Emma Laird‘s onscreen debut as a lead in Paramount+’s Mayor of Kingstown came in a variety of states — sometimes impassioned, sometimes in tears, sometimes nude. As should be obvious, the role of Iris is dark and demanding for any actor, never mind a newcomer, but Laird pulls it off with an ease and grace well beyond her years and experience. The role is also a million miles from Emma’s own infectious personality; she turned up on set everyday with her heart on her sleeve, allowing herself to be vulnerable and submitting herself to the craft — a craft she, with immense earnestness, perfects daily. She candidly tells Schon! about parting ways with the modelling industry, the show and her blossoming friendship with Taikia Waititi.
Hello, Emma! How would you sum up the past year?
Oh, my Lord! It’s weird because my life has completely changed in the last year, but at the same time it feels so normal. It doesn’t feel like there’s been a big shift, even though I really have become an actor properly. It feels so normal to me. It’s sometimes good for me to take a step back and realise everything that’s happened in the last year. But yeah, it’s been life-changing.
What attracted you to acting?
I was modelling in New York and my agents just kept telling me to lose weight. I put my foot down and said no. I stopped modeling for a couple months to go and take acting classes at this school in New York. It was my first experience realising there’s a theory to acting — there are books about acting, who knew?… [But] there was an epiphany moment of ‘I need to do this now’, that was four years ago. Going to classes, constantly working, reading books and being very proactive in my spare time.
What were you reading? Were there any performances that got you interested or inspired you?
There’s definitely something I take from just constantly watching other people’s work. I never idolised any actor. I was never like ‘I must have this person’s career’. It was more just this feeling that I wanted to do it. I have still never seen The Godfather, and people go fucking crazy when they hear that. People in the industry hate to hear that. I’m just never going to watch The Godfather, just to piss you all off.
But I really studied every single acting technique. I really struggled, and still do now, to categorise myself into one acting technique. I take bits from each teacher and implement that in my own way. I have the Emma Laird technique. Google is great when you’re broke, [and] you can find anything in the library. As an actor, I think the hardest part is getting your time to work and study and not being entitled not thinking, ‘oh, well, I’m really talented so I’m just going to get this’, or ‘I’m really pretty’ or ‘my dad’s a famous artist.’ You can get your foot in the door, but if you don’t put in that hard work you’re really fucked, man.
It must be quite intimidating putting yourself out there as an actor after establishing yourself as a model.
It was. I used to hate telling people that I came from modelling because I think there is that presumption, ‘you’re pretty so that’s why you’ve got the job’. I really just wanted to disassociate myself from that industry because I hated it so much. I spent seven or eight years in that industry. I had great moments, I met great friends, but it was not a nice experience, and not nice people. I’d worked for four years, I spent so much money, and I had sold my house to pay for acting classes. I worked so hard to become an actor that I was so quick to want to get rid of modelling. But you know, I owe a lot to it; I funded my acting career with it. In terms of going to auditions and stuff, you go into an audition as an actor. Once I came into my own and I knew what I was doing, I felt like a different person in a way. I felt like modelling wasn’t part of me anymore. Any audition you go into as an actor, you have to prove yourself in front of the camera.
It’s shocking how little the modelling industry has changed.
I know. I left my agent in January and I sent them an email saying, ‘thank you for the last seven years’. Then I listed all the things that were wrong with the industry and some of the things that I’ve been subjected to. The real problem is young girls being sent to very dangerous places and the lack of care for their wellbeing: no food on set, no regulated hours for breaks. Going to photographers’ houses on your own as a 15 year old girl — there are things that need to be shut down. I just listed so much stuff, and they just disregarded it. No one wants that responsibility in the fashion industry. The agents are like, ‘that’s not our fault, let’s just avoid it’. They emailed back saying, ‘I’m sorry that happened to you’. I’m like, but what are you going to do to fix it? Because you have the responsibility of those young girls. I don’t understand how it is the way it is. It’s really scary.
All that said, congratulations on Mayor of Kingstown! Can you introduce us to your character, Iris?
