How Hailee Steinfeld and Dickinson creator are welcoming the legendary poet into the modern era
Emily Dickinson: celebrated American poet and sexually fluid iconoclast with a vocabulary borrowed from Clueless?
That’s how Dickinson, which comes to Apple TV+ as part of its inaugural round of programming on Nov. 1, imagines the death-obsessed writer. And for star Hailee Steinfeld, it’s in perfect step with Emily’s essence. “She didn’t belong in that time. She had a very modern way of thinking and acting,” the Oscar nominee tells EW. “I truly feel she paved the way for young female voices today.”
Creator Alena Smith echoes this notion that the 19th-century poet is more a current voice than a relic of the past. “She really was a voice outside of her time,” she explains. “She was a modern consciousness trapped in a pre-modern era. She had a lot of constraints on her, but within those constraints took the most agency that she could and rebelled in her own small way. That legacy of hers is still resonating with us today, and that’s part of what the show is celebrating.”
To bring this girl out of time vision of Dickinson to life, the series imbues the poet with an extremely modern sensibility, having her use words like “psyched” and “totally” while story lines unfold set to a score of hip-hop infused tracks. We often encounter Dickinson as an older writer, a hermit shut-up in her Massachusetts home with her stash of secret poems. But Smith and Steinfeld want to undo that image and introduce viewers to something more vital and relatable.
“The received image of Emily Dickinson that we have, which is the shut-in in the white dress, really didn’t emerge until later in her life, and even then, it was pretty exaggerated,” Smith elaborates. “As a young person, Emily was pretty social and wild and had suitors and went to parties and was fighting with her parents and having whatever this relationship was with her friend Sue. All of that stuff is so juicy and fun. A lot of it really resonated with my own adolescence and my own twenties as a writer trying to find my voice.”
Steinfeld, who found more parallels between Dickinson and her modern adolescent characters like Nadine in The Edge of Seventeen than with more historical roles, points specifically to Dickinson’s attempts to circumvent emotional struggles and her realization that she just has to go through it — and her ability to then turn that into art. She even found inspiration and strength from the poet’s story to carry over into her own life.
“She just truly believed that life was supposed to be about what makes you feel good — and that came down to who she loved, who she wanted to kiss, who she wanted to be with, what she wanted to do with her time,” muses Steinfeld. “In a time when there were so many constraints and so many people, including the people she loved and the people she felt should love her the most — her family — are the ones who are telling her she is nothing and nobody and stupid and worthless. The fact that she would only take that and channel it and make it into something great day after day, for me, was just beyond.”
As Steinfeld points out, part of Dickinson’s identity was her more fluid sexuality, something that has long been dissected and debated by scholars over the years. For Smith, that was a natural parallel to today’s younger generations. “Perhaps they had access to sexual or sensual experiences that were beyond what we could imagine because they weren’t [pushed] into boxes. Younger people today also resist those strict boxes when it comes to sexuality and gender,” she reflects. “I was really interested in exploring regions of queerness and sexuality that maybe don’t really have names and didn’t at the time either.”
In some ways, Dickinson already has a built-in audience, the literary lovers who will flock to any piece of media about their favorite writers. And that is who the show is for at its most basic level. “I don’t care about anyone who’s not a literary nerd,” quips Smith. “It’s going to be the party for us, and if [anyone else] figures out it’s cool, they can come.”
But on a more serious note, both Steinfeld and Smith feel the modern parallels are inescapably resonant for any audience. “It has this very modern feel, and regardless of what time a certain human lived through, we all share very similar emotions,” says Steinfeld. “It’s exciting to see that even a woman in the 1800s could handle what we still have to go through today and we can use that as motivation and inspiration.”
More than inspiration in Dickinson’s personal story, Smith hopes people will also find a powerful cultural context to engage with. “This show is up to something a bit bigger than just being a Dickinson biopic,” she concludes. “It’s using the 1850s as a distorted lens for our world today. Young people today feel a sense of doom, similar to what someone in the oncoming of the Civil War might have felt.”
Turns out existential dread never goes out of style.
Dickinson hits Apple TV+ on Nov. 1.
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