Actress-producer Hailee Steinfeld said she relates to Emily Dickinson, the literary lioness she portrays in the period dramedy Dickinson, because they both struggle with the concept of celebrity.
“That was something I was really interested in digging into,” Steinfeld told reporters in a recent Zoom interview alongside her co-star, Anna Baryshnikov.
“I have never thought much of fame and I found myself sort of searching for the answers to the same questions that Emily was trying to find answers to: What is fame? What does it even mean?” Steinfeld said.
She added: “Once I have it, am I able to determine how much of it I want? Once I have it, can I give it back or do I have to keep it if I don’t like it?” and emphasized she is much more interested in doing good work than receiving attention for it.
Stardom is a huge theme in Season 2 of the show, which kicks off on Apple TV+ Friday.
While Emily debates whether she wants to be famous for her poetry, her sister Lavinia (Baryshnikov) is bewitched by the popularity of other people.
“This season has definitely made me think about the fact that every great artist whose body of work we all worship, behind that person, there is a family and there may be a sibling or a parent or people in their life who experience the ripple effect of their genius and their notoriety,” said Baryshnikov, who is the real-life daughter of ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Topics raised in Dickinson Season 2 — which is set in 19th-century Massachusetts — most likely will resonate with contemporary viewers bombarded by social media.
“Instead of just a person who has the opportunity to be famous for their art, we are all constantly wondering about how much we want to open ourselves up to people judging us,” Baryshnikov said.
The actress said she was inspired further by the way her show explores whether an artist’s exposure might negatively impact the work she or he produces.
“If [fame] happens organically, then that is one thing, but if it becomes the goal before making their art, does that allow you to flourish creatively in a way that you might have otherwise?” she wondered.
Co-starring Jane Krakowski, Toby Huss, Adrian Escoe and Ella Hunt, Season 1 of Dickinson followed the brilliant young poet as she wrote in secret, rebelled against her parents’ and society’s stifling expectations and fell in love with her brother Austin’s fiancee Sue.
The second season sees newlyweds Austin (Escoe) and Sue (Hunt) spending lavishly and enjoying their new roles as the most admired couple in Amherst — right next door to the Dickinson home.
That’s where heartbroken Emily grapples with whether she should publish the verse she obsessively creates while Lavinia wonders if there is more to life than marriage when a handsome suitor finally makes her an offer.
“I’ve never really experienced anything quite like this, as far as coming back for a second season and coming back to the same character and the same world, but just a lot deeper, a lot more complex, a lot more sophisticated and grown, if you will. These characters are in a much different place than we left them,” Steinfeld said.
With the show’s foundation built, a work family formed and production kinks worked out between seasons, Steinfeld had a much better idea of what her role was as a producer the second time around.
“Season 1 was a lot of figuring what the hell I was doing — as Emily, as Hailee, as a producer — but, Season 2, we were more of a well-oiled machine. I’m so grateful that we have been given the opportunity to do aSeason 3, and I’m hoping it will feel the same, if not better,” Steinfeld said.
Baryshnikov felt more confident returning for the second season, too.
“Season 1 of any show — but especially this one with such a unique tone — you are constantly questioning whether or not you are doing it right,” she said.
“It’s really nice to feel ownership in Season 2; to feel like I really know this character. I can play around and make decisions I might not have last year.”
Baryshnikov praised Steinfeld as a producer who understands the actors’ points of view and isn’t afraid to speak up on the cast’s behalf.
“She’s definitely taught me so much about how I can advocate for myself in certain moments and navigate having the best experience possible, so it is such a gift in both of those roles,” Baryshnikov said.
The Dickinson sisters are seen together more in Season 2, now that Sue is a married woman who spends all of her time planning and hosting salons instead of going on adventures with Emily.
“We can’t say too, too much, but what I do love about their relationship is that we know they ended their lives incredibly close,” Baryshnikov said.
“In our story, they start as such completely different women and Lavinia is definitely a little resentful of how ‘other’ Emily is and how strange she makes their family seem. I think we have the joy of playing the slow burn of them getting much, much closer.”
Steinfeld echoed the sentiment.
“I absolutely love the character of Lavinia and I love the dynamic between them. I would love to see it grow even more,” she said.
“Anna and I have a very sort of sisterly dynamic off-screen and I think it is so fun to have it on-screen and, when we do, it always feels like a little sneak peek of what is to come.”