I think you gotta do what you gotta do sometimes to get the right performance.

“Did you ever, when you were a little kid, used to think that maybe you could do something in life that makes you happy? And then you figure out that there’s no such thing as happy?”

Welcome to Kingstown. Within a ten-mile radius, Kingstown boasts seven prisons. It is a company town that is forever portrayed in a lurid light, where the main industry is punishment. Created by Taylor Sheridan, along with his character actor muse Hugh Dillon, Mayor of Kingstown is very much a Sheridan production—part of Paramount Plus’ “Taylorverse,” as some have come to call it—with a discourse on flawed masculinity as told through a critique of the American prison system.

Mike McLusky (Jeremy Renner) is a former felon who feels trapped in the fictional Michigan town by inertia and lack of opportunity. He is the town’s “mayor”—a sobriquet, yet the position is as integral to the workings of the town as the person who actually holds that office. The ersatz mayor is part kingpin, part pillar of the community. Mike trades in favors, dines with cops and drug dealers, and has a soft spot for women in need. He’s the kind of guy who will plant a weapon or drugs on some unlucky person one moment, and give some equally unfortunate soul money to grab dinner the next. So he does have some kind of code—one he struggles to hang on to the longer he holds that mantle, and in the gaze of his younger brother Kyle (Taylor Handley), the only cop in the McLusky family, who has spent just about every episode of the show’s first season trying not to get murdered before his son is born. In the aftermath of that prison riot last season, Kyle is just hoping that his transfer to the state police comes in any day now.

In the lead up to the season two premiere of Mayor of Kingstown, Anthem met up with Handley at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles for a photo shoot and in-depth conversation.

Mayor of Kingstown season two premieres on Paramount+ on January 15th.

Let’s start with the obvious one first: Where do we find Kyle when season two opens?

In season one, with the prison riot, Kyle was left with a ton on his plate. In season two, we’re picking up two or three weeks, maybe four weeks, after the prison riot. Kyle is having to unpack everything that he’s gone through. He’s gotta deal with all that stuff, and he really has no outlet for any of it. To cope, he’s just throwing himself into his work, and it’s not the healthy way to go about it. You’re gonna see how unhealthy that is as everything unfolds next season. Kyle is running as fast as he can from the pain and the shame of how he responded during the prison riot, and he’s exhibiting some very questionable behavior to try and make himself feel better.

At the start of 2022, you shared this still from the prison riot scene on Instagram

Oh yeah, I love that shot.

It’s a great image, and you captioned it: “The most creatively fulfilling experience I’ve ever had.” That’s profound to me because, for any actor, you just never stop chasing it.

You are so right. I started my career when I was 13 years old. I remember I got the opportunity to come down [to LA] and get an agent, and the third audition I ever went on—it was for a movie for Warner Brothers called Jack Frost—I ended up getting it. It’s a Christmas movie. It was all very fun in the beginning, and it’s still all very fun. I’m still chasing that fun—that spark—because getting to create in television and movies is the thing that really gets me going. And to be working on a show like Mayor of Kingstown, where the cast is so talented, the filmmakers are so talented, and the writers, and Taylor Sheridan… I mean, Taylor has been on the top of my list since I watched Sicario. When that movie came out in 2015, I knew that I would always want to work with him because of his writing, his dialogues, and just the way he tells stories. So to be tapped to play Kyle McLusky in Mayor of Kingstown and to get to play with all these players? It’s so fulfilling. The level that everybody’s operating on is just a plus. It’s the top of the top.

I also loved what Taylor did with Wind River and Hell or High Water.

When those three movies came out, kind of back-to-back, it felt like I was being shot out of a cannon. [laughs] Because you hadn’t seen the genre done like that in so long. It was such a new take. It really spoke to me, too. So getting to go into the Taylor Sheridan universe and work in that universe is the dream scenario for me. And what I love about him and his team is that they’re winners. They always strive to win. They strive for the best of the best product.

That must’ve given you so much confidence going in. You knew you were in good hands.

Yes, absolutely. There’s been so many times in my career where I’ve given a performance and then it winds up in the hands of too many people. The performance is watered down, or it comes out good, but there’s something lacking in it. But not with this team. With this team, they are looking for those moments of listening. Those nuanced moments are celebrated within this type of filmmaking. It really does feel so great to be dealt with in that way, knowing that your performance is gonna be in the hands of people who really care and want the best.

