Dickinson, one of the first slate of programs to be distributed by upcoming streaming service Apple TV Plus, is nothing you expect it to be. We caught up with a few of the period comedy’s stars on the red carpet Thursday night to talk about the witty, fantastical re-imagining of Emily Dickinson’s young adult life.
The show takes place in the mid-1800s, but its tone and dialogue more often than not slip into the present day. In one scene from the trailer, Emily stands center stage covered in colorful tattoos in a fever dream of a circus. “Oh my god, she’s so insane,” sneers one of Emily’s peers in another. Lavinia Dickinson, Emily’s younger sister, complete in a corset and ballroom dress, grinds up against a young man to Carnage’s “I Like Tuh.”
Dickinson sheds the old idea of the poet as a sexless, death-obsessed recluse in favor of a modern, rebellious tale featuring a rich personal life, many details of which were only recently uncovered. It takes a creative guess at what might’ve been happening inside Emily’s head. The words of her poem Because I could not stop for Death, wipe across the screen as she approaches and enters a ghost-horse-drawn carriage to meet Wiz Khalifa as Death for a midnight ride. If that’s not intriguing enough, John Mulaney shows up at some point as Henry David Thoreau. Curious to watch it yet?
We spoke to Alena Smith, the show’s creator and showrunner, and several cast members including Hailee Steinfeld (Emily Dickinson) about Dickinson and its competing themes.
The Knockturnal: There’s a lot of surprising things about this show. How do you feel about the juxtaposition of all of these modern elements and the older elements given that it’s a period piece? A lot of your dialogue is quite period-y but everyone else’s can be very modern.
Toby Huss (Edward Dickinson, Emily’s father): I think it’s great and I think it’s pretty smart. It’s a way to try to understand Emily Dickinson, who admittedly was a woman not a hell of a lot happened to. During the course of her life, she didn’t have a crazily exciting life on the outside. But on the inside, what was going on her spirit, in her heart, was a lot of stuff and I think this shows what was going on inside of her.
The Knockturnal: Have you been an Emily Dickinson fan in the past?
Toby Huss: No, never. They’re hard poems to get into. You have to take some time and when you’re in high school, they spend like a half a week on them and you can’t understand it. I hope this will initiate a lot of people and bring a lot of people into understanding Emily Dickinson.
The Knockturnal: There’s a lot of new information about Emily isn’t there? We usually hear about her as this creepy, weird recluse, but she’s actually so much more than that.
Toby Huss: Yeah, she got some bad PR back in the 1850s or the 1910s or the 1960s, whenever it was. But she was much more evolved writer than people thought she was, and I think there was a lot going on with her. In terms of being a bit of a progressive woman at the time, there was much more happening that’s not really talked about.
The Knockturnal: Did you have to do any kind of research for this role or did they ask you not to research because of some of that misinformation?
Toby Huss: I like to dive into that even if there’s misinformation. You need to know what’s happening then, you know Edward was a Wiig. And Jane Krakowski and I drove up to their house in Amherst and just walking around the old house and then seeing the house that I built my son – the Evergreen house on our property next door to it – it’s a really great little museum and the women that run it are super fantastic and they couldn’t have been more welcoming. Just going around there and seeing those things – it’s really important to see the railings on the stairs, the bannisters and walk around.
The Knockturnal: A question about your character. What would you say are his truest motivations? He goes back and forth a little bit with Emily – he’s got a soft spot.
Toby Huss: Well he’s a torn man. He wants to support his daughter but he doesn’t want his daughter to get turned out as a writer because if you were a woman and you were a writer, you were probably a “loose” kind of woman back then. You were thought of – he talks about having a daughter with a literary reputation – he wanted to protect her against that because a woman that had a literary reputation at the time was not a proper lady in society so he was guarding her against that. Perhaps he’s too vociferous at times but that was his motivation, to protect his daughter. But at the same time he wanted to try to encourage her. That was a thing that he would do. He would buy her books, but he would never encourage her to read them, so he’d travel and find these great books of poems and literature and he’d bring them to her but he never said “Now, explore the world.” He sort of went “Here they are. I did the right thing.”
The Knockturnal: When did the idea for this show begin?
Alena Smith (Creator and show runner): I had the idea for this show in 2013 and I just thought that I wanted to make a weird, experimental comedy about Emily Dickinson, but I didn’t know what that meant yet. So I just kept working on it and trying out different things and I sort of landed in this world and have been exploring and building it ever since.
The Knockturnal: The different juxtapositions and the dialogue – it’s a very interesting mix of old and new. Around when do you think it started taking on that shape? And why did it take on that shape?
Alena Smith: I only want to write things that are relevant to now. I want to be able to think about how we live today, so even though I got really into the research about the 1850s and I know a lot about it now, but I’m not interested in talking about the 1850s. I’m interested in using the 1850s to talk about now.
The Knockturnal: What about Emily Dickinson herself do you think makes her a really good lens for this kind of observation or analysis?
