Dunst was born in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, to Inez (nee Rupprecht) and Klaus Dunst. She has a younger brother, Christian. Her father worked as a medical services executive, and her mother worked for Lufthansa as a flight attendant and was an artist and one-time gallery owner. Dunst's father is German, originally from Hamburg, and Dunst's mother, who was born in New Jersey, is of Swedish descent.
Until the age of eleven, Dunst lived in Brick Township, New Jersey, where she attended Ranney School. In 1993, her parents separated, and she subsequently moved with her mother and brother to Los Angeles, California, where she attended Laurel Hall School in North Hollywood. In 1995, her mother filed for divorce. The following year Dunst began attending Notre Dame High School, a private Roman Catholic high school in Los Angeles.
After graduating from Notre Dame High School in 2000, Dunst continued the acting career that she had begun. As a teenager, she found it difficult to deal with her rising fame, and for a period she blamed her mother for pushing her into acting as a child. However, she later expressed that her mother "always had the best intentions". When asked if she had any regrets about the way she spent her childhood, Dunst said: "Well, it's not a natural way to grow up, but it's the way I grew up and I wouldn't change it. I have my stuff to work out ... I don't think anybody can sit around and say, 'My life is more screwed up than yours.' Everybody has their issues."
Dunst began her career when she was three years old as a child fashion model in television commercials. She was signed with Ford Models and Elite Model Management. At the age of six, she made her feature film debut in a minor role in Woody Allen's short film Oedipus Wrecks that was released as one-third of the anthology film New York Stories (1989). Soon after, she co-starred with Tom Hanks in the comedy-drama The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), based on Tom Wolfe's novel of the same name, where she played the daughter of Hanks' character. In 1993, Dunst guest-starred on the science fiction drama Star Trek: The Next Generation in the season seven episode titled "Dark Page" as Hedril.
The breakthrough role in Dunst's career came in 1994 in the romantic horror film Interview with the Vampire with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, based on Anne Rice's novel, in which she played Claudia, the child vampire who is a surrogate daughter to Cruise and Pitt's characters. The film received ambivalent reviews, but many film critics complimented Dunst's performance. Roger Ebert commented that Dunst's creation of the child vampire Claudia was one of the "creepier" aspects of the film, and mentioned her ability to convey the impression of great age inside apparent youth. Todd McCarthy in Variety noted that Dunst was "just right" for the family. The film featured a scene in which Dunst shared her first on-screen kiss with Pitt, who was eighteen years her senior. In an interview with Interview magazine, she revealed, while questioned about her kissing scene with Pitt, that kissing him had made her feel uncomfortable: "I thought it was gross, that Brad had cooties. I mean, I was 10." Her performance earned her the MTV Movie Award for Best Breakthrough Performance, the Saturn Award for Best Young Actress, and her first Golden Globe Award nomination.
Later in 1994, Dunst co-starred in the drama film Little Women opposite Winona Ryder and Claire Danes. The film received favorable reviews. Critic Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote that the film was the greatest adaptation of the novel and remarked on Dunst's performance, "The perfect contrast to take-charge Jo comes from Kirsten Dunst's scene-stealing Amy, whose vanity and twinkling mischief make so much more sense coming from an 11-year-old vixen than they did from grown-up Joan Bennett in 1933. Ms. Dunst, also scarily effective as the baby bloodsucker of Interview With the Vampire, is a little vamp with a big future."
In 1995, Dunst co-starred in the fantasy adventure film Jumanji, loosely based on Chris Van Allsburg's 1981 book of the same name. The story is about a supernatural and ominous board game which makes animals and other jungle hazards appear upon each roll of the dice. She was part of an ensemble cast that included Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, and David Alan Grier. The movie grossed $262 million worldwide. That year, and again in 2002, she was named one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People. From 1996 to 1997, Dunst had a recurring role in the third season of the NBC medical drama ER. She played Charlie Chiemingo, a child prostitute taken under the guidance of the pediatrician Dr. Doug Ross, played by George Clooney. In 1997, she voiced Young Anastasia in the animated musical film Anastasia. Also in 1997, Dunst co-starred in the black comedy film Wag the Dog, opposite Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. The following year she voiced the title character, Kiki, a thirteen-year-old apprentice witch who leaves her home village to spend a year on her own, in the anime movie Kiki's Delivery Service (1998).
