Spoilers for On Becoming a God in Central Florida lie ahead.
Kirsten Dunst can do anything. From ruling France to shooting alligators to tap dancing her way to Minnesota American Teen Princess, she’s built a career by playing vibrant, unapologetic women with very specific interests. But in Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, her character Krystal Stubbs shows off a truly out-of-left-field talent: synchronized puppet dancing.
In the show’s second episode, sinking under debt and suddenly forced to deal with her dead husband’s stake in a pyramid scheme, Krystal proudly dons a puppet “rig” and performs her pageant-winning dance for a prospective client, Buzz (P.J. Marshall), and his daughter Becca (Ava Esquivel), a hesitant pageant contestant. The dance is funny at first, begging you to feel embarrassed for Krystal. Then it melts into a deeply lonely, desperate display of a woman willing to do anything to survive. It sums up both the heart of the show and Kirsten Dunst’s immense talent in a brief, ridiculous dance routine. But it wasn’t always supposed to feature puppets.
“We wrote it as a snake dance,” co-creator Robert Funke said. “She pulls the snake out of her cooler and does a whole dance with it.” That initial idea fit with the character, Funke said, because the audience has already seen that Krystal doesn’t shy away from reptiles: Earlier in the episode, she skinned and gutted two alligators — the gators that may or may not have killed her husband — in the very same garage where she winds up doing the dance.
But while Krystal Stubbs isn’t afraid of snakes, Kirsten Dunst is.
“When we first pitched that to Kirsten, she was like, ‘I’m not touching snakes. I do not like snakes, so I’m not doing that’,” Funke said. “Matt [Lutsky, co-creator] and I, not having ever done a TV show before, were like, Well, I guess they use body doubles and stuff. We’ll figure something out.”
With just a few days before they had to shoot the scene, after talking to episode director Jeremy Podeswa, a few snake wranglers, and texting Dunst one more time to see if she would change her mind — “She was like, ‘Are you fucking telling me that you’re about to ask me to do this snake dance after I told you very clearly that I do not like snakes?’” — Funke took the problem back to the writers’ room. What sort of shocking talent could Krystal reveal in the scene?
“It was all looking pretty grim until I started looking around at street performers online and remembered that I had seen a guy in L.A. dancing with one of these [puppet] rigs,” Funke said. “There was a guy on America’s Got Talent who did it with one, and then there’s a few other videos of street performers. I was like, Maybe that could be it?”
After sending another text to Dunst (just the words “Do you trust me?” and a link to a street dancer), Funke got started on his own rig, made with nine four-foot dowels, electrical tape, a neon-green safety vest, and hazmat suits. That night, just days before they were scheduled to shoot, he showed off his rig on Kirsten Dunst’s back patio, surrounded by her husband Jesse Plemons, Plemons’s family, their baby, and a freshly spray-tanned Dunst. Instead of puppets, the test rig only had flaps of cloth hanging off of it.
“After we demonstrated with the rig, I was waiting for Kirsten to drop off the show and ruin everything and be mad at me forever. I looked over and she was crying. I was like, Why are you crying? And she goes, She just tries so hard, talking about Krystal,” he said. “It was this moment for both of us to recognize what this show is about. That we could go just about anywhere, as long as we kept it all within the bounds of what Krystal is trying to do for herself and for her daughter.”
With Dunst’s approval, Funke then took the rig to props master Michael Martin and costume designer Stacey Battat, who made the actual puppets and their glam outfits. The final product was shot on the very last day of filming for the episode, with a much better rig and the same song they had always intended to use, “Straight On” by Heart. There was a moment where they almost went with “Potential New Boyfriend” by Dolly Parton, Funke said, but “Straight On” won out based on comedy: “It’s got that great corny choreography line, where when she says, ‘Straight on,’ [Krystal] points at the camera.”
Even as she’s swinging puppets with painted-on lipstick around a makeshift stage in her garage, you never stop believing in Krystal Stubbs. “She has this ability to connect with and empathize with people, whether that’s a person in a garage or a big crowd at a rally,” Funke said. Still, the scene ends with a reminder of Krystal’s precarious footing: When she turns off the stereo and switches to business mode, Buzz refuses to meet her price for pageant training and she walks away with nothing.
It’s no snake dance, but Funke believes that puppet dance accomplishes way more than a Britney Spears “I’m a Slave 4 U”–style performance might have. “It was a moment where we all appreciated what the show could be. That it could be as crazy and funny as we wanted, while also meaning everything that we want it to mean.” Funke said. “We can crank both up to 100 at the same time.”