Iris is a sex worker in New York. This was never in the script, something that none of the creators told me, but I’m looking at it from the perspective that she has been sex trafficked — I’m microchipped by my boss so he can never lose me. That is not free will for sex workers. That’s sex trafficking; I did a lot of research into that. She comes to Kingstown because one of my bosses who’s in the prison sends me to seduce Jeremy Renner’s character and it doesn’t work. I’m in a very dangerous town with very dangerous men, and it all starts to go downhill for Iris. When she’s in New York, she definitely is in like an imaginary world. She was kicked out by her parents at 15, her dad abused her as a kid and her coping mechanism was to pretend that everything was fine and not think about the past. When she comes to Kingstown she has these really big moments where reality sinks in and she’s not safe anymore. I guess it’s an inevitable thing that needs to happen with any trauma: when you hide it away, you need to cope with it at some point. I think it’s nice and cathartic towards the end of the season. We kind of see her having to deal with everything she’s gone through, which is hard, but I think in the long run is going to be better because she’s going to transform into a free woman.
We’ll see. He might kill me off, I don’t know. I was at this premiere on Friday night and I was getting interviewed and they asked me something and I basically said, ‘Taylor Sheridan, the writer, told me what happens at the end of season six,’ then I was like something happens with me and Jeremy Renner’s character. The interviewer was like,’ oh, so you don’t die for six years’. I was like, ‘oh, shit. I just gave away what I’m not supposed to’. So maybe he’s going to change it now, or kill me next season.
It’s super gritty for a first role, and some parts are difficult to watch. How did you prepare for that?
Usually, you might warm yourself up and do a cameo on Doctors or something — not me! Part of me is glad that I got such a great opportunity early on. I felt ready. I guess you’re always going to learn a lot from your first major role, but I definitely have trouble watching this back because I’m trying to not be too harsh on myself. I’m hoping that the rest of the world isn’t too harsh on me. My very first day on set, I’m naked in front of all these people and also just terrified because it’s my first day on set. I don’t want people to watch episode five and six and think we did that three months into shooting. It was my first day. Just go easy on me.
Dianne Wiest, who is a wonderful actress, came up to me and the first thing she said was like, ‘darling, how are you going to deal with this role? It’s so heavy.’ Before we shot all the heavy stuff, I was like, ‘I’m an actor, I do it and then I go home.’ I remember the first day we started to do the really heavy stuff in Episode Seven, something just clicked inside me like an emotional switch. I couldn’t stop crying, I would get home and just be shaking all day. I would ring my friend just because it’d been a heavy day. She would answer and I would just cry. I’m very emotional now; it’s good for an actor to be emotional and in touch with all that. But it was a hard role. I had a lot of support on set. I had people really holding my arm through it. I really felt like I had respect from people. They were very accommodating and made me feel valued.
After those sorts of scenes, how do you unwind?
I didn’t. I was in that kind of state for four months. The last half of it was really hard. I knew that all of this was fiction. I know it’s not physically happening to my body, it’s just emotionally — I’m not going to sit and moan about how hard it was, because I wanted to feel those things. If I didn’t, I’d have been frustrated because I couldn’t have gotten my mind to that place. That’s what I signed up for, to be sad. That’s part of the job, and that’s, like, the fun of it. In a very strange way, I enjoyed it, because that’s the human experience as well. It was an honour to be able to just step into someone else’s shoes, no matter how hard it was.
Was that a role you think you’re attracted to? Or do you know what attracts you to the script?
Well, it’s funny, I feel like my actual forte, the things that I do really well are in the fantasy realm. Characters where I can really transform and be weird and eccentric. I think the closest to an idol I ever got growing up were actors like Gary Oldman and Helena Bonham Carter. Particularly Helena Bonham Carter in Harry Potter — Bellatrix Lestrange for me was the only thing that I saw as a kid and wanted to be like. Not necessarily I want to act, but I want to be like that. I’ve always been attracted to dark characters and bad characters, the ones that you like. It’s really impressive if you can play a ‘bad’ character, but you still like them. I find it interesting to try and depict why someone is the way they are. Weird, otherworldly characters are what I really want to do. But for now I recognise that, I’m probably really good at drama. I have got to strategise on that and be sensible and think, ‘okay, what’s going to catapult me?’ Then I can play around with what I actually want to do. I want to work with talented people; sometimes that’s the most important thing.
