Almost everything you think you know about famed American poet Emily Dickinson is (probably) a lie.
“She’s perceived as a spinster recluse who wanted her poems burned upon death,” says comedy staple Molly Shannon, who breathes wickedly funny life into the 19th century writer’s unfittingly grim legacy — previously built on a portrait of the literary figure as a morose loner wallowing in lovelorn despair — in Madeleine Olnek’s maverick biopic Wild Nights With Emily. “That story was fabricated…. She was a lively woman who 100 percent wanted to be published and went up against big men at the head of literary journals, [while] she had a love life — with her brother’s wife [Susan].”
“This is everything she wrote about,” Shannon continues, referencing a 1998 New York Times article that detailed an instance of infrared light that detected the scrubbing of Susan’s name from at least 11 of Dickinson’s texts. “It’s such an important movie, to correct and change history and tell the truth!”
For Olnek and her leading lady, the pursuit of truth started with the mutual goal of liberating both Dickinson’s image and her passionate romance with Susan (Susan Ziegler) from the shadows of “humorless” angst that defined her long after her 1886 death — four years before a small collection of Dickinson’s much larger body of work was published for the first time by Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), her brother’s mistress who literally erased the true subject of Dickinson’s work to make its content more palatable in a patriarchal society.
“I think she was less threatening that way,” adds Shannon, whose portrayal harnesses the electric, quirky zest the literary icon balanced with an ambitious, self-starting attitude that worked tirelessly to secure her name in print while maintaining her courtship with Susan in late-1800s Massachussetts. “But she was full of lust and passion. I think that comes through in her writing. I don’t want to say she was ‘dirty,’ but she was a very passionate, hungry, deep, insightful, tuned in, expressive lover!”
Thus, Olnek wanted to build a similarly dynamic film around Dickinson for her reintroduction to the world, one that stitched small, humanizing details — like her little-known affinity for baking, for example — into a vibrant tapestry. That process started with Olnek’s unorthodox choice to put a comedic star like Shannon, known for her eccentric, often physical humor in movies like Superstar and across seven seasons of Saturday Night Live, at the forefront of forging a new path for the writer’s persona.
“It’s not something I’d ever get offered in mainstream Hollywood,” Shannon admits with a laugh. “It makes it really accessible, because it gives it humor…. Making it funny and lively gives her a life that we’ve never associated with her. She was happy, funny, loved kids, could be silly, and she was ahead of her time in that she was going up against these men.”
Whether Mabel’s actions in altering the story of Dickinson’s life to fit the mold of the times — and calm the egos of the men her fiercely independent spirit riled — arose from petty spite or genius strategy will never be known, but Shannon ultimately hopes sharing this part of her story will inspire other women to fight for their own voices to be heard. As Dickinson once wrote, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” In short, the weight of honesty — spoken all at once — is often overwhelming. But thanks to Shannon and Olnek, easing into reality has never felt easier.
Wild Nights With Emily enters limited release Friday, April 12. Watch EW’s exclusive trailer for the film above.