like I was more isolated. I did work with a photographer who shoots bands. He helped me with my camera and then Marie Colvin. Our onset photographer was always there and helpful. But yeah, as soon as I got the role, I immediately asked Alex, “Give me the camera you want Lee to use for the film.” And then, every day, I just had that camera on me taking photos so I could look like it was second nature.

The Playlist: Were you an amateur photographer beforehand or just someone who has fun on their phone taking photos of the family?

Kirsten Dunst: I’m someone who has two young children, and I do not have any leisure things I do.


The Playlist: Even to take photos of them.

Kirsten Dunst: You know what I like to be in the moment, I’m not really, you know what, Jesse really picked up photography recently. I had an old Rolleiflex he’s been using, and then he got really into photography. So, now he is our family photographer. And I’m just making the snacks.

The Playlist: You mentioned COVID, this shot in 2022, right?

Kirsten Dunst: We were still testing every other day on set. We had a COVID-19 budget. We shut down…well, we didn’t shut down. We filmed actually as much as we could without Wagner, but he was testing positive for 10 days. So, we shot all of that car [scene]with his double and then had to go back and shoot all of his coverage. It was still prevalent [at the time].

The Playlist: But it was what, 18 months after the 2020 election? After January 6th? Everyone was probably in a bit of a better place than they are about the world maybe right now. And I’m assuming when you got the script, you were like, “Oh, this scenario is feasible, but maybe it’s not that feasible.” Now we’re almost two years since you shot it. Does it feel even more prescient than you thought it was when you signed on?

Kirsten Dunst: I mean, it’s going on all over the world. The Ukrainian-Russian War started when we were rehearsing. This will always be a global issue: polarization. And I feel like this movie is haunting for people because it does leave you with a lot to think about. I mean, it is an anti-war film, in my opinion, and we’re not spoonfeeding the audience at all. It’s really for you to ingest. But I think what’s powerful about the film is it gets people talking about what’s wrong.

The Playlist: Do you remember when you read the script, if there was one scene that stood out to you the most that you were like?

Kirsten Dunst: Honestly, the mass grave scene that Jesse ended up doing, the role for us was very intense to read as well as shoot. So, that was two days and even just walking on the set, it just looked horrifying.

The Playlist: And you’re shooting in chronological order.

Kirsten Dunst: Pretty much except for our COVID hiccup.

The Playlist: Do you do rehearsals for those scenes?

Kirsten Dunst: I mean, we rehearsed for two weeks before we started shooting just to get any general stings out of the way or scenes, dialogue. But yeah, we block the scene and rehearse it loosely before we actually put cameras in places.

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The Playlist: At the beginning of the film, a viewer might assume that Lee doesn’t want Jesse [Cailee Spaeny] to come along on their assignment because of the hassle of having someone young who hasn’t been in a real war zone before. But does she have other motivations for why she doesn’t want her there? Not that she’s jealous of her, but is she more fearful of her safety?

Kirsten Dunst: I think that Lee is annoyed. She’s annoyed because she probably thinks Wagner’s character, Joel, wants to hook up with her. There are a lot of reasons. And it’s like she’s young, why are we taking the lamb on to the wolves? You know what I mean?

The Playlist: Yeah, that makes sense. But in the context of this, you’re making a super serious movie where all the characters are stressed. You talked about how rough the scene where Jesse appears is. Apologies if this sounds naive, but can you have fun on set this? Are there happy memories from shooting this movie?

Kirsten Dunst: Yeah, we all got along very, very well. And it was a very no-drama group, and we all really supported each other in our roles and on the set. But making a movie is never fun. It’s like the wrong word for a movie, you know what I mean? I don’t do this job cause it’s fun. You know what I mean? [Laughs.] It’s never a fun experience, really, unless you’re in an Adam Sandler movie on vacation.

The Playlist: So basically, you need to be in “White Lotus” season four. You need to be at a resort. That would be fun.

Kirsten Dunst: I don’t know. Because then your vacation turns into work, so I’m wrong.


The Playlist: It does. It turns into work. But going down that road, I caught a recent red-carpet interview where, and I’m paraphrasing, you basically said you turned down a lot of stuff because you just want to make something good. Is that part of it, too? Is acting just too much work?

Kirsten Dunst: No. I mean, I give my heart and soul to whatever I do, so I don’t feel like I could do more than one or two things a year. But then, also during “Civil War,” I had a one-year-old, and after “Power of the Dog,” I got pregnant. So, I also had a new-ish baby. But yes, I am very careful. I choose wisely because I want to have a long career and nobody wants to see somebody a bunch. I like it when actors are less in your face all the time. It makes them more believable when they are on screen, in my opinion. And so I just pick directors that are going to let me be free and go for it. I don’t like being in a constricting work environment or trying to nail this line. You know what I mean?

The Playlist: No, I get it. Plus, you have two kids who are under five. You want to be there with them while they’re young.

Kirsten Dunst: Yeah, exactly. Someone needs to drive him to school. Jesse’s working. Yeah.

The Playlist: Two last quick questions for you is one, is there anything that we might see you in next year?

Kirsten Dunst: I’m developing things, but I am not officially in anything next year.

The Playlist: And then last but not least, when you finally saw this movie screen, what surprised you the most?

Kirsten Dunst: The editing and music and, it was in the script, but the way the photography that we take at the moment is used to tell the story and kind of giving those quiet moments. I was just really impressed by the music choices, the editing, and the use of photography.

The Playlist: Well, I’ll say this: you have great taste because it’s another fantastic movie that you have decided to make. I do hope we get to see you in something sooner rather than later.

Kirsten Dunst: Yeah, I’d like to do a comedy.

The Playlist: Comedy! We’ll put it out there.

Kirsten Dunst: Yeah!

“Civil War” opens nationwide on Friday.