Hugh [Dillon] created this show with Taylor, and he is also your co-star on the show. Taylor has an acting background as well. I wonder if the writing feels different, and if the directing feels different, because of that. Does it feel more catered to, and calibrated towards, acting?

Well, the thing is that Taylor was actually Hugh’s acting coach when Hugh started out in Hollywood 20 something years ago.

Wow, I didn’t know that.

So that’s how their relationship came about. From what I’ve heard, Mayor of Kingstown was one of the first things that Taylor wrote with Hugh when Taylor decided to go full-time into writing. They’ve had this in their back pocket for the last 15 something years. Now with all the success of Yellowstone, and with every other success Taylor has had, they finally got to do this show the way they wanted to do it. It’s gritty, raw, and in the Taylor Sheridan style. The darkness really comes from their imagination and the true dealings Hugh lived through. They’re a great team.

I heard this crazy story on Deadline not long ago: Jennifer Lawrence was Taylor’s acting student before Winter’s Bone, and she had forgotten that he was her teacher. He had given her her money back, telling her he had nothing to teach her. He told her she already knew everything she needs to know. He told her to protect her talent from outside influences.

You’re kidding. Oh my gosh.

He felt so genuine to me then. So real. And he wasn’t even the one rehashing that story.

He is so real. He is so optimized, right? Because he’s so busy with so many projects going on, there’s really no room for any BS in his world. He’s such a straight shooter. When you’re talking with him, you’re getting the full and absolute truth. There’s just so much to be said about that type of authenticity in this industry. What I can only imagine is—and I can’t speak for him obviously, but—Taylor had been in this industry for so long that he had seen the different sides of the industry. So when it came time for him to have the power that he has today, he was like, “I’m going to do this the way that is the most authentic and real and with the most humanity.” Dealing with him and getting to hang with him and to be directed by him, it’s just so refreshing.

This is reminding me of a quote from an actor that struck me. Some journalist had asked them, “What’s the scariest thing about Hollywood?” And they responded, “A fake smile.”

[laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah. That is always something to be wary about in this business. But I think that if you come into this business with a clear head and the right intentions and a good moral compass, you won’t be swayed so easily. At the beginning, my pops gave me a code for this industry: “Show up on time. Know your lines. Be nice to everybody.” That’s where you start. You build from there. When you’re on a production, it has such a team element to it. If one piece is off, the whole thing can go off the rails. It’s important to bring up the teammates around you.

You’re the youngest of three brothers, aren’t you? Like you are on the show?

Yeah. It’s funny because when I was auditioning for Kingstown, I sent a personalized video to Taylor. Because traditionally, before Covid, you were able to go into the room and speak with the filmmaker during the audition. And I didn’t get to do that. So in that message I sent, I put out there how I related to this character, that I’m the youngest brother of three. I know that dynamic.

There must also be a thrill in not being so familiar with the characters you’re taking on. Then it’s something for you to figure out, and it’s always fun to just become somebody else.

Absolutely. Lately, I’ve been describing it as a math equation. I’m using my own personal experiences, but mixing imagination to culminate feelings and emotions. There’s some schools of thought where that’s not the healthiest thing to do—using your own personal experiences to make you feel certain things. But I think you gotta do what you gotta do sometimes to get the right performance. There’s different methods I pick and choose from. Ultimately, I’m always just trying to make it as truthful as possible, and I’m gonna do whatever it takes to make that happen.

That’s honest: You do what you gotta do. The word alchemy is thrown around a lot in film.

I like that—alchemy. The thing that I’ve really had to let go of through the years, too, is this idea of “perfection.” Actually, Taylor is the one who kind of helped me with that. I remember it was the first shot of the entire series and I was having a really tough time relinquishing control of what I thought that scene should be. I just kept trying all these things and I’d go up to Taylor, like, “This isn’t working. Something’s not working right here.” And he goes, “Let me help you out a little bit here. When you’re auditioning, you’re doing one type of acting, where you’re controlling your performance. You’re able to pick those moments of perfection to have. But when you’re on set, the world is moving and you need to move with the world.” So he is basically telling me, “Let go, and soak it all up. Let go of that ‘perfection.’” And in doing so, you’re able to find these magical moments that elevate the scene and elevate the show.

Is that when you trust him? I mean, I guess you trusted Taylor going in, as you’ve said.

