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Emmy Rossum Revels in Being Shameless

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Emmy Rossum. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.

It is a bold and dangerous move to leave your legendary and Academy Award nominated actor, William H. Macy, drunk and unconscious for the majority of the pilot. But this is where we discover the vibrant abilities of Emmy Rossum. She is a blossoming vine that beautifully intertwines with Macy's sleeping shoulders.

In Showtime's new series, Shameless, Frank Gallagher (Macy) is an unapologetically enthusiastic alcoholic whose vices often leave him offering fatherly advice from a horizontal position on the floor. Because of his addiction, his eldest daughter Fiona (Rossum) has become a mother to the other five children, six, if you count Frank. She runs a tight ship amidst the poverty and chaos of the Chicago projects; her strength fueled by a vulnerability that is at once heart-rending and inspiring.

Emmy Rossum played Sean Penn's murdered daughter in Mystic River, the romantic lead in The Day After Tomorrow, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Christine in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera.

ER's John Wells and show-creator Paul Abbott have adapted the BAFTA-award winning British dramedy of the same name for American audiences.

Emmy Rossum is beautiful and sexy enough to rest on her laurels, but her talent and drive are having none of that. Says William H. Macy, "That girl has a fire in her belly. She works harder than anyone else on the show, and she's the heart and soul of it. Emmy's got this incredible maternal strength, and yet on set and off, she's just this young girl, howling at the moon."

You are working alongside acting giants Bill Macy and Joan Cusack while carrying an enormous part of the script. Did you feel intense pressure?
I feel very much that it's an ensemble piece. Even though Fiona is at the center of it, she is sort of the glue that holds everyone together. It's very much a show about a family. And how all the characters interact with each other. It's not like Ed TV, which is about Ed. It's not called Fiona, it's about the family.

Your maternal side feels so real and all encompassing in this role. But you're very young, with no children of your own. Where does that come from?
We are almost all only children. That's the main reason that we bonded so well. And all of us only have one parent, in real life. When I was a kid, the other kids pointed at me and said "You come from a broken home." And I can take that, and wear it is a kind of coat of arms now. I have all that past stuff, that Bill probably calls "the fire" and that's all good source material that you can use. I have always had such a yearning for a bigger family. We all shared a kitchen that first week, and the moms told me which kid was allergic to peanuts, and which kid was allergic to dairy, and it was like, okay, here you go. And I never had any siblings, never changed a diaper. Had no freaking clue what I was doing. It was like really quick sorority hazing.

There is a scene where your father Frank is drunk and unconscious on the floor. And you wrap his sleeping arms around you, and you say "Well done, Fiona" in your father's voice. It's just devastating. How did you get to that place?
I tried to channel the frustration Fiona has about her situation, and the irony. This is a very smart girl, she may not be educated, but she's very with it, and able to control this situation. This was the one moment when no one was looking at her, where she could lose it, and take something for herself. In using his hand to pat herself on the back, it was something I figured she always wanted.

Did you have a dad growing up? That scene felt so true to me. Did something about it feel familiar?
I did not have a father. But I have a mother who is wonderful. A complete godsend who was a mother and father to me. Growing up, I definitely felt something missing. But I was always of the mindset that if that person didn't want me, then, by the time I was old enough to understand what that meant, I was able to make peace with that and realize that I didn't want someone who didn't want me. But this is very different from Fiona's relationship to her parents, and we will meet her mom later in the season.

It's fascinating, how, even though so much of Fiona's youth has been taken from her, having to look after six kids, how much she still enjoys them, and her alcoholic father.
We're showing a story about people who have very little money, who may be living in a time of depression, but they're not depressed. These are really can-do people. I think we really show the joys that these people have at their socioeconomic level. They have energy, youth, sexuality, sensuality. They're very alive. For them, happiness might be going out to a club, or throwing beer bottles when the cops break up their bonfire party.

How did you embrace Fiona's reality, on a working-class level?
I actually feel more comfortable doing this role, then any other role. It actually comes more naturally to me. My mom worked so many jobs to put me in this prep school, and I never really felt like I fit there. People have always assumed that I'm one way, because of the environment I grew up in, and I don't ever really feel like I was Princess-y or upper-class. I feel like there's a ferocity about this character and a drive to live and a desire to be loved that comes naturally to me. Also, I have the ability to look tired in HD. (High-Definition)

You looked great.
I look like great shit. (both laugh) Listen, everyone looks like shit without makeup! That's the bottom line. If you don't wear makeup in HD, you're gonna look tired. And that's the way it is. I also used the way she speaks and the way she walks to show where she's from.

