Interview: Emmy Rossum Talks "Beautiful Creatures," "Shameless," and Her New Album

The Manhattan native gets candid about musical influences, young adult franchises, and why nude scenes are no big deal.

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Emmy Rossum is a true chameleon. The 26-year-old actress' career choices are impressively diverse. As a child, she sang for the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus and starred in the 1999 Disney Channel flick Genius. Five years later, she broke into young Hollywood with a Golden Globe-nominated turn in Phantom of the Opera. After several more films, Rossum surprised fans of the musical genre with quite the radical role, that of the tough-as-nails Fiona, the self-appointed leader of the dysfunctional Gallagher family in Showtime's Shameless. 

Before she takes yet another career turn with a prime role in the next big young adult franchise, Beautiful Creatures (in theaters this Valentine's Day), the Manhattan native is unveiling her latest record, A Sentimental Journey (the follow-up to her 2007 debut, Inside Out). In stores and on iTunes today, the album is collection of covers of classic songs ranging from the '20s to the '60s.

In the midst of promoting all three of her latest projects, Rossum spoke with Complex about the influences on A Sentimental Journey, why she's drawn to different kinds of roles, and the biggest challenges she's faced in her booming career thus far.

Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino

How did you discover your sound?
Well, I grew up listening to this music. My mom worked a lot when I was a kid so I was raised by babysitters who were grand-mom age. They used to play Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Sam Cooke. I suppose when I thought about what kind of record I wanted to make I really gravitated towards doing a record of old standards, like the music I really like to sing and found kind of comforting. There is something about that old school nostalgia that you don’t get from contemporary sounding music that I really wanted to evoke.

When did you realize you could sing?
I always liked music and my second grade teacher sent me to audition with the Metropolitan Children's Chorus because I think I just wouldn’t stop singing in school. [Laughs.]

Did growing up in Manhattan also influence your sound or your taste in music?
Manhattan is such a melting pot of every different culture and sound and era, and I definitely heard different kinds of music. But it was always the simple storytelling of old music and the beautiful harmonies of bands like the Boswell Sisters and the Andrew Sisters that stuck to me.

Why did you decide to call your new album A Sentimental Journey?
It is the first track on the record, and for me, this record is about taking people back to a different era when music was simpler, when glamor was feminine and sophisticated and not in your face, when the storytelling of songs were very simple and mostly about love. And for me that song title best encapsulated the whole concept of the record.  

Your last record, Inside Out, was released five years ago. What was it like returning to music?
It’s fun. It has always been something that I wanted to do. I made this record by myself, not on a record label, and then I partnered with a record label to release it because I wanted to have full creative control over the product and what it sounded like. I A&R’d the record myself and picked all the songs and did everything like that. So for me, it is very much me.

Are you the type of person who takes initiative when things aren’t necessarily happening?
Yeah, you have to. I’m from New York. We do that. 

Was acting something that just came along after your music? Or was that something that you were thinking about as well?
No, I never really considered acting as a career per se. It was something I kind of fell into because there was a film being made called Songcatcher, and the producers called the Opera to see if they had any kids who could possibly sing and my name came up.

Resiliency [has been the biggest challenge of my career]. There is always going to be rejection and competition. It's about never letting that get you down and not letting that make you feel defeated.

I went to audition for that and it came through. All of a sudden I was in a movie, and I had an agent, and now here I am.

What made you decide to pursue acting since music was your first love?
I always had a love for imagination, performing, and creating. When I was singing in the opera, there was so much over-the-top glamor and music, and that appealed to me. It was a creative escape. Whether I was playing a character or making a record, I really enjoyed expressing myself in different ways, so I just kept doing it.

On Shameless, your character is such a departure from the music you make and the other roles that you have played. What made you gravitate towards Fiona?
Well, she was such a fierce character, so loyal to her family, so different than anything I have ever done before, but I felt a real connection to her heart and the way that she expresses herself. I just kind of fell in love with the character, wanted to tackle it, and was lucky enough that I got the part after multiple auditions.

Do you find that that’s always the case when it comes to landing a role?
You always have to fight for the ones that you really want because everybody wants it.

How do you personally think that's been working out so far?
I love the show. We are in our third season and it is really exciting. For Beautiful Creatures, I also had to fight for that part. I think that anything good in life, whether it’s a restaurant reservation or a good seat on the plane or a great part or a great song or the right guy, you always have to fight for it. Anything worth having is worth fighting for.

Speaking of Beautiful Creatures, what made your character, Ridley Duchannes, so appealing?
It really appealed to me because she was just so noisy in the book. She demands your attention and you enjoy reading the book especially when she is there causing trouble, and she has no guilt about the trouble and disasters that she has caused. I kind of like the fact that she revels in causing problems and how much she desires attention. There’s a little girl inside who feels very rejected which is the cause of that I think.

With the young adult movie franchise boom right now, each new series is always pegged as the next Harry Potter or the next Twilight. What do you think about all those comparisons?
When you have a film that is supernatural and about young people and based on a book, those comparisons are going to happen. But I think our world is very different. I think it is very American, and very southern, and gothic. It's about casters and witches and about young love, so there is that parallel that can be drawn, but I really feel that ours is very unique and the cast of actors that we have is so incredible that I’m not worried the comparisons.

Because you started in show business as a kid, do you feel like you missed out on a normal childhood?
Not really, because I loved what I was doing at all times and would never have given it up to do something else. And I always feel like if I missed out on anything it was probably getting the chance to socialize, but I kind of got to do that in my own way. And I can always go back to school if I want to.

Have you thought about that?
I have. But I like reading about history and educating myself as I travel, so there are different ways to get an education.

Since you have been in the movie and music businesses for so long, what would you say is the biggest challenge that you have faced in your career thus far?
Resiliency. There is always going to be rejection and competition. It's about never letting that get you down and not letting that make you feel defeated and always just standing up and being like, “OK, well, I am still going to walk into this room even if they say they don’t like me.”

That reminds me of your Shameless character.
Maybe that is where I got it from. [Laughs.] Maybe I can bring that to it from years of being told, “Nope, you're not right for the role. Nope, you're not right for the role.” 

Another topic that always pops up around Shameless is the show's raunchiness, particularly when it comes to Fiona and nudity. Initially were you apprehensive to film such risqué scenes?
Not really, because it is more and more common on cable TV, and if that role warrants it, then it doesn’t freak me at all. It is such a small part of Fiona's character. People make a big deal out of it, but actors in Europe do it constantly and people don’t even bat an eye. It's a very American thing to be appalled at nudity when really it’s just your body, so it is not a big deal to me.

How do you think fans of Shameless will react to A Sentimental Journey?
Well, it is definitely not Fiona Gallagher. It is definitely not punk rock or indie. But I think that people know me from Phantom of The Opera and know where I came from, so hopefully there will be some crossover. People are entitled to like it or not like it. I love it. This is the music that I wanted to make right now, so I am really happy with it. 

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Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino

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