Emmy Rossum / Labor of Love 0%
The transport van she took from the set of Shameless has backed into a car and, while police file an accident report, she waits for me to pick her up in a cab so we can talk over a late lunch. If the 27-year-old actress with the wide eyes and smile is a prostitute, she’s that beautiful, classy, funny, post-makeover Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman kind.
Seated on soft leather at a corner table in the Ralph Lauren Restaurant on tony Michigan Avenue, Emmy does have a bit of Vivian Ward about her. Dressed in form-fitting jeans, a black and blue sweater, and low-cut black boots with heels, she looks casually glamorous but makes it clear that she doesn’t feel entirely at home with this affluent older crowd. “Now we really are the ladies who lunch,” she jokes while scanning the menu. “I’d much rather make my show for the checkout girl at Trader Joe’s than the girl who is on Michigan Avenue shopping or eating here,” she says of the socioeconomic disparity between people who watch, say, Mad Men, and those who watch Shameless, her Showtime dramedy about a dysfunctional low-income Chicago family. “These chicks aren’t watching my show.”
Maybe the chicks aren’t, but one Asian gentleman stops by the table to say he loves her on Shameless. He mentions that his daughter goes to the Spence School, Manhattan’s Upper East Side all-girl institution, which Emmy once attended. For Emmy, it’s not an endearing connection. The only child of a working single mother, with whom she shared a one-bedroom apartment after her father abandoned them, she felt like an outsider at Spence, which she describes as “crazy WASP-y, preppy.” It wasn’t until her singing talents earned her an invite to the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus that she found a place she fit in. “I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a whole group of people who are weird and eccentric and in-your-face and not scared to be clowns on stage. I want to be with them. That makes me feel safe.’”
Two decades later, Emmy has found a new wild haven on the set of Shameless, which showrunner John Wells adapted from Paul Abbott’s successful British series. Wells cast Emmy for the pilot in December 2009 after initially thinking her too glamorous, based on her performance in Joel Schumacher’s 2004 film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, The Phantom of the Opera, for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination. “She cleans up really well,” says Wells, who eventually met Emmy, heard the grit of her story, and realized she was perfect for the “rough and tumble” role of Fiona, the Gallagher family’s cornerstone who sacrifices her early 20s to raise five younger siblings while their scheming alcoholic father (William H. Macy) and bipolar addictive mother (Chloe Webb) are off being neglectful fuck-ups. “Emmy’s been through a lot,” he says. “She comes from a very damaged place. She’s a wonderful actress, very talented, very empathetic, and very willing to be raw.”
Emmy’s collaborators feel both professional and personal admiration for her. “She’s that girl at the bar that you desperately wish you could spend the rest of your life with,” says Wells. Macy gave a similarly glowing response when emailed comment on his co-star: “She carries the party with her,” writes the Oscar nominee. “She is truly a wild woman with an amazing zest for life. Also, her emotions and moods can go from zero to sixty and back in nanoseconds. And when she acts, she corrals all that energy and lets it out very deliberately. The result is Fiona Gallagher, a young woman who carries a world of responsibility on her shoulders while bursting at the seams to take flight. And it’s hard to take your eyes off of her.” So much more than a pretty woman.
Shall we start with a drink?
I noticed how many people drink midday here [in Chicago]. It’s amazing to me. I have to go to work later, but I don’t care. I have to do a crying scene. Wine will help me cry. [Laughs.] Are you going to drink or are you going to be professional?
I’m going to drink, surely.
I’ve never met a writer who didn’t like to drink. I’m going to have a glass of Pinot Noir at three o’clock in the afternoon.
Sounds good. Nannies helped your mom raise you. What’s your craziest nanny story?
My first nanny was an Austrian woman named Gertie. Hitler gave her a prize as a child for singing the best German national anthem. My mom is Jewish, so that was a little awkward, but Gertie was a great nanny. She would tell that story but she knew Hitler was a bad guy. There’s no getting around that. And she was a child; she didn’t know any better when she was singing the German national anthem. Clearly if she was working for a Jewish family she had no prejudice herself.
How did your nannies affect the woman you are today?
