Rainbow Crew is an ongoing interview series which celebrates the best LGBTQ+ representation on TV. Each instalment showcases talent working on both sides of the camera, including queer creatives and allies to the community.
Next up, we're speaking to Hailee Steinfeld, the star and executive producer of Dickinson on Apple TV+.
Now that Dickinson's lead character has come out as a writer to her father and the rest of the world, Emily is ready to forge a new path in season two. But with this freedom, a whole different set of challenges now face her.
"You should not be known," a ghostly figure warns in the second episode. "Do not seek fame. Fame is not genuine. It will use you. It will destroy you."
While this tension between success and notoriety forms the backbone of season two, Hailee Steinfeld's own personal success has played a pivotal role behind the scenes.
Ten years after she received her first Oscar nomination at the age of 14, Hailee is now an executive producer on Apple TV's best show™, putting her in a position where she can help shape Emily Dickinson's story on both sides of the camera.
"This is a Dickinson story we’ve never seen or heard before," Hailee tells us. "One that I’m really proud of. I want to do her story – herself, her poetry – justice."
And that's exactly what she's done here. In collaboration with showrunner Alena Smith, Hailee and the entire Dickinson team have taken all of season one's eccentricities and magnified them with a newfound sophistication and nuance that takes the show to darker and even more mesmerising depths.
How do you feel Dickinson has changed and evolved in season two?
Well, it has grown in a ton of ways. Each character individually, they've all grown immensely. We pick them all up in a much different place than we left them in season one.
With Emily specifically, she ends season one and comes into season two having won the right to become a writer. She can now confidently call herself a writer in front of her family, and be comfortable enough to say it out loud herself.
In season one, Emily wouldn't publish because of her father. The question now, is she holding back because of fame?
What did you find challenging about Dickinson this time round?
Well, I feel like coming into season two, there is a different level of confidence all around, walking into something that you know the tone of the second time around.
As a producer, I felt like I was more comfortable with that role as well, knowing exactly what was being asked of me, and what I could accomplish on that side of things, along with playing the title character in the show.
Given that Emily is based on a real person, how much input have you had in shaping her character, both as an actor and producer?
We were always very clear as a cast and crew that this was not going to be an Emily Dickinson autobiography. This was our interpretation of her life and her poetry. So there was definitely a huge sense of freedom when it came to creating who we believed she might be.
Between spending two seasons with Emily, using her poetry as the main point of reference, and having Alena Smith as my 'Emily encyclopaedia' – the discoveries never stopped. The process of finding her and deepening her story and her life hasn’t stopped, and thankfully won’t now that we’ve been given another season, which I’m really looking forward to.
Emily is a very tragic character in some ways, but then there's also a lot of joy and vitality in the show. What it’s like to balance those elements within your performance?
It’s really a dream to feel like I can get wrapped up in something that feels dark and deep and sophisticated and emotional – and then in the next moment, like you said, it has so much joy and light and humour behind it.
There’s so many of those transitions within one episode, let alone the entire show. As an actor, it’s really fun just to be able to find where those moments are, and be specific about when they occur. And a lot of that is in the writing, so that makes it easier for me. But it’s a dream, really, to be able to play all of that.
We love how queerness is incorporated so naturally within the narrative. Emily's desires are never labelled. It is what it is.
Absolutely. I find that it's one of, if not the biggest, parts of the show. It’s in the DNA of Dickinson, the relationship that Emily has with Sue. The show has always been about not putting people in a box, and not labelling a certain behaviour. It’s about seeing, and understanding, and being seen and feeling truly understood.
Emily finds that within her best friend, and she happens to be a woman. And I think that this whole relationship, from what we do know factually, was a big part of Emily's life, and therefore a big part of our show.
I hope that people feel the honesty in the relationship, the way it’s played out, and the way it’s written. Because it is really beautiful and tragic at times. But something I really love is that we’ve been given the opportunity to play through it with the capacity that we do.
Season two veers even further into the supernatural realm. Can you tell me more about that shift and how it impacts the show?
That’s definitely something Alena Smith could speak to, as far as coming up with it, and the process of it. But being in it, and on the other side of it, using subjects in Emily’s poetry as actual characters in our show is something that I have found so fascinating and loved as an actor.
In season one, Emily has this love and fascination for death, and that's actually a character in the show. She spends time with him. She talks to him, fantasises about him, and lives through these fantasies.
And with season two, there's this ghostlike figure that is not just in her mind, but in her bedroom, in her house, in her life. And it was a really, really interesting thing to play through. Reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and bringing it to life in that regard, is not something I could have ever imagined.
What was it like working with fellow Marvel TV hero Finn Jones in season two?
He’s amazing. I love him. We had the absolute best time shooting together. He came into the thick of it, and I have so much admiration for actors who can do that. I realised, having been a part of the foundation of the show, that when actors come in for a week or less than that, they’re coming into a world that’s already been established. They have to find their place very quickly, and that’s something that Finn did.
We were shooting season two, and season one was coming out. There was a lot going on, and a lot of figuring out that was still taking place as far as each individual scene and episode. But Finn brought this wonderful element of mystery and intrigue to season two, and that's a lot of what season two is.
He plays this character that has Emily so wound up. She is so determined to figure him out, and his intentions, whether or not they’re strictly professional or not. He’s got her on her toes, that’s for sure. But Finn is a wonderful actor, and a great friend.
What are you most proud of when it comes to your involvement with Dickinson?
Ooh. There are definitely a few scenes that I could probably mention. I find, sometimes, when I go through scripts, there will be a few scenes that I mark at the back of my head as the hills to climb, right?
I think as a cast, we’ve gotten through some really difficult challenges with these particular scenes, and with the writing being as complex as it is. This show has so many twists and turns, so many ups and downs, emotionally, physically, mentally. I am so proud of what we’ve created. I think at the end of the day, we’ve found our place in the show, and who these characters are.
I feel very lucky to be part of a show that is about fighting for what you believe in, standing up for what you feel is right, and standing up for yourself and your place in the world, what you believe that to be and no one else.
I think the show serves as an amazing reminder of how far we’ve come, and how much work we had to do – in the best way, and in a fun way, with great music, a beautiful wardrobe, and an incredible set design. There are so many elements of the show that I love and that I’m proud of.
Dickinson season two airs weekly every Friday on Apple TV+.
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