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Interview: Hailee Steinfeld on Becoming Emily Dickinson and Journeying Through Season Two of ‘Dickinson’

There would be no Dickinson without its title character, poet Emily Dickinson, and the phenomenal young actress who plays her, Hailee Steinfeld. Now twenty-four, Steinfeld earned an Oscar nomination for her debut film True Grit a decade ago. She brings a poise and presence to the tormented writer, whose season two arc sees her dance with fame and experience of range of memorable interactions.

Awards Radar had the opportunity to catch Steinfeld in between shoots while she’s on set filming season three to discuss the many awesome guest stars on the show, encountering Nobody, and a slight tease of what’s coming up next for the Amherst-based crew.

Q: This show seems like a lot of fun to make – what is the experience of shooting it like?

A: Oh boy. Equally as much if not more fun. It’s so funny because after season two came out, I caught wind of a lot of fans asking for bloopers. Though our show isn’t really a blooper-friendly show, if there were to be a camera in between takes to get these off-camera bloopers, if you will, you’d have a whole movie of them. We are constantly, now more than ever, I feel, joking around, keeping each other on each other’s feet, and just keeping everything alive in between takes and off-set, which is the best part of it all.

Q: Were you a fan of Emily Dickinson growing up, and did you ever expect to play her?

A: I definitely never expected this, no. I wasn’t incredibly familiar with her work before this show, which I always have these moments where I’m so grateful that what I do introduces me to people and material that I can only wish I came across sooner. But I am grateful for this show serving as this introduction to this incredible woman and her work.

Q: Have you gained a greater appreciation for poetry through making this show and reciting so much of it?

A: Oh my god, absolutely. I’ve learned, and I feel like poetry really is everywhere. And I think what was so incredible about Emily’s poetry is she never followed any rules. She used interesting spacing and punctuation, in moments and in spaces where you wouldn’t necessarily, but she made it her own. She did what she wanted, she wrote how she wanted, and she wrote everything that she could have possibly felt without holding back, which I think is quite special.

Q: Emily seems more isolated in season two, especially in the episode where no one can see her. What was the experience of making that episode like?

A: That was actually particularly confusing. For the first few hours of the first day shooting that episode, we actually started with the scene to realize that I am in fact invisible, where my mom and Lavinia are having a conversation about where I could be and I’m sitting right there. It was probably one of our longest perhaps. For sound purposes, for one, how do I not cut them off and make a lot of people mad at me in post that they can’t hear them saying their lines when I’m truly yelling over them saying I’m here, and figuring out the timing and logistics of it was its own thing. But I will say, just from a narrative standpoint, a really interesting story to be told in feeling absolutely invisible and unseen. With this whole season diving into the ideas of fame and exposure and attention, what that could actually make you feel like. The opposite ends of the spectrum that you could experience in terms of wanting that. That is one end, which is invisibility. I think the concept of that episode was quite cool, and I enjoyed playing through it.

Q: Speaking of fame and exposure, you had a great costar in season two in the form of Finn Jones. What was your on-set dynamic like, and how did you work together to take your characters on their rollercoaster journey?

A: Finn Jones is so wonderful. I am constantly blown away by the incredible guest stars that we are able to get on this show that come in out of nowhere and just nail these characters that they play within a matter of seconds. Finn came in, and he was even cast very last-minute, came in and took over as Sam Bowles. This relationship between Emily and Sam is one of intrigue and mystery that Emily is really trying to get to the bottom of and figure out. She loves this person, she loves the idea of this person, she loves the idea of what he has to offer her, and is curious about that being more than one or two things. It’s kind of a rollercoaster in a sense, and it becomes a triangle between Emily, Sam, and Sue, and there’s a lot of questioning whether intentions are pure. On Sue’s end, whether she’s pushing Emily to Sam for her own benefit, or for Emily’s benefit, and it sends Emily into this spiral of confusion that ultimately gets her to a moment where she realizes that she ultimately writes for love and not for fame.

