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Interview: Ella Hunt on Playing Socialite Sue and the Millennial Gaze of ‘Dickinson’

In season one of Apple TV+’s Dickinson, protagonist and poet Emily Dickinson confides in her best friend Sue, who is romantically interested in Emily even though she’s engaged to her brother Austin. Season two shows us a much frostier relationship between the two as Sue tries to boost her social status and become the belle of Amherst in the late 1850s.

Awards Radar had the chance to speak with Ella Hunt, the British actress who plays Sue, about how the character has progressed from season one to two, the chance to sing onscreen, and what it was like to distance Sue from Emily.

Q: Before coming onto this show, how much did you know about Emily Dickinson and about Sue?

A: Basically nothing. I think I had read “Hope” is the thing with feathers in school, but I really hadn’t studied her. Emily Dickinson is not so heavily on the British syllabus. Our poets are Keats and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Those are the ones that I remember studying in detail. While shooting season one, I became more and more delighted that I hadn’t known of Emily Dickinson before the show, because I think Alena does a really interesting thing in the way that she introduces the viewer to Emily and introduced me to Emily. I think a lot of people have this idea of her as this poet that never left her room, this old spinster. That’s so not true of the version of Emily that I have discovered through this show and the reading that I’ve done of her. So, yeah, I loved discovering her through the show, and likewise, I had no idea who Sue was, and it’s a been a wonderful journey discovering that too.

Q: Did you do a lot of research into the real Sue? And do you try to reflect her in your performance?

A: I, of course, have researched the real Sue fairly extensively, but I also really trust Alena’s writing. And that Alena is not wanting us to verbatim represent these characters as if we were doing an Emily Dickinson biopic. She’s not looking for us to do the characters exactly how they would have been in 1850. The whole show is seen through this millennial gaze. And so I wanted, especially in season two actually, to show Sue both as Sue of 1850, and Sue as a character that we could recognize in 2020. She becomes this spectacular socialite the season, and is repressing all this pain and sorrow underneath these layers of hostessdom. And I thought as much about people like Kim Kardashian and Instagram influencers as I did Parisian salonnières in the 1600s. I danced around in terms of my research, and that’s something I love about the show, not having to hold too tightly onto the time period that we’re in, but thinking about humanity in a broader sense.

Q: What kind of mood does that create on set, when you’re filming these two different worlds?

A: The first certainly, there was a mood of, what is the tone, and am I doing it right? I’m just trying things out and seeing if it lands. I think by the second season, we’d all found our footing a little bit more with that, and knew the things to lead into. That was definitely less daunting and just more fun this season. In the first season, I spent a lot of time silent, staring off into a corner with tears streaming down my face because she’s in this thick state of mourning. In the second season, it was such a different journey for me as an actor. That pain is still there, but she’s repressing it under these layers of lavish dresses and parties with the fanciest people in New England. I got to have a lot of fun this season.

Q: Part of the transformation for her involve, distancing herself from two of the people that she’s closest to, Austin and Emily. I’m sure you have a very positive relationship with those actors. How do you go about creating that distance?

A: I was nervous going into the season because it was such a big transformation for Sue, and because I felt like the audience had had such a beautiful reaction to who she was in season one, and then to introduce people to who she was in season two was daunting. I shared my feelings with Hailee and Adrian and Anna, and they really bolstered me constantly throughout the shoot. Any time that I had wobbly moments of, am I doing this right, are people going to hate me, is this going to pay off. I love working with Hailee and Anna and Adrian, and the whole crew on the show. It’s a very supportive environment to play these spectacular and sometimes very tricky characters. Especially with Hailee, because Sue is doing so much pushing Emily away this season, and because it all comes to a head in episode ten. One of the mysteries of the season is Sue, and why is Sue behaving the way she’s behaving. Me and Hailee, right at the beginning of the season, had to be really clear on why she was, and where we were going to get to in episode ten, so we could play all of the confusion and the distance, and know that the audience and the characters were going to get the payoff of what was going to happen again at the end. So, certainly for me and Hailee, it was about really meticulous planning, and then I spent the season terrified that we were going to get to episode ten, and it wasn’t going to all be as satisfying or gratifying for the audience as I think it ended up being. It was such a great day shooting those episode ten scenes with Hailee. Some of my favorite acting ever was shooting that episode with her, and getting to watch these characters have a moment of togetherness and release after the pain and yearning that has gone on throughout the season.

