Hailee Steinfeld portrays literary icon Emily Dickinson in the new series from Apple TV + (Photo courtesy of Apple TV +)
While most of us think of the iconic poet Emily Dickinson as a rather eccentric under-appreciated reclusive spinster, Hailee Steinfeld and Dickinson are turning many preconceived notions of this literary genius on their head.
Steinfeld, now 22, began her career with the movie True Grit at age 14, where she beat out 15,000 actresses and received an Academy Award nomination. This was followed by Bumblebee, The Homesmen, and Enders Game. Currently, she is making her mark in movies, music, and now as the leading lady and executive producer in Dickinson, now streaming on the new Apple TV +.
The fresh new half-hour dark comedy series audaciously explores the life of rebellious young poet Emily Dickinson. Set in the 19th century, this coming-of-age story portrays Emily as an unexpected hero for the Millennial generation.
While completely underestimated by her parents, played by Jane Krakowski and Toby Huss, she rejects the conventions of her society, sex, and family and instead fills volumes of notebooks with her poetry that details her vibrant fantasy life.
Steinfeld takes viewers into the world of the brilliant poet, whose irrepressible spirit, defiant attitude, bold vision, and daring love life resonate more than ever, especially at a time when many of us feel like outsiders in our generation. “I feel like we have come a very long way. But in the grand scheme of things, not much has changed,” Steinfeld exclusively told Parade.com. “Women are still very much fighting to be understood, considered equal, and respected. My big hope is that women feel that they are seen and heard.”
What attracted you to Dickinson? I’m sure you get choices and you’re not only acting in the series, but you are producing the show as well.
I wanted to do this because this series felt so different than anything I had really ever come across. This show tackles so many conversations and so many themes that are somehow still relevant today as they are in the 1850s. The minute I met writer-creator Alena Smith (Newsroom) her and I had a conversation, I knew I wanted to be involved in Dickinson.
Please talk about the acting part of the show and the producing aspect of it.
As far as acting in it, I read this and felt like I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play this literary icon. And as far as producing, this is my first-time executive producing and I have always been interested in that, and of course, I wanted it to be something that I felt was truly special. So, this was that. It’s been really exciting to be a part of the conversation and certain decision-making processes that I’ve never been a part of in the past. So, to be a part of that on the project that I feel so connected to is extremely exciting.
How long was the initial preparation? How immersed did you get into Emily Dickinson’s poetry and her life and history, since there is a lot that we know about Emily?
I had a couple of months before we started filming and I had countless conversations with Alena about the sort of what research she chose to draw from and the facts that she did want to include, and maybe some of the ones that she didn’t necessarily feel were enough to expand on.
What else was involved?
One thing about this show is we do in fact take much of what we know about Emily Dickinson and expand on it. This is sort of our interpretation of what her mind might have looked like or sounded like or felt like and her poetry is the driving force behind it.
Talk about the fact that Emily’s life is relevant today, so many years later and about how women kind of see themselves in Emily and how that might help them today.
It’s so crazy to watch this show that is a period piece, but you watch and forget that this takes place in the mid-1850s because it has a very modern feel to it. And I believe that is because of the relevance and the parallels that women specifically are still dealing with a lot of what my character went through in her time.
The music kind of takes the fantasy aspect of it to a new level. How does that excite you?
Well, music is such a huge part of my life, and anytime music plays a big role in any acting project that I do it is a dream come true for me. So, to have a sort of built-in soundtrack is always a luxury.
There’s an element of danger because this sort of contemporary urban music adds to the excitement of the show, and the cool factor; I think a lot of times, people in my generation might think a period piece is boring. You just instantly think black and white for old-time, or that it’s hard to sit down and watch and connect to a period show and feel like you’d much rather watch something that feels modern that you can instantly relate to. So, I think this music gives the show a modern and approachable feel.
What have been the biggest challenges for you with this show?
Switching directors as often as we did was something I have never experienced, and something I didn’t love in the beginning. I felt like every time I had a good thing going with one director, they would be gone and a new director would come in and it was just a very weird and strange thing to try and develop something with five different people over the course of not a very long period of time.
Which is a big difference from making movies?
Exactly. Oftentimes, when I am making a movie I’ll think I don’t understand why we have to be there for so long for so many months because you can get this done in a shorter period of time. But then there is such a luxury in being able to take your time and work with one director and develop the character, and see it through with that person from beginning, middle and end.
With this show, it was like every two weeks, we had a new director with a new point of view and new ideas. And at first, I was confused by it and a little closed off to it. But having a fresh, new outlook on each sort of chapter in this five-hour movie was really helpful in the end.
Do you feel that through the episodes you came to know Emily better?
I always feel like the discoveries never stop, which is the beauty of what I think happens as an actor. But the idea of something like this, going back to a Season 2, let alone from episode 1 to 10, you dig deeper and deeper. And each episode has its own beginning, middle, and end. So, within each one, you’re finding more and you’re digging deeper.
So, if there is a Season 2 you must feel excited about furthering the journey.
Yes. With each episode, I grew more with her and learned more about her, which is so exciting. The idea of going back and doing that again, and going even further is so cool. I’ve only ever known the process of making a movie and walking away, and it’s out of my hands and that’s it. So, the idea of having more of this adventure is truly exciting to me.
How does getting to know the other actors and actresses professionally and personally inform what we’re seeing in Dickinson?
I always think it’s interesting to see what kind of energy the other actors bring. Some performers have a more cautious approach, and if the character they are playing isn’t super friendly or close or warm, they will take that similar approach off the set.
For this show, I feel like we have such a great group of people that happen to be equally as passionate about this one project and this one person’s story. And we all have connected in amazing ways off-screen and I think that that has brought a lot of love and humor, and timing to the work itself. So, I think that this comes through in a major way.
Since Emily is a major literary figure I have to ask what are you reading?
I just went to a bookstore last week to get several books. One of them is Oprah’s book What I Know For Sure. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m so excited to devour it. The book is so beautiful. I don’t want to throw it in my bag because I know it will just get ruined. I also got a book of poetry. I definitely have this newfound love of poetry that I didn’t really have before Dickinson. I’ve always appreciated it but not like I do now. There is so much to be said in four lines of a poem, let alone an entire book of it. And I got Meryl Streep’s new book. So, I am about to dig into some iconic women. I can’t wait. I’ve got some plane flights coming up to read these.
Why should our readers tune in to Dickinson? Why do you want them to come to the party?
Wow. I would say because this show not only talks about and addresses so many things, that people are afraid to talk about, but it is so much fun, so interesting, shocking, heartbreaking, wild and rebellious. It makes you feel. It makes you question certain things. I think that it sparks up some really interesting conversations. Go watch this show and feel like you can embrace every part of you, because there’s nothing wrong with that.
Dickinson is currently streaming on Apple TV+.