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'Shameless' Confessions: Emmy Rossum Talks About Her Character's 'Crazy' Life

by Maureen Ryan, posted Feb 1st 2011 1:45PM
There are a lot of upsides to playing Fiona Gallagher, as far as 'Shameless' star Emmy Rossum is concerned.

She gets to act alongside a top-notch cast that includes William H. Macy, who plays ne'er-do-well alcoholic Frank Gallagher, the head of a hardscrabble Chicago family with many kids but little money. The tough, spontaneous Fiona, who assumed much of the responsibility that Frank abandoned, is not remotely like the "princessy" roles she's played in the past, Rossum noted.

"I get cast 'princessy' a lot, and this is so down and out and edgy and not princessy. I really, really enjoy it. This is much more fun," said Rossum. "As an actor, it's very liberating to not have hair and makeup."

In the first few episodes of the Showtime drama, which premiered Jan. 9, Fiona grappled not only with her complicated responsibilities but with a hunky young man who kept pursuing her despite her mixed feelings. Steve (Justin Chatwin) was clearly taken by Fiona's spirit, but she isn't used to trusting anyone, and as the family's designated caretaker, she couldn't quite adjust to having someone in her life who wanted to take care of her.

Rossum talked about whether she's seen the British series on which 'Shamless' is based, about the show as "the real 'Modern Family'" and about the men in Fiona's life below.

This interview has been edited and slightly condensed. There are a couple of spoilery bits of information at the end of this post, but you'll get a warning before you get to them.

By the way, my interview with Macy is here and my original 'Shameless' review is here.


Maureen Ryan: Your character, Fiona, is the lynchpin of the family and trying to keep everything together. Is this a similar amount of pressure for you as an actress because your character is so central to the show?

Emmy Rossum: Yes and no. I mean I think there's always an amount of responsibility, I would call it, not pressure. I know that the character feels very pressured, but I always just feel a sense of responsibility. And having spent so much time with Macy and with the kids and really getting that dynamic, they actually look to me in reality -- you know like at lunchtime, "Oh, can I have a brownie?" They don't ask their parents anymore, they ask me. [laughs]

It's very much kind of evolved into this kind of organic pseudo-family, which is funny because a lot of the kids on the show are actually in only children. So we've actually all kind of really wanted this big family for so long and I think that love really comes across.

Are you an only child?

I am.

Was it hard to adjust to this chaotic family dynamic?

No, it came very easily, remarkably. But I'm kind of the natural caregiver in my life to all my friends and my family too. Because I'm an only child, it comes pretty naturally.

For Fiona, the story seems to be about learning to trust, not only the new guy in her life, but just that anything will get better. Does that sound right to you?

What I feel like is interesting about the show and that character specifically is, it's kind of a take on what's really happening in America with big families and the economy and people being out of work. It's a story that a lot of people are really living, it's not a particularly uncommon thing. I think people might think it would be difficult to watch, [but] it's really not. I mean, this family is so funny and so full of determination and fiercely loyal to one another. No matter what curveball they get thrown in their life, whether it's not having food or the electric being turned off, there's always a way that they get through it and come together.

More than anything, the tone of the show isn't really dark. It's kind of uplifting and it says that no matter how bad it gets, we're all, we're still a family and we're gonna make it work and we're going to be able to feed ourselves and we're gonna pull through it. If we have to cheat, steal, beg, con.

Your character works as a maid in a hotel and odd jobs like that. Has she dropped out of high school?

I assume mom left like two years ago. So yeah, she probably didn't graduate and has really given her life up to take control of the family because her father's an alcoholic and he can't and won't, and her mother flew the coop.

Do you think that Fiona hopes that her father will quit drinking and help out? Or do you think she just accepts him and loves him for who he is?

I think that there's always the hope that things would get better, but I think the way they live is very day-to-day, there's no real long-term future plan except to put food on the table and deal with what today's issues are. There's no, "Okay, I really like this guy, I'm gonna try to be in a relationship with this guy." She doesn't have time for that. I mean, she works odd jobs, she fills in for people, it's whatever they can scrape together, and the dad's on disability; he drinks that money away.

And amidst all of it, they find themselves in these hysterically ridiculous situations and the comedy really comes out of the situation. It's not like gags or jokes; it's just how crazy everyday life can be.

It's interesting that you used the word "hope" because it seems to me like that's the fine line this show is walking. It's like, everyone hopes to have a family that is supportive, but at the same time, there doesn't appear to be like a lot of hope in their lives. If someone were to look at them from the outside, wouldn't they say, "Where can this possibly end up? Are these kids going to be okay? Ten years from now, where will they be?"

Well, they're not going to become Frank because Fiona won't let them. She's dedicated her life so that. There is hope and there is education and she makes them go to school and no one's dropping out and everyone's finishing their book reports. I mean, it's a very brave thing for a young girl to do.

But at the same time, I think that the amazing thing is that no matter how down and out they are, they're not depressed. They're not feeling sorry for themselves, they get up and go and they have an inordinate amount of fun and love between them and there's not a downer mood at all.

Everyone messes up, but I think there's a resounding sense of, yes, this is really where we are in America. You know, this is the real 'Modern Family.' We don't all live in big houses in Beverly Hills, that's just not real. Although I do love that show, it's hysterical. But this is more of a real modern family, I think. And we're a lot more outrageous than that.

