We speak to the actress about strong women and her role in new period drama Dickinson.

Wonderland interview Hailee Steinfeld Dickinson

All images courtesy of Apple.

Wonderland interview Hailee Steinfeld Dickinson
All images courtesy of Apple.

Starting a career in the entertainment industry at a young age is no mean feat, but Los Angeles-born Hailee Steinfeld has experienced both a blossoming acting career and musical success since her breakout role in the Coen brothers’ True Grit when she was just 13.

Earning an Oscar nomination for the role, Steinfeld went on to star in films like Ender’s Game (alongside Asa Butterfield) and Pitch Perfect 2, while supporting everyone from One Direction’s Niall Horan to Katy Perry and appearing in the music video for Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”. But it was her honest, relatable depiction of Nadine Franklin in 2016’s coming-of-age film The Edge of Seventeen that made audiences pay attention.

The 22-year-old’s filmography is littered with independent, complex and self-sufficient women, and her latest role – as the lead in a new series focusing on the 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson – is no different. From dressing up as a man to sneak into an academic lecture, to defying her strict (and sexist) dad’s wishes that she get married rather than pursue a career in writing, Emily’s strong-willed nature and quick-witted sense of humour sets her apart from the submissive female characters we’re used to seeing in period dramas, and in the literary counterparts they’re often adapted from.

In Dickinson, Emily and her friends smoke cigarettes and take opium. There’s more than one sex scene, and several which depict a same-sex relationship – the show is dedicated to portraying the parts of life which weren’t included in our school history lessons when learning about the 1800s. Reimagining the life of an eccentric, feminist poet at a time when it was radical for women to have a career of any kind, the upcoming adaptation feels both radical and long-awaited.

We spoke to Steinfeld about period dramas, the pressures of portraying a real-life figure and the fine line between comedy and tragedy…

Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved in Dickinson? What was it about the script that reeled you in?
The first bit that I got were just the first three – I mean, the first one was enough to have me confused enough [as] to where I wanted to know more, and [I was] just intrigued at how they would pull this sort of thing off – a period piece with contemporary music and contemporary thinking behind all of it. I don’t know, I just thought that it was special and different. I had a conversation with Alena Smith, who’s the writer and creator of the show, shortly after, and everything she said made me want to be a part of this project. She had such a strong vision for it. I was also just incredibly excited about Emily Dickinson and her poetry. I wasn’t incredibly familiar with her before, I had come across her a bit in school but… I am now newly obsessed, and I’m so excited about the show and the idea of introducing her to people that don’t know about her.

Did you do a lot of ‘homework’, and read a lot of her poetry to prepare you for the role?
Yeah of course! To have that there is so wonderful, and also to live in a world in which anything is searchable and easy to access… research is the best part, you know? I mean, diving into the time period, to the clothing, to her poetry and her actual life – which there is a lot written about, [although] very little that we know for sure – I love being able to read up on everything that I could, but once we started filming it was really her poetry that I used for research.

Obviously we’ve got Sanditon as well on TV, and a new adaptation Little Women coming out this year… it feels there’s a big surge in interest for period dramas right now. Why do you think it is that we’re still returning to these stories, that were told so long ago?
I think for multiple reasons. One, these stories are so special and so well written, and they just hold up in a way that’s still relevant, and I think with Dickinson specifically, what’s so fun about watching the show is that you sort of forget that you’re watching a period piece. At times that’s exciting and shocking, and other times it’s sort of heartbreaking in a sense; that although we’ve come a very long way, not a lot has changed. Women are very much still in the fight to be heard and understood and seen as equal, and I think what’s so exciting about this time that we’re living in is that we’re a part of a generation that is banding together more than ever, and empowering each other and lifting each other up. To have something like Dickinson, where we are introduced, if not reintroduced to this character that really did pave the way for women today, I feel is really exciting.

And the series is very frank about depiction of drugs and smoking, and there’s obviously sex scenes and LGBT relationships, things that we wouldn’t usually associate with that time. Why was it so important to show this?
Well because I think for that reason specifically. What ends up being a bit funny in the show is that these people, though they lived in a completely different time, they’re still humans. They still experiment, they still feel certain things about certain situations, and we sort of translate that with a more modern language. I think that’s what makes it feel so relatable, but they went through what we go through today, they experimented and wanted to experience certain things. We play up on that in the show, and again it’s all driven by Emily’s poetry. She spoke about all of that, you know, [from] her sexuality to domestic activities and drugs, everything – she wrote about all of it.

Wonderland interview Hailee Steinfeld Dickinson
Wonderland interview Hailee Steinfeld Dickinson
All images courtesy of Apple.

And did you have any worries about offending any die hard Dickinson fans with that kind of depiction?
I mean, of course we take that into consideration, but one thing that we’ve been very clear on, and I think people will recognise very quickly, is that this is by no [means] a straight biopic. This is our interpretation, this is how we’ve been inspired by Emily and her poetry, so I think as long as they can have an open mind, it’s a fun story. One thing goes without saying, and one thing remains, that Emily Dickinson is still to this day incredibly inspirational, and helped us create a show that feels like unlike anything else.

It’s definitely unique. And a lot of her poems were very morbid, but the show’s tone is almost like a comedy. Where did that decision come from, to keep the tone really light as opposed to some of the darker stuff she was writing about?
I happen to think that a lot of comedy in life comes from the reality of the tragedy of most situations. Emily Dickinson had a sense of humour, so we’re told, and I do feel like you can sense that in her writing. She had a wild outlook on things and she was different. I think we found within the first two episodes, while we were working with David Gordon Green who shot [them], that was our time to kind of figure out the tone. It’s a half hour, so we found this kind of quick wit that can play as comedy. I think that does come out of the reality of how heartbreaking and sad these poems really are, and these situations that she’s going through.

Emily’s a very self-sufficient, strong woman, like a lot of the roles you play. Is this something that you’re very keen on portraying?
It is… I love to play parts that have definitely turned out to be these strong… they all have this clear cohesiveness and through-line, that they all happen to be these young characters who are smart and strong, and have a point of view on the world – or don’t and speak about it – and just have a purpose, have something to say and something they want to put across. That’s what I love, that’s what I guess you could say I go for. I just love that I’ve been trusted as an actor to play these roles.

You also served as an executive producer in the show, for the first time. Why was it important to you with this role to do more than acting?
I wanted to be involved on another level, [and] after this first conversation with Alena, I knew that this was something special. And I always wanted to produce, so of course I wanted whatever the first project that I produced to be something that I felt that way about. It’s been an incredible experience, sort of overseeing all of what decisions are being made about the show, and I feel connected on a different level, which is so exciting to me. And incredibly nerve-wracking! But I’m so proud of this show and what everybody involved have created that I just can’t wait for people to [see it].

Do you think producing is something you see yourself doing more of? And if so, what kind of stories would you be interested in highlighting?
I do definitely. I love the idea of continuing to do so. I love, you know, coming across an article in a newspaper, cutting that stuff out. I love the idea of actually being able to do something with those things that I’ve collected, and taking them to the right people, and making these stories into things that people hear and see and learn about. So nothing specific comes to mind immediately, but [I’m] definitely excited by the idea of continuing to do it.

What’s next for you in terms of your career goals now?
Well I’m so excited about this finally being out. And I’m working on my music which I’m so excited about, that’ll be out early next year. That’s been a long time coming – music has been a huge, huge part of my life, and then wonderful projects like Dickinson will come about and take me out of it for a bit of time. So I’m excited to be focused on the music for the next period of time, and get some of that out there.

All episodes of Dickinson will premiere November 1 exclusively on Apple TV+.

Hannah Holway