On Apple TV+’s Dickinson, Hailee Steinfeld stars as the eponymous Emily Dickinson; even 150 years after her death, her life is shrouded in mystery and speculation, and this show takes advantage of that mystery to to tell a story about a modern woman trapped in a bygone era that would never accept her. Despite the tragic underpinnings of the series, Dickinson is nonetheless riotously funny, surreal, and even psychedelic at times, constantly surprising viewers with multiple delightful surprises in every episode.
Toby Huss plays Edward Dickinson, Emily’s father, a supportive man who nonetheless can’t provide Emily with the acceptance she’ll tragically never receive in her lifetime. For his part, Huss bears a noteworthy resemblance to the real-life Edward, which is how he landed an audition in the first place. Even if audiences don’t recognize Toby’s face, they’ve surely heard his voice before, as he famously played multiple characters on the long-running animated sitcom, King of the Hill.
While promoting Dickinson, Toby Huss spoke to Screen Rant about his work on the series and his career as an actor, from developing his character’s distinct old-timey Massachusetts accent to how the show led to his first-ever ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
Both seasons of Dickinson are available to stream on Apple TV+, and the series has already been renewed for Season 3.
You have made a career as a chameleon. You’re someone who I guess people would call a “character actor,” and that character is every character imaginable. Are you most comfortable in any particular set of mannerisms, or do you just love to mix it up?
I think I’m more comfortable in the next job! I’m more comfortable in the job I have, and I’m comfortable in the next job, because I like doing really different things. That’s why I’m in this. I was never… It’s not that it wasn’t a strong suit, but it was never consistently engaging for me to just do one thing, you know? But having the role of Edward, it’s nice to have a role like this I can keep coming back to, because I do other things when this isn’t shooting.
Going back to however long it has been, what was the pitch like for you? Did you read for it, did you audition, did they have you in mind already?
I auditioned for it. I did one of the last Halloween movies with David Gordon Green, and he directed the pilot. He said, “I’m gonna direct this thing about Emily Dickinson,” he said while we were shooting Halloween. He said, “You know, you kinda look like the guy, her father,” and he showed me a picture, and I said, “Yeah, I kinda look like that dude…” He said, “Would you want to read for it?” So he kinda hooked me up with the audition, and I did it, and it worked out.
Did you know how weird, how delightfully weird, this show was going to be?
Yeah, you kind of got that cue from the script. The pilot script was like that. There’s other things going on in it. I appreciated that. But it was hard to see, visually, what they were going to do with it. It was nice to see how David took hold of that initially and sort of created the big, broad look of what the show was going to be like. It was great to watch that happen, too.
I’m sure you had rehearsal and stuff, but this is something I’m always curious about. You go on set, you’re ready to work, and you’re riffing and having fun and taking chances and coloring outside the lines. When do you know that you’re in a safe space, pardon the cliche term, but a safe space to create and build out thees characters, to put yourself out there. Like, do you ever get worried about trying something in a take because someone’s gonna ridicule you for making a bold creative choice?
I can’t concern myself with that, if the space is safe or not. I just have to go in and do my job, and that job is to let it hang out! If the director’s got a problem, or the producers, they’ll come talk to me about it. If it’s too big, they’ll say it’s too big. If it’s too small, they’ll say it’s not reading. I can’t rely on the space being safe. I have to just put it out there. That’s my job.
Playing with the idea of the pre-Boston accent, that New England flair that’s just so distinctive, I love it, I wish I had it. Tell me about finding the voice for this guy.
I think a successful lawyer from that time would be pretty British. But we were American, so we had to take some of the inflections of a British accent, but not have the accent. So what I tried to do was turn up the volume of the New England accent while keeping some of the ideas of a British delivery, kinda. I think Edward’s father probably had more of a British accent than he did, and his father more than he did before him. I think we’re two, three, four generations in, and guys were losing that British accent when they came to America. They lost it accidentally, but also on purpose. I wanted to have an accent and a delivery that was right at kind of the turning point between being super respectful of the British, but ultimately saying goodbye to it and going completely American.
In your career, you’ve done so many distinct voices. For you, is that a talent or a skill that you have to constantly train with? If someone were to ask you to play a character you haven’t done in decades, can you jump right back into it, or would you have to relearn it completely?
No, I think a lot of it, you can jump back into it. It’s an ear you can develop, and a little skill you can get. Good voice over actors have that, they can pick up the idea of somebody’s voice very quickly. Some are better than others, but I’ve had an ear for it, I can pick things up pretty well, I think.
If you don’t mind my asking, was that something you did as a kid? Were you a class clown? When did you first enjoy the idea of entertaining people in that way?
I was always doing people’s voices. We would have friends coming over to the house, and I remember them leaving… And I would wonder about their voice and try to do their voice, even as a kid. I’d goof on it but try to get the voice down. Then, once you start to tell stories and you pepper in these voices and you get the feedback that this is entertaining stuff, you tend to go with your strong suits, and you tend to keep going with stuff like that.
Bringing it back to Dickinson, was there something that… Like we said, it’s not a completely straight period piece, um, pun not intended.
Yes, exactly! (Laughs)
But was there anything you learned that you didn’t know about your character, or the period setting?
You know, I’d never been in a horse-drawn carriage. We had a scene where I had to jump in and we rode around the block and did four or five takes of that. It was a four-minute carriage ride, from the take and then around the block and then back to where we started, but it’s exhausting s***!
How’s your back?
It’s exhausting to be in the back of that thing, with a hard, wooden, bench seat. Very little shock absorbers on those things. And people would take them into Boston, a four, five, six hour trip! If it was snowing, that’s a heck of a way to travel!
And pre-thermal socks. You probably had some long underwear, but you probably just jump in, put a blanket over your lap, and hope for the best. There’s no windshield. It’s pretty miserable.
My father was a New York City bus driver for almost 20 years, and that wrecked his back, it’s something else. In another era, he probably would have liked to have thought he would have had a different job, but… I imagine he probably would be at the reins of a horse-drawn carriage!
He would have been whippin’ that horse, trying to get to Boston!