Emma Laird is quickly establishing herself as one to watch with her powerful performances as an actress on the rise. She was most recently recognized by Variety as one of the ‘Ten Brits To Watch’ in 2021. Emma can be seen as a lead in the Paramount + series ‘Mayor of Kingstown’ opposite Jeremy Renner and Dianne Wiest. The series dropped on the streaming platform on November 14th and just aired the final episode of Season 1 this past Sunday.
‘Mayor of Kingstown’ is a series that follows the McLusky family – power brokers in Kingstown, Michigan where the business of incarceration is the only thriving industry. How was it filming this series? What was the hardest part of filming it for you?
It was really educational for me because it was my first time on a set and my first job really. So I learned a lot. It was definitely a lot harder than I thought it would be because my character is beaten up and drugged and raped and all of these awful things. It was hard to emotionally put my mind in that place. I mean, obviously physically those things aren’t happening to my body, but you kind of sit and think about the script and what’s happening in that script for so long before. And then you go on set and you’re thinking and trying to condition your mind to say ’this is happening to me right now’. So it kind of does affect you. Not in the same way, you don’t get the PTSD of those actual things that happened to the character, but it was hard to think about all of that stuff that much, about the things that this girl goes through.
Emotionally it was very hard, but the best thing was that I feel like I really found my artistry on set. I kind of always just knew that I was really passionate about acting and now I feel like I know exactly what I’m doing. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I feel a lot more confident going into the whichever next set is that I go to, I feel a lot more ready and a lot more stable and a lot more confident in my performance.
In the series you play Iris, a dancer who uses her charms to her benefit, until those charms are used against her. Do you see any similarities between your and Iris’ personalities? How would you compare your personalities?
I guess there’s some comparisons. But I don’t think I’m like her at all. At the start of the series, she’s kind of cheeky and playful and childlike, because she’s oblivious to a lot of her surroundings. She kind of lives in this make believe world. So she’s definitely a lot less mature than I am. She’s very naive and I don’t think I’m like her at all. But she’s got a good heart and I would like to think I have a good heart.
I’m really someone who any character that I take on, I kind of deliberately want to not be myself. I really look for ways to change how I am and how I present myself when I’m in a character. I did something called animal train, like animal work for this role. I worked with a movement coach and it basically means you inhibit the characteristics of an animal that you choose. Ours was the cat and you’ll never see it in the series. For this training, I would be in my room, on the zoom call, meowing and walking around my room as a cat. And then you start incorporating some lines from the script and then you dial it back. It just allows you to keep some slight movements or it just helps you kind of change physically, in a calculated way. So I change the way that I move. I also sometimes think about where the characters speak from. I have a very deep voice and it’s very nasal. So I try and change things so that it’s externalized from myself. I like to just transform.
The series involves a lot of systemic racism, corruption and inequality. What’s your view on racism issues, that have been going on in the world in the last years?
I think a show like this is always relevant until these issues are not present in society. There always needs to be not just representation, but stories about the issue itself. I think the BLM, the whole movement, has been very eye opening for a lot of people. It was very necessary. I didn’t speak to a very close immediate family member for a year because we got into an argument about it and it was politicized and it’s caused a lot of tension, but I think it’s been necessary and it starts conversations that some people don’t want to have. I think this past year and a half has really made people open their eyes to and realize the true colors of the true nature of people around them. It’s been hard to have those conversations, but they need to be had and I think we still have a lot of work to do.
When you got approached for the role on ‘Kingstown’, you had quite a few of different options on your plate. What made you decide to do this series and turn down the other opportunities?
I have always followed my gut, I’ve always just had a feeling that I should do something. The same was when I met my agents and there was a bunch of bigger agents that wanted me to sign with them. I just had this feeling and I only read the first two episodes that I’m not in really. And I got a brief character description and a couple of scenes from other episodes and I was so intrigued. I didn’t really know what was going on in this project at all, but I was so intrigued and I really always want to be challenged.
I think all of the other projects were so phenomenal. I wish I could have done them all, cause one was a witch and I love that stuff and I love fantasy. One was working with Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, who are wonderful people, for an Amazon series and the other was ‘The Boys’. I adore that show. I’m a fan of all of those other things, but I just felt particularly challenged with this one. And I was also a fan of Taylor Sheridan. I’d auditioned for ‘Yellowstone’, which is his other show the year before. So I knew about his work and Jeremy was attached and I knew that most of my scenes would be with him and there was loads of little elements like that and I was hooked from the first couple scripts. It was the best choice, I believe, for for me as a first time actor.
You’ve been a model before you started acting. How did that transition happen? What is it about acting that intrigues you more?
Definitely storytelling. With acting, I don’t know yet why this is something that I feel like I have to do, but it really feels like the only thing that I can do. I love exploring creatively. I play guitar really badly, I wrote a really bad book once. I was just trying to find something that I was good at and I think this is the best thing. It is something that I just love and I always had.
The modeling industry is very dangerous for young girls. I think there’s no unions to protect them. It’s a really not a nice industry. It also bored me to death, cause as a model you didn’t have any creative freedom. You were just there to serve everyone else’s vision as you are as an actor as well, but you have the creative input. And I was in New York and my agents were just telling me to lose weight, saying you’re not going to work unless you drop five pounds, 10 pounds or however much it was. It was something I couldn’t do anymore and so I enrolled to New York film academy for a couple months.
