Hailee Steinfeld, the actor and pop singer who stars in and executive produces the Apple TV+ half-hour Dickinson, says her music career will play a significant role in the show’s sensibility and marketing appeal.
At the show’s first screening at the Tribeca TV Festival on Saturday — the first time any Apple streaming series has been shown to the public — Steinfeld said she has recorded a new song, “Afterlife.” It will be released September 19, ahead of the launch of Apple TV+ on November 1.
The period-set look at the life of poet Emily Dickinson offers a wealth of contemporary flourishes. (Think Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.) Rapper Wiz Khalifa plays Death and the soundtrack teems with currently charting artists like Billie Eilish. As pastoral 19th century life unfolds, bass-heavy beats drop and many characters speak in a modern style. The show, whose official world premiere will be held in a few weeks, blends drama, comedy and romance steeped in literary history. “It truly reflects everything that’s in her poetry, which is everything there is to feel,” Steinfeld said.
“The music was one thing that stood out to me about this project,” she said. “For me, what’s really special has been working with Apple and Apple Music.” Of “Afterlife,” she said, “It’s been a bit since I’ve put music out, but this is a song that I’m incredibly proud of. I feel like after embodying this character, I have a more fearless approach to my writing and to my art.”
Creator Alena Smith described the show as having a “modern consciousness trapped in a pre-modern time.” She said liberties needed to be taken with Dickinson’s life story in order to grab the viewer. “Look, folks, let me break it to you — spoiler — her life was boring,” she cracked.
The soundtrack and score, Smith said more earnestly, plays a crucial role in the experience of watching the show. “The music is a direct route to her brain,” she said of the title character. After joking about Steinfeld’s “double life” as a musician and screen star, she added, “My hope is that the music lets you feel everything Emily has trapped inside and wishes that it could burst out.”
Steinfeld talked about shooting scenes with Wiz Khalifa, who appears as the personification of death, riding in a ghostly carriage seen only by Emily Dickinson in reveries during the show. “He truly was really interesting,” she said. “What was so attractive about Wiz about the role of Death was the creativity and playfulness that we hear in his music.”
Jane Krakowski, who plays Emily Dickinson’s mother, said she accepted the role not knowing how much her trademark droll comedy chops would come into play. (Judging by the pilot, Krakowski goes for plenty of laughs but also gets to play several more emotional, dramatic moments.)
“I just hope we get the right people to watch this show,” she said. “It’s so unique. It’s so different. The show really grows from what you’ve seen in Episode 1.” She saluted Steinfeld as “such a strong woman to play our lead character because she is going to bring in that audience” of younger viewers who may be encountering Dickinson’s poems for the first time. She’s an “equal badass lady to represent both sides — the modern and Emily Dickinson.”