'Dickinson' Team Talks Blending History With Modern Tone, Being One of Apple's First TV Series

The series, in which Hailee Steinfeld stars as a young Emily Dickinson, had its world premiere at the Tribeca TV Festival, where the actress, creator Alena Smith and co-star Jane Krakowski spoke about what they hoped to accomplish with the inventive comedy.
Courtesy of Apple

Apple gave the public an extended first look at one of its eagerly anticipated original series in New York on Saturday night.

The Tribeca TV Festival hosted the world premiere of Dickinson, letting a nearly packed Manhattan movie-theater auditorium watch the first episode of Apple TV+'s half-hour comedy series about a young Emily Dickinson, played by Hailee Steinfeld. Set in the 19th century but with a modern sensibility and tone, the series explores the constraints of society, gender and family from the perspective of Steinfeld's rebellious young poet, whose rich imagination fuels her writing.

The show was well-received, with the audience laughing at its comedic moments and applauding at the end of the 30-minute program before listening intently to a panel discussion featuring show creator Alena Smith, Steinfeld and fellow star Jane Krakowski, who plays Emily's mother.

During the talk and before the screening on the red carpet, the Dickinson team excitedly discussed their inventive take on a biographical series and what they hope to accomplish through the program.

"I read this thing for the first time and really, truly felt like it was unlike anything I'd ever read as a whole, and this is a character that was written in a way that I've never seen," Steinfeld said during the panel of the series' version of Dickinson. "Alena was able to take what we do know and explore what the imagination of this person who wrote these incredible things might be and show that in a series that has these incredible comedic moments and this sort of dark humor and dramatic moments and everything in between. It truly reflects everything that's in her poetry, which is every possible emotion there is to feel. I think overall it is so different and so wonderful. I'm so excited for you guys to see more, that was just a taste."

Smith pointed out that Dickinson "was sitting at this tiny desk at her bedroom window, but she had the whole universe in her brain," a juxtaposition that creates a central theme of the series, with Smith saying that she drew the world of Dickinson's poetry, as well as the poet's rather "boring" real life for story ideas.

And she explained that they used the historical research and context to illuminate current social and political issues, saying that Dickinson's 1850s world, "becomes uncannily more and more resonant with me the more I learn about it, and it's a little scary how much, to look at America in that combustible period, right on the eve of the Civil War, it can remind you of today."

"We approached this with a tremendous amount of research, but then we used the research in really unexpected ways and we are always trying to use the facts of Emily Dickinson's life and her cultural context of the 1850s to reflect where we are today," Smith told The Hollywood Reporter before the screening. "And I think of it as if Dickinson wasn't really understood in her own time, maybe we can understand certain things about her better today by looking at ourselves and where we are now."

Steinfeld said during the panel that she "definitely" saw parallels between Dickinson's life and those of young women, like her, today. "The pressure that Emily Dickinson was under to feel or act or do certain things, I think women still feel that way," she said. "We hope that people see this and feel seen and feel heard, because that’s exactly what Emily was searching for, to be understood. It’s crazy and it’s wild that we’re searching for that — obviously way less — but it’s still an issue."

As for the show's comedic elements, which people might not expect for a series about the famously reclusive poet, Krakowski said the show is still trying to refine that part.

"To be honest with you, when I took this project, I didn't know how much of a comedy we were actually making and I think that's something we're still toying with as the show goes on," the 30 Rock alum said during the panel. "There's definitely weighted moments in the show, and then there are other moments where hijinks can ensue."

Still, she did find that her research into the family supported both her character's comedy and the group's "quirky" nature.

"From a lot of the research that I have done, Emily Dickinson Sr. was known to have a very dry wit and a sense of humor, so that kind of opened the comedy up for me a little bit … They're a family that was very known in the town for being quirky and nobody ever left home. They all stayed together and died together," she said, laughing at the last part, as did the audience.

The show will be one of a handful of series available when Apple's new subscription streaming service, Apple TV+ launches on Nov. 1. Despite not much being known to the public about the streaming service until recently (the $5-a-month subscription price and launch date were just unveiled a few days ago), the Dickinson cast told THR the Apple brand was enough to make them trust their project was in good hands.

"It's actually only been a joy working for Apple TV so far," Krakowski said. "I do think we are the first class of shows coming out so we'll see how it all goes. I mean, I'm such an Apple fanatic anyway that I believe that everything's going to go sort of smoothly, and Apple has a bigger plan for what they're going for so I feel very honored to be included in the first group of shows that are getting released."

Speaking about the costumes during the panel, she added, "Apple's been very generous. They clearly put a lot of money and kindness into the look of the show, which I think pays off amazingly onscreen."

Still she hoped that the series would find the "right" audience.

"I bet a lot of the generation this show is aiming to, or certainly the fans that Hailee is going to bring in, don’t really know Emily Dickinson and probably don’t really know her poems, and I think it will be wonderful to introduce a whole generation of young, strong, feisty women who want to make a mark on the world to know about Emily Dickinson," Krakowski said. "I just hope we get the right people to watch this show because I think it’s so unique and so different and the show really grows from what you’ve seen in episode one. It really takes you on a full course with all of these characters, and the characters get so much more fully blossomed as the season goes on. I think we got very lucky to have such a strong woman here in Hailee to be the lead of our show, because she is going to bring in that audience. And she is an equal badass lady to represent both sides — the modern and Emily Dickinson."

Steinfeld revealed that her role as Dickinson inspired her in her other career, as a singer-songwriter, sharing that she recorded a new song, "Afterlife," for the music-heavy series, which will be released on Sept. 19. That news prompted cheers from the audience, which included some of Steinfeld's fans.

"It's been a minute since I put music out," she said. "This is a song that I'm incredibly proud of, and I just feel like after embodying this character, I have a more fearless approach to my writing and to my art."

Beyond that, contemporary music (think Billie Eilish and Wiz Khalifa, who plays the personification of death, kindly stopping for Dickinson) is one of the series' modern elements, which also helps to illuminate Dickinson's inner world.

"The music is sort of this direct route into her brain," Smith said. "My hope is that the music lets you feel everything that Emily has trapped inside that wishes that it could burst out."

Smith also revealed that John Mulaney would guest star as a "total phony" version of Henry David Thoreau, whose "mom comes to his cabin and does his laundry," and that Zosia Mamet will appear as a "parody" of Louisa May Alcott, who shows up for Christmas, which Smith said she hoped would be well-timed to the release of Greta Gerwig's upcoming Little Women movie.

"One of the things that's so fun about Dickinson's world is that all of these, the most important writers in American history, they all lived down the street from each other, so it's not to say that Emily did or did not actually meet these people, but they were a stone's throw from her," Smith said during the panel. "And if this show has many seasons to come I hope that we get to meet gay Walt Whitman and crazy Herman Melville. Why stop at Dickinson, let's get it all."

Dickinson also stars Toby Huss and Adrian Blake Enscoe. Smith and Steinfeld serve as executive producers on the project, which hails from Paul Lee's wiip, Anonymous Content and Sugar 23.