Apple TV+’s hit series Dickinson presents a modern-skewed look at the secret life of famed poet Emily Dickinson, but it also shines a spotlight on those in her circle. Her sister Lavinia, though not nearly as well-known a figure of history, is just as important a character on the show.
Awards Radar had the chance to speak with the very talented actress who portrays her, Anna Baryshnikov, about working with creator Alena Smith on bringing Lavinia to life, where she’s headed, and what it’s like to play someone so forward-thinking and fabulous.
Q: Before coming onto this show, how much did you know about Emily Dickinson, and did you know anything about Lavinia?
A: I was familiar with a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems and I knew that she was kind of famously reclusive, but I definitely didn’t know the ins and outs of her life, and especially not her family members. So I came in with a totally blank slate when it comes to Lavinia.
Q: What have you been surprised to learn in any of your research about her?
A: I think I have been surprised to learn how eccentric she was as well. There is this thing about every member of the Dickinson family that they all kind of operated outside of the norms of society. And whether or not it’s Lavinia having tons of cats or also not getting married and living in her parents’ home for the rest of her life. She was revealed to be as interesting a character as Emily to me.
Q: Is it important for you and for other people on the show to base the character on real life, or because the show already takes this anachronistic departure, to not be so faithful to that?
A: I’m not overly concerned with being faithful to the facts about Lavinia. Because there aren’t that many of them. But I will say, whenever I’m lost or want inspiration, I have a lot of fun using the source material and that’s very much how Alena, the showrunner, works. She gets inspired by the facts and then weaves a new version of the story. So I’ve just tried to emulate how she works.
Q: What was your process of joining this show and coming on board?
A: I had a pretty straightforward audition process. It was one of those that I loved the material so much and I felt so attached right away that I kind of had to break up with the show before I learned that I got it because I didn’t want to be so disappointed. I left the audition and I called my friend and I was like, you know what, if they don’t want me, I don’t want them. I left it all on the floor and I think it’s insane if they don’t cast me. So then it was a really amazing surprise to learn that it had worked out.
Q: Lavinia seems, almost more than Emily in some ways, to be very ahead of her time, at least in this interpretation of the character. Do you feel as a character sort of out of place against the rest of the ensemble and more enlightened than anyone else?
A: Yes, I definitely think in season two, Lavinia has a little bit of a sexual enlightenment, and she realizes that the parameters put on women in the nineteenth century don’t allow for her to be her fullest self, and so, not unlike Emily, she starts to embrace her own idiosyncrasies and live the way she wants to.
Q: I’m very curious about the relationship between Lavinia and Emily. It’s something I wish that we saw more of because I think that Lavinia would love to be the close confidante for her sister and to be the one that she depends on, which is something that I think Emily could use, but Emily holds back and doesn’t really give her that. How do you see that that relationship?
A: I would say, without spoiling too much, then you definitely have things to look forward to in season three, because I think we’ve always known that we wanted to move towards where Emily and Lavinia ended up in their actual lives, which is Lavinia discovering her poetry and getting it published. They slept in the same bed for a bunch of adulthood and Lavinia really became her caretaker and one of her closest confidantes, but they’re very, very different women. And so I think we didn’t want to get there too quickly and we got to enjoy what I think is a very relatable journey for sisters, which is that you trust each other, you know that you have the support of the other person but you also are kind of forming your identity in opposition to that person. So I thought a lot when trying to figure out who Lavinia was what it would mean to decide who you are in relation to this genius shut-in next door. So they’re very different. And I think we wanted to do kind of enjoy their banter in the ways that they don’t get along before we fully embraced how close they ended up.
Q: It’s great to have that to look forward to. Obviously there’s the source material, but how much of a sense do you have of where each season is going when it starts?
A: Alena shares a good amount with us, which is really nice. It’s really nice to know where the character is going. I think the curse of the showrunner, the curse of the writer, is that you’re always a year ahead of everyone else in what you’re planning. And so when I was just wrapping my head around who Lavinia was going to be in season two, Alena was already planting ideas of where she was going in season three. But I feel like I’ve been very encouraged to engage with the meat of the show even when it doesn’t have to do with my character. So I really love talking about where the show is going and what issues it’s tackling in the next season.
Q: It is interesting to see the very modern themes that definitely were not being discussed, I can’t imagine, historically in this way back then. It’s clever how show deals with a lot of that, and the finished product is great. With the very unique tone of the show, what is the mood like on set?
A: It’s a really challenging show to make, because in any given scene, you could be doing a grounded, Jacobean family drama scene, and then in the next, be doing something bordering on vaudevillian and slapstick. And you’re really given permission to try everything. And so I always like to think of the style of the show as reflecting Emily’s poetry, which is kind of all over the place and profound and weird and has a sense of humor. It’s a gift and it’s a lot of fun as an actor. And it also really keeps you on your toes because you can never get too comfortable because you don’t know what a scene is necessarily going to be.
Q: You have so many great scene partners. Who are some of your favorite actors on the show?
A: Well, Hailee is just a powerhouse, and watching how she takes on a scene and finds her way through it, I’m inspired by her as an actor so much. And then I would say the group scenes where we have some of our incredible recurring characters, like Abby, and Abiah, and Toshiaki, and Jane. I think Gus Birney, who plays Jane, is really a special actress, and they’re so much fun to work with because they almost have their own little mini-show going on. It’s a reminder again that this family was operating a little bit outside of the norms of the time. Having this Greek chorus of Amherst really informs how strange the Dickinsons are.
Q: Hopefully that little group is a little nicer to you in person than their characters are to your character.
A: They are the nicest, I have to say.
