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Dunst plumbs the mirthful and the melancholy in `Elizabethtown'

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TORONTO - "Whoa! Listen to that," says Kirsten Dunst, leaning her head toward the open window, and the sounds of screaming fans echoing from the street below.

It's the Toronto Film Festival, and gawkers and celeb-stalkers are camped at the entrance of the Four Seasons Hotel; every time a star enters or exits, there's a kind of ascending choral swell, like the sound of bettors at the Kentucky Derby as the horses head for the finish line.

"I don't understand it," says the actress, who had been on the receiving end of the crowd's whoops earlier in the day. "People get so sycophantic - especially girls about boys. Like Orlando is so huge with young girls. I think it's because he has a boyish quality about him that's not threatening."

Orlando, of course, is Orlando Bloom, Dunst's leading man in "Elizabethtown," a peripatetic love story about family, and about finding oneself, written and directed by Cameron Crowe. The picture, loaded with music by Elton John, Tom Petty, Ryan Adams, Patty Griffin, the Hollies, and My Morning Jacket, opens Friday.

Dunst plays Claire Colburn, a perky flight attendant for a regional carrier who meets Bloom's character, a sneaker designer named Drew Baylor, at a moment of epic crisis in his life: he's lost his job, and he's lost his father. He's en route home to Elizabethtown, Ky., for the funeral when he meets Claire on an empty late-night flight. She doesn't stop yammering.

And then doesn't stop showing up in his life. Or on his cell phone, anyway.

"She's kooky," the 23-year-old actress says about Claire. "It's a little bit of a show at first. She's one of those people that just talk talk talk and they don't really stop to observe, or listen. Even though I think that she's a real studier of people, she's also not really paying attention to herself.

"It was a character that I felt I could put myself into in a big way. I mean, every character that I do I see things that I have to work out in myself, or old things that I know that I've been through."

Those characters include the young bloodsucker of "Interview With the Vampire," the young Amy March of "Little Women," Lux Lisbon in "The Virgin Suicides," and Mary Jane Watson, Peter Parker's heartbreaker, in "Spider-Man 1" and "2." And Dunst, Tobey Maguire, and director Sam Raimi are about to regroup for "Spider-Man 3," which already has an opening date: May 4, 2007. ("Spider-Man is so internationally known. You see little kids running around in Spider-Man outfits. It's a story that never gets old, and there's a lot of room to grow ... And really, the people involved all wanted to do it because they're moved by it, not because it was a way to make money.")

Dunst, born in Point Pleasant, N.J., has brought a wifty girlish charm to many of her roles, but also an underlying melancholy. She applies both in equal measure in "Elizabethtown." It's a role with a lot of colors for the actress - not all of which shine through Crowe's all-over-the-map script.

The writer and director of "Say Anything," "Jerry Maguire" and "Almost Famous" has been struggling with the final edit of "Elizabethtown" since showing it at Toronto last month and at earlier festivals in Europe. Crowe, 48, was wrestling with whole long sequences - contemplating jettisoning them entirely.

In Venice, Dunst sat by her director's side during the film, and elbowed him whenever she thought there was a scene he could cut. "Through our whole Venice screening I was like, 'And that, and that, and that.' But he was really cool about it. He's open to listening to my opinion."

Crowe first met Dunst - who has been mugging for cameras since age 3, when she was a kid model and TV-commercials cutie - in 1999. He had auditioned her for the part of Penny Lane, the hippie groupie of "Almost Famous." The actress lost the role to Kate Hudson, which didn't surprise her. "I was uncomfortable with the material, I remember, because I was so innocent compared to Penny Lane," Dunst says. "I didn't know what the hell I was really talking about. She was kind of beyond my years."

Still, Crowe saw something, and when he was ready to cast "Elizabethtown," he watched the video he had made of Dunst's "Almost Famous" test.

"I loved her audition/work session. Her emotions were so close to the surface," says Crowe, who is married to Nancy Wilson, of the band Heart. "And I brought home the video and I was looking at it and Nancy saw it, and my mom was staying with us, and she said, 'That's your girl, you just call her and give her the job.'

"And I called her and gave her the job. And then I cast Orlando to her. He was like the kind of ingenue-discovery part and she was the established actor that I usually give the guy role to."

In other words, Dunst is Tom Cruise to Bloom's Renee Zellweger.

Post-"Elizabethtown," Dunst has the title role in Sofia Coppola's "Marie-Antoinette," due next year ("definitely not a stuffy period piece!"). There's a political satire she's contemplating, and "Spidey 3" to get on to. She's been in more than 30 films - a hefty filmography for someone who hasn't even hit the quarter-century mark. (Dunst's film debut: as Mia Farrow's little girl in the Woody Allen segment of 1989's "New York Stories.")

"She's an old soul," Crowe says of his star. "You will find her to be one of the more mature 23-year-olds on the planet."

Informed of his comment later in the day, Dunst shrugs and smiles. "That's a compliment, I guess, and it's hard to respond to a compliment. You just usually say thank you."

And then she scrunches up her face in her cute-but-ironic Dunstian mode.

"I'm so wise. Yeah!"


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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