Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Upon hearing the name Emily Dickinson, chances are you’re more likely to think of literature class than a rowdy college party. That’s totally understandable, considering her portfolio of written work has long been world-famous and within the ranks of classics. Anna Baryshnikov, the actress from Manchester by the Sea and Superior Donuts who plays the poet's sister Lavinia on Apple TV+'s Dickinson, wants to change that.
Starring alongside Hailee Steinfeld (who plays Emily), Baryshnikov has embarked on a project that explores the 1850s through a comedic, modern lens. From begging for a husband when Emily shows reluctance to doing her best to act cool when greeting party guests, Lavinia's desire to fit in is a major point that's easy to empathize with. The show, which begins streaming on November 1, also brings to a more prominent light Emily's experience with sexual fluidity—she and her friend Sue are set to become sisters-in-law, but their passion for one another leads to kisses behind closed doors and plenty of family drama. In a party-focused episode, the cast passes around opium as if it’s one of today’s festival drugs, then proceeds to suffer the consequences as they mingle, make out, and twerk to the repeated line, “I like to make money, get turnt.” Lavinia has a shining moment in this scene when she plays the harp, a humorous moment made all the more powerful by Baryshnikov's ability to channel her underlying romanticism.
These romantic tendencies are so strong that they brought Baryshnikov to liken Lavinia to a certain Sex and the City character. “I was trying to describe the role to my friend, and she was like, ‘You’re basically like the Charlotte,’” the actress said.
While Baryshnikov has been acting since she was a young child, getting to know the field for herself amidst an upbringing within a dance-oriented family (her father is acclaimed choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov), the opportunity to bring a historical character to life—and deepen audiences’ understanding of past humanity in the process—has presented plenty of new challenges, and is something she’s incredibly excited about. Ahead of the release of Dickinson, the actress talked with L’Officiel USA about working alongside Steinfeld, her favorite holiday traditions, and how selfie culture comes into the show.
Photo via Instagram / @annabaryshnikov
Can you first tell me the story of how you got into acting?
I wanted to act as early as one could. Around six or seven, I was obsessed with performance. There was a local Shakespeare group in my neighborhood, and they needed young kids for one of the performances, and I did it and had such a blast that I started begging my parents to do more. I was weirdly desperate to work professionally when I was that young, which my parents very quickly nipped. Throughout the years, I negotiated with them. They kept saying they couldn’t control what I did after I was 18, and I bargained with them to bring it down to 16. I did school plays and local plays until I was a teenager, and when I turned 16, they made it very clear that I was on my own in terms of how to work professionally. I found a class online that said that agents and managers came at the end of the class. I spent my babysitting money on the class, and that’s how I got my first representation. I really only auditioned for commercials at that point. I did a few commercials in high school, which I took very seriously. They were my first job. They were like, “Can you sniff that Febreze a little deeper?” I was like, “Sorry.” I went to college for theater, and after graduating, I was able to start building a career.
You come from a family with a lot of dancers. Did that help you connect to the performance world?
I think art and performance was really integral to my world; it was what I had been raised around. I don’t even know how conscious it was, but all of these adults that I looked up to had fascinating, exciting lives because they were in the arts. I think it was by osmosis that I wanted to do it, but I do think that sometimes I really grew up around the dance world specifically, which is totally different from what I do now. I did still feel like I was navigating that on my own.
Photo via Instagram / @annabaryshnikov
What is your process like when preparing for a role?
It depends on the role. I wish that I had a straightforward process, but I’m still figuring it out. For Dickinson, there was a ton of research about the time period to be done. From my experience so far, so much about acting is understanding the world that you’re playing in, and the 1850s were so foreign to me. I really had to get as much information as possible, but what was fun about Dickinson was that because it blends past and present, I also could see the modern references to build the character. I would think about who Lavinia would be if she were at a frat party, what was her favorite music, what kind of girl would she be today, and then blending those two worlds and coming up with an identity, a language, and a physical embodiment that would make sense.
Connecting history to the modern-day is one of the biggest themes of the new show. What do you hope that shows to a modern audience about characters from history?
For me, it illuminated that people throughout history have always been as weird and human as we are. When we look to the past, it’s easy to forget that the range of emotions of the people that we are learning about are the same ones we feel today, just in a completely different context. I can’t remember who it is, but the idea that the past is in the present. Whatever we are struggling with right now, the past is so relevant and sewn into our current lives. Especially looking at American history, you can’t isolate something just because it happened 100 years ago; there are ramifications to that. So [I hope] the blend of past and present inspires people to be cognizant of the history of the moment that they’re living in and everything that precipitated it.
Photo via Instagram / @annabaryshnikov
You play Lavinia, who is Emily’s younger sister. Have you learned anything interesting about her in the process of preparing for the role?
Oh my gosh, so much. Researching her is fascinating because, on paper, it was really her sister that lived an extraordinary life in terms of what she could create. Lavinia didn’t leave any lasting impact other than the fact that she was the person who found Emily’s poems in the trunk and was responsible for us being able to read them today. She pushed to get them published after her sister’s death, so I think that fact alone made her very fascinating to me. My favorite part was how complex her relationship with her sister was. Lavinia, like Emily, never got married and never left her parents’ house. She really became her sister’s ward. She was her greatest companion, her caretaker; she really dedicated her life to supporting Emily’s art and wellbeing.
What was it like working alongside Hailee [Steinfeld]?
A dream. I love her. She is such an exceptional actress. I think that the paramount thing that I learned from acting with her and being in scenes with her is that she does so much preparation beforehand, and then it’s absolutely free onset. I remember watching her takes on scene and trying to get in the head of the director and editor, and every single take is good and different. It’s because she is so truthful in what she’s doing. I would constantly pull her aside and ask her about how she approaches things because I want to keep learning from her as an actress.
Did you get close with the cast on the show?
It’s a really wonderful group. Especially Hailee and I, because we were playing sisters, we immediately worked on finding that chemistry and I’m lucky to have a great friend in her and the rest of the cast as well. There’s something amazing about playing a family, too, where every dynamic matters. Even if you don’t have a ton of scenes with one person, you have to figure out who you are in relation to that family member. Families are about the relations between our world views, and to play that immediately makes every person in the cast very integral to you. I feel so lucky.
Photo via Instagram / @annabaryshnikov
Do you have any favorite moments from behind the scenes?
I can’t think of a specific one with her, but Jane [Krakowski] is just constantly cracking me up. Also, there’s a lot of commiserating about the corsets. Behind the scenes, they’re a whole thing. Hailee discovered that you could strap heating pads for the outdoor scenes, so that was a massive discovery. We were covered in heating pads in 30-degree weather. In general, it’s truly a blast.
Are there any certain moments in the show for Lavinia that you’re excited about people seeing?
Part of what I love about her as a character is she’s very easy to underestimate. She’s not as intellectual or outspoken as her sister, but she’s still fiery, loyal, and eccentric. She desperately wants to be an average woman in the 1850s, and she’s constantly surprised about how much of herself gets eroded when she tries to do that. One particular through-line is the 1850s equivalent of a selfie; she’s getting a portrait painted and doesn’t like how it’s going so she decides to take control and start painting herself. That journey is so relevant because a lot of young women, myself included, are struggling with the self-editorializing we do now with social media. Everyone’s constantly stylists, editors, directors, photographers, and producers of their own lives, and it feels very much because of technology and the world we live in now. I hope that moment allows us to realize that that’s been something that women have struggled with a long time, how do women portray ourselves to the public and how much of our story do we want to control? I think we’re quick to criticize women who are constantly getting images of themselves, whether or not it’s being an influencer or taking selfies. Through Lavinia’s story, we see the alternative and what happens when we give portrayals of ourselves to someone we don’t know, more often than not a man, and how much of ourselves we sacrifice to do that. So I love that for Lavinia; it’s a meaty part of her story. But in general, she has so far to go as a character because we know from the history that she ends up not getting married and being Emily’s caretaker and protector, but she really starts as a frivolous character who desperately wants to get married. I hope people get interested in seeing how she goes from that person to the person that we know from history.
The show is really modern with its perspective and how the characters relate and the music, but one thing that still feels historical is the costuming. What was the process of getting into your look?
We have a person helping us dress because the corsets require at least two people. It’s really interesting, it definitely makes me understand the limitations of being a woman in that time period. You aren’t able to move, breathe, speak, or eat in the same way that you ordinarily are. It is a great magic trick because you immediately feel in character once the costume is on.
What’s involved in that costume?
We have bloomers, and then we have an under-petticoat which you put on before the corset, then the corset, and then we have two or three more petticoats before the dress. In Episode 3, you get a peek when Emily gets her period. Every layer. But that was true to the time period; that’s how many layers you had on under those dresses.
What do you hope the audience takes away from Season 1 of Dickinson?
The show focuses on the imagination of this young woman who was totally misunderstood in her day. When people are making art or worrying when they express themselves that the world isn’t ready to absorb who they are, my hope is that they do it anyway. Eventually, the world catches up to you, and I hope that it inspires young people to be brave with their work even if they think there’s no space for them because there could be millions of people waiting to be their fans. In the way that there are now millions of Emily Dickinson fans.
Do you have any upcoming holiday traditions that you’re excited about?
I really have come to cherish downtime with my family. It sounds very simple. I feel like during the holidays I’m able to slow down a bit. My grandmother lives close by and growing up, I had no concept of her as a young woman. I couldn’t imagine her life because it was so different from mine. The show has made me realize that even if someone lived in a completely different time period, they have the same desires that I do. I honestly just want to spend more time with my grandmother! She has a crazy big appetite, so we mainly eat together. Growing up, we would go to Maine and she taught me how to eat a lobster, which is very involved, especially as a kid. She’s a tiny, tiny woman, but she can take down massive meals. She’s a lot of fun to cook for and eat with.
What do you like to do on a day off?
I have a dog and I love to walk him. I live near Prospect Park. Before 9 am, it’s off-leash and dogs run the park like a Pixar movie. They’re just everywhere. I also really love to read. My friends and I have had a book club since middle school, so reading feels like a big day-off luxury.
Do you have any favorite books or anything you’re reading now?
Like everyone else, I read the new Sally Rooney book, which I really love. I also just finished There There by Tommy Orange.
Do you have any other projects you’re excited about?
Right now, I’m mostly focused on Dickinson, but I also really love to write and I’m excited to incorporate writing more into my work. I’m having such a good time with it now because it’s free of career pressure, but I’m working on a screenplay.