Ella Hunt knows that, on paper at least, Dickinson shouldn’t work. “I have no interest in making things that are for everybody,” she says firmly. “I want to make things that are risky. I want to make things where people go, ‘I don’t understand, but I’m watching.’” The 21-year-old’s career is just starting, but her resume already demonstrates this commitment. Hunt rose to indie prominence as the title character in 2018’s cult Anna and the Apocalypse, a bonkers, genre-defying zombie Christmas musical. When Dickinson premiered in November on Apple TV+, it received a similarly warm-but-confused reception. The sexy, period interpretation of the life of Emily Dickinson stars Hailee Steinfeld as the poet and features a contemporary soundtrack and dialogue, witty anachronisms, and bizarre but endearing analysis of Dickinson’s poems (Wiz Khalifa plays the physical embodiment of death, while Jason Mantzoukas voices an imaginary bee). Hunt plays Sue Gilbert, Dickinson’s lifelong best friend, future sister-in-law, and rumored lover. The actress was dazzled from the pilot script. “I kept getting trapped: Oh my God, a Drake song comes on? Oh my God, they’re making out now? Oh my God, Emily’s talking about being a feminist? Oh my God!
Dickinson’s thesis is actually quite simple: Take a genius utterly misunderstood for her time period; surround her with a bizarre cast of characters rooted in history (hello, John Mulaney as overgrown man-child Henry David Thoreau); superimpose the always relevant, oft-ignored themes of female ambition and queer desire onto the greatest poems ever written; cap it off with opium-laced house parties, a smattering of “dude”s, and a little finger-banging at the Christmas dinner table. It’s a risky proposal, but a gratifying watch when you realize it succeeds.
The show gets away with its more ridiculous choices because it’s grounded in real characters, not caricatures. They’re beholden to 19th-century code but speak and think like us, offering a depth of insight into Emily Dickinson’s words that make them more relevant and accessible than ever before. She’s no longer a dead poet in an American lit textbook, but a living, breathing human who feels just like we do—and writes what she knows. “You get to the end of each episode and you’ve had a masterclass in Emily Dickinson even though you don’t quite realize it,” Hunt says. But Dickinson also underlines how Emily’s relationships influenced her work, and Sue Gilbert’s story becomes an essential thread in the poet’s legacy.
That Dickinson works at all is largely thanks to the chemistry between Emily and Sue. Though it takes a few episodes to buy into the show’s overall conceit, there’s never any doubt about the relationship between the two women. “I had an interviewer—bless him, he was really sweet—come in and go, ‘That twist where you make out under the apple tree!’ I just smiled and was like, ‘I don’t think it’s a twist,’” Hunt says. “That was something that really drew me to telling this story—when I read about Emily and Sue, it felt so clear that they were soulmates, like bound to each other.”
Their rapport is undeniable, and erases any missteps the show makes while figuring out its tone. “A lot of the lightness with Sue and Emily comes from our friendship growing to a point where we were really silly with each other,” Hunt says of working with Steinfeld. A particularly cozy sequence in episode 2 sees the two women dress up as men to sneak into a university lecture; the palpable sparks stem from a late-in-production reshoot when the actresses felt more comfortable with each other. “We were much closer, and there is this energy and fearlessness in terms of how we were together. There was a take where I’m untying Hailee’s corset and she’s shaking her bum and got a pipe in her mouth. Somebody yells, ‘Closer!’ so I start pumping up against her, and they’re like, ‘No, no, closer to camera!’ I got more and more into playing hot for Emily as we got further into shooting; I did feel like I got gayer and gayer by the minute, in a great way.”
The relationship works because it doesn’t dwell on the impossibilities. Emily and Sue know there’s no path beyond their private connection, and they acknowledge this without obsessing over it. “I did a lot of reading up on female friendships in the 1800s, and queerdom really feels like it existed, very intensely, in the 1800s,” Hunt says. “Women were actively encouraged to form pretty romantic bonds with other women, because of how difficult their lives were. It felt right to be telling this story and it didn’t feel that far off.” The result is a relationship that transcends time, and the show’s audience is taking note; GLAAD’s Media Awards nominated Dickinson for Best Comedy just last week. The role also encouraged Hunt to explore her own relationship with boundaries and binaries. “The combination of moving to New York and making a very queer TV show, it’s totally changed things for me in a way I’m really happy about. I feel so much less bound to labels, and so much more open to experiencing things how I want to experience them, and not thinking about, ‘Oh, I’m with a woman,’ or with a man. I’m just with a person that makes me happy.”
Dickinson makes a point to highlight the messy imperfections and contradictions of life. Though Emily is Sue’s soulmate, her relationship with her fiancé, Austin, is equally genuine, and Hunt knew it was vital to convey that. “It was really important to think as deeply about the things that attracted Sue to Austin as attracted Sue to Emily, and to not be biased towards one over the other,” she says. To navigate these conflicting feelings, Hunt looked to Dickinson’s poems. “‘I am afraid to own a Body —’ really struck me. It felt right for my character to think about, and think about ownership of one’s self, because Sue’s story arc is about how she’s gone through so much loss that she doesn’t really know how to want things for herself or to listen to herself,” Hunt says. “But the whole series for Sue, I think, is about her slowly coming to terms with what she wants, as well as understanding that she needs to be pragmatic about her choices.”
Season 2 will introduce a changed Sue, Hunt warns, as the new bride settles into a much different life. “She goes from being very poor to very rich, and if you research her, she’s known to be quite a difficult woman, and a huge socialite,” Hunt says. “We start touching on that in season 2, in a way where I basically feel like I’ve got to play two characters.” That’s a good thing, she promises. “I was really afraid of signing onto a character and then getting bored of them.” With Dickinson, there’s no chance of that.