Hailee Steinfeld has effortlessly captured the anxieties and pressures of being a young woman living in a male-dominated world in several projects. She stood tall around an ensemble of men in her Oscar-nominated turn in True Grit. In The Edge of Seventeen (which should’ve landed her more awards recognition), she was overshadowed by an older brother, but her performance in Apple TV+’s Dickinson is her most accomplished to date. With her ambitious and nimble turn, she forges a bright, new path for a literary heroine, and she serves a feast for the ears in the series’s eligible song submission, “Afterlife.”
Dickinson is jarring when you first watch it. It has modern music and modern affectations, but its heart somehow manages to float between two eras. Steinfeld’s Emily is proud, driven, and assured, and she just needs the world to catch up to her genius. Listen to when she reads her poetry as a voiceover–it’s weighted with so much seriousness that you will reach for that collection of poems on your shelf. Steinfeld delivers an Emily Dickinson that we’ve never seen before. She’s full of hope and light as much as she is obsessed with death and her own legacy.
Not only is Steinfeld eligible for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, but her music endeavors on “Afterlife” should be seriously considered. Her lyrics hint at Emily’s longing (Every time your name/It leaves my lips/Burning still/Like words left unsaid/Fire in my veins, drink deeply, love/Remind me I’m alive) and connect deeply with her character.
No matter if you watch Dickinson or listen to its soundtrack, you are always thinking about Steinfeld and Emily’s writing at the heart of the series.
Awards Daily: Do you have a favorite Emily Dickinson poem, and did your perspective of her writing change after you shot the first season?
Hailee Steinfeld: Ohhh. You know, it’s funny. I have to choose my favorite poem based on our episodes. I do genuinely love “Wild Nights.”
AD: I think that’s my favorite one, too.
HS: Oh, good. There’s something about it. There are so many, but there’s something about that one. I use the word “wild” since that poem came into my life. (Laughs) I believe that’s our third episode? It’s so vibrant and wild and fun. I associate that poem with that episode, and I love that one so much. I have to go with “Wild Nights.”
AD: [Series creator] Alena Smith is so passionate about Emily Dickinson—I had the pleasure of speaking with her a few weeks ago. What did you learn from her?
HS: I mean…so much. This has been something she has been working on for years and years. She only grows more passionate as every day goes on. Other than her truly being my go-to factchecker, it was amazing to see her, as a woman, write this show, create this show, produce this show. She’s the showrunner on Season 2. It was incredible to see her bring this project to life. I remember our first conversation that we had. I had been given the first two episodes before I spoke with her, and it was all very straightforward. Any possible question I had or hesitation or concern I had…it all was verbally translated to me from her so vividly. It was something that was going to be special and challenging and unique. I was so excited after I talked to her.
AD: I love the relationship between Emily and her father, Edward, because she obviously loves him but he represents a lot of what she has to overcome as a young woman living at this time. How do you reconcile that?
HS: It was definitely a process in finding exactly what it was.
HS: Their dynamic is very push and pull, but it is all very much push and pull. It’s very complicated but it’s a very loving relationship and very layered. I love how you said that he represents what she has to overcome and shockingly what a lot of women have to overcome today even with freedom and acceptance. It always came back to who she was and what she wanted. She would consciously put herself in risky situations if that meant she could write a single line or an entire poem. Or someone other than her best friend, the love of her life, whoever it was at that moment to read that poem. She knew what she had to do. That was overcoming the obstacle of her father.
HS: Just watching that relationship unfold and constantly make new discoveries within each scene and every episode between them was some of the best fun I’ve ever had. As far as reconciling the relationship, Emily finally gets to a place where she can fully stand up to him—not that she hadn’t been able to before—but he would always overcome her or shoot her down. She kept getting back up, and by the end, she wasn’t going to be knocked down again. That scene between them is one of my favorites of the season.
AD: Yeah, I love that scene so much. You make your declaration and then you simply close the door. It’s beautifully simple.
HS: Thank you.
AD: Not only are you the star of the show, but you’re an executive producer. I love that you’re all over this project. What were you most looking forward to doing with that title?
HS: The challenge, of course. I wanted to be included in ways other than showing up on set and delivering lines. I wanted to understand what it was going to take to make this come to life and do what I could to help that. I will say that during Season 1, there was a lot to be figured out and there was a huge learning curve to me. With Season 2, I really found my footing as a producer. There was a lot more going on with Season 2, including getting directors for the back end of the second season. It was incredible to discover what it takes to get these episodes made. I’ve definitely taken for granted that when a movie ends and the credits roll, you walk out and the lights come up. You don’t always know what it takes to pull off something great.
AD: Totally. My best friend always watches the credits to see the names of everyone.
HS: Yeah, it’s always so many people. In this case, just getting deeper in and doing what I could do. I would love to produce more in the future.
AD: That has to be gratifying to get a new perspective for the industry you’re already in.
AD: The relationship between Emily and Sue is unlike anything we’ve seen on television before, and the fans of the show really connect to it. In the final episode, Emily sees Sue get married to her brother, Austin, and I keep thinking of how hard that has to be for her. Does she feel hopeless?
HS: This is something we talked about quite a lot. At that moment, I remember the feeling that this is a person that Emily loves very much. She wants what’s best for her. In this case, this is something that Emily fought in her head for so long—this idea of Sue marrying Austin. In the first conversation we have, Emily says, “You don’t respect him. You don’t like him. You don’t even find him attractive!”
HS: There was a side of Sue’s story that Emily never opened her eyes to before and she realized what marrying her brother meant to her. It’s incredibly difficult and gut-wrenching to see the only person that Emily truly, deeply loves is no longer hers. It was ultimately the idea of knowing deep down that you want the best for someone you love.
AD: I have to ask about “Afterlife.” That video is so good!
HS: Thank you!
AD: I love the saturation of the colors and I heard that it was a song that you were already working on and you were able to make it fit the themes of Dickinson. Talk to me about that song and including it in the credits of the show. I love it a lot.
HS: Thank you so much. I had come back to LA after wrapping Season 1 and they were in postproduction with putting music together. Conversations had been had in the past or during shooting about a possible a music opportunity for me for the show. I had started working on my music in the meantime, and I got a call in the middle of a week asking if I could have a song by the end of the week. That week suddenly became these Dickinson sessions unintentionally. I went through a folder of music and “Afterlife” was in that folder. It’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written and, weirdly, it already had this Dickinson tone to it.
AD: Oh, yeah?
HS: Yeah, I had this wild moment where I knew that, at this point, it was the most connected and I had done the most research about Emily Dickinson. It was so weird to me that this song was written so many years later, and there was that immediate connection to it. At that point, I altered some of the lines from the verses and I drew more specifically from our show with words and lines of her poetry so it would pertain to the show. Very few changes were made but subtle enough where people who love her poetry will pick up on the details.
AD: You’ve mentioned Season 2 a few times. After Emily closes the door, she looks around her room and she exhales and then the credits roll. What does that exhale mean in terms of the next season?
HS: Right before that exhale you have an entire season of build-up inside Emily. She finally, in that moment, is able to release her truth and that is who she is and she is going to be a writer no matter what. No one—including her own father—is going to stop her. We see in Season 2 that Emily takes that confidence to a completely whole other level.
AD: Really? More than Season 1?
HS: Oh, boy. It’s wild and it’s messy and it’s beautiful.
Dickinson is available to stream on Apple TV+.