Q: You described Emily as a genius, but Lavinia also has talents, even though some, like that group, would say that she’s not as talented as she thinks she is. Is that something we’ll continue to explore with her art and other things in the future?
A: Absolutely. Lavinia is on a journey of self-discovery at all times. I’m really glad that that is the route that the character has gone because I think there’s a version of Lavinia that’s very underestimated and rooted in a kind of sadness, and I’m so glad that the one I’ve been able to build with Alena is fiery and has her own sense of ego and intellect and all of that mess.
Q: You talked about some of the actors you’ve enjoyed working with. Is there anyone that you don’t really get to share things with that you would love to be Lavinia interact with for some reason?
A: That’s a great question. I really love Robert Picardo, who plays Conkey. I don’t ever really get one-on-one moments with him, but he’s a lovely guy and his character makes me laugh really hard. So I’m going to pitch a Conkey-Lavinia spin-off.
Q: I’m a Star Trek: Voyager fan, so I’ve liked Picardo since he played the Emergency Medical Hologram. Even though this role is different, it has some similarities, where he just falls in line despite trying to object to things. All the women around him get the best of him. Another thing about this era is that the men, especially Samuel in season two, have all the power, but this show tries to flip that. How do you feel that this show reflects modern times in this portrayal?
A: Yeah, I love that all the male characters, you’re always understanding them through Emily’s experience of them because the show is so strongly rooted in her point of view. Even when male characters are well-intentioned and we love them, I think we get to explore the ways in which they inhibit the women’s lives. Adrian Blake Enscoe, who plays Austin, talks really eloquently about getting to play with being aware of toxic masculinity as he’s shaping the character. I think Alena is really mindful of wanting to show the ways that toxic masculinity affects the men’s lives and doesn’t allow them to be their happiest selves either.
Q: You mentioned that Lavinia stays single her whole life. How does inform when you do have these romances that don’t always work so well with Lavinia and playing those out?
A: Yeah, I think the question with all of the relationships becomes, why wasn’t this the one that stuck? Because when I visited the Emily Dickinson Museum, they did say that they knew very little about Lavinia, but that, a, she was known for being pretty sensual, which we definitely play with in season two, but also that she did end up regretful of how her life turned out. I think about the fact that she has so many cats, and I wonder if there was a maternal instinct that she didn’t ever get to see through, and without giving too much away, we got to explore with every one of her relationships why it wasn’t this person. What I loved about season two was that we were exploring a version of it that was her choice and that she didn’t end up with Ship because she was choosing her own agency. And as we leave into the Civil War, we’ll start to learn how the dynamics of wartime informed what women’s options were like.
Q: We also haven’t talked about a character who I think informs a lot of that, which is her mother, played by the fantastic Jane Krakowski. Both Lavinia and Emily have very complicated relationships with their mother, who has her own complicated relationship with her husband. What can you share about working with Jane Krakowski and her character?
A: Oh yeah. Jane is just incredible to watch work because she makes jokes materialize out of thin air. She is so technically perfect in how she’s able to do some moments and she has such fun doing them. Watching her is just delicious. But I also I’ve been so excited to see her more grounded episodes in season two because I think there is a real dynamic between her and the girls and that she’s not the most affectionate mother. But she does want what’s best for the girls and Lavinia, I think, growing up probably thought that she wanted a life that looked like Mrs. Dickinson’s, but then as she gets older, she realizes that her mom is a full human being with regrets and mistakes, and starts to question whether or not that’s the life she actually wants.
Q: I keep thinking of those spa scenes in season two. They were very memorable. I know that season three is filming right now, and I think that season two also filmed a bit during the pandemic.
A: We finished season two right before everything happened.
Q: Okay, so then for season three, what has it been like to film a TV show during a pandemic and make it seem like there is nothing going on?
Q: Well, I think luckily we actually don’t have to pretend that there’s nothing going on, because season three really starts to become about the Civil War. I always joke with Alena that I wish there were fewer parallels between the Civil War and today. So I actually think the kind of collective grief that the world has been experiencing will really inform season three, and I know that the writers’ room happened throughout COVID. This season was emotionally and thematically informed by what’s been going on. And, at least for the cast and crew, there’s been an incredible sense of gratitude to go back to work. The first day that we were are lining up to get COVID-tested, it was like twenty-five degrees outside and windy, and the line ended up being really long, and a lot of us were waiting outside for like over an hour for the first test. Normally, people would have been like, they could have figured this out and complained a bit, but we were all just like, we’re so happy to be back. We’re so happy to be here. It’s honestly been really moving to be able to start making something again with people because it’s been such an isolating and lonely time.
Q: The show is already in production on season three. Is this a show that you think is going to continue long beyond that, or do you have any insight into whether we can expect only a little bit more of it?
A: I don’t. I don’t have any information, but something that I loved about it so far as that each season really takes on a life of its own and continues to push formal boundaries and play with the genre. So I definitely don’t feel like it’s one of those shows that would run forever and have the same characters in the same situations over and over again, because again, I think the real inspiration for the show is Emily’s poems and they are so packed with oddities that the show just continues to grow and change.
Q: Do you have any other projects that you’re working on or planning for the future?
A: Nothing that I can share yet. But I am really excited for the few months after Dickinson. Some good stuff cooking.
Q: You’ve made me very excited about season three of Dickinson, which I assume we won’t see for a long time and fortunately, but I’m hoping it will be available sometime soon.
A: I hope so too. That’s not even something I know yet. It’s always crazy to imagine people watching it when you’re making it, so I almost try to pretend that it’s never going to see the light of day.
Seasons one and two of Dickinson are now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+.