Powered by i.TV
September 5, 2015

'Shameless' Confessions: Joan Cusack Talks About Her Comedic Role on the Showtime Drama

by Maureen Ryan, posted Feb 22nd 2011 3:05PM
Joan Cusack, a lifelong Chicagoan, doesn't have much of a commute when 'Shameless' is shooting exterior scenes in her home town.

But one of ironies of her role on the Showtime drama is that Cusack's character, Sheila Jackson, is an agoraphobic, so exterior scenes are not something the actress frequently gets to do. One unseasonably warm day last fall, when the show's cast and crew were a filming a series of outdoor scenes in a hardscrabble West Side neighborhood, all Cusack had to do was appear briefly inside Sheila's house and clap near a window.

"I can't see not leaving your house in five years, but I can see feeling like, you know, [life is] overwhelming sometimes," Cusack said later in an interview on the set.

Cusack travels to Los Angeles when 'Shameless' is shooting interiors, and in many of those scenes, she's joined by Joel Murray, who plays Sheila's estranged husband, and William H. Macy, who plays Sheila's new boyfriend, Frank Gallagher, the drunken patriarch of a struggling family. Both men came up as Chicago actors as well, but she's working with both for the first time on 'Shameless' (although she is fairly sure that Macy babysat for her when he was a struggling actor in the early '70s).

Sheila is one of the show's most enjoyable characters -- her seduction scenes with Frank are goofy gems -- but she's not just comic relief. She struggles mightily with her agoraphobia, and as viewers of the Showtime program saw last Sunday, Sheila recently took her first steps outside her door in five years.

In the conversation below, Cusack talks about Sheila's situation and about working in the cable-drama realm for the first time.

This interview has been edited and condensed. For a previous interview with Macy, look here. For an interview with Emmy Rossum, who plays Frank's daughter Fiona, look here.

Maureen Ryan: You live here in Chicago, right?
Joan Cusack: Yeah. I live downtown. It's one of those great Hollywood ironies that I play an agoraphobic who lives in Chicago. And I live in Chicago, but because they're shooting interiors in L.A., I have to go to L.A. to be inside.

Have you given them any technical advice on scripts or anything that you notice is wrong?
I brought a parking ticket.

You brought a parking ticket?
I said, "Do you need a parking ticket? Because I just got one and I brought it with me. And it's real."

I'm sure they appreciated that.
I don't know. At least I didn't have to show it to my husband.

Ah! Good. So did you know Joel Murray from Chicago?
You know, I met him at different times and he'd worked with my sister and I think my brother before, and he was like, "I think I played your sister's husband or boyfriend or something."

But yeah, [making the show has been] cool. I mean, the whole world of cable is so exciting and free, and [executive producer] John Wells, I think, has been trying to make this for seven years [Showtime's 'Shameless' is an American adaptation of a U.K. hit]. The nice thing for this show is that it has been done before. It was successful. That's always the risk is: 'Oh my God, you're doing something new. Will it work? It won't work, it won't work."

And then I think that they're making [the American version] its own thing and that's great. It seems like it's a great time for shamelessness. Everybody's struggling and you feel like you're struggling privately and you can't talk about it and it makes everything harder, but if you can accept [things] a little more and be open about it, there's something kind of freeing. I mean, it's a pendulum. You can't be, obviously, too shameless. But I like the idea.

It's almost like Sheila is a contrast to all that. She's trying to stay controlled in her little world.

But then she's also interacting with the world more, through the Gallaghers. There's even some shacking up that takes place, with her and Frank.
Yes, there is. There is some neighborliness happening. It's unusual. She's a great pendulum of the extremes. On one level, she's not going out of her house. And on another level, she's in total control and dominating and doing exactly what she wants.

Why do you feel like she needs to do that?
Probably because she feels so out of control, I think.

Did you do any research on agoraphobia before you took the role?
I talked to some [people with the disorder]. One of the directors actually knew someone that was agoraphobic and another person I know knew somebody that was agoraphobic.

But I mean, I can relate to it. I'm much more of an interior person; I don't need to be as social. So I think there's probably that [quality] in everyone on a different level. I can't see not leaving your house in five years, but I can see feeling like, you know, [life is] overwhelming sometimes. I think that's true with most disorders that you can probably find something to relate to in them, in some way.

