“I think that Emily Dickinson is an unlikely hero for our times,” says Alena Smith, the creator and showrunner of AppleTV+’s historical dramedy Dickinson. “We’re faced with this question on a daily basis of how much do we put ourselves out there vs. how much do we hold back?”
At first glance, the series, which returns with Season 2 on Friday, has all the appearances of a conventional period piece. However, the stuffy-seeming exterior is quickly subverted, as all the normal trappings of the genre, from the soundtrack to the dialect, are presented with an unapologetic modernity. While it’s not the first historical production to employ this tactic, Dickinson does so draw parallels to life in the mid-19th century to life in the early 21st century.
“I knew I wanted to take us right up to the edge of the Civil War,” Smith says during a web call in late December. “So that means it takes place in 1859, and leads up to the raid on Harper’s Ferry by John Brown, which, coincidentally, is something we just saw in The Good Lord Bird. But I think more of this pre-Civil War and Civil War history is on our minds for a lot of reasons. So I knew that was going to happen in Season 2, and I knew that fame was a very rich and important theme both in terms of Emily Dickinson’s biography and her work, but also in terms of how it relates to a modern, contemporary audience.”
While Dickinson may play out without convention on screen, the preparation behind-the-scenes isn’t that much different.
“I think the process remains similar in that you would do what you would normally do,” says Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the title role as well as produces. “As far as the approach, I don’t know that it is significantly different than other roles I’ve played, but I think it’s always wonderful to have access to information. And as a period piece, we have no choice but to live in this world of corsets and petticoats and unique technology and things that were not necessarily used to. It’s just this direct line into this time.”
“In this case, it’s just so wonderful to have access to this world of Emily that we call her poems and what we know about her,” Steinfeld adds, admitting that what is known about her real-life counterpart “is… very little information, but we still are able to make a lot of it.” The latter, of course, she largely credits to Smith. “She created two, and about to create a third season, off of what we know of her, and the rest being our interpretation her and her poetry.”
Anna Baryshnikov, who plays Emily’s sister, Lavinia, echoed Steinfeld’s sentiment about the prep work, as well as what might get unlearned by the time the cameras are rolling. “What is so fun about preparing for Dickinson is you do all the work you would for an ordinary period piece, and you learn the rules of the world, and how your character would eat and sit and speak and think,” she explains. “Then you get to set and you’re allowed to break all of those rules, and are really encouraged to bring as much modernity to any moment of the show as you might want to. And it’s a fun balance, because you never know if the modern element in a scene is going to be your performance or the music or how they shoot it.”
“It keeps you on your toes as a performer,” Baryshnikov adds. “You’re constantly negotiating, jumping between these two time periods and letting them blur.”
The merging of these two distinct eras goes beyond a contemporary soundtrack and turns of phrase. For Ella Hunt, who plays Sue Gilbert, it meant understanding the roles of affluence and influence had throughout history, as well as how they’ve manifested today.
“For me, instead of just researching this season what a 19th century hostess would have been like,” Hunt explains. “I looked at the history of salonnières from 17th-century Parisian women to Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner and YouTube influencers, and I thought about how I could bring the culture of today into my performance of Sue in Season 2 in 1850.”
Like her castmates, Hunt also credited Smith for allowing then to find their own ways of interpreting her vision for the series. “Alena is really amazing with us about how anything that doesn’t have relevance to 2020 doesn’t have a place in our show, and to be bold with the characterizations that we create.”
Although not all the parallels drawn were traced back through aristocracy. Adrian Enscoe, who plays Emily’s brother, Austin, says he was “just trying to figure out the analogy of what Austin would be in the 21st century.”
“He’s kind of achieved a big milestone at the beginning of this season, so I kind of feel like he’s a lot like us 20-somethings, having graduated from college and trying to figure out what we’re going to do with our lives and try to make a mark on the world,” Enscoe continues. “That is very much the situation Austin finds himself in. There is a certain aspect of it that is very based on fact, which is being very well-versed on these historical personalities of these characters are, but we also have to feel free to extrapolate that into a more modern portrait of what it’s like to be a 20-something in America right now.”
Of course, the ongoing global pandemic has made one specific aspect of Emily’s life more relevant today than ever: seclusion. While Smith calls her “the goddess of the inner life,” she makes it clear that Season 2 will delve much deeper into the mystery around the poet that surrounds her to this day.
“She lived so much in seclusion and privacy, and she wrote all this passionate, radical poetry, but so much of it was seen or recognized when she lived,” Smith says. “So, the show is always grappling with this central mystery of why didn’t Emily Dickinson publish, and in Season 1 we kind of get an answer to that question, and it seems that it’s about the fact that her father didn’t approve. But in Season 2 we get a much more complicated answer, which is that it may have had something to do with Emily’s own internal ambivalence about being seen.”
Dickinson Season 2 premieres today on AppleTV+