You may have heard of Dickinson, caught a glimpse of viral photo sets circulating on social media, or seen the ever-greying promo posters plastered across major cities. If you haven’t, well, you’re missing out on the biggest breakthrough series you’ve never heard of.
In this witty period drama, we watch Sue and Emily twist and tangle their way through personal adoration, fiancés, friends, and, of course, each other. A nuanced and necessary series, Dickinson has become a queer cultural cornerstone mixed with historical references and modern American dialogue to deliver an authentic, heartfelt representation of what label-free love looks like. Now, nearly a year later from its debut, season two of the Apple TV+ show has arrived, and it is arguably Dickinson’s best yet. With surprises in store and stories to tell, leading actresses Hailee Steinfeld and Ella Hunt open up to GAY TIMES about what makes Dickinson so special.
If we’re going by Opium-infused twerking parties, secret love affairs and guest appearances by Wiz Khalifa, then 1850s Amherst is the place to be. In Alena Smith’s reimagined dramady, Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) is the genius poet reeling from potential fame and her feelings for her best-friend-lover-turned-sister-in-law, Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt). With season two wrapped up and ready to go, I ask Ella and Hailee if they think their characters have found their place in the new batch of episodes.
“I think, in ways, Emily has found her place, but there are always questions that remain. In our lives, I know in my life, I feel like I’ll get to a place where I feel confident and comfortable, but there’s always a small part of me that’s thinking of the next step, or questioning one part of something or another,” Hailee says. “With Emily, she’s grown tremendously between season one and two, she’s learned a lot, lost a lot, and gained a lot. By the end of it, I do feel like she has found more of her place than where she was in the beginning. But she’s constantly trying to figure out what life is, what her relationships are and who they’re with.”
In the coming episodes of Dickinson, Emily is constantly flickering between moments of comfort to extreme uncertainty, and the actress agrees. “The one person that she loves, and that loves her and she feels understood by, is now in a completely different place. She’s pushed her (Sue) on to another (Sam Bowles),” Hailee elaborates. “It’s a lot of ‘Is this what I’m supposed to be?’ And ‘Is this right?’. I think it is, and maybe it’s not, but yes, it is — it’s a lot of uncertainty. So, I feel like in ways, if we are speaking moment to moment, there are those moments where, yes, she’s found her place, but I feel as life goes on, and as people evolve, there’s always those sorts of things in question.”
For Ella, Sue’s growth and relationship with Emily feels equally sporadic and unpredictable than the last season. “For Sue, she wants to push away anything that makes her think or feel too deeply. Emily is the epicentre of her world,” Ella explains. “During one of our seasons, there’s a line where Emily says she is the only time that Sue feels things and that’s a really powerful bond to be playing on-screen with Hailee. I’m glad that I get to play Sue to Hailee’s Emily, because she’s just a force of nature in the way that she explores Emily and Sue’s relationship.” The 22 year-old pauses to think over her response, before continuing: “Their relationship for me, as an actress, only becomes more complicated to explore. Sue and Emily both deal with their own personal trauma and journeys where they collide and crash away from each other — it’s a season of separation, yearning and dysfunction.”
Most celebrities distance themselves from the craziness of internet clamour, but Ella Hunt is quite the opposite. After admitting she knows a thing or two about the Taylor Swift-inspired Evermore-Dickinson conspiracy theories and “EmiSue” (Emily and Sue) shippers, she’s particularly eager to see how fans respond to Emily and Sue’s changing relationship. “I’m really excited for the fans of the show to see how the world has grown. I hope that there will be times when the audience feels challenged by the characters that they know and love,” she nods.
Although there’s excitement around the new evolution of her character, Ella was also anxious to see if fans would dislike the new version of Sue. “I was really nervous about people hating this new Sue, but it was really exciting to play, and I think it’s really fun to live in a time where we are more accepting of our exploration with women who are flawed. I think people will enjoy Sue’s journey, but I’m a bit nervous. I hope that the EmiSue (Emily and Sue) fans feel like we’ve done the story justice and that we surprised them.”
After launching in 2019, Dickinson became one of Apple’s first series to get the greenlight and notably the first LGBTQ+ show to debut on Apple TV+. Since then, Dickinson has built a cult following with young viewers across the world. I ask Hailee and Ella what the whirlwind response to their roles has been like. “It’s incredibly meaningful,” Ella begins. “It became more and more meaningful as I started work on the show. When I booked Dickinson, I was 19, I moved to New York to start working on this queer TV show and it empowered me to acknowledge my own queerdom and relish in it.”
From the offset, Emily and Sue’s relationship had a strong affinity with the actress. “I naturally fell completely in love with the relationship between Emily and Sue. I’m so grateful to Alena in my own personal journey, and that she doesn’t really put a label on Emily and Sue’s relationship,” Ella reveals. “Alena doesn’t judge it, but just lets it exist in all of its tumultuous faculties and that’s so special. It feels awesome to live in a time where there’s we’re seeing more and more of that on screen and I think it’s incredible of Apple to make one of their first shows about a queer female genius poet who was misunderstood in her own time.”
