Emily Dickinson is regarded as one of America’s greatest ever poets. But what was she like as a person? That’s what the period comedy-drama Dickinson explores, depicting how she was a woman ahead of her time. The third and final series is about to launch on Apple TV+, and sees Pitch Perfect star Hailee Steinfeld playing the 19th-century poet – who was little-known publicly while she was alive – as a teenager.
The coming-of-age story – which follows Emily, allegedly in love with her brother’s wife, Sue Gilbert – draws attention to how the poet “broke a lot of rules with her writing and in her personal life, she was completely living outside of the box,” says American actress Anna Baryshnikov, 29, who plays Emily’s sister, Lavinia.
“I’ve always felt like this show has ultimately been about being seen and being heard, and I hope this show inspires people to be themselves unapologetically,” notes LA-born Steinfeld, 24. “I hope it inspires them to speak up about what it is they feel passionate about – anything in their lives – and I hope it inspires people to feel good about who they are and their place in this world and find their light and run with it.”
Indeed, viewers and both cast members love the way Dickinson – which, in the third series, is set against the backdrop of the Civil War – tackles subjects that not a lot of shows always embrace or confront (gender equality, for example). “I certainly have tremendous admiration for Apple, creating one of its first shows that explores these sorts of themes and issues with a queer romance at its heart,” enthuses 23-year-old Londoner Ella Hunt, who plays Sue – the woman who’s married to Austin Dickinson (Adrian Enscoe), Emily’s older brother.
“We explore such a depth and breadth of beautiful storylines, and it’s very empowering as actors to get to go to those places. And it’s unusual, too. It’s less and less unusual now. It’s very exciting, the moment we’re in culturally, where such ground-breaking TV is getting made.”
The two seasons of Dickinson so far have been an emotional rollercoaster, with plenty of laughs along the way too. Knowing that this is the show’s final outing, does it feel like the end of an era for the stars? “It definitely feels that way,” nods Steinfeld. “I think for me personally, this show has become such a huge part of my life.”
“This job was exactly the kind of role I was looking for, and so it feels like this kind of odd moment of, ‘Where do you go when you’ve done something that you creatively believed in so much?’” follows Baryshnikov. “It’s been so incredible to watch people respond to the show, and I feel so connected to a bunch of strangers online who have expressed such specific things about the show that they love, and it just makes the work feel so appreciated, and I’m so grateful for them. I feel incredibly lucky to have been on this journey.”
Meanwhile, showrunner Alena Smith – who also worked on US drama The Affair – expresses how excited she is to share this series with fans in the midst of “what has obviously been a profoundly difficult time for the world”. She believes the challenges the global Covid-19 pandemic caused, in terms of writing and producing Dickinson, has actually infused the final project. “It made it more meaningful to those of us who were making it, and I hope for the audience as well.
“As Emily is asking the central question for herself in season three of, ‘Can I make a difference? Can my art help anyone?’, that obviously was a central concern of mine in making the show, and I hope that people will feel that a space has been held for them by this season to process some of the feelings of what we’ve all been going through.”
“We were lucky in the sense that we were not one of the very first shows to shoot in Covid so we had learned a bit about protocols and safety from those that had gone before,” Smith continues. “But we’re talking about six months of a learning curve, so it was still pretty scary, and I’m so proud of our team for how safe everybody was kept and the fact we managed to do it.
“I would say though, that for me, as a filmmaker, it’s not great. The whole point of what we do is closeness, intimacy, vulnerability, contact, and to be giving direction while wearing a mask, to actors who are putting themselves at risk of a disease that no one understands yet, it’s not particularly sustainable.
“I feel extremely grateful that we managed to do it because this season is so important to me. But I very, very, very much want everyone to get vaccinated so that we can get back to work safely and not have to work the way that we were in the height of the pandemic.”
Dickinson Season 3 premieres globally on Friday, November 5 on Apple TV+