How Emily Dickinson Helped Hailee Steinfeld Find "A More Fearless Approach to My Art"

In Apple TV+'s new series 'Dickinson,' the Oscar-nominated actress not only stars as the famed poet, but also penned a new song and executive produced for the first time.
Apple TV+
Hailee Steinfeld in 'Dickinson'

To play a young version of 19th century poet Emily Dickinson in one of Apple TV+'s first series, Hailee Steinfeld had to don period-appropriate clothes, including a waist-cinching corset and layers of petticoats, costumes that she says required the help of "one, if not two, women."

The singer-actress and star of Dickinson points out, however, that unlike "what the women of the time went through," she "could loosen [her corset] up at lunch and to go to the bathroom."

But when it came to the social struggles Dickinson faced in trying to make an impact as a woman, Steinfeld can't help but see similarities to the present day. "There are so many parallels," Steinfeld tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Here's [someone] who in her time had to fight fearlessly for her rights and her voice to be heard, just to be understood as an artist and as a woman, and that is very much still happening today. I think we've come a very long way, but not much has changed. There's still a lot of work to be done."

She also felt comforted and inspired working on a set led by a female showrunner in Alena Smith.

"She created an environment where I as a young woman in no way felt scared or uncomfortable," Steinfeld says. "I felt like I could come to work every day and work in a space that should be the way it should be for any woman in any workspace and just in life in general, so I hope that this is part of what already feels like a big change happening."

Steinfeld, 22, spoke to THR about taking on her first series regular TV role, her first project as an executive producer and her new song, "Afterlife," which is featured in, and was informed by, the series.

What drew you to this project?

I truly felt like this was so different from anything that I had read. I try to be very specific with what I spend my time doing, and I want it to be something that I believe in and feels interesting and cool, but this was all of that on a deeper level. I'm executive producing this as well, and I wanted to show up as something more than just an actor. I wanted to be a part of this on a deeper level.

Why did you want to venture into television?

It's this new turn in our world — everything is streaming. When I knew that this was Apple's first experience in the TV world, it just felt so exciting to me that it would be mine and theirs together. Working on something episodically with new directors and not knowing what's coming next with scripts, the whole idea just seemed really exciting to me and very different than what I know.

What has your work on the production side entailed and been like?

I am a part of conversations that I have in no way been concerned about as an actor in the past, from preproduction to postproduction. I've only ever really known showing up and doing my job and walking away and realizing it's completely out of my hands — hopefully it turns out great. This one, I care so much and feel so in it.

Do you see yourself doing more producing in the future?

I would love to continue, absolutely. It would be really fun to produce projects that I'm not necessarily acting in.

What sort of research did you do on the real Emily Dickinson to prepare for this role?

Alena Smith created this world in which we took the little-known facts about Emily Dickinson and expanded on them. There is so much on her and her poetry, and from her poetry, I could have stopped after that. And of course there are performances of Emily Dickinson that have been done more recently in TV and film, but we refrained from digging too deep into those because we were very clear that we were making a different kind of story.

How important is it for you to work with female writers and directors?

It's incredibly important. There are so many out there that are so wildly talented that have never been given a fair shot. There's a sort of sympathy and understanding that women have for other women, especially working together.

One of the things viewers see in Dickinson is that Emily seems to have a more fluid sexuality. How did you feel about embodying that part of her?

I love so much that this show is so driven by Emily's poetry. She [wrote] about everything from butterflies and bees and flowers to the grave to her sexuality to her relationship with her family, things that were not spoken about in that time and even now. I love that she was so unapologetically herself. She loved who she wanted to love. She wrote when she wanted to write, about whatever she wanted to write. She didn't really care about offending anybody. She did what she had to do to stay alive, to make herself feel alive in every moment.

How was your song "Afterlife" inspired by your work on this show?

The conversation of collaborating musically on the show had happened throughout making it [in New York], but it wasn't until I got back to L.A. that I got the phone call. I wrote a couple of songs that — I guess with the pressure and lack of time — did not come out the way I wanted them to. I went back into a folder of music that was further along, and I had "Afterlife." So "Afterlife" was something I actually did a couple of years ago and tweaked a few things just to make it feel slightly more accurate to the show, and I think that people will, after they watch the whole thing, listen back to the song and realize that there are some specifics in the verses. Overall, after playing this character, fully embodying her and learning to appreciate her and her work, I have a more fearless approach to my art in all aspects — a fearlessness that I know I've always had but never used in this way.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.