Before the U.S. remake of Shameless, the comedic British soap about a family in extreme poverty making ends meet, Emmy Rossum was primarily known for playing the young ingénue in the film version of The Phantom Of The Opera, a part she won to some degree thanks to her own training in the opera. On Shameless, though, she’s been a revelation as Fiona, a surprisingly steely young woman who never gives herself the benefit of the doubt. Rossum took a part that seemed already well-defined by Anne-Marie Duff, the actress who originated the role in the British series, then found new depths and layers to it. Particularly on a series sold on the back of its male star, William H. Macy (as Fiona’s drunken father, Frank), the character of Fiona, and by extension the actress who plays her, has been all the more surprising to viewers. As the series evolved—it recently entered its third season, and airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. Eastern on Showtime—its writers kept giving Rossum more and more to play, and she handled every task perfectly, from comedy to drama to romance. Rossum sat down with The A.V. Club at the Television Critics Association winter press tour to talk about Fiona’s evolution, why the character seems so desperate this season, and the composition of the show’s onscreen fake poop explosion.
The A.V. Club: This season, your character and Jimmy are cohabiting, so you’re at the stage where you’re still in love, but you also drive each other nuts. What’s it like playing out that relationship with Justin Chatwin?
Emmy Rossum: Fun. Different. It’s exciting, because it’s the first show I’ve ever been on, to watch the characters develop, to watch the relationships develop. And it’s really mirroring real life. You know, you’re in crazy love, and you want to move in, and you move in, and then you’re like, “Oh, it’s you again.” It’s interesting. He’s not the sexy car thief he was at the beginning. He’s kind of turned into Mr. Mom. He’s vacuuming; he has spit-up on his shirt. It’s just a different Jimmy. And he’s in trouble a lot at the same time, that I don’t know about. So he’s still doing the deceitful lying thing that will eventually come to a head.
AVC: This season deals a lot more with Fiona having to negotiate the world of sexual politics, and she’s actually sexually harassed at one point. You work in an industry where a lot of negotiating of those gender roles is going on. How did that feel to you as an actor?
ER: I think that’s something that happens in every business, every industry. There are some people for whom it doesn’t matter how pretty you are, how thin you are, how young you are. If you have a pulse, they will want to sleep with you. So Fiona encounters one of these people who’s using his power at a supermarket over the checkout girls, and she’s really appalled. I think it’s really the first time she’s ever seen something like that to that extent. She’s always used it to her advantage, and now it seems she really wants to downplay it. I think that it’s a bit of a wake-up call. I think that episode—for me, it was really difficult to strike the right balance of tone, because I think they were really trying to play up the comedy, and for me, it was more of a serious issue, so I kept trying to steer away from the jokes about it, and just try to tell the honest story.
AVC: The show is both a comedy and a drama, and you are certainly a stable center for a lot of chaos going on around you.
ER: I think you just have to play the sane one in an insane asylum. But at the same time, in the first two episodes, Fiona makes some pretty drastic decisions that are out of character for her that are a little more Frank [William H. Macy]-like and puts the family money in jeopardy, and Lip [Jeremy Allen White] rises to the occasion. I think when you have a lot of kids in a family, there are power shifts and balances, and it’s interesting to tell that story.
AVC: This season, Fiona seems a little more desperate to elevate herself out of the situation she’s in. Where did you decide that was coming from?
ER: Just the amount of time, the fact that she’s gotten her GED and it’s put her no farther ahead than she thought. Getting the GED was such a big struggle, to study so much, she was so shocked that she could actually pass it. Being not somebody who has ever considered herself smart at all, she’s always been thrifty. I think that now having achieved this, she really thought it would give her a leg up, and it doesn't. I think that’s very disheartening, and puts her into a little bit of a panic about her future.
AVC: It seems like the show really comes alive whenever Fiona’s mother comes back into the picture. What is it like filming those episodes?
ER: She [Chloe Webb, the actress who plays Monica Gallagher] definitely approaches the character and plays the character whether she’s on set or off. It is definitely trying to do that, because she’s just one of those actors who works that way. It’s brilliant, but it’s very emotional for everyone involved, from our caterer to, especially, the little ones.
AVC: With all these children in the cast, do you feel a sibling-esque relationship with them?
ER: Very much so. Especially the two little ones, who are only children as well, as I am. They definitely text me for advice all the time. Little Ethan [Cutkosky, who plays Carl] tried to get a tattoo when he was 13, and I put the kibosh on that. Tried to pierce his ear, I put the kibosh on that. So they definitely treat me like a big sister.
AVC: You came out of the world of opera and singing to acting. What do you think you learned from there that you brought to acting?
ER: I don’t know, besides the obvious of having used singing in a lot of parts I got. I think my experience as a kid working at the opera was very imaginative and very escapist for me. You’d go in a stage door and leave the weird world of Manhattan behind and go into this amazing world of costumes and different centuries of music, and it was very larger-than-life, and exactly where I wanted to be. I think it really trained me, not only to have a respect for the material and the person who wrote it, because that was really crammed into our heads. “Wagner wrote it. Sing it like he would want it to be sung.” So I really respect my writers and my directors all the time. But also, just the escapism and sense of imaginative play.
AVC: So you’re in the third season now, you’ve had a little time to get to know this character. What has surprised you the most to have learned about her, even at this point in the show’s run?
ER: Well, in this season, we actually see her start to trust Jimmy/Steve, and that’s a really big step for her. She always kind of has one foot out the door, and I think we’ll see later on in the season if that’s a mistake or not.
AVC: About the fake poop in the first episode—
ER: Oh yeah, it’s brownie mix!
AVC: It looks really disgusting onscreen.
ER: It’s disgusting. It was disgusting, even though it was totally clean. It was brownie mix and olive oil and melted butter and just weird gloopy stuff. Those aren’t sound effects. When my foot comes out of the stuff, that schloop noise, that really happened. So it was very gross even to just be in that. It was a very claustrophobic experience. I don’t envy those people that do those kind of jobs.
AVC: If you could have your way, where would you like to see this character end up, if this show ran seven or eight years?
ER: I think it’s as unpredictable as life is for anyone. It’ll all depend on what happens around her and how she reacts to it. I would love to see her get a solid job. I would love to see her in a solid relationship, but who knows?
AVC: What are some other things coming up that you’re looking forward to us seeing?
ER: Bradley Whitford is guest-starring as a gay advocate, and it’s hysterical. His role is with Macy. What else? Also, toward the end of the season, it starts to get pretty dramatic, and we may see Karen [Laura Wiggins] back, which is always throwing a wrench in things. I think by the end of the season, a lot of relationships will be resolved or come to a head. Some people will get married, and some people will die. So we’ll see!