Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily Dickinson wants to be famous — maybe, she thinks.
She says it onstage with “international singing sensation” Adelaide May (Kelli Barrett) after attending a moving performance at the opera in the sixth episode of Dickinson’s second season. But as Emily’s dalliance with fame in the Apple TV+ series continues to play out, no sooner is she drawn to the bright lights of attention than she learns of its dark underside.
“If you’re seen, then you’re exposed. Everything that’s exposed, well it goes stale,” Adelaide says. “The critics, they’ll put you on top for a minute but then they’ll drag you down. They’ll get sick of you, and they’ll destroy you. They hate you, see, because you made them love you. You were a courtesan and they fell for your trick.”
It’s after this exchange when Emily, like she did earlier in the episode, imagines Adelaide is Sue (Ella Hunt), who hints that Emily wants more than the ephemeral appeal of fame, saying Emily craves “meaning” and “love.”
In addition to drawing Emily closer to the lure of fame and featuring a passionate reunion with Sue — albeit in Emily’s imagination — the latest episode also continues to tease out the uncertain dynamic between Emily and her editor Sam Bowles (Finn Jones), who Emily fantasized about sleeping with just one episode earlier. As they sit together at the opera, he admonishes Emily for writing a letter describing, in great detail, her affection for him to his wife, reminding Emily of the rumors that he’s unfaithful to her. He tells her that his interest in her is purely professional. And during an emotional moment in the opera, when Emily grabs his hand, he quickly leaves, rejecting the latest poem she intended to give him.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Steinfeld about how Emily feels about Sam, her character’s conflicting views towards fame and the extent to which the singer-actress drew upon her own experience in the public eye in portraying the poet’s concerns.
Viewers see Emily wrestle with fame and having her poems published throughout the season. How do you think Emily feels about fame at the start of the season, or why does she feel so uncertain about having her poetry published?
I think the daunting [nature] of it all and the self doubt that she’s already experiencing without even having the fame in knowing that might be what it brings, she hits writer’s block right away — just with the idea, just by being consumed by the idea of fame, not even yet having it. The idea to her is intriguing and exciting. To be celebrated as a writer, as an amazing poet. It’s hard to imagine. Her poems were only discovered after she died and for somebody that we’d like to think contemplated for so long whether she wanted to publish these poems or not, it was clear she did because she had; she had no choice but to put them under different names. But she wanted to know what people thought of her work. And I think the scariest part of fame, and I think this still holds true now, is that you can ask for it, you can achieve it, but once you have it it’s kind of a hard thing to get rid of in a sense, if you reach a certain level of it. And Emily is just sort of searching for answers to these questions and painting this picture in her brain that is equally as amazing as it is dangerous and terrifying.
Throughout this season Emily seems to deal with things that people in creative industries encounter, including writer’s block and concern about other people’s reaction to your work. How much did you draw on your own experience as an actress and singer and someone in the public eye in portraying those moments?
I thankfully am able to. This was kind of a challenging one though because my life personally and as an artist is always changing and evolving. It was a challenge, to say the least, to try and sort of identify with exactly where Emily’s head is at, as far as this idea of fame. It’s not something I’ve put much thought into in my personal life and had to kind of find these answers to the questions she was asking too, for myself, as I was going through this season, which was fun because I felt like by the end of it I have a clearer perspective on it myself. So I can relate to her interest and intrigue and confusion about it but thankfully not as much to her struggle with it.
How does Emily feel about Sam? She seems a little unsure of his intentions towards her; how do you think she feels about him?
Definitely, in the vein of what you just said, she’s interested in him, questioning whether his interest in her is strictly professional or not. She likes the idea of him. She’s an emotional person and gets very emotionally connected to attention and human interaction and validation, and she’s getting that with Sam and he’s promising her these things that he’s not really following through with but he’s doing it enough to keep her around and it’s confusing to her and she goes into these dark places of feeling like she’s lost herself. She looks in the mirror and can’t even recognize who she’s looking at and find her voice. She’s going to these parties, trying to put on this front that’s so not her, and she’s having a hard time doing that and we see that, and it’s because of Sam. She’s now hit this mental block because she’s consumed by the idea of him and the idea of what he has to offer.
When Emily is entranced by the lure of fame, what is driving her toward that?
I think what is drawing her to wanting it is Sue, and I imagine it would be hard not to think about what it would be like if the world read your poems if only one person was the only one to ever read them, right? Or if you’ve gotten a taste in the past — Emily in real life had published her poems in papers, under, in our case, Austin’s (Adrian Blake Enscoe) name. So she would kind of get a taste of what that looked like and what that felt like, a paper that was delivered to people’s doorsteps, that means their eyes crossed over her words and that felt good, so it’s hard not to imagine if you’re stuck in a room at your desk writing these poems that somebody that you love so much is telling you that they’re the best things that they’ve ever come across, you have to share this with the world. All it takes is one person to believe in you that makes you feel so empowered and that is what is sort of pushing her in the direction of it.
Season one received a Peabody Award and the show was renewed for season three before season two premiered, but Apple doesn’t really release viewership data. I’m curious from your own experience, what have you heard about how the show’s being received, how your fans are interacting with it? What sort of feedback have you gotten?
I imagine being given the privilege from Apple to have a season two and now a season three that people like it and people are responding to it and resonating with it, and that is about all I can ask for, and that’s really all the information I need.