They were all women who were in their 60s—my mom wouldn’t let anyone who was of procreating age take care of me. My nannies taught me that if you wanted it bad enough, impossible things could happen, like your dad coming back. That was something that was verbalized to me as a kid, like, “If you light this many candles or if you pray or do this or do that….” It made me disillusioned as a teen when that didn’t happen, and when I started becoming known as an actress and it still didn’t happen. There were a lot of disappointments. That’s something I draw on for characters and that’s definitely where my distrust stems from. I feel like I’m going to read this and be like, “Wow, I was way too open.”
I hope you won’t.
I’m not going to tell that story of how I murdered that baby, so don’t worry.
I’ll get that out of you, one way or another.
Speaking of your father, how has your lack of a relationship with him informed your portrayal of Fiona, whose dad is a deadbeat?
It initially made me want a relationship with my father more but I realized that’s not possible. He’s not interested in that. Whether or not I was ready to face that, I had to. I definitely have feelings of abandonment and self-protection over that, and Fiona does, too. Her feelings toward her mom are probably closer to my feelings toward my dad because her mom is MIA and my dad is MIA. We have that childish hope that somebody who doesn’t care about you suddenly will.
To your credit, this hasn’t made you a train wreck who’s constantly in the tabloids. Is that something that paparazzi-punching vets like Sean Penn, who played your father in Mystic River, taught you to avoid?
Nobody can give you a guidebook on how to play it. Jennifer Lawrence plays it best because she’s not playing it. People can tell when you’re playing. I must not be that interesting. I don’t like the club scene and most of the people I’ve dated haven’t been actors, so I’ve finagled my way out of it. But it’s not as if paparazzi don’t park outside my house and snap my photo. They do.
Fiona’s life is profoundly affected by her father’s addictions. Has your life ever been touched by substance abuse?
I had a boyfriend who was sober and had gotten sober at 18 actually. He started a program at AA called Never Had a Legal Drink. But I met him when he was already in his 20s. I tend to steer away from people who have dependency issues. That scares me because I have such a low tolerance for anything. One drink or one hit, I’m plastered. I’m at half a glass of wine and I would probably already give you my firstborn.
At lunch no less! I was surprised that you drink at all because early pieces I’ve read made you sound straightedge.
Perception is catered toward your work. People used to think I was prissy. After they saw me on Shameless, they started to ask me different questions. They saw me differently, which is interesting because it’s a character and it’s a job.
At least one fan in a Q&A said you were their inspiration for sober living.
I think that just meant I didn’t go to clubs without my underwear on. The club scene just never interested me. It’s not like I didn’t do it for a week, but then it was boring to me. I couldn’t hear anybody. I love getting to know people. In the club you’re oversaturated and not experiencing the people you’re with.
What is the biggest romantic-gesture fail you’ve experienced?
[Laughs.] I was walking down the street in Greenwich Village late at night with a fellow I went on a few dates with and a bar was playing a Justin Bieber song. I started dancing and having fun with it. I knew some of the words. He must have thought I really liked Justin Bieber because a couple weeks later I was on location and he sent me a care package with an autographed picture of Justin Bieber and a bunch of my favorite candy. I thought it was funny so I sent him an autographed picture of Carly Rae Jepsen. Our relationship ended shortly thereafter. But I actually had the picture of Justin Bieber up ironically in my room for a couple months. It was pretty funny. That was before he was urinating in public and saying Anne Frank would’ve been a “Belieber.”
You’ve said that you prepare a lot for scenes because you need control. Is control important to you in your personal life as well?
I want control but I don’t feel as prepared about life in general. I’m type A. I’m a Virgo, even though I don’t believe in that astrology shit. I’m most scared when I’m not in control, when I can’t predict the other person’s move, whether it’s an old boyfriend or a family member. The only things you can control are yourself, your own actions, and your decisions. And that’s insanely frustrating sometimes. I used to try to tailor how I would deal with somebody to get the best response out of them. Now I think, “Well, they’re going to take whatever they’re going to take away from the situation no matter how I behave, so I might as well approach the situation honestly and openly.” I’m up-front, what you see is what you get. I’m not shy. Clearly. Although I did have a director tell me that was all bullshit and that I do that so people think they’re seeing everything when they’re actually not at all. That threw me totally for a loop.
Do you agree with that assessment?
