Directed By: Christian BlanchardImages By: Rayan AyashWritten By: Andrew PhillipsFashion Editor: Amarsana GendunovaMakeup: Anastasia DurasovaHair: Cameron Rains
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 house in Devon, England, where she’s staying while 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.
Though Ella Hunt is anything but simple. The twenty-one-year-old artist, who cut her teeth on a British sitcom, brings empathy and intelligence to her projects. She is an actress who speaks with just as much admiration for Love Actually as she does Italian cinema. Her love for her craft has led to her involvement in projects that may appear offbeat and unconventional. Perhaps the most notable of these passion projects is Anna and the Apocalypse , the genre-blending zombie-themed Christmas musical, where Hunt played the lead role. The film’s success with both audiences and critics gave Hunt the clout needed to break into Hollywood.
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.
Hunt plays Sue Gilbert, a woman who has an amorous relationship with the poet. This forbidden romance is, perhaps, Emily Dickinson’s most rebellious act of self-preservation. This love story, set more than a century before the legalization of marriage equality, gives the show its heartbeat. Hunt is especially protective of how her character is perceived by the world, describing the Sue and Emily relationship as one between “soul mates.” This depiction of the characters has earned the show a loyal and passionate fanbase, who affectionately coined the name EmiSue for the star-crossed lovers.
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 every day 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 pajamas and sit in front of the telly and eat chocolate and cry. And feeling good on the days I want to get up and walk the dogs and make music and write. I’m trying to be accepting of what each day brings. It’s an anxiety-inducing time that we are living in. It’s also that the economic impact of this is so huge. New York has so much become my home, and seeing it become the center of this pandemic is tearing me up inside. I feel so sad for my home city, and not being able to be there and be helpful apart from staying home is really hard.
How long have you been living in New York?
Getting on two years.
What about New York is different from other places where you’ve lived?
New York was a place where I arrived and almost immediately found people that made me feel like myself. I felt completely liberated by moving to the city and fell in with a group of artists in which I’m completely in awe of, and who inspire me every day. But I also feel that it is an amazing city to be in because there is such a depth and breadth of people doing strange things and basically in every profession you can find the person who’s the top of it in New York City. It is a fantastic city to be in.
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. And 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.
Any films in particular?
I grew up on Richard Curtis. Love Actually , Notting Hill , Four Weddings and A Funeral , Blackadder , that was really the food of my childhood. So, your classic, witty British rom-coms. That’s my dream to do a Richard Curtis movie.
Are you watching any films currently that have inspired you as an artist?
I’ve recently got a Criterion collection. I’ve been getting really into Antonioni. L’Avventura, I just want to live in L’ Avventura . I want to be Monica Vitti. And Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas, and Wings of Desire are films that have really impacted me. Those are films that I’ve watched more recently.
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.
So how you broke into the business was from being scouted?
I’m not sure I’d say that’s how I broke into the business. It’s certainly how I started auditioning. I was spotted by an agent randomly in a school play of The Mikado . So, I started going up for auditions, which was a four-hour train ride from Devon to London, because that’s where the film industry was based. And when I was seventeen, I moved to London and got a series regular role on a popular British tv show called Cold Feet . It wasn’t that big a role, but it was the daughter of the leads, and a really nice way to hone my craft because I was watching James Nesbitt, Hermione Norris, Robert Bathurst do what they’d been doing for the last 40 years, and they are such pros at it. And so Cold Feet was my initiation into the industry as a young adult. Then Anna and the Apocalypse I got straight after doing Cold Fee t. I was playing the titular role, and that was a tiny Scottish indie movie that got picked up by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the States. And so, it had a US release. I would say that’s how I broke into the industry.
Was there a lot of pressure playing the lead role?
Yes, in some ways. It was a very young group of filmmakers; everyone was stepping up. Our producers had never really produced a feature before. It was our director’s first feature that he hadn’t funded on his own. It was my first film in a leading role. I think we all felt like we were in it together, and we were standing on each other’s shoulders in that way. It was a challenging project, we had so little money and so little time. It was an ambitious idea. It’s a zombie film, but also a musical. There was a lot of fighting, I did my own stunts. Combining that with shooting full-length songs, it was really ambitious, but we had fun. I’m still constantly in touch with all those filmmakers. I think we will make things together again. It seems like it was a really positive experience? It really was. It certainly filled me with the love of working with young filmmakers. It’s just what I want to do more of, really.
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, the show explores her incredible mind. That she lived in such a small world and 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’s not 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.
Going off that question, who would you say are your biggest role models?
That’s really changed in the last few years. I used to answer Dame Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, or Margot Robbie or Reese Witherspoon, but my role models have become people that are much closer to home. As much as I dream of having a publicly successful life, I aspire to be like my friend Jennifer Charles who has a cult New York band and makes music every day of her life and has a wonderful community of friends and people who love her and she’s happy. My parents are also my role models. They have raised three happy children and have a beautiful home and are just good at being parents. Those are increasingly becoming my role models.
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 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 groundbreaking, and as you said, they don’t put a label on it.
Yeah, and 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 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 ax- murderer, it’s fine. (laughs)
What do you hear from fans about the relationship?
They just want more EmiSue. The Emily and Sue fandom are completely lovely. I can’t wait for them to get their hands on season 2. I’ve been so overwhelmed by how kind and supportive people have been of the show and the material covered in the show. I went from having 65% male followers on Instagram prior to it coming out, to now 30% men. Which I love, I love having a predominantly female fanbase.
I think that’s a testament to how much that relationship resonates with people.
You know I’m so glad to have made something that resonates with women, in particular young women. It’s great! It’s what I wanted to do.
How does the period costumes help you get into character ?
As you were saying earlier, the show is so much about constraints, and the moment you put on the corset, you feel the constraints put on these women. Also, doing some research, it was incredible to realize what warriors these women were. Fighting in these entrapment devices, they walked miles every day to get water, in five layers of skirt and a corset that was restricting them from breathing. It’s a crazy contradiction that these women were supposed to take care of the houses and cook constantly. They were constantly working, in these crazy dresses. It was great fun to work with the costume team. Especially in season two, the costumes were next level. We move into a different period where the dresses get bigger. But it’s so, so much fun to work on a show where our characters are so impacted by what they are wearing. The moment we put on our costumes we are our characters.
You get to work with some talented veterans of TV and film, Hailee Steinfeld and Jane Krakowski. What was it like working with them?
They are both extraordinary. I’ve learned so much from watching Hailee command this character. And I’m just completely in awe of what she does on the show. And Jane just brings every scene alive. We didn’t have that many scenes together, but every time we did, I was like the cat who got the cream. I was so happy to be in a kitchen with Jane, basting a turkey.
She’s an extraordinary comedienne.
Yeah, she’s an extraordinary actor full-stop. I’m so moved by what she does on the show. I think she treads the line between comedy and the weight of the period so beautifully. I think she plays a really tragic role in the show.
The first season boasted an impressive list of celebs in recurring roles. What was it like working with them?
We had so many greats. Zosia Mamet, who comes in for the Christmas show. Jessica Hecht. It was fun seeing these great veteran actors come in and just spice up moments in the show and keep us on our toes.
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.