Yeah, but it’s still outta your control. But going back to that point, when you have such a winning team behind you, or you’re part of such a winning team, you can kind of let it rip. They’re trusting you, and you’re trusting them. Everybody wants to make a great show so they’re not gonna let you fail. They’re gonna do everything to help you out, which is really nice to have because then I get to have those takes in a scene where I can really try something and I can fall flat on my face. I have to go back to the director sometimes and be like, “Hey, let’s not use that one,” and they’ll go, “No, no. We won’t use that.” [laughs] But then there’s those takes where you’re really feeling it and you go, “Did you get that? Did you?” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, we got that.” Then that’s the one circled and the one we’re going to use. You can have that dialogue, and that’s not something I’ve always had on a production. Maybe a couple times, but more so with Kingstown.

So you were 13 when Jack Frost happened. How did acting find you in the first place?

I actually started out in plays. I started in summer-stock when I was about six or seven years old. I just loved being on stage and performing in front of an audience. But when I got the opportunity to get an agent down in LA, I was 12, 13 years old, and I remember my dad was driving me to school and he kind of looked at me and said, “Is this something that you want to do, son?” And I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I know exactly what turn we were on when we had that conversation. Still to this day, when we drive by it, we’re like, “Remember when we talked about that right here?” My parents backed me up a hundred and ten percent. They would drive me back and forth to LA for those initial auditions. Then when I got Jack Frost—we’re talking months and months being on set—my mom stayed with me the whole time. She had to stay with me the whole time, protecting me and making sure that everything was running smoothly.

Does anyone else in your family act? What do your parents do?

No. My dad was an entrepreneur. He had many different jobs, many different companies, when I was growing up. My mom helped with a lot of the administration work behind those companies. They were a good team. But no, nobody else acted. I was the first in my family. But my mom was also a painter. A watercolorist. She’s also a writer and a poet, but that came more within the last 20 years. When I started acting, my dad was so excited—he actually started taking acting lessons. He was in a couple of students films. He wanted to know what it felt like. [laughs]

I love that. And there’s this conflict in pursuing the arts, right? On the one hand, it’s an easy decision: Your passion is pulling you assertively in that direction. But it’s also a tough decision because this is a tough business. What has been your toughest moment?

I was actually facing my toughest moment right before I got Kingstown. I had a pretty successful career over the last 25 years, but I wasn’t entirely where I wanted to be. I felt like the level of work I was putting out there was top notch, but I wasn’t seeing the results. And the problem with that is, I didn’t know what else to do. There wasn’t a better level that I could get to—I felt that I was operating at the top level that I could get to. So you’re left wondering, “Well, is this it? Is this the end of the road?” I was really playing with that question. Then, while that was happening, I got the audition for Kingstown, and it was everything that I wanted in a project. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. Playing opposite Jeremy Renner. If there ever was a project with an amazing pedigree, this is it. I told myself, “This is the one that’s either going to make me or break me.” I think that audition process lasted about five or six weeks, going back and forth. It wasn’t the easiest five or six weeks because I was already thinking, “If this doesn’t happen for me, what else can I do?” I just can’t keep operating at a level and not see results. It’s when you don’t get the right feedback or you don’t get the job. It’s so frustrating. So I was thinking about hanging it up and, thank God, Taylor picked me. Now we’re here.

Now you also have Griselda on the horizon. Is there a release date?

Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s spring of 2023. 

What can you tell me about that project?

It’s such a fascinating story. Griselda was probably the biggest female drug lord in history, and she was brought down by a female detective. The story has such a fantastic dynamic because it explores the beginnings of both these women who ultimately go head-to-head. My storyline is with the female detective, kind of at the beginning of her journey on her way to the top of the police force. I play somewhat of a slimy Miami cop in the late seventies. It was a whole lot of fun to play in polyester suits, with slicked-back hair, and a dirty mustache. [laughs] And talking about teams you can trust—that entire production team is top notch. They’re also responsible for productions like Narcos and Narcos: Mexico, which are some of the top favorite television shows of mine. In January of 2022, I was binging Narcos: Mexico, and I kept seeing this director’s name on these episodes that were just mind-blowing: Andrés Baiz. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I just wanna work with that guy so much.” He really knows what he’s doing. And sure enough, Griselda came across my desk. Sometimes, everything comes together. It was weird how this manifested itself.

With everything you can’t control about this industry, those are the things to cherish.

Absolutely. This is what I want to have keep happening. These are the kinds of passionate people and the type of high-caliber storytelling that I want to be involved with going forward.

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