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‘Dickinson’: Anna Baryshnikov on the Intricacies of Physical Comedy and Imitating Demi Moore


Season 2 of Apple TV+’s “Dickinson” is a story about whether or not to seek fame, and that plotline could just as easily be applied to Anna Baryshnikov, who plays Emily Dickinson’s (Hailee Steinfeld) sister, Lavinia. “I really tried to go into the show telling myself I was an Emily,” Baryshnikov told IndieWire. And so, despite not playing a character as well known, the actress made Lavinia into someone just as unique.

Baryshnikov took Lavinia, who started Season 1 as a cat-loving young woman desperate for normalcy, and transitioned her into a fun and sexily awkward character. When the series debuted, the actress explained she was more focused on the source material and translating “Vinnie” from page to screen. Season 2 was different. “I found a groove of working off of the character we created in Season 1 and getting to dip back into the historical facts when I felt I was getting lost or needed inspiration,” she said.

“I really tried to embrace that, not unlike Emily’s poetry, the show is kind of genreless [so] we’re allowed to do whatever we want,” Baryshnikov said. Feeling comfortable and empowered, she said, allowed her to take Lavinia into uncharted territory. The actress was able to display more physical comedy, and blend Chekhovian-esque banter with more slapstick or vaudevillian comedy. “I give myself permission to try anything,” she said.

Words like “Chekhovian” and “vaudevillian” feel like they belong in the actress’ world, and that isn’t surprising considering her connections to classic film. “I watched a ton of Charlie Chaplin [growing up],” she said. “I keep discovering a certain style in that era of filmmaking that is slightly over-the-top, just edging over naturalism. It’s heightened and it’s stylized. I’m so afraid to go there sometimes because when you don’t hit the mark you really feel like a bad actor.”

Baryshnikov is loath to say she comes from a family of dancers, even though she does; her father is the legendary ballet dancer and performer Mikhail Baryshnikov. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t utilize her body to create humor or a performance. In her original audition for Lavinia she played the sequence wherein Lavinia, Emily, and their friends are talking about the Missouri Compromise and Emily wishes she could vote. In that moment, Baryshnikov relied on her physical presence to show her distance from Emily, a facet of the performance she’s continued with in Season 2.


“Dickinson”

Apple

The best example this season came through Lavinia’s relationship with the “himbo” character of Henry “Ship” Shipley, played by Pico Alexander. In one scene, Lavinia seduces Ship by making him reenact “The Scarlet Letter” with her. Baryshnikov had read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s text in high school and was reminded that many of the classics utilized within the world of “Dickinson” would have been new and in fashion.

So when the actress was searching for how she wanted her Hester Prynne to look and sound she went back to a take on the material that was once new and in fashion. “I was like, ‘You know what? Why don’t I just watch clips of Demi Moore [in the 1995 adaptation of ‘The Scarlet Letter’]?’” The scene itself, to Baryshnikov was the perfect example of how Lavinia differed so much from her sister. Even though they were insanely close, even sharing a bed for much of their twenties, Lavinia might have been far more adventurous.

And in a series where, historically, the audience has an awareness that neither Dickinson sister married, it was also an opportunity to revise the narrative that Lavinia, especially, was a sad spinster. “It was so much fun this season to explore [that] maybe no one really met her standards,” Baryshnikov said. “Instead of ‘she waited and no one came back for her.’”

Hearing Baryshnikov’s humility when talking about Lavinia is endearing, and it might surprise the more jaded considering the legacy of her last name. She said one of the most insane things about acting is that it makes you feel like you’re always second-guessing your achievements. “It’s easy to always be thinking about what the next step would be without appreciating where you are,” she said.

This season of “Dickinson” talked heavily about branding and thinking about art in the sense of capitalism, which is something Baryshnikov is aware a performer is often asked to engage in. “I’m not naïve about the fact that the more I do that [branding], the more I get the opportunities to do the creative parts of the job that I’m desperate to do,” she said. “I grew up with a very strange kind of role model because I think my dad enjoyed a ton of creative freedom and didn’t have to do the same kind of courting of attention that I feel I’m sometimes encouraged to do.”

Baryshnikov is hard at work on the third season of “Dickinson” and slipping back into the character hasn’t been difficult. There’s still a lot of research that goes into finding the character. When the series was starting out she took a trip to the Emily Dickinson museum and learned about how Lavinia was known for having her own style and vernacular, and the actress said she often slips into her Vinnie voice here and there. “It suddenly feels like I hear Lavinia coming out of my mouth. She’s just a character I never want to say goodbye to,” she said.

“Dickinson” Season 2 is streaming now on Apple TV+

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