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'Dickinson' patriarch Toby Huss on the contemporary relevance of the 1850s-set series

Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski in Dickinson Season 2
(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) isn’t the only Dickinson family member going through the emotional wringer in Season 2 of the Apple TV+ historical dramedy. Alena Smith’s series detailing the life of the literary icon has cemented its position as a must-watch in the crowded streaming schedule by exploring the rifts and societal shifts impacting the Amherst residents. Financial strife has run parallel to marital discord leading to the rare storyline focusing on the ups and downs of an older married couple. As the second chapter builds to its conclusion, Emily’s parents are the only romantic pairing who are stronger than ever, having overcome their differences with some good old-fashioned communication. Edward (Toby Huss) and Emily Sr. (Jane Krakowski) straddle the comedy and poignant line, which has led to some of the funniest and most heartfelt scenes of the season. “I’m in a hole,” is one such moment in the fourth episode that goes from a laugh-out-loud line deadpan delivery by Huss to parents having a rare conversion about intimacy. 

What To Watch recently caught up with the Dickinson patriarch Toby Huss to discuss Edward’s relationships, including the ebbs of flows of his marriage and the evolving relationship relating to daughter Emily’s dreams of becoming a famous poet. In this week's episode, there is a wonderful moment that cements how far the pair have come. Huss’ impressive TV career has featured an array of comedic titles such as King of the Hill, Seinfeld, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and more recently Brooklyn Nine-Nine and GLOW. On the drama side, his turn as Bosworth on Halt and Catch Fire draws parallels to Edward Dickinson’s topsy-turvy dynamic with his oldest daughter. In addition to the latter, we discussed shooting at the opera, how the 1850s-set series captures contemporary ideas about fame and politics, and the Season 3 renewal. 

Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) and her father Edward (Toby Huss) in Dickinson 2.04.

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

One similarity between your Halt and Catch Fire character and Edward Dickinson is even though Cameron (Mackenzie Davies) isn't Bosworth's daughter, there's that back and forth relationship. In Dickinson, Edward goes from being the person who's trying to stop Emily's ambition to slightly understanding her. Can you talk to me about what that difference in character meant for your approach in Season 2?

It's funny you caught on to that. Yeah, there are similarities between Bosworth and Edward. I think it's in large part due to the actresses; Mackenzie Davis is so good, open, and willing to work. Hailee is the same way, she's so good at such a young age and is willing to do the work. She's not shying away from anything, she's right there in the middle of it, which is always great to see. It's been pretty gratifying to watch this relationship evolve over the course of last season. It's really been great because Emily's changed — of course, everybody has changed — it's good arcs for everybody over the year. But I think Edward especially had to open up in a way that probably the real Edward never did. This character is opening up in a way that is probably surprising to his daughter. For him to come full circle and then support her being a poet is a big deal and it's a big deal for a father in 2021. And it's a much bigger deal for a father in the 1850s.

In terms of your relationships this season, you don't always get these older married relationships with all the intricacies and nuances. You fell in a hole — which was comedic — followed by an amazing conversation about marriage and intimacy. What it was like shooting those scenes with Jane Krakowski? 

I think anytime you can spend a day shooting with Jane Krakowski you're a lucky fellow, so it was great. It was us both coming up with different ideas about how to approach the scene and how to approach each other and I like the way it unfolded. She's great to work with.

There’s that really beautiful line where you just say "We got old" and it's such a simple concept.

That was the thing, the hole is a pretty big construct. So you don't want to act bigger than the hole. You want to keep it all in the hole.

And then you have the opera, which is a completely different setting and it seems like there's a spark again between them. Can you talk to me about shooting that episode and what it was like to be in that kind of arena?

It's just a beautiful old building to be in. I think it was completed in 1929, a few months before the stock market crash so it never reached its full potential. This beautiful gilded opera house in the middle of Jersey City, it's fantastic and largely as it was there [in that episode]. It was a great time shooting, they'd had shows and things over the years, hundreds and hundreds of them, and downstairs where the dressing rooms are was quite a scene. Little secret rooms upon secret little concrete rooms with no ventilation and strange scratching on the walls and such. It was pretty good, mysterious.

Dickinson Episode 6

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Is it good on those days when the whole cast is together shooting in the same location?

Yeah, that's pretty fun. Everyone's just hanging out because the days when they're big events with a lot of people, nothing gets done very fast. So there's a lot of hanging out with each other and monkeying around.

You've played this character for a season, but when you were doing research about the real Edward Dickinson, was there anything surprising that you learned about him?

He wrote a lot of love letters to his wife and they have these collected love letters. He wrote hundreds and for about every 12 letters he wrote, he got one response. It wasn't a quid pro quo. This guy was chasing after Emily senior, I mean he wanted her. But he also wasn't the most romantic fellow in town either. I think we covered that in Season 2, I forget the line but it wasn't too sexy — it was about how they'd make a fine upstanding couple, they can really contribute to each other, to the betterment of each other's lives. He wasn't the sexy wordsmith. He really chased after his wife. It was funny to see that and how she was a little bit lukewarm to him initially.

The costumes by Jennifer Moeller are incredible, and I love how ornate the neckwear is and you've got these beautiful waistcoats. Is there anything that you would like to bring into your modern-day closet from the show?

You know what I like is the pants. Those are some fun pants to wear, you get to wear suspenders with them, I could work that. But the big billowy shirts and the vests are pretty tough, a lot of work.

Dickinson Season 2

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Congratulation on the renewal! Is there anything you can tell me about Season 3? 

There's going to be a COVID protocol, we'll get tested a bunch, but other than that, we haven't seen the script. We don't really know what's happening in Season 3. We'll find out in the next month I imagine.

What's it like working on something that's set in the 1850s but is relevant to 2021?

I think that's why Alena picked it. There's a lot of relevance and there's a lot of gender-specific things happening with Emily and the women around her that are very relevant today. In terms of being famous is very relevant today and all the kids now have access to that. The ability to be more famous than their parents ever probably dreamed or wanted to be. And then also, with a big rift between the left and the right politically in this country, I think it mirrors that what is happening in the 1850s, the build-up to the Civil War. 

Dickinson is a balm and despite the relevance, it is also an escapist watch. Have there been any like TV shows you've been turning to during this global pandemic? 

There's a Belgian show called Undercover that I watched that was nice because it wasn't in English. I don't know any Dutch and don't know any Finnish, it was just watching it happen and read the words at the bottom of the screen. That seemed to be very comforting just reading along with a book that was projected in front of me that was actually a TV show.

I know what you mean, Babylon Berlin is a German show that is one of my favorites.

That's a great one too because you can't listen to it with the American dub. Watching and reading that is a great one too. Those have been fun. The foreign ones, I like the foreign ones.