To a certain extent. If you appear to put everything out there, people won’t probe any further and you get to keep the secrets that are important to you. I’ve been fascinated by secrets since I was a kid.
It’s no secret that you’re allergic to gluten. What happens when you eat some?
I get awful canker sores almost immediately and my lips get Angelina Jolie.
Angelina Jolie lips are nice.
I don’t mind that. It’s the canker sores, because then you can’t use your lips. I try to deliver lines and I’m like [makes Flubber noise].
In addition to acting, you’ve recorded two albums—but avoided doing pop music. Why?
Modern pop music is fun but it’s never something I felt I could do organically or believably. Four-on-the-floor grinding in hot pants is just not in my nature. And don’t think that people didn’t make me try. Maybe I just have an older sensibility because I was raised by older nannies and a mom who had me when she was 40.
How do you feel about the predominance of overtly sexual songs in the music industry today?
There’s this Enrique Iglesias song “Tonight (I’m Fuckin’ You).” It’s basically about tonight he goes to a club, he sees a girl, and then he’s going to fuck her. How about buy her a drink first? How about find out her last name? It sends women the message that that’s how you should be treated, because girls are programmed to want the famous guy, to listen to what they say. There’s a lot of harm that could be done through stuff like that. Women putting that sentiment out there, I have no problem with that. There’s a kind of female empowerment that Sex in the City started that women should retain their sexual power. That’s not how I approach sex, but if a woman wants to have sex that way, I’m OK with her doing that. I think there should be equality. The idea of sex being in a club. “Tonight, I’m fucking you”? To me it’s just so gross.
What song would you like played at your funeral and why?
The first thing I could think of was “not Skrillex.” Maybe “Hallelujah”? I play that when someone close to me has died and it makes me feel closer to them. It makes me access that feeling of sadness. Grief is important.
And you would like people to feel sad at that moment?
I would like them to feel sad but also to get past it and find closure. I don’t want someone to be crying years after I’m gone.
What’s a song that instantly transports you to a specific moment in your life?
“Quando me’n vo” from La Bohème [a.k.a. “Musetta’s Waltz”]. I heard that as a child when I was in La Bohème at the Met. I was about 8 years old. It was one of my first times on stage. Musetta is kind of a hussy, but she’s very glamorous and funny and in your face. She comes into this square in Paris and she’s getting revenge on this guy who dumped her and she sings this aria, like, “Look how fabulous I am now. You wish you could have me, and you’re killing yourself over the fact that you gave me up. Look how everyone thinks I’m so hot now.” Even though I didn’t know what the song was about at the time, that should’ve been some foreshadowing. I felt a connection to this life force that the character had and I remember thinking, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up. I want to perform and have fun and wear costumes and be full of life. I want to learn that song because I want to be that girl.”
Grinding in hot pants doesn’t come naturally to you, but you’re hardly a prude as an actor. You’ve done a lot of nudity and sex scenes on Shameless.
I can do it when I’m in a character. When it comes to Shameless and it’s story-related it feels natural because I’m Fiona, not Emmy. There’s a distinction for me. It’s a different mentality approaching the scene. We always try to straddle—no pun intended—comedy and believability, finding the reality in it, what we can show about this moment and this sexual encounter that will illuminate something. Sex is taboo in our culture, but if you ignore it as part of the human experience and shy away from it because you’re scared to show it as an actor you’re limiting yourself. Of course guys that I’ve dated have said, “You know that people are going to jerk off to that scene, right?” and I’m thinking, Yeah, but I did so much emotionally. Isn’t that interesting, too? I guess there’s a certain masturbatory nature to sexuality but at the same time there are so many interesting things to be investigated that started with Kinsey and Freud. Porn isn’t what it’s about.
Did you always feel that way about shooting these sex scenes?
In the beginning I was hesitant and nervous to do scenes like that. I cared about how it would affect my real life. And it has affected my real life. People think that I am a much more sexual person than I am because they identify me with the character. People on the street are more crude with me because they think I’m Fiona. Those are the moments when it actually affects me on a my-feelings-get-hurt level, because they’re confusing the two things. I’m not like her in my real life. I’ve never had a one-night stand. Ever. We were just talking about this on set the other day. Seventy percent of the girls that I polled on our set have had a one-night stand. I’ve never had one. The one quasi-one-night stand that I had evolved into a two-year relationship. I was like, Is there something wrong with me, or them?
