How Hailee Steinfeld learned to open up by playing poet Emily Dickinson
The Apple TV+ series “Dickinson” is a whirl of mindfully anachronistic elements. Against a tapestry of corsets, chores, oak trees and floating lines of poetry, the show employs contemporary music, language and behavior to shake the viewer out of any conventional expectations and into recognizing how radical Emily Dickinson really was.
The series saturates her life in Amherst, Mass., with seances and scandals, wild nights and passionate affairs. It also explores the pressing issues of the 1850s, precisely because they are still just as pressing today — political polarization, gender inequity, systemic racism, anti-immigrant sentiment — and the role of the artist to address and engage in it all.
Young Emily, played by Hailee Steinfeld, has been visited by ghosts, visions both glorious and macabre, and Death, played by rapper Wiz Khalifa, who kindly stops for Emily every so often to stoke her morbid obsessions. The result is a quirky, often-bleak comedy, poised to become bleaker since its second season ended on the cusp of the Civil War, even as Emily endured repeated visions of a soldier getting shot in the chest.
Steinfeld, speaking by phone from New York while filming Season 3, recalls an early conversation with creator Alena Smith, who explained that “Dickinson” wouldn’t be a straight biopic. “She said, ‘Those have been made. Yes, we are taking what we do know, the little we do know — if it’s even true about Emily and her life — and putting it into the show. The rest of it is our imagination, and her poetry, and what we think writing these certain poems might have looked like.’”
That choice has led to circus scenes, operas and one very large bumblebee. Adds Steinfeld, “How fun it is to use the work of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, poets of all time as the foundation, the driving force of this show.”
“Dickinson” is Steinfeld’s first starring role in a television series. The 24-year-old actress was nominated for an Oscar for her role in “True Grit” a decade ago and has worked steadily in film ever since, as well as forging a successful pop music career after showing off her chops in the last two “Pitch Perfect” movies. She portrays the eventually reclusive Emily as brilliant, tortured, adventurous, vulnerable and deeply self-absorbed.
Steinfeld recalls feeling plenty of trepidation at taking on the role. “I was like, I’m the furthest thing from a poet. I could never, never write a poem.” But playing Emily has affected her, just as reading Dickinson affects everyone. “Her poetry makes you think about things you don’t want to think about or talk about or have to address or have to admit that it’s a real feeling, so shooting this show can in some ways be exhausting.”
Shooting Dickinson’s times can be just as tough. “The show has served as a beautiful reminder that we’ve come a long way, when we look at the constraints that women were under, physically, emotionally and mentally,” Steinfeld adds. “But in so many other aspects of the show, we’re reminded that there’s still a lot of work to be done. That’s equally as motivating as it is upsetting. But that’s what I love about the show so much.”
Steinfeld also serves as an executive producer on “Dickinson.” “I was involved in decisions about casting, and design, and a whole host of conversations and discussions and questions I had never ever been concerned about as an actor,” she says. “But how fun to be so involved, and how crazy to be so involved. I love seeing all the emails, I love being on these calls, I love knowing what it takes to create something.”
The actress, who does not shy away from engaging her fans on social media, is aware of the irony of playing a woman who was famously unknown until after her death. In Season 2, Emily wrestled with the conflicting pulls of fame and creativity; the latter won. Steinfeld has considered the question as well. When she was still filming the second season and promoting the first in New York, she drove through Times Square and saw a massive billboard of herself as Emily.
“It made me [think], would she have wanted this? How absurd is this? At the same time, I’m like, ‘This is cool, I kind of like that.’ Whatever happens in my life happens, I’m perfectly content as long as I get to do the work and make pieces of art that resonate with people. That’s why we do it, right? To connect. So as long as I can continue to do that, billboards or not, I feel so lucky to be able to do what I love.”
The show also offered the chance to merge her acting and musical careers, providing the song “Afterlife” for the Season 1 finale. And when it came time to return to the recording studio, she found her approach took a Dickinsonian turn. She was working with new songwriting partners, which she describes as akin to blind speed-dating: “You’re going into a room with people you’ve never met before, and you’re trying to get to the end result of something really beautiful and honest, so therefore you have to completely open up.”
In the past, she would have held back a little in front of strangers. But after playing the poet with such an open heart, Steinfeld charged ahead — as Emily would have — and for the first time, felt the poetry in her songwriting. “I wrote everything I wanted to, and I never felt prouder of my writing.”
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