A few days before my interview with actress Ella Hunt, I am treated to a sneak peek of all the looks she and her stylist Sarah Slutsky put together for the Dickinson season-two press tour. In a genius move, the two documented their NYC fitting, because when you have a rack full of showstopping designs from the likes of Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Versace, a waist-up Zoom moment just won’t do. Before I jump on our call, I wonder which of the 10 curated looks I will see on Hunt. “It’s the Louis Vuitton!” she tells me with elation, stepping back from the camera to show off the details of her zipper-clad ensemble.
Now that virtual press days are the new norm and in-person appearances are few and far between, celebrities and their stylists are finding creative ways to make a fashion statement, and we’re reaping the benefits with glorious Instagram photo shoots and rare behind-the-scenes access. To ring in the New Year and the new season of the AppleTV+ series Dickinson, Hunt and Slutsky served up a sartorial platter of sultry androgyny (think sleek, tailored separates with flashes of skin and thigh-high patent boots for good measure) to complement Hunt’s new pixie haircut and echo her affinity for the grunge era. The word “empowered” comes up frequently when Hunt describes her recent approach to fashion, and it’s a fitting one. Her confidence is practically radiating through the computer screen.
Fashion aside, it’s an exciting time for the British actress. Dickinson is a hit. The show was greenlit for a third season before the second premiered, and her performance as Susan “Sue” Huntington Gilbert has critics raving. But perhaps in even bigger news, Hunt revealed that she is preparing to release music this year. Though we’ve seen Hunt’s vocal talents on screens big and small (watch out for a special scene in episode six), she promises her personal work will be very different. Color us thrilled.
Ahead, I chat with Hunt about expanding her artistry, season two of Dickinson and Sue’s stylish transformation, and the pair of boots giving her favorite Dr. Martens a run for their money.
We’re seeing a new Sue this season, at least on the surface. What is your take on her evolution from season one to season two?
It’s about a year and a half [between seasons], and in that time she has gone from being a destitute orphan to being a well-moneyed, married Amherst woman. And so all of a sudden she doesn’t have to be pragmatic in the ways she was before, and in that time, she has gone through some more trauma. She completely reinvents herself as this glamorous hostess. The fun of this show is that it is historically accurate to Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. She did become this extraordinary hostess, but we get to imagine how that might have come about and look at social media and fame through the lens of the 1850s. For Sue, notoriety and these parties and this new person she’s created are an escape from her inner emotional reality. I think it’s very relatable to today. There are a lot of people out there who find an escape from all kinds of horrible and challenging environments by creating these social media platforms and these other selves that exist only in social media in the same way that Sue is aiming to exist only in the social sphere of Amherst.
Sue has a brand-new home this season, The Evergreens, and a gorgeous new wardrobe to match. What were your initial reactions to seeing this new side for Sue?
The team did such an incredible job on that. It’s also incredibly accurate to what the house was actually like. As a cast, we visited The Homestead and The Evergreens, which really are just a stone’s throw away from [each other]. In fact, this is making me think I need to do an Instagram post at some point of my facial expressions in my first fittings for the show. I’m just permanently like this [drops her jaw].
What is so fun about playing this part and working on this show is that not only do we get to wear these incredible dresses, incredible and uncomfortable dresses, [but we also] get to watch the costume team make them. This year, our costume house was in our set building, so I was able to go downstairs and see our tailor cutting the newest waistcoat for Sue. Every time I came in for a fitting, I’d get to watch them elaborate on the initial idea and sometimes collaborate. Jen Moeller, our costume designer, was just so wonderful to watch. Such an empowered woman asking me, “What do you think this should be? What fabrics speak to your soul? What do you think she should be wearing in this moment?” And then watching her take the little morsels of ideas where I go, “Maybe that.” She then takes and builds this world of a dress that I then get to wear.
Sue has so many amazing fashion moments this season. Is there one that particularly stands out to you?
So there was one dress that didn’t end up in the season. It’s a dress that goes on in an Emily fantasy, so maybe it will come back next season. We nicknamed it the watermelon dress. It looks like if you threw a watermelon on the ground and it just splattered open—all of the colors of the watermelon were in this dress. It was incredible. Of what we see this season, I have a gold corset that I wear at one point that is so beautiful, and the outfit I wear for our intellectual party that happens in episode five with the little glasses and the waistcoat. I felt pretty awesome in that.
The push and pull of Sue and Emily’s friendship is even more complicated this season. I want to talk about the on-screen friendship and chemistry between you and Hailee Steinfeld.