Dunst was offered the role of Angela in the 1999 drama film American Beauty, but turned it down because she did not want to appear in the film's suggestive sexual scenes or kiss the film's star Kevin Spacey. She later explained: "When I read it, I was 15 and I don't think I was mature enough to understand the script's material." That same year, she co-starred in the comedy film Dick, opposite Michelle Williams. The film is a parody retelling the events of the Watergate scandal which led to the resignation of U.S. president Richard Nixon.
Dunst co-starred in Sofia Coppola's drama film The Virgin Suicides (1999) where she played Lux Lisbon, a troubled adolescent. The film was screened as a special presentation at the 43rd San Francisco International Film Festival in 2000. The movie received generally favorable reviews, and San Francisco Chronicle critic Peter Stack noted in his review that Dunst "beautifully balances innocence and wantonness."
In 2000, Dunst starred in the comedy Bring It On as Torrance Shipman, the captain of a cheerleading squad. The film generated mostly positive reviews, with many critics reserving praise for her performance. In his review, A. O. Scott called her "a terrific comic actress, largely because of her great expressive range, and the nimbleness with which she can shift from anxiety to aggression to genuine hurt." Charles Taylor of Salon noted that "among contemporary teenage actresses, Dunst has become the sunniest imaginable parodist", even though he thought the film had failed to provide her with as good a role as she had either in Dick or in The Virgin Suicides. Jessica Winter from The Village Voice complimented Dunst, stating that her performance was "as sprightly and knowingly daft as her turn in Dick" and commenting that "[Dunst] provides the only major element of Bring It On that plays as tweaking parody rather than slick, strident, body-slam churlishness." Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle, despite giving the film an unfavorable review, commended Dunst for her willingness "to be as silly and cloyingly agreeable as it takes to get through a slapdash film."
The following year, Dunst starred in the comedy film Get Over It (2001). She later explained that one of the reasons for accepting the role was that it gave her the opportunity to sing. Also in 2001, she starred in the historical drama The Cat's Meow, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, as the American actress Marion Davies. Derek Elley of Variety described the film as "playful and sporty," saying that this was Dunst's best performance to date: "Believable as both a spoiled ingenue and a lover to two very different men, Dunst endows a potentially lightweight character with considerable depth and sympathy." In the Esquire review, Tom Carson called her performance "terrific." For her work, she won the Best Actress Silver Ombu category award at the 2002 Mar del Plata Film Festival.
In 2002, Dunst co-starred opposite Tobey Maguire in the superhero film Spider-Man, the most financially successful film of her career to date. She played Mary Jane Watson, the best friend and love interest of Peter Parker (Maguire). The film was directed by Sam Raimi. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly remarked on Dunst's ability to "lend even the smallest line a tickle of flirtatious music." In the Los Angeles Times review, critic Kenneth Turan noted that Dunst and Maguire made a real connection on screen, concluding that their relationship "involved audiences to an extent rarely seen in films." Spider-Man was a commercial and critical success. The movie grossed $114 million during its opening weekend in North America and went on to earn $822 million worldwide.
Following the success of Spider-Man, Dunst co-starred in Ed Solomon's drama film Levity (2003). That same year she co-starred opposite Julia Roberts, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Julia Stiles in the drama film Mona Lisa Smile (2003). The film generated mostly negative reviews, with Manohla Dargis of the Los Angeles Times describing it as "smug and reductive." She co-starred opposite Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, and Tom Wilkinson in Michel Gondry's science fiction romantic drama Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) as Mary Svevo. The latter film received very positive reviews, with Entertainment Weekly describing Dunst's subplot as "nifty and clever." The movie grossed $72 million worldwide.
