Ella Hunt has loved costume dramas for as long as she can remember, but, still, she was reluctant to take on any period roles that might leave her "pigeonholed as posh and English and pretty." All of that changed, however, when she came across Dickinson, Alena Smith's ambitious retelling of the life and times of the poet Emily Dickinson.
"Dickinson came through, and it was an opportunity to do something really different with this period," Hunt said one afternoon in New York, praising the show for being "completely unique in its concept." To her point, the Apple TV+ series is indeed original: for starters, Wiz Khalifa, playing the physical embodiment of Death, shares a joint with Dickinson in one scene, and the soundtrack includes songs from Billie Eilish.
Hunt, who grew up on a farm in what she describes as a "super, super rural" area of Devon, England and spent her youth attending environmental protests with her parents who she describes as "hippyish in mindset," always knew she wanted to perform. "From a pretty young age, my parents were taking me to these activism festivals," she said. "They care deeply about the environment, and when I was about ten I played a set of original songs for a group of hippies in front of huge ‘Un-fuck the World!’ billboards," she laughed. All of her family members, including her two brothers, are artists, so when she appeared onstage in a production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado at just 11 years old, her mother, who had also been an actress, agreed to let her get representation and pursue the craft.
Roughly a decade later, Hunt moved to New York for Dickinson. "Wherever it was going to be, I was going to do the show," Hunt said. "I had been to New York once before for a weekend of press and hated it. I stayed in midtown and it just felt like the most intense, confusing city. So I took the job thinking that I was going to hate New York and want to fly back to England every moment of the day." Thankfully, her preconceived notions were quickly proven wrong. "I moved into a little apartment in Brooklyn Heights, and I just kind of immediately was like, ‘Whoa I was wrong about New York.’ I’m totally in love with the city."
On Dickinson, Hunt plays Sue Gilbert, the best friend of Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) and fiancée of Emily's brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe). In real life, Emily and Sue were quite enchanted with each other, with the former writing letters that waxed poetic about their love. Scholars have long argued about how to characterize Dickinson's sexuality but the show is less conflicted. By the end of the first episode it becomes clear that Sue and Emily's relationship is more than platonic.
In the second episode, a feisty Emily is pissed that she can't attend lectures at Harvard because she's a woman. She hatches a plan with Sue to dress in menswear and audit a class. "That was one of the most fun days," Hunt said. "Also, Alena had written in the script, ‘Maybe one of them wears a fake mustache.’ I was like, ‘Give me the fake mustache, please!’ It was—I mean, Sod’s Law—the only day that paparazzi snuck onto set. The only pictures of Dickinson were pictures of me and Hailee in men’s clothes, and me in a fake mustache."
For Hunt, her day in drag also provided a much-needed break from squeezing into corsets. "I was super excited about wearing corsets," Hunt said. "And then realized they’re the worst thing ever. You put them on and you immediately feel like the character—which is amazing—but it also felt so overwhelming to think about just how much the women of the time were expected to do. From walking miles to fetch water to cleaning to making fires to keep the house warm. It’s pretty brutal work to imagine the women doing in these elegant entrapment devices."
A crucial element of Hunt's plot line on Dickinson is that her character is caught in a love triangle with her best friend and her best friend's brother. "It was interesting for me to think about, as much as thinking about what draws Sue to Emily, what draws Sue to Austin," Hunt said. "Her entire family is dead. She has no money to fall back on. Unlike Emily, by necessity, Sue has to be pragmatic in her choices. She has to marry well, and Austin is offering Sue stability, he’s fiercely loyal, and completely besotted with her. And also he’s an attractive, strapping guy. I think Sue is attracted to that, too."
By the end of the second episode, Emily and Sue, who are now sharing a bed in the Dickinson home, take their intimacy to the next level, soundtracked to the tune of "Your Best American Girl" by Mitski. "When I read it, I was kind of like, Oh my god, how are we going to do this?" Hunt said of the sex scene that ultimately wasn't too much of a sex scene at all. The actress prefers to call it an "intimacy scene" instead. "David Gordon Green was directing the scene, and me, Hailee, and Alena and David had talked about it pretty extensively. David was like, ‘I don’t want you guys to think about it as a sex scene, I want it to be intimate, I want it to be about how your feet are touching,’ so he did a closeup on our feet, and my hand gliding across her skin," she explained. "He didn’t want it to feel gratuitous or about sex, it was about intimacy."
While Hunt did a bit of research on Emily and Sue, she trusted the creator's encyclopedic knowledge of the subject to accurately reflect the real-life relationship. "I read a book called Open Me Carefully, which is predominantly letters Emily wrote to Sue, and that really informed a lot of my decisions, but also read Emily’s poems because Alena very cleverly weaves a lot of the poems and the imagery and themes into the story," she said. "I also did a lot of research on female friendships at the time. And very interestingly discovered—well, I think this is quite common knowledge—women in the time were really actively encouraged to form almost romantic bonds with other women, to send in-depth romantic letters to one another, and give each other tokens of their affection. There is something so epic about female friendships in the 1800s. So our show didn’t feel that far off in that respect. I was so entranced by this affectionate friendship and love story that Emily and Sue share. Immediately it felt so timely and right to be telling."
After wrapping the first season of Dickinson, Hunt decided to dedicate some time to recording songs she wrote for an album. "I have been working on my first record, which is really exciting, and discovering musicians in the city has been a large part of why I’ve fallen in love with New York," she said. She's been consuming anything by King Princess and Sufjan Stevens and has recently started digging into some classics. "I just got into listening to a lot of Billie Holiday. I grew up listening to jazz, but hadn’t listened to much Billie. My boyfriend had Billie on in the kitchen the other day and I was like, I need to start listening to this," she said. "The lovely thing about any friendship or relationship is being introduced to new things, new perspectives."
And for Hunt, working on Dickinson, too, has been all about new perspectives. "It’s interesting to be part of a show that’s looking at this relationship between Emily and Sue, without really ever putting a label on it. I think I’ve taken that into my day to day life, and really tried to do away with labels and try not to label myself," Hunt said. "I feel much more open-minded having made the show. I’m really proud to be a part of something where it’s just about two humans in love."