Specifically, this season what was so beautiful about coming back to these characters is that Hailee and I were also coming back to our friendship. We were able to build on what we had started in season one and trust each other more and go deeper with our journeys with the Emily-and-Sue relationship. We did a lot of work just before starting shooting and in the first episode because this season is about the separation of Emily and Sue and whether or not they can come back together, and about Sue pushing Emily away. We talked a lot about how we earn their journey as a couple, how we can take the audience along for this ride and make the audience understand why Sue is behaving the way she is behaving, and why Emily is feeling how she is feeling so that when we get to the [end of the] season, it is as climatic as we all dream for it to be. I feel so proud to get to play the Sue to Hailee’s Emily.
Episode six (“Split the Lark”) is a special one because we get to see you sing. Was that always written into the script for Sue or is this something you and Alena Smith talked about incorporating later?
Alena knows that I’m a musician. When we started shooting season two, there was that very special moment written into the script, but Alena wasn’t sure who Emily was going to be seeing or what voice she was going to be hearing when she enters this fantasy world. I don’t know why, but I just sort of presumed it wasn’t going to be me in the end, and Alena was like, “Oh, no, it’s definitely going to be you. You are definitely going to be singing.” It was such a thrill for me, especially getting to stand on that incredible opera stage, and because I’m at this moment in my career, I am getting the ball rolling with releasing music myself. It is such a huge part of my life that to get to acknowledge that a little bit in the show really makes me happy.
Are you able to talk about the music you are working on at all?
Absolutely. Music came before acting for me. I sing and write. Songwriting has always been a way of expressing what’s going on around me, and I am going to be releasing music in the near future. It is not of the musical theater vein, although I have loved getting to do that as an actress. It’s really fun to get to act and sing in something. My music is very different from that. I’m really excited to get to introduce people to that side of me and to be able to be talking about that now.
I want to talk about the imagery we are using for this story. We get a sneak peek at what a fitting looks like between you and your stylist Sarah Slutsky. What do you love about Sarah’s approach to fashion/styling?
Sarah and I met over Instagram DM and she basically saved my life. I was about to go into my first-ever press tour for Anna and the Apocalypse and I had no idea that actresses had stylists. All of a sudden I was thrown all of these events I was going to be going to, and I was like, “What the fuck do I wear?” Sarah, out of the blue, magically emailed me four days before I went off on this tour and said she would love to try working together if I was up for it, and I was immediately like, “Yes, please!” Sarah takes away all of the stress of fashion and just makes it so fun, and she’s become one of my closest friends in New York. Now our relationship is not only about what I’m wearing but also about discovering ourselves as artists—from Sarah as a photographer to me as a musician and artist—and finding ways to embody that in our friendship and working relationship, which is the best fun!
What were you and Sarah hoping to convey or achieve with your Dickinson press looks?
I recently cut my hair off and am really enjoying leaning into androgyny, and Sarah has been really empowering me to enjoy androgyny in a sexy way. I’m 22 and it’s the first time where I feel really awesome just owning my sexuality and finding outfits that speak to that and build on the fashion relationships I’ve started in the last couple of years. This has been some of the most fun dressing.
I love how you are showing the looks on Instagram.
Oh, yes, the ridiculous shoots we’ve been doing! I grew up around a lot of photography and fashion photography because my family are all artists and my dad is an art collector and dealer, and there were some Helmut Newton images I wanted to channel in Zoom press-day photo shoots. That one on the kitchen floor is very much a tribute to Helmut Newton.
How would you say these looks are an extension of your day-to-day style?
This year has been really bizarre because I’ve spent most of the year—as I think most of us have—in sweatpants, not really thinking about what I’m wearing. So it’s been even more fun to come back to fashion with a fresh pair of eyes and weirdly, this time has empowered me to feel more like myself. There’s something about being in those long latex YSL boots. It made me feel how I feel when I put on my [Dr. Martens] in a sense—just able to go out and conquer the world. Obviously, it’s completely different, but I felt as confident in those thigh-high boots as I do in my [Dr. Martens]. Sarah and I have really been enjoying finding ways to channel my grungy street dressing with dressing for events as an artist.
Coming into this New Year, what are you looking forward to most?
I am really excited about working and working with more of a respect and love of getting to collaborate because after a year of having to stimulate myself largely on my own from a bedroom, it will be really wonderful to have those creative batteries recharged by being around other artists. I’m especially excited for that. I’m really excited about introducing people to my music. That’s really the big thing I’m excited for this year. And obviously, shooting Dickinson season three.
Dickinson season two is now streaming on AppleTV+.