Some native New Yorkers might roll their eyes at the prospect of playing tourist for the day, but not Anna Baryshnikov. To discuss her role on the Apple TV+ series Dickinson, the actress suggested we meet at Russian Samovar, a restaurant and piano bar in the heart of the theater district, before strolling around the neighborhood's souvenir shops and slice joints.
Baryshnikov has been going to the slightly fusty, ornately decorated locale since she was a little girl, on evening excursions from her Rockland County home to see performances in Times Square. "I don’t do them professionally, but I’m a true musical theater fan, which is all obviously in this neighborhood. I was really obsessed with Blue Man Group as a kid and went to that a bunch of times, and we would end up here after," she said, laughing. "I have a lot of childhood memories of peeling my cheek off the bench downstairs because I was asleep."
"It’s funny to rediscover it as an adult after going to plays, ending up here with my friends. It hasn’t changed a lot, and it hasn’t been New York-ified in any way," the actress continued. Russian Samovar is a little bit frozen in time. Unlike your typical midtown pub, the walls are lined with framed paintings Leo Tolstoy and Samovars (or tea urns) that have been repurposed as lamps. We walked through a pair of lush red velvet curtains to get to the second bar upstairs, where Baryshnikov ordered some traditional Russian snacks to share. Even though it was the middle of a weekday afternoon, with nary a customer in sight, you could still get the sense that this place must get kind of rowdy on weekends, when infused cranberry vodka flows from shot glass to shot glass.
Before breaking out opposite Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea and securing a series regular role on Superior Donuts, a sitcom born from the Tracy Letts play of the same name, the 27-year-old actress's parents told her she would have to wait until she was 18 before she could start acting professionally (her father and mother being the famed Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and dancer-choreographer Lisa Rinehart). "I desperately wanted to work as a kid and they nixed the idea," she said. "I bargained them down from 18 to 16 as the age I could start auditioning for things."
It wasn't long before Baryshnikov used her babysitting money to enroll in an acting class, nabbed her own representation, scored a couple of commercials (which, she said, she "took very seriously"), and made her way to Northwestern University, where she studied theater. "I always cared about school and had a lot of interests that had nothing to do with theater and acting. Dickinson is a perfect example—I almost was a history double major, and this show has definitely utilized some of those skills," she said.
To get inside the mind of Lavinia Dickinson, the younger, boy-crazy sister of Massachusetts-born poet Emily Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld), Baryshnikov studied film and literature both of the period and of the current moment, blending Little Women's Amy March and Pride and Prejudice's Lydia Bennett with Cher Horowitz from Clueless and Elle Woods from Legally Blonde. "All of the research about who this woman would be at this time period was relevant, and it was also useful to wonder what would be on her playlist today and what would she be like at a party in Bushwick," she said. "It made the job simultaneously harder and more fun."
Dickinson is unlike anything else on television—or streaming, for that matter—at the moment. The characters may be dressed in mid 19th century period garb, and the social pressures placed on women of the time loom over them (like getting married young, or not being permitted to go to college), but their dialogue is straight from the mouths of teens and young adults speaking to one another in 2019. "It was fun to do a ton of research, but also fully trust the script that Alena [Smith] had written, which broke a lot of those rules. The show really misbehaves in a lot of ways," Baryshnikov said.
"When you’re playing someone real, you want to do it justice and at the same time, I’m coming to set and having a line that’s me saying, ‘You’re so woke!’ And I’m like, how am I going to marry those two things? But it was really fun because we had no rules," she went on, in between sips of Russian black tea with cherry jam and bites of caviar blinis. "I remember shooting the third episode and there was a moment where I threw up, I don’t know what you call them, ‘rock on’ hands? I was like, I’m sorry, is our physical embodiment supposed to be the period? And essentially Alena said, There are no rules. The thesis statement of the whole piece is, how can we understand Emily in a millennial context? We had more freedom in that area than I had imagined."
And as any researcher knows, there are occasional roadblocks (hopefully just comedic, and not the kind that lead to a catastrophic unraveling of your findings) to discovering the truth of your research subject. "At one point I found a website that claimed that Lavinia was the first person to write down the recipe of onion rings, and they were called Devil’s Loops," the actress laughed. "I was so excited about that being true. Turns out it was false. You have to check your sources, the Internet is a wild place."