The success of the first Spider-Man film led Dunst to reprise her role as Mary Jane Watson in 2004 in Spider-Man 2. The movie was well received by critics and a financial success, setting a new opening weekend box office record for North America. With revenue of $783 million worldwide, it was the second highest grossing film in 2004. Also in 2004, Dunst co-starred opposite Paul Bettany in the romantic comedy Wimbledon where she portrayed a rising tennis player in the Wimbledon Championships, while Bettany portrayed a fading former tennis star. Reception for the film was mixed, but many critics enjoyed Dunst's performance. Claudia Puig of USA Today reported that the chemistry between Dunst and Bettany was potent, with Dunst doing a fine job as a sassy and self-assured player.
In 2005, she co-starred opposite Orlando Bloom in Cameron Crowe's romantic tragicomedy Elizabethtown as Claire Colburn, a flight attendant. The film premiered at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Dunst revealed that working with Crowe was enjoyable, but more demanding than she had expected. The movie garnered mixed reviews, with the Chicago Tribune rating it one out of four stars and describing Dunst's portrayal of a flight attendant as "cloying." It was a box office disappointment.
In 2006, Dunst collaborated with Sofia Coppola again and starred as the title character in Coppola's biographical film Marie Antoinette, adapted from Antonia Fraser's book Marie Antoinette: The Journey. The movie was screened at a special presentation at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, and was reviewed favourably. International revenues were $45 million out of $60 million overall.
In 2007, Dunst reprised her role as Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man 3. In contrast to the previous two films' positive reviews, Spider-Man 3 was met with a mixed reception by critics. Nonetheless, with a total worldwide gross of $891 million, it stands as the most commercially successful film in the series and Dunst's highest grossing film to the end of 2008. Having initially signed on for three Spider-Man films, she revealed that she would do a fourth, but only if Raimi and Maguire also returned. In January 2010, it was announced that the fourth film was cancelled and that the Spider-Man film series would be restarted, and therefore dropping Dunst, Maguire, and Raimi from the franchise.
In 2008, Dunst co-starred opposite Simon Pegg in the comedy film How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, an adaptation of the memoir of the same name by former Vanity Fair contributing editor Toby Young.
Dunst made her screenwriting and directorial debut with the short film Bastard which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010, and was later featured at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Dunst co-starred opposite Ryan Gosling in the mystery film All Good Things (2010), based on a true story as the wife of Gosling's character from a run-down neighborhood who goes missing. The feature received reasonable reviews, and earned $640,000 worldwide. Dunst co-starred with Brian Geraghty in Carlos Cuaron's short film The Second Bakery Attack, an adaptation of Haruki Murakami's short story of the same name.
In 2011, Dunst co-starred opposite Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland and Charlotte Rampling in Lars von Trier's drama film Melancholia as a depressed woman at the end of the world. The film premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and received positive reviews and Dunst was singled out for praise. Steven Loeb of Southampton Patch wrote, "This film has brought the best out of von Trier, as well as his star. Dunst is so good in this film, playing a character unlike any other she has ever attempted... Even if the film itself were not the incredible work of art that it is, Dunst's performance alone would be incentive enough to recommend it." Sukhdev Sandhu wrote from Cannes in The Daily Telegraph that "Dunst is exceptional, so utterly convincing in the lead role – trouble, serene, a fierce savant – that it feels like a career breakthrough. Dunst won several awards for her performance, including the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival and the Best Actress Award from the US National Society of Film Critics
Dunst has signed to star in Sweet Relief as Marla Ruzicka, a peace activist and U.S. relief worker killed by a suicide bomb in Baghdad. She has expressed interest in playing the role of Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry in Michel Gondry's upcoming biographical film about the band.