Q: I heard from Ella about the journey that Emily and Sue go through. I imagine that was quite a change from the closeness that the two characters felt in season one and the distance you had to build before getting to this climax in episode ten?

A: Absolutely. Their relationship is so complicated in that it is the extremes of closeness and the extremes of distance that they feel. Although the greatest distance that they’ll ever physically feel is being across the street from each other, Emily even says that the evergreens feel like it’s a hundred years away, that it’s forever away, when she doesn’t feel connected to her emotionally. In season two, right off the top, Emily is confused. She starts out confused by the glitter of Sue’s new life. She sees her turning into what she knows deep down that she’s not. What’s so beautiful is that their relationship can go to the furthest ends of the universe, yet they still come back to each other. And at the end of this seasons, they promise themselves to each other, which is just so beautiful.

Q: Another beautiful part of season two, which is also very haunting, is the relationship that develops between Emily and Nobody, especially as that turns into something else by the end of the season. What was it like filming something that was possibly the most serious part of the show?

A: One thing I love and continued to be blown away by is how Alena Smith, our writer and creator, brings concepts into this show as characters. We’ve had Death, and now we have Nobody. The idea of Nobody being a person, a reminder to Emily that this is what your life could look like, is sort of haunting. You said it perfectly. It’s this very mysteriously haunting person that’s standing in front of her, telling her not to seek fame, to stay in her room and write for herself, that she’ll be happier that way. And it’s that thing of once you’re told that, you really have to see the other side for yourself. Equally as complicated, by the way, figuring out how to shoot those scenes where I would be the only one to see him and no one else would. Will, the actor who plays Nobody, is so wonderful and brought such an essence to that character and to our show that is poetic and stoic and haunting, like you said.

Q: There are so many actors with small roles that we could talk about. I wanted to mention Timothy Simons as Frederick Law Olmsted and how fun that episode was, getting lost together and not quite knowing what was real. Do you have any fond memories of making that episode or any other one-shot guest stars who really made an impression?

A: I remember thinking and feeling, right from the very start, the conversation includes myself, Edward Dickinson, Austin Dickinson, and the Olmsted. And the minute the Olmsted walks away and I start chasing after him, I immediately felt like this could be its own episode, in and of itself, following him through a garden and a never-ending maze. We had so much fun together. Timothy’s timing is just so amazing. Again, another amazing thing to play through with this historical figure. Like I mentioned, I’m always blown away by these actors who can come in and do these things so quickly, but not only that, that’s the generalization of it, but come in and play these historical characters in a way that you would never expect. He just brought such a great quirkiness and wit and humor to this character that was really wonderful.

Q: You’re the lead of this show, so you obviously get to interact with most of the ensemble, but is there anyone that you’d love to share scenes with even if your stories don’t logically go together?

A: Ooh, it’s funny. I am very lucky in that I get my fair share of time with just about everybody. I love Jane Humphrey, Abby, Abiah, and Toshiaki. That gang is so fun, and Emily loves them as friends that have been there forever, but they’re not always in agreeance over everything. I think it would be fun to let them dive in to a world we haven’t seen. I’ve also had some wonderful scenes with Austin and Lavinia, and we’ve had a few over the course of the seasons together, the three of us, and I’ve always wanted more of them as siblings. I think that’s a really wonderful dynamic that they all have.

Q: Toby, Ella, and Anna have only indicated that we’ll see a lot of the Civil War in season three. Is there anything you’re allowed to say without getting in trouble about what audiences can expect?

A: One thing I think that people are going to be really pleased to see is how much growth there has been throughout season three alone. There has been a great amount through the first and second season, but they’re in a different time now, and as my other castmates seem to have mentioned, yes, it takes place during the Civil War. That’s its own time. They lived through this, and there’s a lot of grieving. There’s a lot of darkness. With that, of course, it wouldn’t be Dickinson without the wonderful, absurd comedy and hysteria. It’s all rooted in the reality of the time that they’re living in, which is dark. They’ve all had to grow quite a lot, and they all have. It’s a very mature season. I’m really looking forward to sharing it with everyone.   

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

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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