Hailee agrees with Ella’s sentiment. “I absolutely think it’s important to play out a relationship like Sue and Emily’s in a truthful light. Those relationships exist. They, in no way, should be frowned upon, or seen as different, weird or, or judged in any way,” she replies passionately. “This show, ultimately, is about being seen, being heard, being understood and being loved for who we are deep down as human beings. Emily finds a connection with Sue, she finds a love that is so deep, because there’s an understanding that is so deep between the two of them. No one else in Emily’s life sees her like Sue does. It isn’t until we see them in season two, where Sue is overwhelmed by the fact that Emily has this sort of power over her and has such a hold on her, and she’s so moved by her poetry that she almost can’t even handle it. She starts to divert and push Emily away from her and into another direction, and it’s heartbreaking, but we learn. It’s very confusing to Emily why Sue is doing that, but it’s only until she realises that it’s because of how much she loves her.”
Pausing a second to find her words, Hailee continues: “Their relationship is so complicated, I mean, Sue is married to her brother! It couldn’t be more confusing and heartbreaking and messy and beautiful. It’s all of those things, but I do think Alena did such a wonderful job in writing the relationship between the two of them and shining a light on the love that can be between two women, a woman and a man, and two men and that’s in the show. It’s really special and I love that I’m able to play that out with Ella Hunt. She’s a wonderful actress and it’s been really wonderful to find the truth in their relationship.”
As the interview draws to an end, it dawns on Ella that Sue is the first sexually fluid character she’s portrayed. A little surprised by the realisation, the actress opens up about how she felt a duty to be as transparent as she could with her role. “I certainly felt a responsibility and in how the show told Sue and Emily’s queer relationship with as much honesty and kindness as possible,” Ella explains. “I felt very empowered by the LGBTQ+ community since making and releasing the show. It’s been really, really wonderful to see people respond in the way that they have to it. It only makes me want to be more fearless in our exploration of this beautiful and, sometimes, tragic romance. I’m really glad that I get to play the Sue to Hailee’s Emily, because she’s just a force of nature and passionate in the way that she explores Emily and Sue’s relationship.”
With a final question at my disposal, I ask Hailee and Ella what they hope fans and viewers can take away from Dickinson. For Hailee, the series shares a powerful message that she hopes fans can take home with them. “I hope viewers take away the notion of acceptance and that it’s more than okay to be who you are. Not only that, but be proud of who you are, who you love, who you want to be with, and that there’s nothing wrong with that,” she tells GAY TIMES. “Ultimately, Sue and Emily did have a relationship and we know that from Dickinson scholars. I know that I, myself, and Ella Hunt, who plays Sue, always saw this as a relationship of understanding. It just happened to be between two women, but it was all rooted out of being seen and seeing and that’s what our whole show is.”
Continuing, the young actress expands on the importance of the two women’s relationship. “Emily wants to be with one person and that’s Sue. She feels most comfortable around her, she feels like she could be herself, she feels accepted and she feels heard; and that’s love. That’s all you could ever hope for in a significant other, and it’s a wild ride for the two of them,” she says. “There’s constantly this push, pull, up and down, love, hate… love over all of it, really. But, it’s beautiful, it’s messy, it’s heart-breaking, and it’s honest. That’s why I love that we were really able to play this relationship out and we really do even more so in season two, which I’m excited for people to see.”
Ella adds: “What I love about filmmaking in general is that it teaches empathy and gives an audience insight to characters that they don’t necessarily come across in their day to day life or can’t relate to on a personal level. It can even force you into the mindset of a misunderstood female poet, so I hope that people feel watching our show is encouraged to be open minded and accepting of people from all walks of life — all sexualities and all genders.”
Before we wrap up our conversation, the English actress offers a final thought on why a quirky, modern series like Dickinson has become a cultural crutch for so many LGBTQ+ fans. “I think we’re living in a time where people are really hungry to see themselves in cinema and television and filmmakers want to do that and then have a production company like Apple who’ll say ‘Yeah, you can fucking do that’. It’s so awesome,” she says animatedly. “Dickinson is set in the 1850s, and Emily Dickinson was around in 1850, but she is so relevant to our world today, as are all of the characters in the show. This kind of queer relationship feels very timeless. I think it’s very comforting and that people are able to see themselves in our show in a way that they wouldn’t normally be able to see themselves in a period piece. Emily and Sue are turbulent, emotional, and sexy at times. I think they’re each other’s soulmates and are able to truly feel themselves with each other and nourish each other creatively and emotionally; they’re a really beautiful representation of what love can be.”
Dickinson is now available to stream on Apple TV+ – watch the season two trailer here or below.