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'Dickinson' role taught Hailee Steinfeld not to hold back

By
Karen Butler
Actress Hailee Steinfeld can now be seen playing 19th century poet Emily Dickinson in the Apple TV+ series, Dickinson.    File Photo by Serena Xu-Ning/UPI
Actress Hailee Steinfeld can now be seen playing 19th century poet Emily Dickinson in the Apple TV+ series, "Dickinson."    File Photo by Serena Xu-Ning/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, Nov. 1 (UPI) -- Pitch Perfect and Bumblebee star Hailee Steinfeld says playing 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson in the new TV series Dickinson has inspired her to be audacious in her own life and work.

"I am so thankful that this character has instilled this fearlessness in me that I've always known I've had, but I've never used like I am using it now," the 22-year-old actress and singer recently told UPI in New York.

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"In my art, specifically in songwriting, I don't want to hold back, and I think I'm incredibly inspired by the fact that this person would put absolutely everything on the page in front of her whether or not she intended for people to read it," Steinfeld said.

"She spoke about things that people were too afraid to speak about or felt they shouldn't because they'll be judged. She broke down every barrier."

Co-starring Jane Krakowski, Toby Huss, Adrian Escoe, Anna Baryshnikov and Ella Hunt, the half-hour dramedy premieres Friday on Apple TV+

Dickinson follows the young poet as she writes in secret, rebels against her parents' and society's stifling expectations for her future, and falls in love with her brother Austin's fiancee Sue.

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The actress -- known for her roles in True Grit, Begin Again, The Edge of Seventeen and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse -- thinks Dickinson will resonate with contemporary viewers even though much has changed since the titular scribe wasn't permitted to publish her verse, enroll in university or marry someone of her choosing.

"There are countless themes in this show that represent what women and men were going through in the 1850s that somehow are, in ways, very similar, if not the same, as the issues and events that we are dealing with today -- fighting to be heard and understood and considered equal. This show has a lot of that," Steinfeld said.

The slow-but-steady increase in female storytellers in the entertainment industry means more fascinating women's lives are making it to the screen.

"It's absolutely incredible that we have that in Alena [Smith] being our writer, creator, producer show-runner," Steinfeld said. "It's because of her that we've all made this project. It took her years and years and years of experiencing a lot of what this show touches on to bring this whole thing together."

In preparing to play Emily, Steinfeld immersed herself in the poet's work, studied Smith's scripts and let her own fantasies run wild.

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"It's so fun when there is information out there in the world about something that you are working on. Research is the best part of what I do. One of [the best parts], anyway," she said.

"There are other stories that have been told on this human in film and TV .... This show is different and is a different look into Emily's life. It is a lot of Alena Smith's imagination and our imagination as a cast. We wanted to make this our own and we wanted to make this a show about how we are inspired by Emily and her work."

30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt alum Krakowski plays Mrs. Dickinson, a loving mother and proud housewife, in the series.

"She's a real person, but there is very little information about her," the 51-year-old actress said.

"Not only did I feel great responsibility depicting her, but I felt this is one of the first times we learn a lot more about Mrs. Dickinson. There is only one known poem written about her by her daughter, which is very telling and very complicated."

Krakowski doesn't understand why Emily's mother -- also named Emily -- has been a footnote in history since the mother-daughter bond is so powerful and likely influenced the younger woman's writing.

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"The battle between the beliefs of the mother and Emily's modern, forward thinking was a very strong one and one that really did affect her life," Krakowski said.

Halt and Catch Fire and Carnivale alum Huss plays Dickinson family patriarch Edward.

He pointed out that while the parents on the show love their adult children Emily, Lavinia and Austin, the status quo at their home was constantly disrupted by Emily.

"Everyone's role was really cast for them from really early on," the 52-year-old actor said.

"Austin, you're going to live next door, you're going to be a lawyer just like your dad. That's all done, and then Emily comes along and she breaks out of this and throws the world into upheaval," he added. "We don't know what to do with her. It's a little bit jarring and I think any creative kid today, any outsider kid today is going to see one-to-one parallels."

Krakowski thinks the show's use of 21st century music also will connect viewers to the extraordinary poems Dickinson created more than 150 years ago.

"It actually highlights the words in the poems where you realize that they are a modern woman's struggles today and that they are so deep and beautiful and sexual and interesting and passionate and then I think it gets you into Emily Dickinson in a much more vivid way than our history books have ever depicted her," Krakowski said.

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Huss doesn't agree with literary scholars who have declared Dickinson as "ahead of her time."

"She was of her time. It just so happens the way she spoke about her time and her life is completely relevant today. There is a bridge going from her words to the lyrics of Billie Eilish," Huss said.

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