How did you change your walk?
I watched girls on the street in Chicago. I spent a little time there. And I watched girls smoke their cigarettes. And I looked at pictures, I googled pictures of girls smoking cigarettes, because I don't smoke. But Fiona smokes.

Do you agree that Bill is the most convincing drunk of all time? Is he doing shots of Vodka off set?
I promise you, he's not. It's like a lightbulb he can turn on. There's an episode later in the season, where he gets sober on a bet. And he's even worse!

Your film career is off to a fantastic start. Why TV now?
Where else other than TV, as an actor, do you get opportunities to create characters that are so multilayered and multifaceted? Especially as a woman. A lot of opportunities are on television. Like Julianna Margulies, Kyra Sedgwick, Edie Falco, and Laura Linney. We are seeing characters who aren't just cyphers for men. Where you need to be something other than just beautiful.

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Emmy Rossum. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.

How much of the British series did you watch before beginning to shoot?
The only bit I watched was, before my last screen test, the director Mark Mylod, who also originated the British series, asked me to watch the kitchen sex scene in the first episode to see if I was comfortable with that level of nudity.

Were you?
I had always been hesitant to do it, because I just didn't feel ready. And with this material, I felt like it really warranted it. And it was showing the characters emotions in such a raw way. With these characters, sexuality is such a big part of their lives. And to show it in any way that was glamorized, or less than realistic, would feel silly. I like that quality about the show. That they can have sex in the kitchen, and popcorn can be flying all over, and his hand can get caught in the silverwear drawer....

That was fantastic! And then the cops show up carrying your dad.
In later episodes, when we see Fiona's journey and we see her being intimate with different characters, we see a lot about where she is emotionally. How you connect to someone physically is very telling. I think it will be interesting to see how she develops.

Do you have any scenes with the brilliant Joan Cusack?
Her process is really interesting. I love working with her. She is also very audio. She'll find a word that shall say over and over again. I have never asked her what she's doing. She'll get the word in her mouth and then she'll start. It could be she's just channeling the crazy of Sheila. I'm not sure. Before the first scene we did together in which we kind of meet she kept saying, "Fee-ooooona!" "Feeeee-ooona!" But then, off set, she's just the most normal, humble, mother, lovely and warm. And she invited us all over to her house in Chicago for pizza night. It's just such a great group of people.

Tell me about auditioning for Andrew Lloyd Webber in his home for Phantom of the Opera.
I was just terrified and nervous. I always get very very nervous for auditions. I pretended I was home in my bedroom, doing it for myself. And that I wasn't sitting in front of the man who wrote the music I was about to sing. He is a creative genius, and a bit shy. He's the most polished British gentleman.

Are you as enamored with Patrick Wilson as I am?
(voice lowers an octave) Oh, yeah. And he's the most amazing father, and has a very sexy wife. He's a ridiculously good kisser. He has the softest lips.

I heard the kissing scene between you in Phantom took something like 932 takes.
There should have been 933. (laughs)

You're shooting some scenes in Chicago. Was it your first time there?
I went the first time for the pilot, and then I spent time there this summer, got to hang out with the cops a little.

The cops? Why were you learning about cops?
I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you. I'll tell you this: If I were a contortionist, I could figure out a way to get out of handcuffs, but I'm not, so.

That's a very tantalizing detail. We're going to have to ponder what that might mean.What was it like working with Clint Eastwood on Mystic River? How does he speak to you from behind the camera?
It was a privilege. I was very humbled by that process. I've often found that people I respect most that I get to meet are the kindest and the most considerate to their crew. It was a very great lesson. He speaks very quietly. So thoughtfully and intelligently. Chooses his words carefully. Runs a very quiet set. It doesn't feel like this big Hollywood production. It just feels like a great environment to create work.

It's so funny to think of Dirty Harry, who can take out five men in under a minute, gently encouraging his actors.
He's definitely not like, "Make my day!" (both laugh) He such a dapper gentleman. He's also incredibly handsome. Such a stillness about him. I'm just in awe.

Tell me something I don't know about the cast of Shameless.
Bill Macy plays a bitchin' ukulele!

You are kidding me.
Yeah, he plays the ukulele in between takes.

Watch Shameless on Showtime:

Follow Emmy Rossum on Twitter: http://twitter.com/emmyrossum

See more of photographer Leslie Hassler's work: http://lesliehassler.com/