Four months into pandemic-induced quarantine, my group chats inevitably return to the same question: What should I watch next? The Netflix queue has been exhausted, reality dating shows are dwindling, and nothing feels worthy of a major investment. My response is the same every time: Dickinson.
The Apple TV+ offering flew under the radar when the streaming service launched back in November, losing visibility to flashier entries like The Morning Show and Jason Momoa's See. But the Alena Smith-created series, an imagining of Emily Dickinson's life with a flourish of contemporary details (ribald dialogue, abundant innuendo, an electric score), is one of the riskiest and most creative endeavors I've seen on television in recent years. A Tumblr fever dream of literary allusions and feminist shenanigans, each episode takes one of Dickinson's poem and warps it into an offbeat, surreal reframing of the poet's work. The pilot, "Because I Could Not Stop," positions Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) as a dreamy, obstinate daughter who shirks her household duties in favor of frenzied bouts of writing and rebuffs her mother's choice in suitors while engaging in a passionate affair with her best friend Sue (Ella Hunt). At the end of the episode, Emily receives a visit from Death himself (Wiz Khalifa) as she lives out the carriage ride recounted in the poem "Because I could not stop for Death."
Steinfeld grounds the series in a modern sensibility, slouching and eye-rolling her way through the stuffy expectations of her misunderstanding parents (Jane Krakowski and Toby Huss) and, in turn, inspiring rebellion and misadventure among her peers: sneaking into men-only science lectures, throwing opium-fueled house parties, and pilgrimages to Walden pond to find Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney). Lizzo soundtracks a montage where Emily and Sue dress up as men, while a scene of dramatic moaning and crying reveals the poet's distaste for her period. But Steinfeld shines in the show's sharply emotional moments, her pursuit of artistry and creative integrity an earnest contrast to its ironic structure and "bro"-laced vernacular. Emily frequently goes head to head with her father, who disapproves of his daughter's ambitions and grates at his inability to control her. One argument ends in a slap from him that rocks the Dickinson house, and Emily, distraught, descends into a circus fantasy where she can embrace her bizarre desires and most importantly, receive the fame and recognition she craves for her work.
"She poured every ounce of her being into every single one of these poems, and all of that came from everything she was feeling and everything she thought about: the physical and mental and emotional constraints, her love of nature, her sexuality, her fears…" Steinfeld says. "[Writing] was what made her feel most alive. That, to me as an artist and as a person, is something I strive for."
Now, with the Emmys right around the corner, the Oscar nominee could add Television Academy honoree to her resumé. Below, the actress and singer talks finding the show's tone, why she chose the song "Afterlife" for the series, and what's in store for the second season.
The conceit of the show is so risky. When did you realize it worked?
How it starts in episode 1: Emily is at her desk writing, and Lavinia is knocking at her door at four in the morning, telling her to go fetch water. The moment it comes back to Emily and she says, "This is bullshit," I was like, "This is Dickinson." She took risks in her writing, and that allowed us to go where we went with our show.
When you worked through your version of Emily, what were the beats that were most important for you to hit?
Definitely her sexuality, her finding her voice and her confidence. It's all inside of her. It was just a matter of how and when it was going to come out, and that happens at the end of the season. We see that everything she's gone through has built up to the boiling point. She's exploded quite a few times, and she knows where she stands. Making sure it was clear that she now knows her place as a woman, as a writer in her time—that was definitely important.
Talk me through the "I went to the circus" scene. I'm not an emotional TV viewer, but I teared up. When she responds to Sue, there's so much visceral yearning in that moment.
That's one of my favorite scenes of the whole season; having filmed in the circus, creating that whole world of freedom and creativity and color and wildness, and just how risqué that was. The take they used was definitely the moment I felt it most. It's funny. You say you're not an emotional TV viewer. I'm the same. I'm not really an emotional reader, either. It takes me a while to get through things. I've got to really find that connection, you know what I mean? [But] I remember reading that and it really moving me. That was one of those things I couldn't wait to get to, and was equally as afraid of getting to, because I wanted it to hit the way it hopefully did.
Speaking of scenes that hit hard, the one I see gif'd over and over is the one under the tree with Emily and Sue in the pilot. What was that day like filming?
It's always a funny thing when you're filming those kinds of scenes 24 hours after you've met that person. It somehow is always like that. I don't know why they do that to people.
They're throwing you into the deep end.
I will say, not only had Ella and I had a minute, but by the time we did get there, whether it was the environment that had been created or that we created ourselves as a cast and crew, there was such a level of secureness and comfort and freedom. It felt so raw. It felt so real. We were in this beautiful field; it was gorgeous, it was cold out, and of course the rain happened, and there were very few people around. Everything became so still when we were filming.
I guess we all have that realization at some point in our lives where, when we love something or someone so much—to the point that it hurts physically and emotionally, we do ultimately always want what is best for them because we love them. In that moment, Emily had this realization of being hurt and mad and making this about her, and realizing that this was something that was going to keep the love of her life and her best friend alive. As much as she didn't want to accept that, that's what it was. One of my favorite lines in that scene is, "Promise me you'll always love me more than him." I loved that there's such a childlikeness to that line, to where it came from. Then of course, the response results in a wonderful, steamy little moment.
Did your role as executive producer change your understanding of filmmaking?
I've had the honor of seeing behind the scenes in my career before, but never like this. I've grown to have a level of appreciation for how many people it takes, and how much it takes from every one of those people involved, to create something you're proud of and happy to be a part of. Being a part of so many decision-making processes and phone calls and emails and meetings was a whole learning curve for me.
I will say my role as a producer of season 2 was definitely different than season 1.Season 2 was really exciting in that I felt that this was definitely a role that required a lot more of me than I'd ever given before. So many things had never concerned me as an actor in the past: casting choices, music choices. I do think that as an actor, I was able to lend a different perspective, which was fun when I had those full circle moments and realized I was able to be there for my cast in a different way—not just as a friend but as a real ally.
With song choices, you contributed "Afterlife" to the series. You wrote it years before Dickinson, so what made it the right choice for the show?
"Afterlife" is one of my favorite songs I've ever worked on. Knowing from day one how much of a role music played in this show, it was always in the back of my mind to do [for the show]; Alena had actually originally scripted that "Starving" by Hailee Steinfeld plays in one of the episodes.
When we wrapped season 1, I found myself with very little time to deliver a song. I went into a folder of old music and I had "Afterlife," which was pretty much done. It had been years since I'd heard it, but listening to it for the first time after shooting Dickinson, it feels so Dickinson-inspired it freaks me out. I went in and made a couple minor changes that felt more specific to the show's details and to her poetry particularly, but it was just meant to be.
What can you say about season 2?
Season 1 ends with Emily telling her father she is a poet, and she will write thousands of the greatest poems ever written right there in that bedroom. She closes the door and she sort of exhales, and I really do feel like that moment sends us off into the wildness and craziness that is season 2. Emily finding her place, her confidence as a writer, as a woman—it's all taken to the next level. Of course, it wouldn't be Dickinson if it wasn't wild and messy and heartbreaking and funny. It's got it all times 10.
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