Q: As a viewer, I would say that it definitely was a great emotional payoff. The character Sue seems most like in a lot of ways in this season is Samuel, in terms of her wanting to be a socialite and hostess. Samuel ends up being more of a villain. Do you see him that way?

A: Do I see Samuel Bowles as a villain? I don’t know. I like the way that Alena wrote him in that he’s not set up as the villain. I don’t think we think from the start that he’s the villain. In fact, I think that, something that Finn does so brilliantly is that he makes him so alluring and exciting to Emily, to Sue, to the viewer. He’s an enabler. He represents this new age of journalism. He presents himself as this champion of women, and within the context of our show, it’s like, yeah, that’s great. But then he becomes more and more sinister. Not even sinister, he’s just deeply flawed. And he’s egotistical. It’s all about him at the end of the day. Him and selling papers. And I think he becomes the face of capitalism in a way as the series gets deeper into itself. So I think he’s a very complex character, and I think he does become the villain, but I don’t think of him as the villain.

Q: You have such great scene partners. Is there anyone you don’t usually get to share scenes that you would love to see Sue have an arc with so she can talk to someone she doesn’t otherwise?

A: Chinaza, who plays Henry on the show. We never get to act together, and I love Chinaza. Especially in season three, he has a really great story arc. I’d love to do more with Chinaza, but I don’t know if our characters’ arcs will ever really cross.

Q: One of the most memorable moments of season two, for me at least, was when Sue gets to sing Split the Lark. I got to talk to your composers about writing the music and everything. What can you share about that experience of performing that song?

A: It was such a glorious experience. In fact, shooting that whole episode was really amazing. The dedication of the whole crew to get that episode to come together, I’ve never seen a crew work that hard before. From the costume department – I mean, we had hundreds of background artists all decked out in 1850s attire. The attention to detail, from the sets to the costumes to the camerawork with Silas directing is really second to none in my opinion. Getting to sing was really the icing on that cake. Originally in the script, it was kind of ambiguous as to whether Sue was going to be singing or not. I remember when Alena came up to me and said, I think it’s going to be Sue singing, and I was like, yes! It’s so exciting to get to explore one of Emily’s poems through music and through this strange fantasy moment of connection between these two characters. And so it was a total thrill for me, especially as a musician, to get to combine my two big loves, and sing in the show that I love working on so much. It was a really special moment and I love doing it. I wish I could go back and do that day again, just to be there in that dress, on that stage. And I think that Drum and Lace and Ian did such an incredible job putting it to music the way that they did.

Q: I know you probably can’t talk too much about season three. From talking to Anna and to Toby, I’ve heard that the Civil War is a big theme and it has more of a somber tone. What are you allowed to say?

A: Yes. Anna and Toby are completely right. It’s probably our most grounded and adult season of the show. I think it’s my favorite season. As we get into Civil War time, the parallels between 1860 and 2020 become so intense, with polarized politics, and quite moving. There’s a lot I can relate to Civil War time with COVID time and being at home and grieving and being attached to the news. There’s so much in these storylines this season that feels strikingly timely. And I’m really excited for people to be able to sit with these characters they know so well and experience something that feels strikingly familiar to what we’re going through right now?

Q: Do you think that the show will continue beyond season three?

A: We’ll see. I hope so. You just, you never know.

Q: Do you have any other projects coming up?

A: I was shooting something that I’m really excited about just before coming back to Dickinson season three called Master. It’s directed by this fabulous woman named Mariama Diallo. It’s set in an Ivy League College about systemic racism in Ivy League colleges. It’s with Regina Hall, and it’s a story that I feel really passionate about for people to see. That’s coming out on Amazon sometime soon. I have no idea. And I have some music coming out pretty soon that I’m also very excited to start sharing with people.

Seasons one and two of Dickinson are now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+.

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  1. I Think Ella Hunt would be great choice as Lucy Harris In a feature film version of Jekyll & Hyde (musical)

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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