Is that one thing that attracted you to the role, that there was this mixture of dark comedy and drama?
Yeah. I'm someone who loves the 'M*A*S*H' model of comedy, which is, you're in a tough situation, if you don't make it funny, then you're going to crumple. To me, that kind of humor is much less cynical and mean-spirited, it's more escapist/silly. It's just like, you know what? If we don't laugh, we're gonna cry. So let's find something funny about life. I think I grew up more with that kind of humor.

So how are you finding working on this? I mean, it's 12 episodes, that's a big commitment.
It's like a gift.

Yeah. It really is because I tried doing a sitcom here ['What about Joan,' which was shot in Chicago in 2001], and that was an amazing process to experience, but at that time, sitcoms were really going through an identity crisis, and just to do anything different was really hard. And now on cable, it's like you can be totally different and they embrace it, they want it.

And you're not doing 24 [episodes]; you're doing 12 shows, so people can have a life. You're not like a workaholic, insane person avoiding having a life.

Have you worked with Bill Macy before?
I haven't. It's funny, because he insists that he actually babysat for me, which cracks me up because I don't remember that, but I think he did. I know for sure that he made the cubby holes in my parent's house, by our back door, because my mom, every single time there would be a Bill Macy movie on, she'd be like, "He made the cubby holes!" They're still there.

They have not fallen down?
They are rock solid.

That's hilarious.
Isn't that awesome?

Well, he has something to fall back on if the acting thing doesn't work out.
Yes, he does.

Do you remember him from growing up? I mean because if he was in your house, I mean, if you just don't remember him personally?
You know, I don't remember him. I remember hearing about him because he was doing the St. Nicholas Theater stuff. He was doing some really interesting, exciting stuff and David Mamet [plays].

So what's working with him been like?
Oh, you know. I think if you can survive in this business, you're [either] really, really nice or really mean, it seems. And he's ... really mean.

He's awful. I can tell. [Please note: This is a joke. Macy is not awful or mean].
[More seriously] He's just so good.

It's an interesting character for him, because Frank is a terrible father, but because Bill is playing for him, you don't dislike the guy, well, not all the time.
Well, there's an 'All in the Family' feeling to it. He's mad and he's overwhelmed and he's saying a lot of stuff that's not right, but... he's, like, mid-process.

[There's] the idea of the shamelessness again. His family has accepted it and that's the bigger piece. For the kids, they're doing what they do and trying to make ends meet and make it work the best they can. There are moments when they are expecting him to be a certain way, but ... most of the time, it's not really about him.

I guess the one thing I wondered about with this show is, will people be ready to embrace this, or will they want something a bit more escapist in these hard times?
Well, hopefully it will be funny. I don't know. My husband loved 'The Sopranos,' he really loved it for the comedy of it. Even though it was a serious show, he loved somebody saying a funny line or a funny moment.

Have you watched the British version of 'Shameless'?
I haven't. I thought about watching it because I was curious, but I thought, "I don't know if that really helps."

It will be fun to see how [it progresses]. The nice thing about it is that it's on Showtime, it's John Wells, and it's 12 episodes. That all means that there's room for it to become something. It will be interesting to see what it becomes.

What are your hopes for Sheila's progress? Do you just hope that she goes through difficult times or do you just want to pick up scripts and be surprised?
You know what? I'm really glad there's a bunch of fun, interesting women that are writing on this show.

Right on.
Seriously. It's so awesome to me. It's awesome that they're letting me be, you know...I can be a normal kind of woman, a normal-sized woman. When I look at all these different guys that are out there, Zach whatever... what's his name? I wish I could pronounce it, Galifa...

Zach Galifianakis?
Yeah. There's just so many you know, different, funny, real-looking people now. That's really freeing and fun to be.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum

1 Comment

Filter by:

Shameless is one of our new favorite shows. Watching it this weekend me and my wife actually cheered when Sheila made it out of the house, and laughed that she tied herself with the bedsheets, classic. Beautiful picture in HD with my DISH Network set up. All the best shows are coming in HD now and DISH is offering more HD channels then anybody else. Working for DISH I was pretty excited hearing about the new series Shameless, and I was surprised on how great William H. Macy was able to pull this part off. I saw in an interview that he doesn't even drink anymore and hasn't for a few years now, so this is a brilliant acting job.

February 23 2011 at 11:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Follow Us

From Our Partners