Ella Hunt apologizes for the chickens outside her window. The actress, who has most recently graced our screens in Apple TV+’s Dickinson, is speaking from her childhood home in Devon, England, where she’s staying whilst the world is on lockdown – a global measure taken to curb the coronavirus pandemic. In this new reality, a Zoom call from the opposite side of the Atlantic has become the temporary normal, and an interruption from a brood of chickens is a welcome call back to more idyllic, simpler times.
Hunt’s current project, Dickinson, invites viewers into a world that is equally off-kilter, minus the zombies. The breakout hit from Apple TV+ reintroduces audiences to the life of 19th century poet Emily Dickinson. Though in this retelling, Dickinson, played by Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld, is a headstrong teenager who speaks in contemporary English, slouches on the furniture and visualizes a world in which the subjects of her poems come to life.
Over the course of our conversation, we discussed the second season of Dickinson, what she’s learned from her onscreen partnership with Steinfeld, the pressures of social media, and the evolution of female roles in Hollywood.
Hi Ella. How are you?
I’m holding up. It’s a strange time. I’m trying to embrace everyday as whatever it ends up being and trying not to get mad at myself if I have a day where I flop around the house in my pyjamas and sit in front the telly, eating chocolate and crying. And feeling good on the days I want to get up and walk the dogs and make music or write. I’m trying to be accepting of what each day brings.
Was film and TV a big part of your upbringing?
Yes, I guess they were. My family were all artists and we pretty much watched a movie after dinner every night, while I was growing up. We’d probably laugh about it and talk about our favorite characters the next day. Yes, I guess film and TV were a really big part of my upbringing. I got scouted randomly in a school play when I was eleven, so film and TV became an interest of mine because I was going up for auditions and reading scripts. So, watching films became a big part of my life quite young.
What first drew you to acting?
I have always loved storytelling. As a small child, I would put on ridiculous productions for anyone that would watch. I took singing lessons and piano lessons from quite a young age. I started songwriting from pretty young. It all felt a part of the same school of thought, really. I love storytelling.
Let’s talk a little bit about your current project. Were you familiar with Emily Dickinson before filming the TV series?
Funnily enough, I wasn’t at all. I obviously grew up in England, and Emily
Dickinson wasn’t on the school syllabus. We had Alfred Lord Tennyson and Yeats. Emily Dickinson wasn’t someone that we studied. So, I was coming to her completely fresh, and in some ways, I’m glad. A lot of kids who are taught Emily Dickinson in school have this idea of her as an anorexic recluse who never left her bedroom. It’s just not true. It’s not true of the whole life that she lived. The last ten years of her life, she was increasingly in her room more and more, and she had a very dark, peculiar small life. But what I love about Dickinson, is the show explores her incredible mind and that she lived in such a small world but yet, her mind was able to see so far in the distance. It’s just a total joy to work on something like that.
It does seem that Emily Dickinson pushed past the boundaries set for the women of the time period. There is an ongoing discussion about the need for greater diversity and complexity in roles for women. What are your thoughts on the subject?
I’m really excited by the roles that I’m currently reading. I think it’s a really fantastic time to be a human in the industry. We’ve seen such huge development in stories for women, for people of color, for queer people. I think it’s a great time to be in the industry. I’d rather focus on that, than focus on there not being enough of this, because the industry is jumping in leaps and bounds, right now. Sure, we need to be pushing it harder and harder, but I feel incredibly blessed to be working in a time where I see more complex and varied roles for myself and my friends.
And I know we have a way to go. I know the stats show that there needs to be more roles for women. There needs to be more stories in general for people of color. We’re not there yet, but I think we are getting close, at least.
That being said, do you have a dream role?
I’ve been saying recently that I’d really love to do a biopic of a musician. I sing and song write as well. It would be really fun to do a project where I’d have to dive into playing a real person and what that would mean vocally as well as acting-wise. It’d be really fun. I think it would be particularly fun to do a Sinead O’Connor film. She’s lived such a crazy life.
Social media has become such a huge part of the way people communicate. How do you deal with the positive and negative aspects of that world?
Social media is a minefield. Currently, it’s saving a lot of us. It’s keeping us all connected. In my normal day-to-day, my answer would be that I try not to spend too much time on social media. Because I feel like it disconnects me from people, but currently, it’s one of the only ways we are able to communicate with family and friends is through Facetime, Instagram, and Twitter. I’m looking for ways to find positivity through social media as opposed to doing what I usually do which is stay off it as much as possible.
Going back to Dickinson, it tackles issues pertaining to the constraints put on women by society and family. Why do you think it’s important for the show to explore those themes?
They are still relevant today. The show has a kind of eerie feeling, you’re watching it, and you know it’s 1850, but at the same time, I recognize so many of the issues that we are dealing with today in Dickinson. That is also what drew me to the material.
Your character Sue and Emily have a very close and complex relationship. What was challenging or rewarding about bringing this relationship to life?
Oh, it was such a rewarding relationship to bring to life. Researching them and reading their letters that they wrote to each other. I see them as soul mates. But what a complex time to be soul mates. I really loved that the show never really puts a label on what their relationship is. It lets it flow and struggle in its own way. It doesn’t label it as a lesbian relationship. They are just two people in love and discovering all the trickiness of that relationship and accepting it as love. So, it was such a privilege to play Sue, to be the Sue to Hailee’s Emily Dickinson. I will forever be proud to play that storyline.
It does seem fresh and ground-breaking and as you said, they don’t put a label on it.
Yeah, it’s something I took into my everyday life. I think labels have become a very important thing in our society in the last fifteen years, in terms of embracing and taking pride in your label or what you term yourself. But now, I think we’ve got to a point where we are being much more open-minded and accepting that labels, actually, don’t have the same weight as they used to. To actually accept that I am who I am, you are who you are, and we don’t have to put any label or name on that. As long as you aren’t an axe murderer, it’s fine (laughs).
Is there anything you want to tell viewers about why they should check out Season 2?
It’s like Season 1 on drugs. It’s everything from Season 1 and more. People who’ve watched Season 1 and loved it, I think they will love Season 2 even more.
There were also some brilliant characters that came into Season 2. I loved shooting Season 2. Also, I get to have a lot of fun in Season 2.