Could you see yourself doing nudity on stage?
It would be a lot harder for me. On Shameless, it’s a closed set. There’s only ever you, the actor, and the camera guy in the room at that time. It’s a private experience and I try to forget the fact that millions of people are going to watch it and I try to execute it the way I would any scene and focus on the emotion of it.
Speaking of your crew, as a big Knicks fan, do you talk shit with the Bulls fans on set when you shoot in Chicago?
No, I just hate anybody who likes the Nets. I think they’re full of shit. It’s become so cool to like the Nets because Jay Z and Beyoncé are at all the games. Everyone’s like, “Nets! Yeah!” even though the Nets were always around. I went on a couple dates with a guy who played for the Nets years ago.
Does he need to remain anonymous? That’s an interesting tidbit to throw out there.
[Laughs.] He doesn’t play for the Nets anymore. He’s quite tall.
Oh yeah, that tall guy who played on the Nets once.
Trust me, we had very little in common. It lasted about three dates and that was the end of it.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned about acting from working with greats like Clint Eastwood, Sean Penn, and William H. Macy?
Sean taught me not to be afraid of whatever weird thing I had to do before the director says “Action”—telling myself a joke or punching a wall or jumping up and down or listening to an old voice mail from an ex that will make me cry. There’s a lot of emotional manipulation that happens in our job. I often talk to myself before a scene starts. I verbalize things that have happened in my life that are embarrassing or painful or make me angry. I hope the sound guy is not listening because I say personal things that will put me in the right headspace. But it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks.
Do you know all your triggers for different emotions?
I have a range of things and I’m in touch with them on a daily basis. A couple weeks ago, I saw this horrific car accident where a biker was thrown from his bike. I was the first person to come over and call 911 and deal with the aftermath. His leg was dislocated, his nose was busted, he was missing all of his teeth. He couldn’t speak. It was the kind of physical pain you associate with war. And it wasn’t until days later that I was on set and I had to be upset for something that I thought of him and the feelings that I experienced in that moment. There are visceral things that happen in your life that you can draw from. At the same time, you don’t want to feel like you’re exploiting another person’s pain.
Have you had an instance where you struggled with feeling?
There was a weird thing that happened before I did You’re Not You with Hilary Swank. A friend of mine who works for Stand Up to Cancer called me and said, “There’s this girl Hillary Quinn Kind who has terminal cancer and she’s a really big fan of the show. She’s in L.A. and she wants to meet you.” I went to meet her and fell in love with her. She was a year older than me. She was so cool. She was very bold about her disease, extremely brave. I met her family as well. She asked me, “What would you usually do on a Friday night?” I said, “Go to my house, have a drink, and order Chinese food.” And she asked, “Can we do that?” I took her back to my house with her sister and my mom was there. We ended up drinking and jumping in my pool and having this strange friendship.
Was everyone supportive of you developing that relationship?
My mom and all my friends said, “This is a bad idea because she’s going to die in four months.” But I cared about her. We had this weird connection. Even though I knew that loss would be at the end of it, I dove headfirst into the relationship. She passed away in October of last year. She was 27 years old. I had probably known her only four months but we texted and emailed and told stories and I got to know her in the last leg of her young life. It was incredibly impactful. Life and death are so interesting to me, especially because this year [on Shameless]. We’re playing with the fact that Frank has fucked himself so royally that his body is shutting down and Fiona is dealing with the impending death of her father, which is going to happen at some point, be it this season or next. Death is a scary thing, so becoming friends with this young woman was scary, but at the same time it meant so much to me. When Hillary went into hospice, I got a call that they were making this Hilary Swank movie and I would be auditioning to play the caretaker of a young woman who is dying. I thought, “Oh shit, this is what I’m living right now.” And they were both named Hillary. I knew there was some weird kismet thing happening. I don’t even know what I believe in, but something was lining up in the universe, be it God or however you explain it. Something led me to meet this girl, led her to have such an impact on my life, and led me to make this film, make a commitment to this character, tell this story, and keep Hillary’s memory alive in me through that. I don’t know. Weird shit happens. Heavy shit.