So when it came to committing to 12 episodes of TV -- is that something that you were nervous about?

No, not at all. I mean the material is so fun and we have too much fun making this show. We laugh constantly and the stories are so fun to play, and this is better material than we usually see on most films; the writing is better, the stories are better, the character interaction, the dialogue is better. I would be happy to do this for as long as people would have me doing it.

You had some great moments in the pilot. There is that scene when Frank is there on the floor and he's passed out and she has this little moment where you could sense that she was sad, that it all got to her for a second.

I think [her life has some] disappointments, a lot of anger that it just is bred of sadness. I think a lot of the times when women are very angry it's because they feel rejected.

She takes [Frank's] hand and pats herself on the back, and it's kind of like her asking him to give her everything that she wants to hear. She just wants the thank you. She wants someone [to say] "thank you for your help."

And if anything, I think the kids are somehow more angry at their mother than they are at their father because he's the one who's still there. There's an immense sense of abandonment; no matter how messed up the parent is, the one who leaves is always the one that leaves this big hole. I think under all [Frank's] bravado and the drunken narcissism and the con man antics, he does... I mean, he did breed these children biologically, he does love them, he just doesn't know how.

But it's interesting to see Fiona consider the idea that someone else might want to take care of her. It's almost like it that would be too upsetting to her way of life.

Uncomfortable. Because it throws a wrench in the plan. So this guy comes in and wants to take care of her, she doesn't want to let herself trust that because everyone's always just disappointed her in her life. And he's not all that he seems either. [Spoilery sentence redacted here; it's at the end of the interview.]

Oh really?

[Spoilery sentence redacted here; it's at the end of the interview.] So there's a lot that's going to happen for the family. Frank moves out and moves into Sheila's in the second episode, and then all the kids are left fending for themselves completely.

One of the best parts of the show is the camaraderie and the energy the kids have at times. There's a joyfulness to that.

There is. Fiona and Lip, he's the oldest brother, kind of become the pseudo parents for everything and the problem solvers. There's always this kind of typical structure of how the children of alcoholics grow up. There's the pseudo parent, the wild child, the introvert...

Was that something you researched? Did you do a lot of research with people who have lived that kind of life?

I did. I feel like I would be doing a terrible disservice to women who live with alcoholics if I didn't know about it firsthand. So I went and spoke to women and I went to speak to counselors and showed them the script. We talked through the ideas and kind of established how Fiona would deal with certain situations, so that I would have more of a real place to come from.

What's a little odd is that we see Fiona partying with her dad at some points.

It's weird, for sure.

It's a little weird.

It's a weird dynamic for sure. [But] it's the only time they get to spend with each other, and she knows that he's gonna do it anyway. And she does hold everything down, but at the end of the day, she wants to date a guy who's a car thief. She's not a good girl, you know. She doesn't want to date the cop who wants to marry her, [the cop] who's super vanilla, and a great guy and going to give her a great home. She doesn't want that guy because at the end of the day, she deals with so much adult responsibility that she feels like an adult, [but] she's only 21 and she wants to be a kid.

Do you think Fiona has aspirations? Does she have dreams that she really thinks she can pursue or has she just put them aside?

Sure. I think she has dreams of having a family. I think some days she dreams about running away. Some days, she thinks she'll never get out of it. But I don't think that she ever sits down and goes, "Here's the 10 things I would like in a guy" or "Here's the 10 things I would like to do before I die." That's just not her life.

Have you ever watched the British show?

I haven't, no.

I can see how that might not be helpful to you.

I was told not to.

Oh, is that right?

In fact, I've done a bunch of remakes and that's always kind of been my thing. I have still never seen the original 'Phantom of the Opera.'

Really?

Yeah.

I can understand that.

It's fun not to play princessy too. I get cast princessy a lot, and this is so down and out and edgy and not princessy. I really, really enjoy it. This is much more fun. As an actor, it's very liberating to not have hair and makeup.

Yes, I was thinking that. I was looking a Bill [Macy] and thinking, "Going out and partying the night before is actually... "

Beneficial.

Here are a couple of spoilery tidbits about the current season of 'Shameless,' which airs 10PM Sundays on Showtime:

It will be revealed that Steve, Fiona's car thief boyfriend, "leads a second life," Rossum said. Also, the Gallaghers' mother comes back at the end of the season. She'll be played by Chloe Webb.



Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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veronicalodge

Thanks for this interview, Maureen. Loving 'Shameless' (US) and loving Emmy Rossum, in particular (and this from someone who became a *huge* fan of the show and especially of Anne Marie Duff whilst living in the UK). The US version has really been surprising me; it's become the show I'm most looking forward to every week.

Rossum seems to have the way that Fiona is in that day-to-day survival mode down really well, both in the understanding she's expressed here and in her performance. As someone who grew up in an alcoholic family - my stepfather was only slightly less colourful and crazy than Frank, though definitely had many more loving and attentive moments - I think they're nailing the unpredictability (which is, as I also unfortunately know from my family of origin, exacerbated by the constant struggle to make ends meet).

February 02 2011 at 1:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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