LOS ANGELES (Back Stage) - Emmy Rossum doesn’t think she was a logical choice for Showtime’s new dark drama series “Shameless.”
She began her career as an opera singer, passing an audition at the Metropolitan Opera when she was only 7. She left opera in her teenage years because she had grown too tall to play the child roles. On the small screen, Rossum had never had more than a few guest appearances on shows including “The Practice” and in a few TV movies.
She was most commonly known for playing ingenue Christine in the 2004 film “The Phantom of the Opera.” At that point, says Rossum, “I was looking for material that I would fall in love with.” She was drawn to the script for “Shameless,” a remake of a long-running British series created by Paul Abbott. “This is the first thing that I’d seen in a long time that I actually emotionally responded to,” she says.
Rossum, 24, plays Fiona, the eldest child of the working-class Gallagher family, who is tasked with parenting her siblings to compensate for their absent mother and drunken father (played by William H. Macy). The role is a far cry from the plucky young heroines she has played in such films as “Poseidon” and “The Day After Tomorrow.”
Says Rossum of playing Fiona, whom she describes as very sexual free spirit, “I had no hesitation to do it because I’ve seen the amazing work that women have gotten the opportunity to do on television in the last decade. From Mary-Louise Parker on ‘Weeds’ and Julianna Margulies (on ‘The Good Wife’) to Laura Linney on ‘The Big C,’ I’m really excited to be part of that world.”
Rossum was warned about the series’ nudity, which pilot director Mark Mylod encouraged her to explore before her final audition. Rossum says Mylod recommended she watch the kitchen scene from the British series’ pilot — a down-and-dirty sequence that’s also featured in the Showtime take — as a barometer for what to expect. “I saw it and thought it was really funny,” Rossum says, noting that she drank a beer before filming what wound up becoming her first onscreen sex scene. “I thought it had absolutely no kind of salacious, tawdry cheese factor and no fakeness to it.”
Indeed, she says, the nudity and adult themes in “Shameless” were some of the more interesting elements for her to work with, and she had been waiting for the right time to cross that line in her career.
“It’s not something you can ever undo,” she notes. “I really wanted it to be relevant and something that felt appropriate. This material really did. For Fiona, sex is very much a part of her life. Love, not so much, because she doesn’t have time for it. So to me, putting her in that kind of sexual situation with this boy (co-star Justin Chatwin) who really falls in love with her and having her try to deal with that is a really interesting scenario.”
Rossum says she has become more comfortable with the sexuality as the season has gone on. “One beer for the first episode took the edge off, and then I didn’t need it again because I felt so comfortable within the character,” she notes. “It was a scarier thing for me the first time because I had never done it. After I was naked, I was like, ‘This is nothing.’”
Landing the part, however, didn’t come as easy. Rossum auditioned four times, first sending her tape from New York and eventually flying to Los Angeles and reading at the studio. She read twice in front of Macy, who liked what Rossum was doing with the character and who encouraged her to “keep doing it” — feedback that ultimately helped her relax. “Just the littlest bit of kudos from somebody like Macy is just so leavening,” she says.
She says working with Macy and the interaction with the large family cast, which includes Joan Cusack, is among the perks of the job and something she always wanted in her personal life.
“I’ve always longed to have a big family,” the only child says, noting that all but one of the actors playing the Gallagher kids are only children in real life. “It’s always really just been me and my mom and some very limited extended family. I find that only children really long for the big-family aspect of life. I think that’s why we all bonded so quickly together and why we were able to create this onscreen and offscreen love for each other.”
That bond will be tested when the mother character returns to the Gallaghers and confronts Fiona. Rossum says it is one of the most emotional scenes she has done in her career. “But it was also so free,” she says. “I feel, with this character, the sloppier and rougher and messier it is, the better. She’s not a held-together person, which is very much what I have been for most of my life.”
But one thing Rossum should get used to is the praise for her role on the series and her departure from playing the pretty girl — a role that, she says, never felt like a good fit. “It’s very liberating for an actor to not have to worry about being the pretty girl,” Rossum says. “That somehow seems so much more difficult. I’ve always felt like it’s always the blond girl who’s the pretty girl. It’s never the quirky brunette. So, I guess I never really felt like I fit that stereotype anyway.”
She confesses, “This character comes easier to me emotionally than the other ones I’ve played. If I had the good grace to be her for the next couple years, I would be so blessed.”