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How ‘The Power of the Dog’ Rebooted Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons’ Creative Partnership

Being romantically involved became a creative asset for this acting duo in Jane Campion’s Oscar contender.

On Season Two of “Fargo,” Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons carried 10 episodes of the 2015 FX series as a couple fending off a whole mess of trouble. By 2017, they were engaged. “We fell in love as creative friends first,” Dunst told me in Telluride. “We had a creative connection that bonded us. There was a lot of freedom whenever we did scenes together. It’s like a magic, magical feeling.”

Their first son, Ennis, was born in 2018; Howard arrived nine months after the wrap of Jane Campion’s western noir “The Power of the Dog” (Netflix), which is a frontrunner for Oscars in several categories including Best Picture and Director. Dunst has snagged Critics Choice, Golden Globe, and SAG nominations ahead of a likely Oscar nod, which would be her first.

In “Power of the Dog,” Dunst plays Rose, a widow who runs a Montana boarding house, cooking meals for guests such as wealthy ranchers the Burbank brothers. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is belligerent and cruel to her fey teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who fashions delicate paper flowers for the table. When George Burbank (Plemons) goes back to the kitchen to pay the bill, he and Rose strike up a conversation and he starts to court her. “What we recognize in each other is that we both have this great loneliness,” Dunst said. “Needing each other on this deep soul level connects us immediately.”

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Jane Campion with Kodi Smit-McPhee and Kirsten Dunst.

Netflix

Rose’s arrival at the massive Burbank ranch house changes the brothers’ dynamic. Phil, gobsmacked by his taciturn brother’s defection, undermines her at every turn. After George invites the Governor and his wife to dinner, Phil wickedly imitates Rose on his banjo when she practices the piano. To stave off her anxiety about Phil, Rose turns to alcohol.

“[Phil] had a real love affair with Bronco Henry at an inappropriate age,” said Dunst. “But that was a great love that he had. And when somebody dies, and then you’re alone with your brother, you can get stuck in the past. Keeping George down is a stunted thing. They’ve stayed in the same kid dynamic — until George makes that shift and decides: ‘I’m done.'”

The 1967 Thomas Savage novel informed Plemons on the inner workings of George’s mind. “Something has soured for a long time,” said Plemons. “Coming from this family, growing up in a strange dichotomy of extreme wealth and isolated out in the middle of nowhere, there’s no way that the entire world of thoughts and feelings and emotions in George is not being expressed. That was big for me. I wasn’t interested in playing Phil’s version of George.”

Campion gave her cast a luxurious three weeks to rehearse before the January 2020 start of principal photography. The couple brought their toddler Ennis with them on location, living in a house about an hour away from the remote Otago set. The four leads tried out different ways to play the characters’ shifting dynamics. Plemons practiced horseback riding, while Dunst improvised in the kitchen — as well as practicing her piano. “When you learn an instrument when you’re older, it’s so much harder than as a kid,” she said. “When my hands started to play together, I almost wept.”

“The Power of the Dog”

Netflix

Plemons was nervous on the first day of rehearsal with Dunst. “All of a sudden it dawned on me that we had only acted together on these two specific parts in the Coen brothers’ world,” he said, referring to their collaboration on “Fargo.”

He needn’t have worried: “We did one take, and immediately, boy, everything felt like home. ‘Ah, that’s right, this is what I first fell in love with: her creativity.’ It reminded me how easy it is to work with her, day to day. It was a constant pitching ideas and seeing what the other one responded to. We could throw out an idea, without any ego. The other person either liked it or not, that was that. I feel I’m better when I’m working with her: I have to try and get where she’s going.”

Actors are often lonely away from their partners on location, but “This was something we were going through together,” said Plemons, “with the added benefit of being able to spend our downtime together.”

For the scene when George and Rose have a romantic outdoor picnic lunch overlooking a spectacular mountain vista, Campion took Dunst and Plemons and a skeleton crew to Queenstown. “I was able, in between takes, to take a step back and realize just how lucky I felt to have such a beautiful scene to get to play with Kirsten, in probably the most beautiful location I’ve ever shot in,” Plemons said.

Cumberbatch stayed in character as Phil on set: Only when they left the location for the occasional dinner did he shed the role for a bit. “It stirs the pot,” said Plemons. “It extends that dynamic to the moments in between takes. It’s helpful for everyone. It immediately created a mood. You always knew when Phil was on set.”

Dunst had never met Cumberbatch before. “He has an intensity in his eyes,” she said. “We didn’t have many scenes together, so I had to create my whole inner life and demons. It’s all psychologically stirring in my own head as I hear things, like his boots clumping by.”

THE POWER OF THE DOG : KIRSTEN DUNST as ROSE GORDON in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

“The Power of the Dog”

KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX

Campion cut one scene where Rose tells George, “I don’t think Phil likes me very much.”  “It was so unnecessary,” said Dunst. “If I had explained any more it would have diminished the tension, the creepiness and the isolation. What evolved into the movie starts to become its own life force.”

Due to the pandemic, the production shut down in March 2020. Plemons and Dunst stayed in New Zealand for a month and returned to Los Angeles for another eight weeks before the New Zealand government allowed the movie to film.

“Because we got to go back and finish, that made me so appreciative to have been able to work after just sitting there for three months,” Dunst said. “It made us so grateful, it made us all work a lot harder to and give it our all, because we were like, ‘When are we ever going to work again? Are we allowed to?'”

Next up: Dunst would love to direct a project with Plemons. “Jesse and I talked about directing together because we trust each other,” she said. “Working together was so much fun. We’re a good balance with each other. Sometimes when I can’t express how I want to say something, he’ll say it so perfectly, you know? And sometimes when he’s struggling with something and I’ll say something, he’s like: ‘That’s exactly what it is.'”

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