“I am a shrewd Yankee witch. Respect that.”
The line is from Emily Dickinson’s younger sister, Lavinia, in Apple TV+’s second season of Dickinson. Anna Baryshnikov plays Vinnie, as she’s affectionately known, and while Vinnie was a bit of a wallflower in season one, this time around her character has got some of the best lines, the best scenes, and the best character arc, in our humble opinion.
When Baryshnikov, along with the cast and creator Alena Smith, visited the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts (by the way, she apologizes that it took her until halfway through season two to learn how to correctly pronounce Amherst — with a silent h), she asked the tour guide what they knew about Lavinia. While they didn’t know much, they did believe that Lavinia was a sensual person. The guide told Baryshnikov that in letters which Joseph Lyman — a boarder in the Dickinson house for a time, and Vinnie’s almost-husband from season one — wrote to a woman whom he was courting in New Orleans, there are evocative and detailed descriptions of Lavinia sitting on his lap, wrapping her hair around him, kissing him, and putting her head in his lap while he read.
“I think Alena had a really good time figuring out what about Lavinia’s sensuality made her feel powerful and how that could be an interesting engine behind the character instead of just a joke about her being flirtatious,” says Baryshnikov, the daughter of two famous ballet dancers, Lisa Rinehart and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And complementary to her character’s growth this season, Smith gifted Baryshnikov with a memorable dance scene in the penultimate episode. Sparked from Vinnie’s growing obsession and admiration of her boyfriend Ship’s (Pico Alexander) former lover, Lola Montez, she looks to express her sexuality, adventurousness, and creativity in an interpretive rendition of Montez’s spider dance — which, in case you were wondering, is totally a real thing done by a real woman and then a real rock band wrote a song about it, which is used as the soundtrack to Vinnie’s brilliant display.
As season two rounds out its Western Massachusetts adventures with Emily Dickinson, Vulture chatted with Baryshnikov about that dance, the song that goes with it, and her new obsession: Lola Montez.
When you first got the scripts and found out that Lavinia was going to get to fly her freak flag this season, what were your thoughts?
I was pumped. I think after season one, when she suddenly feels like she’s lost this thing that she wanted — to be married and have a family, a conventional life — she realizes this way may be her preference; she realizes that her interpersonal life can be a place of power instead of a place that takes power away from her.
Why do you think Alena wanted to give Lavinia more of a storyline, more agency?
Alena is so ambitious with what she fits into a half-hour format. It is important to her that every character has a full arc, and Lavinia is such an interesting counterpoint to Emily because we know they ended up living together at the end of their lives, and that Lavinia is really the reason that the world knows Emily’s poetry. So I think fleshing out who she was before she did that and how the sisters ended up as a unit at the end of their lives was just ripe with opportunity.
Do you think you have anything in common with your character?
I think there’s something about Lavinia’s earnestness and how she goes for things that I can really relate to as an actor. I feel like I’m constantly making a fool of myself but also feel kind of genuine in why I’m doing it, and that feels very true to Lavinia. I also think I really relate to the duality of her naivete and then also wanting to be taken seriously.
Had you heard of Lola Montez before she showed up in your season two scripts?
I knew the song “Whatever Lola Wants” from Damn Yankees from all the theater camps I went to growing up, but I didn’t know that it was based on a real person. And there’s a 1955 film about her. She was quite famous and had such a fabulously interesting life; I became kind of obsessed with her.
She was an Irish woman who made up an exotic Spanish persona and went around having high-profile love affairs and performing, including the famous spider dance, that allegedly got men in a big tizzy. Not that it’s the same thing, but her origins got me thinking about Hilaria Baldwin …
Like anything in Dickinson, the whole Lola Montez thing is kind of outrageous. But when you dig into it, there are real themes in there, which is when we want to escape feeling like our life is mundane, role-playing being someone else is can be really intoxicating. Lola Montez does that and becomes incredibly powerful and seductive and, like, brings down empires by flashing her vagina. [Laughs.] And then Lavinia is inspired by Lola to do some role-playing of her own and try on what it feels like to have control.
Okay, now getting into this spider dance — I have to know the sequence of events here, because the culmination of them all is too perfect. Did Alena know about the song first, or the spider dance, or about Lola Montez?
I wish you could hear the phone conversation where Alena called me screaming about this song. She gets so delighted by the many layers of culture in moments like these. I had never heard of Volbeat, and the song now gets stuck in my head constantly, but Alena had already written the dance scene, which developed after the scripts were already written and as the season was shooting, when she came across the song. For obvious reasons, sometimes I feel embarrassed about the idea of dancing. But for Dickinson, I was ecstatic. It sounded like so much fun.
Right. You are the daughter of two very famous dancers …
That I am. And I have not inherited all of those skills. I always feel like I need to warn people that they’re not getting a little replica. But Alena was so unbothered by the idea of asking me to dance. She knew that it was just the right thing for the story, and I just ran with it.
Who choreographed it the dance? Was it very collaborative?
Danny Mefford choreographed it. He has worked a ton in theater, and we had a bunch of mutual friends. This is when I feel like Alena’s playwriting background allows us to speak the same language, because it was so clear from the beginning that the point of the dance was for Lavinia to challenge Ship, and for it to be really character-driven and come from a place of wanting to feel sexy and weird and powerful. I wish people could see Danny’s version of the spider dance, because he was so funny doing it. But yeah, we collaborated together, and there were little mistakes that happened along the way that ended up being my favorite parts of the dance. Like I was having a hard time dealing with that whip, and I was like, “Oh, what if I hit myself in the face with the whip?” and then that became part of the choreography.
Ship is based off the real Henry Shipley, who talks about being whipped by Lola Montez in an 1888 newspaper clipping!
Those Easter eggs are some of the most delicious parts of the show.
How did it go when it came time to shoot the scene?
I had considered taking a shot of tequila before I did it because I was so nervous. It was towards the end of shooting season two and we were kind of down to the wire, so we didn’t take a tremendous amount of time with it. And though I was nervous, the thing that kept it really alive and fun was that I completely forgot that Pico (Ship) would be opposite me, reacting. His reactions really kind of became part of the choreography, and I felt like I could just stay focused on the intention of what the dance was supposed to do instead of how I looked and how it was going to be shot.
It definitely isn’t classical ballet. It’s more, shall we say, experimental and interpretive.
It’s a little bit of performance art, too. The show is so goofy, but there’s a kernel of truth here, which is that Lavinia has run out of options as to how to test whether or not she’s going to feel like she has agency in this marriage. So, she’s like, I’m just going to put my weirdest self out there, and if he can handle that, then maybe it’ll work.
I mean, it’s pretty much how I snagged my fiancé.
I am absolutely going to do a terrifying striptease in every relationship from now on.
Do you have a favorite Lavinia moment?
It’s probably the spider dance. I mean, I just don’t know that I’m ever going to get to do anything that fucking weird again. [Laughs.]