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Monday, April 29, 2002

KIRSTEN DUNST BRINGS SPIDEY'S GIRLFRIEND TO LIFE

By Rob Allstetter/The Comics Continuum

CULVER CITY, Calif. -- You think Spider-Man is elusive? Try pinning a label on Kirsten Dunst.

"My goal is to always stay a moving target so that nobody can ever put their finger on me," says Dunst, who plays Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man. "That's the last thing I want, is for people to see me as one thing."

For this summer at least, it's going to be hard to see Dunst as anything but Mary Jane. The role, which she aggressively pursued, is the biggest of her eclectic career, coming off a sparkling turn in the surprise hit cheerleader flick, Bring It On.

It's also her second comic-book movie, following the straight-to-video The Crow: Salvation, and she's also appeared in other science-fiction fare like Jumanji and Small Soldiers. But she bristles at the notion of being a "genre" actress.

"Genre films? Like what do you mean?" she asks. "It wasn't like Jumanji, Spider-Man, Small Soldiers. I think I've broken them up with enough with the independent films I've done like The Virgin Suicides."

Many top-notch actresses were rumored to be in the line for the Mary Jane role, but the choice of Dunst caught some off guard.

Spider-Man producer Laura Ziskin says that Mary Jane was the toughest role to cast. The filmmakers and Spider-Man star Tobey Maguire actually flew to Germany for a whirlwind screen test with Dunst, who was filming The Cat's Meow.

"We were in this hotel conference room, trying to light it. And she had just gotten off working for a day," Ziskin says. "But you felt right away she was going to be great. She was just fantastic. It was like a catharsis."

"Kirsten is a gem, an amazing actress," says Spider-Man executive producer Avi Arad. "Mary Jane is a complex character. She has a lousy home life. She keeps an optimistic front for the world. Like many teenage girls, she doesn't want the world to know her dark secrets.

"In this movie, you'll see all sides of MJ. Obviously, her personal growth to the point where she realizes that Peter is the real deal."

"What we were looking for in casting MJ was not only an actress who possessed talent and beauty, but someone who made a connection with Tobey," director Sam Raimi says. "We wanted the audience to need them to be together for the picture to work - and when I saw Kirsten Dunst and Tobey perform a scene together, they made that connection. We knew we had found our MJ."

Dunst's energy level and range seem a perfect match for Mary Jane, but there was one problem: Dunst is blonde, and Mary Jane is a redhead. For the movie, she partially dyed her hair and wore a red wig.

"I'm going to be a redhead, don't worry," Dunst says. "I wouldn't want to upset any Spider-Man fans."

Dunst says that the wig she wears as Mary Jane is important. "For me, for changing for my character, it always helps me," she says. "You know, the costume, the makeup, the hair."

Although she hasn't read many Spider-Man comic books, Dunst says she understands Mary Jane as a character.

"With the way the script and the comic books, she's had a very rough childhood and she's always had to put up many masks," Dunst says. "Part of this story and me in the movie is a lot of growth. So, since she comes from a hard childhood - her father has always put her down, her mother is a very weak character and her father is an alcoholic - she's gone though stuff that I haven't experienced. My mom has always been very supportive.

"But everyone can identify with feeling weird in school. Especially with the job I do, I always felt a little weird in high school because I was different in a way. So I'll be able to relate as much as I can. I always try to connect emotionally to my characters."

And Dunst says she also connects with Maguire's Peter Parker.

"Even though he's loved her from afar since his younger years, she's pushed him away because he's the first person, I think, who respects her for who she is and loves her for being Mary Jane," Dunst says. "She's always putting up masks to cover up her family and personal life. I think he's part of the reason she really starts to believe in herself."

There's also been much ado about Dunst connecting with Maguire in real life, too. Various reports have had them involved several times during and after production, and they've been photographed together at a pro basketball game and on a beach.

"He's got great chemistry with Kirsten - and that's all I'm saying," laughs Ziskin.

Both Dunst and Maguire denied romantic involvement during the recent Spider-Man junket. "Sorry, we're just friends," Dunst says.

Dunst says she was attracted to Spider-Man for several reasons.

"I was a little freaked out at first, because it was top secret and there Columbia imprints on each," she says. "But the script was so strong, and I really liked the character of MJ. She's strong despite the adversity in her life, and she's a good role model for young girls who will watch the film."

Dunst, who turns 20 on Tuesday, has been before the camera for almost as long as she can remember. Growing up in New Jersey, she started doing commercials at age 3.

"It all started," she says, "because I was in the grocery stores and people would say to my mom, 'Oh, she's really cute! You should take her in and have her model and do commercials.'

"So my mom started me in modeling when I was really little. I liked that, but I told her I wanted to be on TV, so we started to go on to commercials. "

Dunst's first commercials were for Kix cereal and M&M's. A slew followed, but one really makes her laugh.

"There was this one doll commercial called Baby Uh-Oh, and it peed and pooped its pants," she recalls. "And I would be made so much fun of on the school bus going home from school. The kids would sing me the theme song because is was like, 'Baby, Uh-Oh, there she goes...' It was like, oops, she peed. It was so embarrassing. I did some pretty embarrassing commercials."

Following the commercials, she continued to climb the acting ladder, picking up small parts in Bonfire of the Vanities and New York Stories.

"I came out to L.A. for (television) pilot season and two years later, I got Interview with A Vampire, and that's when my film career took off," she says.

And how. Since then, her career has included such films as Little Women, Jumanji, Small Soldiers, Wag the Dog, Dick, Drop Dead Gorgeous, The Devil's Arithmetic, The Crow: Salvation, Bring It On, Crazy/Beautiful and Get Over It -- and she even had a stint on the TV show ER.

And now comes Spider-Man, which figures to kick off the summer 2002 box office season in a big way with its release on Friday. Dunst says she sensed the movie was going to be a success based on director Sam Raimi's approach.

"He exudes such a love for this movie," Dunst says. "And he's so intelligent and thoughtful."

Dunst's kiss with an upside-down Spidey highlighted an energized trailer, and she did a fair share of wirework as well.

"I've been hanging in the rain, and I had bruises all over my arm," she laughs. "It's like, 'What have I gotten into?'"

Well, probably Spider-Man 2, for one. A sequel is a certainty, with Raimi back as director.

"Oh yeah, they're definitely looking for more," says Dunst, who is signed on for two sequels. "I'll be there."

E-mail the Continuum at roballs@aol.com



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