What attracted me to this script was Taylor Sheridan, who wrote it and directed the first episodes. He just is a wonderful writer, and I auditioned for something of his before and I didn’t get it. This character, the arc that she has, was a very great showcase for me as a first time actor. That’s really what attracted me. I just wanted to choose the hardest project. I want to be challenged and that was the hardest one. I was like, ‘let’s do it! I don’t know if I can do it, but let’s try anyway!’
If you could be recast in a movie or a show as a character, who would you choose to be?
Oh, you know, it wouldn’t actually be Bellatrix. It would be Gary Oldman Dracula from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I want to do that, but I don’t want to be Winona Ryder — I want to be Dracula.
Are there any directors you’d love to work with?
Oh, my god, I have had the most surreal experience this month because I met Taika Waititi over FaceTime whilst I was in Toronto. Then I bumped into him in LA and we really got on and we hung out. I am going to say that we’re friends now. I don’t think he realises. He’s like, ‘stop telling me how great I am’, because I’m like, ‘dude, you’re great’. I’ll be really, really drunk with him, just telling them how amazing he is. That’s maybe why he hangs out with me, actually. I really want to work with him. He’s got some great projects coming up in the next four or five years: he’s doing Star Wars. What Taiki has done to Marvel is genius. He put his stamp on that.
Also Yorgos Lanthimos; he did The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. I really would love to work with him just because I admire his moviemaking. His films are very strange; you don’t know if you like them, you get really freaked out.
What do you do when you’re not on set?
I think as an actor, your entire world is acting. But when you really think about what an actor’s job is, it’s to experience someone else’s life. Just going out I’m exploring a plethora of things, dancing, learning sign language, rowboating, reading classic novels, watching classic films, even carpentry. Any skill set that you can give yourself outside of acting, because acting is the foundation you’ve got to get life experience. The trauma that I have had in my life has actually really helped me emotionally understand the role that I just did. You just have to go out; reading the books is probably 10% of it. Go out and just speak to people and meet different people from different walks of life, different classes, different countries, different ethnicities, different ages, that is really what I learnt the most. That’s what I owe to modelling, actually, is the amount of people I have met from all over the world. You gain their life experience in a way: you never live it or fully understand it, but you understand that it exists, and that gives you something as an actor. That’s a great skill set to have. I just like to try to understand and learn new things every day. I feel like I’m not the most intellectual person. I really struggle with that. I feel sometimes inadequate, because I can’t articulate myself, and I really feel like all I know how to do is act, but I will always try to learn more. That is really my goal, just to continue learning, listening and observing. I might go out and take a pottery class or I might learn to build tables tomorrow or become a bartender — actually, I did that. I don’t know what I’ll do tomorrow, but I know that it will help my career in some weird way.
What are you looking forward to in the next year?
Oh, my God, everything. I’m so excited. There’s some really exciting things I annoyingly can’t say, and everything is still up in the air. But the people that I’ve been meeting recently, it has been very exciting. I’m really, really hoping in the next week that we get some news on something but it’s nice. There seems to be a lot of excitement and buzz around me, which is just nice. I’ve worked really, really hard, and it slowly seems like it’s starting to pay off, and I’m excited for what’s next.
Mayor of Kingstown is currently streaming on Paramount+.
photography. Samuel Ramirez
fashion. Ton Aguilar
talent. Emma Laird
hair. Robert Vetica @ Walter Schupfer Management
make up. Jo Stretell @ Walter Schupfer Management
photography assistant. Sharon Esquivel
fashion assistant. Trinidad Mejia
words. Lucy Vipond