Alena Smith: One reason is that she wasn’t understood in her own time, so maybe we can try to understand her in ours. Another is that she didn’t play by the rules. She worked mostly in secret and on her own and sort of reinvented the form. She seemed to have been guided by some intense need to express herself in a way that no one else ever had before and I think a lot of people feel that today and feel just as isolated as she did in her bedroom in New England.
The Knockturnal: Does this bear any spiritual connection to the Wild Nights movie?
Alena Smith: It’s funny because I was already working on this when that movie came out, but I know that that movie came out of a lot of the same type of research that has been happening – the scholarly research that has been uncovering the truth about Emily which is that you know, she was rebellious and liked to have fun. She wasn’t this virginal spinster shut in her room in a white dress that everybody has always taken her to be. So I definitely respect what that film was doing and think that we were up to some of the same things.
The Knockturnal: Can you tell me a little about the partnership with Apple TV Plus? How did that start?
Alena Smith: We only pitched the show once, and it was to Apple and they bought it and I think it was right when they started buying shows. It was back in 2017 and it’s been an adventure the whole time. We’ve gotten to be at the forefront of building this whole new space for storytelling and I can’t imagine a better place for this show to have evolved. It’s been amazing.
The Knockturnal: It seems like it’s been a little crazy, a little hectic. It’s a new platform, which is very exciting. What kinds of freedoms has it allowed you?
Alena Smith: I come from the theater world and I’m used to making things up and getting my hands dirty, so in a way I was so glad that we got to work out of the box. It didn’t have to be like punching in at the TV factory. It was a whole new experience and it really was artist-driven.
The Knockturnal: Last question. So…Wiz Khalifa’s in this. And also…John Mulaney. Maybe this isn’t the best question, but I’m so curious about how those partnerships came about.
Alena Smith: *laughs* You know what’s crazy? Honestly, they both just responded to the script, and they both just got it, which is so awesome. And I think that one of the joys of this project has been finding these artistic connections and the people where you get their sense of humor and they get yours, so it’s been great.
The Knockturnal: This show looks like a lot of fun to be in if you’re one of the young people.
Adrian Blake Enscoe (Austin Dickinson, Emily’s older brother): Best times of my life.
The Knockturnal: Are there any scenes that you particularly had a lot of fun shooting?
Adrian Blake Enscoe: I can tell you the first episode, my character enters riding a horse. When I auditioned for the part and got it, no one asked me if I could ride a horse, so the first day of rehearsal, they said “did you see the revisions to the script?” And I looked and it said “Austin enters on a horse.” I was like I don’t ride a horse, so I was able to take some horseback riding lessons. That was a whole wonderful process and wonderful introduction to the world of the show. It really changes how you think about moving through the world when you realize that people didn’t have cars, they were confined to a small town for their life. But there’s something really wonderful and beautiful about the synchronicity people felt with nature and animals at that time.
The Knockturnal: What kind of prep work did you do for this piece? It’s a period piece, but also not quite.
Adrian Blake Enscoe: It’s funny, the historical facts and biographies – there’s libraries of information and analysis about Emily Dickinson’s life and her books. And that is really helpful up to a certain point. We’re also making a show that is not just strictly adhering to the facts of Emily’s life, and it’s not strictly adhering to the facts of the 1850s. It’s a mashup of the themes of her poetry and the facts of her life, which I adore. We need to go back and revisit the way we’re telling stories about people because we have a different lens now that we’re looking at the past with and it’s definitely going back and re-exploring.
The Knockturnal: Do you think your character, at the beginning, is aware about this relationship between his sister and his fiancée?
Adrian Blake Enscoe: This is a really good question and it’s something that I am still thinking about even now as we’re thinking about a second season. Homosexuality wasn’t considered an identity in the 1850s. It was kind of looked at as a sin, or a bad thing that you would do like stealing. It’s not the same as now. And back then, homosexual relationships between women were really not considered as much of a threat to conservative ideas. I think Austin really underestimates the extent of their romanticism. He doesn’t quite get it in the beginning, even if he is aware that something is happening. He’s just like “oh they’re close. They’re best friends, you know. They’re best friends. They must be best friends.”
The Knockturnal: Just a classic dude.
Adrian Blake Enscoe: Just a classic dude! That’s how I should introduce Austin now, just a classic dude!
The Knockturnal: What kind of preparation did you get to do for this role, especially with all the realizations and analysis of Emily Dickinson recently? There’s obviously a lot of misinformation as well.
Hailee Steinfeld (Emily Dickinson): Of course. Well, Alena Smith, our writer and creator of the show – she’s like my Emily Dickinson encyclopedia. I went to her for everything. We were very specific for the research that we did and didn’t do for the project. We wanted to make a show that was about what we thought Emily Dickinson might be like and the way she might think if she were alive today.
Dickinson premieres on November 1st on Apple TV Plus. Check out the trailer: