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“THERE’S SO MUCH IN OWNING WHO YOU ARE AND OWNING YOUR SEXUALITY.”
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Hailee Steinfeld has a new muse, she declares, but the woman has been dead for 133 years.
No matter. She has still given Steinfeld a “newfound fearless approach” to her next collection of music, the first in five years.
That is pretty powerful stuff, considering Steinfeld is referring to Emily Dickinson, a poet most of us were forced to analyze in some way or another in junior high school. But Dickinson has become a prevalent part of Steinfeld’s life; so much so, she apologizes for bringing her up repeatedly, even quoting her, in conversation. She’s forgiven, of course, and her 12.5 million Instagram followers will be relieved to know – not just because Steinfeld is so genuinely nice. Rather, Steinfeld has spent the better part of a year playing the title role on Dickinson, which was renewed for a second season before it even premiered on Apple TV+ on November 1st.
She had not been particularly excited to read the script of the first two episodes when they were sent to her for consideration. “You know, I thought, okay, it’s a period piece. It could be dry and not so exciting,” she admits. “But when I got into it, I saw that modern contemporary pop music, for one, plays a big part in it. I was excited by that” – (Steinfeld’s own single “Afterlife,” which dropped in September, appears on the show) – “and the amount of modern parallels you see are so surprising and heartbreaking but at the same time funny.”
After speaking with creator Alena Smith, Steinfeld says the “rest is history,” but perhaps that’s just the 23-year-old not giving herself enough credit.
She is also now an executive producer on the project, and it is obvious Steinfeld put in a tremendous amount of research into her role as a young version of the poet in mid19th century Amherst, Massachusetts. So it’s really no surprise Emily Dickinson (or at least the spirit of her) was with Steinfeld when she went into the studio after the cast finished filming the first season.
“I was so excited to just go in and say absolutely everything I was feeling, and I think again that has a lot to do that Emily really was that person: she was so unapologetic; she wrote about everything she felt; and she was so completely...shameless,” Steinfeld says excitedly, bestowing an adjective normally used in derogatory ways on the poet as if it is the utmost honor.
This description goes hand-in-hand with the character Steinfeld portrays on screen, but not perhaps the one we learned about in the classroom: historically, Dickinson had a reputation as a curmudgeonly, reclusive spinster, who may have been chockfull of talent, but was a humorless heterosexual.
But time (and evidence in the form of the poet’s own letters) has proven that the
classic Emily Dickinson narrative isn’t quite the full truth; in fact, it seems more likely she was a lot more like the spirited, guileful, and ambitious woman Steinfeld portrays, the one who consistently butted heads with her parents and had an enviable sex life with her best friend and eventual sisterin-law, Susan Gilbert.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to keep bringing it back to Dickinson,” Steinfeld says for the second time with a laugh, “but Emily has a poem where the first line is: ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant.’ And make of that what you will, but it’s this interesting thing where previously in my writing, I’ve told the truth, but told it slant. ‘This is what I’m willing to tell you about the situation because it still makes me feel safe, about what you don’t know.’”
This time around, Steinfeld explains, she put it all out there during the songwriting process – with the caveat that she could always go back and change it when she was done if she really wanted to. “I really never went back in and never made the changes I thought I would have wanted to make so I think I might have changed my perspective on just being fearless in that sense,” she says.
Another phrase in the same Dickinson poem Steinfeld quoted keeps slipping into the mind during the conversation, a tiny remnant leftover from 9th grade English class, and a glaring literary alarm of exactly who Steinfeld is – and isn’t. “Dazzle gradually,” Dickinson wrote.
Steinfeld didn’t necessarily take a gradual route with her career. A decade ago she starred in her first movie (True Grit) which she was nominated for an Academy Award right out of the gate at the age of 14; five years later, she appeared in the Pitch Perfect film series which landed her a contract with Republic Records and a whole new fan base for her music.
But she has been particularly deliberate, almost methodical, with the music she has released, just as she has with the parts she has selected to play.
“Crossing over to the music space, I knew whatever my first single was going to be, I wanted it to have a message. I wanted it to mean something,” she says of her 2015 debut single “Love Myself.” “There’s so much in owning who you are and owning your sexuality, and I think that’s where I started in the music space, and it has definitely carried through and it has definitely further developed in the roles that I play as well.”
It seems, however, Steinfeld has spent the past decade prudently wading through the waters of show business so the process will be, if anything, a more informed one over the next ten years.
“I’m in that time in my life where I’m figuring it out, which is terrifying and also exciting,” says Steinfeld, who just turned 23 on December 11th, making her one of the last millennials. “Because I really do feel like I’m entering that, ’Alright, you know what you love, you know what you’re good at,’ thing. But it becomes a bigger conversation. I feel like I’ve been so incredibly fortunate, I’ve worked incredibly hard, and I’ve had some wonderful opportunities. But if any changing is going to happen, it’s going to be in the next decade.”