I just remember going and having that eye opening moment of like this is what I need to do. Before that I was like ‘oh, that would be fun, maybe in another life’. And then I went to this school and I was like ‘oh, I really got to do this and I need to figure out how’. It took four years up from that point to here, just going to classes, trying to make it happen.
People think it’s probably an easy transition, but it’s really not. I didn’t have any contacts. I didn’t have money. I didn’t have nepotism. I did short films in London after going to a couple of auditions and managed to get an agent here first and then here we are, but it’s been a long journey. It feels like everything that happened last January with the Amazon series and Netflix and this, it all did happen very fast, but for me it’s been four years. For everyone else it’s been five months and it’s like ‘wow, where did this girl come from’. Well I’ve been trying for a long time and I finally have a bit more belief in myself now cause it seems like other people are starting to believe in me.
What do you find the hardest thing about acting? And what the most rewarding one?
That’s a good question. The hardest thing… I don’t know, because all of those hard things I kind of enjoy in a way. There’s 18-hour days, six days a week, you’re waking up at 3:00 AM, you have to really commit your entire life to it. For me, I feel like I commit my entire life. I’ve lost relationships to it, I’ve lost some friendships. You know, some people don’t understand that I can’t speak to them at certain times. I’m really bad at responding to people. The only people that I can frequently text back is people in my team, like my manager and agent. The hardest thing is dedicating every waking minute and missing things.
And I know that if I go out on a bender on a Friday night, it’s going to jeopardize work that I could be doing on Saturday and Sunday or Monday even. It’s really training your mind to the dedication. And also the stress. I’m busiest when I’m not on set. The four months before set, I was really busy and it was prepping and it was doing all the work. Cause when you get to set, yeah, you’re working, but you’ve already done all of the work. And so then you play when you’re on set and you explore and you’re having fun and just doing what you love. And the same with after the show, these three months have been crazy. It’s just meetings with directors and producers and coffees and lunches and auditions as well. It’s all the hard work you have to do in between the shows and the instability of not knowing what’s next. But I kind of like that, not knowing what’s next. I think some actors look at it and they’re like ‘I could be unemployed next year’ and I’m just like anything could happen next year. You can’t think like that as an actor, you have to be excited about the fact that you don’t know what’s next.
The best thing about acting is that you get to live other people’s lives. And there’s this electric feeling you get when you are really in a scene. And sometimes when the unexpected happens, when something that’s not on the page happens and that’s not the goal necessarily, to create something that’s not meant to be there. There’s just a feeling that you get that is like ecstasy. Your hard work pays off and you get to go and have fun. I think any actor loves it more than anything, because you have to work too hard to get to this place. If you don’t love it, I really don’t think you can do it as a career. So I think any actor would agree that it’s that moment on set when you get to do what you love.
You have mentioned earlier that you’ve wanted to be an actress for quite a while. When did you realize you wanted to be in this business?
When I was at the school in New York four years ago, I made that decision and it was a hard decision to actually say ‘I’m an actor’ when you introduce yourself to people and they’re asking you what do you do. When I started to say that I’m an actor that was big for me, cause I wasn’t a working actor yet, but I was an actor.
It was a decision that this was what I’m going to do. You know, you can be a musician. It doesn’t mean you have to be making money from it. You play guitar, then you’re a musician. Acting was really the only thing I liked at school. My mom used to say to me school days are the best days of your life. And I was like, I hope not, cause I’m miserable. I hated school so much except from that one class. And I would stay after school. A teacher actually came up to me once when I was at school, a drama teacher and she was asking if everything is okay at home. And I was like yeah, why? She was like ‘because you stay after school a lot’ and I was like ‘I just want to act’. But when I first had that discovery, it was definitely at the school in New York four years ago.
Tell us more about your hobbies. What do you really love to do and can’t imagine life without?
I really love music. I always buy a guitar wherever I go, because it’s something that I feel myself missing. I can’t play it well, but I’ve always written songs. Music was my first love before acting for sure. I had four jobs as a teenager to pay for gigs and festivals and I grew up just completely in love and idolizing musicians. I didn’t grow up idolizing actors. I don’t have idols in this industry really.
If you had the power to change anything in the world, what would you change and why?
I just want equality. I want everyone to have an equal chance and it’s hard to bracket down whether it be race or gender or anything else. It sucks to think that you are born into a certain body or into a certain country or a place and we don’t all have the same opportunities. Maybe that seems like a very communist way of thinking, but it would be nice if everyone was born with at least basic food and water and shelter. It’s hard, I really don’t know if I could pick only one social issue to change. I think every human life is valuable and if there could be a way for everyone to see that and protect that, that would be pretty special.
Talent: Emma Laird
Photography: Angelo D’Agostino
Fashion Director: Raz Martinez
Stylist: Robiat Balogun
Editor: Timi Letonja
Make-up Artist: Kelsey Deenihan at The Wall Group
Hair Artist: Chad Wood at The Wall Group
1st Assistant: Brandon Satterfield
Digital Tech: Justin Hissey
This interview was done for Numéro Netherlands by Jana Letonja.