Mayor Of Kingstown Star Emma Laird Shares Details On The Explosive First Season [Interview]

Taylor Sheridan's new Paramount+ drama series "Mayor of Kingstown" has a star-studded cast, including Jeremy Renner, Dianne Wiest, and Aiden Gillen. One of the show's central characters, however, is newcomer Emma Laird, whose Iris is central to the season's story.

I had the chance to talk with Laird about working on the production, including how she got the role, what it was like filming in an actual prison, and how it was acting against Renner. Read on for /Film's interview with Laird, where she shares details about the show.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

"All I've Done is Cry. In Good Ways, and Bad Ways."

To start us off, how did you come across this project? How did you decide to do it, and how did that happen?

It was such a chaotic start of the year. I got a Netflix film, which I was so excited about, it was my first project. And then this script came in for "Kingstown," and Netflix was saying to my agent, "You've got to sign these contracts." And I'm like, "Do we just drop it? Do we risk it?"

I ended up dropping the film for this, and then two other Amazon series came along, and [show creator Taylor Sheridan] still wouldn't cast me without meeting me, and I was like, "Dude, come on! I just need to confirm this, because I'm taking risks." But it came in, and I got episode one and tow. Reading that first episode, I was just transfixed by the complexity and the amount of characters and how you're really thrown into the middle of this town.

I met Taylor in Texas. He flew me out, and I got all the scripts the night before. I remember being absolutely terrified, because I didn't actually realize the true horrors of what this girl goes through, and I didn't know if I could do it being this would be my first experience on set. I said to him, "I don't know if I can do this, but that's why I want it so much." It just terrified me and I, just as an actor, always want to be terrified of things — I want the challenge. He confirmed me, and here I am, so it all worked out really well.

I actually hold, in the back of my phone case, the plane ticket from when I went to see Taylor. (She pulls out phone and shows the ticket.) That's still there, and it always will be. I could not stop crying. I've not stopped crying since January, I've really not, all I've done is cry. In good ways, and bad ways.

"What The F*** Is Going On With These Two People?"

I'm sure your character, from what I can tell from the trailer, probably cries in bad ways.

She cries so much. There was one scene in episode six where the direction was like, "So Iris sat on the bed crying." I was like, "Nope, she's not crying." I was like... "I cry so much." And I really put my foot down, and was like, " I don't want her to cry in this scene." It's a very natural response for what she goes through, but it came to a point where I just felt that she didn't need to do that. We see a lot of tears from Iris.

Based on the trailer, you can see how Iris is being set up for Jeremy Renner's character, Mike. Can you talk a little bit about your character's relationship with Mike and what it was like playing against Jeremy?

Iris is sent to Kingstown to persuade Jeremy's character to do something that my boss wants, who's in one of the prisons. And Jeremy just sees straight through it. He's like, "Get out of my office, I know what you're trying to do. No." And so, the dynamic between those two is a really nice and complicated and flawed one, and we really don't know where it goes. Even at the end of the season, we're still left thinking, "What the f*** is going on with these two people?" I think there's a layer of protectiveness that Mike feels for Iris, and he's running this town, and she's in this town, and she's very vulnerable, and I think he's got a soft spot for her. I'm not sure what Jeremy would say about that, but I would like to think that he has.

And working with Jeremy was just a bloody dream come true. He is so, so talented. It was really hard though, because I think I was in the mindset of Iris, and what Iris was wanting from a scene. And it was really hard, because he's such a good actor to experience Mike McLusky being so off with me. I'd be like, "Oh my God, Jeremy hates me!" and then it'd be like half an hour when we've cut, and he's like, "Yeah, sorry." And I'm like, "What the f***?" But it was so special, he's so talented, and he really supported me through some scenes.

There was one scene on our last week of shooting, where it was just really challenging, and all he did was just squeeze my arm, and I was like, "Oh my God, he's there for me." And he wrote me the best letter at the end of wrap, and it was just so heartfelt. I can't imagine having that first experience with anyone else. He was so supportive and patient with me as a first-timer.

"It Really Made You Realize That This is Real, and People Live in These Prisons"

You shot in Canada during Covid. What was that experience like?

It was strange, because I was in England, and the day that England opened up, I flew to Canada and back into a lockdown for two months. The prisons there were why we shot there, I think. And Hugh Dillon, who was a co-creator, who came up with the concept, grew up in Kingston, which is where we shot at a lot of the prisons. It was very confusing, because the show is Kingstown. But yeah, it was nice to actually go there, see where he grew up, and actually be in a real prison. It really made you realize that this is real, and people live in these prisons.

Were you shooting in a working prison? Were there prisoners there when you were shooting?

There weren't prisoners there. I think it had been shut down a couple years ago, and I think there's parts of it that reopened for a museum. But it kept a lot of it the same, and obviously the structure's still there, and they dressed a few cells, and it just was ... you see it on TV, but then when you go to somewhere like that, it's scary to think that's how people live. And of course there's a level of punishment that they need to go through, but I also am a firm believer that this should be some kind of rehabilitation. And you see in Scandinavian countries, with their prison systems, where the rates of committing another crime once you're released are significantly lower, because they have a rehabilitation process. So it's not nice to see, as much as these guys are dangerous people who should be kept away from society, it's kind of raised that question of, "Should it be that way?"

"It Was So Hard, But It Was So Worth It"

Was there any particular scene that you shot that was memorable for either good or not good reasons?:

For good, I'll say the last episode of the season, for me, is very special, because it was actually the last thing that I shot before I was wrapped, and I also felt so free with the character that I've been building throughout the series. When it got to that point, it felt so authentic. And she a little bit unhinged ... episode six and seven for Iris are really not nice. She goes through the worst things that a girl could possibly go through, and it was hard. It was so hard, but it was so worth it, because I think if it wasn't hard, I wouldn't have been doing it right, but it was hard in the right way. I had the support, and I had people checking in, and it was a safe environment. But yeah, it's been a journey. It's been a lot, but I think I'm going to be proud of it.

I'm excited for the finale, episodes nine and 10. As an audience member, it's the craziest sh*t ever. It's so explosive and crazy, and you're on the edge of your seat for two hours. So that, just for people to watch, I'm excited for.

What do you hope viewers walk away from when they watch it? What do you want them to feel?

I really hope that people stick with Iris, and that they root for her, and really have love for her, because she goes through a lot. And I hope they're engaged with that, and they feel that sympathy for her. But in terms of the show as a whole, there are these themes — there's the prison systems, and there's racism, and there's trafficking with my character. And the idea is not to tell, it's not a documentary in telling facts, but it's an idea that what film and TV does so beautifully, is just give audience members a little bit of an idea, or a light bulb moment in their head where it sparks some kind of conversation, it gets them thinking. Because I think it's something that needs to be talked about, and then we'll inevitably have a chain reaction, I think. I just hope it starts conversations.

"Mayor of Kingstown" premieres on Paramount+ on November 14, 2021.