‘A Quiet Passion’ is the story of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest and most original literary icons. A person that lived much of her life introverted and never saw recognition in her lifetime.
Born in 1803, Dickinson is considered to be a gifted child, but an emotional trauma forces her to give up her studies. The introverted young woman withdraws from society and writes poetry. In spite of her cloistered existence, she takes her readers on a journey into the wider world.
Terence Davies imagines her biography and explores how Emily Dickinson’s exceptional poems could come into being. The camera glides delicately into a life in which poetry takes up more and more space. Emily Dickinson communicates with the outside world via letters. In her correspondence with her siblings and the clergyman Charles Wadsworth she exchanges philosophical and everyday observations. To her, Wadsworth’s move to San Francisco is a tragedy. Davies’ biopic also describes a talented woman’s lonely and desperate struggle for recognition in a world dominated by men.
With “A Quiet Passion” screening at the 66. Berlinale’s Special Gala, we spoke with veteran actress Cynthia Nixon whom portray’s Emily Dickinson, about how she prepared for the role, the complexity of the character, the evolution of the film industry and more.
Find more information about “A Quiet Passion” at the 66. Berlinale here
Can you talk more about the character Emily Dickinson you play?
I love Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I loved it as a small child and I love it still. I think she’s remarkable. She’s an interesting brain and also a complicated person. It’s not often in life that one gets to play a part that has so many cells. There is a shy defiant person, an incredible, hopeful and loving person, who is eager to connect. Then there is a very bitter, almost cruel person. I mean it’s such a range inside her.
Emily’s love life is sort of an enigma. Do you think you solved that in the film?
I don’t feel like we solved it, but there is so much to show about her and I think we showed a good amount. Whether she is a lesbian is a big question. The bigger question is, these passion love affairs that she had, were any of them physical? I don’t know.
If I had to give my opinion, which is not definitive, I would say that she fell in love with men and women; They were very passionate and painful and the ends of these relationships, the breaking off, were very painful. I believe she was very in love with her sister-in-law and felt sort of betrayed by her in the end.
If I had to define her, I would say she is bisexual. But she is such a person of passion and you get that from the film. She’s so eager for connection, she doesn’t go by gender.
She was a rebel for her time. Do you feel that connection since you are a very strong woman and an activist?
Someone asked me yesterday whether I thought Emily Dickinson would have defined herself as a feminist. If that had been an idea that was presented to her, I personally don’t think so. I believe she was deeply interested in gender, but also in women’s equality. She thought women’s inequality is wrong, but I think she might have had feelings about women’s equality and about slavery in a time that she was living. But, I don’t consider she was a person who put a lot of stock in political movements. Everything for her was so personal. For me, I have more fame in political movements then I think she had. I am a person more out of the world. That’s what is extraordinary about her voice, it’s so purely her own.
Do you consider her a feminist icon?
I do. But, we always have this struggle, do we say a writer is a female writer or a writer? I think she is a feminist icon but also a poet for the ages. She is America’s most famous poet that happens to be female. She is not the greatest poet because of her gender, but her gender is included in every poem she writes about.
How did you prepare for the character?
First of all, it’s important that I try to look like her as much as I could because we don’t know what she looked like. It’s important since we live in such an informal time; we are so casual about everything. This was a very formal time, even though they deprived themselves on straight forward, honesty and directness, they were just formal. So once you get into those clothes, it does help bring you back to that period.
I had been an Emily Dickinson fan, so I had read a lot of her poetry and letters. There is a collection that came out years ago that I had bought Open Me Carefully, which are the intimate letters she wrote to her sister-in-law. There is so much to read about her you could spend your lifetime reading it. Once we started working I realized that a certain amount of research was helpful but, in the end, there are so many versions of what people think she was and this film was Terence Davies version of her. It’s good to have the background, but if it wasn’t in the script it’s almost as if it didn’t happen.
There have been many changes on women rights since that period. However, last year there were a lot of talks about women in Hollywood, in the film industry.
My attitude is you can talk about awards and salaries, those are important to me, but they are kind of the by-product, not the main issue. To me, the main issue is that women’s stories get told. Once they get told, you have women involved at the top, whether it’s a writer, director or producer, and a star that’s the vehicle to the story. Like Viola Davis said recently, I can’t win an award if I am not given the role. I think it benefits an audience to hear the experience of people who are misrepresented, including women. Great actors don’t just happen on roles, great actors happen in roles. If we continue to tell women’s stories and of every age, there will be actresses who emerge, who have something to show that we haven’t seen before, other than just beauty (laughs).
Your acting career started at a very young age since you were twelve years old. How do you see the evolution of the film industry?
I started in ’79. Everything was much more in the middle. There was television, three networks, movies, some more expensive, some less. Now you see hundred million dollar movies that can make billions. You’ve got movies like Tangerine which are made with an iPhone. So for me, the highs are much higher, the lows are much cheaper. I think it’s democratizing. I believe it’s easier for young filmmakers to get their work out there, to not have to feed into the system, be able to raise a little bit of money and get a film made.
— Film interview conducted by Lia Fietz