If you want to know what it means to be a hotly tipped actor in 2023, in the world of Emma Laird, it means conducting Zoom interviews from the backseat of your car, knowing the best service stations on the M1 motorway (Welcome Break is much better than Moto, apparently) and being in New York one minute, then parked up outside a Greggs the bakers talking to a journalist the next. “I flew to NY last week and then I had a shoot on Thursday, and then flew back Thursday night and then went to set on Friday. Then I went out Friday night after my shoot and didn’t get home until 9am, which didn’t do me any good.”
Hectic social life aside, Laird is a busy woman when it comes to work too. We’re talking at what seem to be the early stages of the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America strikes. She is technically here to talk about her latest projects, the only problem being, “everything’s on hold in terms of projects. I have four indie movies that will be going at the end of this year and the start of next year. Right now it’s crazy because I’m doing press but I can’t talk about the stuff that’s coming out.” So, time for a nice chat about the stuff she’s already done – the accidental model who became a very on-purpose actor, the heart-on-sleeve, engaging extrovert who’s learnt, particularly over the past year, to be more cautious about who she trusts and what she says. Not that she’s particularly reserved during our conversation. Struggling to balance her phone somewhere on her car seat, Laird soon shakes off that initial air of flustered busy actor as it gives way to one of eloquent, funny and assured woman who’s already in her professional second act at the age of 25.
She became a model when she was 18, after being scouted by a large agency at Leeds Festival, and rose fast in the fashion world. Then, in a decision that speaks simultaneously of self-preservation but ostensibly self-sabotage, she quit modelling with the intention of becoming an actor. I suggest that such a move would require the kind of suit of armour she would have developed during her modelling days. “Do I have a suit of armour? I don’t know. Maybe. I try not to speak too negatively about it because I got to travel and it paid for my acting classes,” Laird says. But surely the way she left modelling on her own terms felt quite empowering? “Yes, it was, and it was a bold move for me because it was at the height of Covid. I was selling my house because I was broke, still paying for acting classes and spending an obscene amount of money on coaches because I was like, ‘This is it, this is what I’m doing. I’m definitely going to be an actor and this is going to work out.’”
And work out, it did – relatively quickly. Soon after launching herself into the acting world, she booked her first major role, playing Iris in Paramount+’s Mayor of Kingstown alongside Jeremy Renner, which was quickly followed by Apple TV+’s The Crowded Room, and was named one of Variety magazine’s Ten Brits to Watch for 2021. This may sound like an easy transition from one high-profile career to another, single-mindedness and plenty of personal sacrifice to get to this stage.
One day she was a model, the next she was an actor… literally. “I was in New York about five years ago, and I had a really bad eating disorder. I was slowly coming out of that and I gained a bit of weight, and then my agents told me to lose weight again. I was like, ‘I can’t do this any more,’” she recalls. “So then, in New York, and not able to get work because I was ‘too fat’, I had a minute to switch off. So I found this acting school and I went to an open day, and this guy said, ‘Yeah there’s a spot on this two-month course, but it starts tomorrow.’ So I had to move out of this model apartment that day because I couldn’t stay there any more.”
Although she found herself suddenly without any income or a place to live, it was nevertheless one of the most positive milestones in her life, she realises now. “I’ve never really properly thought about this, or said this, but that acting course… ” Laird’s steel-blue eyes moisten at the memory. “Oh my God, I’m going to get emotional… That course really saved me. I went through some really awful shit in the modelling world around that time, and going to those classes and being able to fall in love with something really saved my life.”
This was not, of course, a simple case of happily ever after. Laird has truly grafted to get to her current position, and is poised to be the next big name in Hollywood (once the strikes are over), but the emotional rollercoaster that comes with the Faustian pact of being in the public eye continues. Earlier this year she was subject to a nasty round of bullying from Swifties, when she innocently posted photos of her co-star, Taylor Swift’s ex Joe Alwyn, on Instagram. “After this year, with a certain group of fans online just getting really, really bullied, I’ve grown this thick skin to really laugh it off. And I think it’s been an interesting lesson and now I feel like I pay less attention to any kind of criticism if it’s not constructive.”
So back to that suit of armour, then… as well as the castle to house it in now. “I have my little house in the middle of nowhere, and I can read a book or a script.” In her car, at the service station, halfway through her drive home, she suddenly looks contemplative and then a small smile spreads over the striking alabaster face. “It’s actually more motivating when you hear someone saying that you’re not going to be anything, and I’m just like, ‘Well, you wait and see!’”