Interview With the Vampire's Vamp : Movies: Kirsten Dunst takes a starring role opposite Tom Cruise in stride, while still maintaining the innocent outlook of a 12-year-old girl.

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Kirsten Dunst is a remarkable little girl, but not for the obvious reasons. Not because she's had a thriving career as a performer since the age of 3, or because she landed the female lead in Neil Jordan's "Interview With the Vampire" when she was 10. No, she's remarkable for being a 12-year-old who makes comments like this:

Question: So, were you intimidated to be starring with Tom Cruise in a film?

Answer: Why would that intimidate me? I love his acting, but he's a human being and I wasn't put on earth to please Tom. Why should I be nervous around a person doing the same job I'm doing?

Q: In a sense, this is a film about the dark side of romantic love; have you been in love?

A: I've had crushes, but I'm not sure what you mean by "in love."

Q: Have you ever cried over a boy?

A: Why would I cry over a boy? I would never waste my tears on a boy. Why waste your tears on someone who makes you cry? I want to say a bad word here, so I'll say "sugar"--if they say sugar on you, I just say sugar on you, too.

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At times like this Dunst seems wise way beyond her years. She seems exactly her age, however, when you ask her what the hardest thing about making "Interview With the Vampire" (which opens Friday) was and she wrinkles her nose in a look of total disgust and groans, "Kissing Brad Pitt! It was horrible and I hated it. Brad and Tom were like my big brothers on the set, so it was like kissing your big brother--totally gross! He said, 'How do you think I feel? I have to kiss a little girl.' It was awful!"

When it's suggested that hundreds of girls would love to have been in her shoes, Dunst declares, "They're nuts."

Thus reminded that Dunst is still at an age when cooties are a driving concern, one returns to the task of unraveling the story of how a little girl born in New Jersey, the elder child of a man who sells medical equipment and his wife, a painter, came to star in one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year.

"When I was little everyone said I should model, so I did a lot of that, and then I did tons of commercials," Dunst says over lunch in the restaurant of a Hollywood hotel. "One of them's still on the air--it's for a stuffed animal that purrs called Kitty-Kitty Kittens. I don't want to do television anymore though because TV's crappy nowadays and movies are more fun because you get to change characters."

With 70 commercials under her belt, Dunst, who also stars in Gillian Armstrong's "Little Women," which is slated for release later this month, moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1992. Having made her film debut in 1989 in Woody Allen's "New York Stories," she went on to small roles in "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "Greedy." Then she landed the part of Claudia, a girl who survives a New Orleans plague to be chosen to become a surrogate vampire child of vampires Cruise and Pitt in "Interview With the Vampire."

"We started looking at 6-year-olds, which is about Claudia's age in the book, but the role is too demanding for a 6-year-old," says producer Stephen Woolley of the casting of Dunst. "We needed a child with a mind capable of grasping the fine points of the difficult monologues Claudia has, and Kirsten was the first actress we saw. She gave a wonderful reading but we thought it was too good to be true, so we saw thousands of other girls. In the end we came back to Kirsten--she's quite extraordinary in the part."

Says Dunst about the character of Claudia: "What interested me about her was that she was an adult trapped inside a child's body--she's a very sad character, though. How would you feel if you could never grow up, if you were doomed to always stay a little girl and nobody would ever look at you as a woman? It's a very painful idea.

"My favorite scene in the film is the one where I waltz at the Paris Opera House with Brad--that was really fun--and it was fantastic working with Neil Jordan."

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Dunst is equally excited about the prospect of working with Robin Williams. She leaves next week for New Hampshire to star opposite him in the Joe Johnson film "Jumanji."

"I can't wait to meet him," she says, then adds with concern that there's talk of dying her blond hair for "Jumanji."

"My mom told them, 'No way, Jose,' " she reports. "I don't want to dye my hair--I love my hair and think it's a beautiful color."

Much of the early word on "Vampire" has centered on its disturbing elements of sex and violence, but Dunst dismisses that. "I finally saw the film a few nights ago and it didn't scare me at all because it's not gory. I laughed at the scenes where there was fake blood squirting around--it just didn't seem scary to me. It's not sexual in terms of making love or anything like that, either. There are some homosexual undertones with the guys in it, but that's about it--there's no sex."

Currently sharing the cover of Premiere with Cruise, Dunst is also slated for an upcoming cover of Us magazine and is the subject of an article in People. She seems aware that she's in the process of letting a mercurial tiger out of its cage.

At several points in an interview, she requests that something she said not be included in the piece; surprisingly press savvy, she has an intuitive feeling for verbal red flags and casual comments that could invite things she'd prefer to avoid.

"The prospect of becoming famous doesn't make me nervous--in fact, it will probably bother me if it doesn't happen because I've worked kind of hard," she admits, demurely wrestling with a huge sandwich. "If it happens, I'll just wear dark sunglasses."

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Describing her daily life as "just a typical life when I'm not shooting movies," Dunst likes to swim and ride horses, and as soon as this interview ends she plans to head for the mall across the street. What are you shopping for? "Anything," she replies. What do you need? "Nothing."

She thought "The Flintstones" was "cute," she prefers VH-1 to MTV because she hates rap, and she'd like to meet and work with 13-year-old actor Elijah Wood. She'd also like to work with Jodie Foster and Meryl Streep, and was crazy about "Thelma & Louise." "I loved that these women ran off from their idiot husbands and had fun," she says with a laugh.

As is the case with most 12-year-olds, fun is still a high priority for Dunst, who points out that "just because I've been working doesn't mean I'm growing up faster than other kids my age. I'm not like Claudia at all--she's in a lot of pain and I'm enjoying my life, and she's a lot more seductive and mature than I am.

"And plus, she's a vampire and I'm not."

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