In 2012, Dunst co-starred in Juan Diego Solanas' science fiction romantic drama Upside Down opposite Jim Sturgess. She starred in Leslye Headland's comedy Bachelorette, produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. In 2012, she co-starred in the drama film On the Road as Camille Moriarty, based on Jack Kerouac's novel of the same name. She made a cameo appearance in the short feature Fight For Your Right Revisited. It premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Reports have stated that she would join Clive Owen and Orlando Bloom in the international thriller Cities. In January 2014, Dunst began filming Jeff Nichols' science fiction drama Midnight Special, with Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton. In May 2015, it was announced that Dunst would star in the Rodarte label founders' feature directorial debut, Woodshock. The film follows a woman who falls deeper into paranoia after taking a deadly drug.
In October 2015, Dunst said that she is co-writing and set to direct a film adaptation of a novel.
Dunst made her singing debut in the comedy film Get Over It, performing two songs written by Marc Shaiman. She recorded Henry Creamer and Turner Layton's jazz standard "After You've Gone" that was used in the end credits of The Cat's Meow. In Spider-Man 3, she sang two songs as Mary Jane Watson, one during a Broadway performance, and one as a singing waitress in a jazz club. Dunst revealed that she recorded the songs earlier and later lip-sync to it when filming began. She also appeared in the music videos for Savage Garden's "I Knew I Loved You", Beastie Boys's "Make Some Noise" and R.E.M.'s "We All Go Back to Where We Belong" and she sang two tracks which were "This Old Machine" and "Summer Day" on Jason Schwartzman's 2007 solo album Nighttiming. In 2007, Dunst stated that she had no plans to follow the steps of other actors who release albums, saying: "Definitely not. No way. It worked when Barbra Streisand was doing it, but now it's a little cheesy, I think. It works better when singers are in movies."
Dunst starred as the magical princess Majokko in the Takashi Murakami and McG directed short Akihabara Majokko Princess singing a cover of "Turning Japanese". This was shown at the "Pop Life" exhibition in London's Tate Modern museum from October 1, 2009, to January 17, 2010. It shows Dunst prancing around Akihabara, a crowded shopping district in Tokyo, Japan.
Dunst was treated for depression in early 2008 at the Cirque Lodge treatment center in Utah. She explained that she had been feeling low in the six months before her admission. In late March 2008, she checked out of the treatment center and began filming All Good Things. In May 2008, she went public with this information in order to highlight the struggle faced by so many other successful women and to dispel rumors that had been very painful for her friends and family.
Dunst dated actor Jake Gyllenhaal from 2002 to 2004. In 2012, she began dating her On the Road co-star Garrett Hedlund.
On August 31, 2014, along with other female celebrities, Dunst's personal nude photos were leaked online during the 2014 celebrity photo hack.
She gained German citizenship in 2011 and now holds dual citizenship of Germany and the United States.
Dunst supported Democratic candidate John Kerry for the 2004 U.S. presidential election. Four years later, she supported Democrat Barack Obama for the 2008 presidential election. Dunst revealed that she supported Obama "from the beginning" of the presidential campaign. In support of this, she directed and narrated a documentary entitled Why Tuesday, explaining the United States tradition of voting on Tuesdays. Dunst explained that Tuesday is "not a holiday, and the United States is one of the lowest democratic countries in voter turnout." She felt it important to "influence people in a positive way" to vote on November 4, 2008.
She works with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, for which she helped design and promote a necklace whose sales proceeds went to the Foundation. She worked in breast cancer awareness, participating in the Stand Up to Cancer telethon in September 2008 to raise funds for cancer research. On December 5, 2009, she participated in the Teleton in Mexico, to raise funds for cancer treatment and children's rehabilitation.1994: "For the Beauty of the Earth" featuring Trini Alvarado and Claire Danes – Little Women (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
1999: "Spit It Out" featuring Allison Janney – Drop Dead Gorgeous: Motion Picture Soundtrack
2001: "Dream Of Me" and "The Girl Inside" – Get Over It: Music From Miramax Motion Picture
2002: "After You've Gone" – The Cat's Meow Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
2007: "This Old Machine" and "Summer Day" – Nighttiming by Coconut Records