In the Apple TV+ series, Lavinia is occasionally characterized as a somewhat ridiculous person. She pines over boys and knits for her cats. She wants attention and affection, and she's often the comedic relief, but Baryshnikov said she tries to play the character "as earnestly and straight as possible."
"I think Lavinia is really easy to underestimate. She’s frivolous and kooky, but she also is trying just as hard as Emily to figure out her own life," she said. "As a young actress, I think you’re often told that the best role available to you is the ingenue. That always feels kind of odd because you’re like, ‘I have so much more going on inside of me. I’m sarcastic and twisted and weird,’ and Lavinia gave me a bit of an opportunity to play more with being a character actress, at a different age than I ordinarily would have gotten to. She takes herself dead seriously."
The dynamic between the three Dickinson children—eldest brother Austin, a lawyer and sometimes their father's favorite; Emily, the rebellious literary savant; and finally, Lavinia, the baby of the family—is also explored throughout the series. "I thought a lot about birth order and how we often mold ourselves in opposition to our siblings," Baryshnikov admitted. "It was fun to imagine what it would be like to live in Emily’s shadow and who that would make you as a person."
In fact, Baryshnikov was already intimately in tune with the Dickinson sibling dynamic because of the relationship she had to her own siblings. Her brother is three years older, and her sister is two years younger, which is the exact same age difference as Austin, Emily, and Lavinia. Being the middle child, however, Baryshnikov could identify more with Emily than Lavinia. "I think we play with the fun, difficult dynamics within sibling relationships," she said. "I think we don’t often get stories that fully dig into the dynamic of a family, so that was really fun to think about."
In attempting to understand the life and times of Emily Dickinson, the series addresses the parallels between life in the United States then and now. "The stakes are really high in the world right now, and in pre-Civil War United States the stakes were incredibly high. I think the country felt divided and young people were really at a loss in terms of what their role was, so the two time periods feel like a really natural fit," Baryshnikov said of the parallels between eras. "Some of the jumping between period and modern references has started to feel really seamless, because you realize that it’s the same human emotions at play."
Baryshnikov paused for a moment to thank one of the restaurant's waitstaff as they stepped in to ask us if we were okay. "Nobody's eating, nobody's drinking!" she said, but the actress reassured her that we'd jump right back into our snacks after we finished unpacking the Emily Dickinson of it all.
At the end of the day, the key to understanding Dickinson and the character study within it is actually quite simple: "I think it’s impossible to look at the present without considering the past," Baryshnikov said. And it's the supportive players in the lives of the great minds we worship today who may deserve to be given just as much gratitude as the geniuses themselves. "I love that the show is really focused on the imagination of this young female genius," the actress said. "When we talk about geniuses, it seems like they existed in a vacuum, but the people around them were so crucial to how their life happened. Especially in the case of Emily and Lavinia—Lavinia was the one who eventually ended up finding her poems and making sure that they all got published. It’s always interesting to me to look at the roots and the support system behind the person that we know publicly."
Ultimately, working on the series has pushed the actress to change the ways in which she consumes culture herself. "Dickinson made me think about artists who are making work that are incredibly ahead of their time. That is the defining quality of Emily Dickinson’s life in a lot of ways. It really made me wonder who that is now, and who we’re not paying attention to, who’s making work that in 50 years will feel unbelievably potent and relevant to what’s going on," she explained, as we gulped down the last of our tea and prepared ourselves for some of the bar's infamous cranberry-infused vodka shots.
After finishing our snacks at Russian Samovar, Baryshnikov cheekily posed with the Wicked banners (a musical which Baryshnikov wholeheartedly, unironically loves and of course knows all the lyrics) and checked out some "I heart NY" merch, working up enough of an appetite to grab a slice around the corner at Gotham Pizza. "I’ve been thinking about how Emily Dickinson is not the person whose voice wouldn’t be heard today, and thinking about who the equivalent of that is, and the fact that there could be millions of people waiting to be their fans," she said. "I think it’s inspired me not just to be brave with my own work, but to try to—when I come across something that I love, even if it feels kind of ahead of where the zeitgeist is—trust that and support that maker."