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EMMY ROSSUM RULES THE ROOST

BY MARJORIE LEWIS, PHOTOGRAPHY PATRICK FRASER, HAIR JEN ATKIN FOR THE WALL GROUP, STYLING VANESSA GELDBACH FOR EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS MAKEUP, LAUREN ANDERSON FOR THE WALL GROUP

 

In person, Emmy Rossum is as bubbly and effervescent as a glass of good champagne. She’s a self described “nerd” who loves to stay home and cook for friends while hosting “game night.” It’s rare to find a 24-year-old actress who would rather play “Pictionary” than pose for tabloid pictures, but Rossum is an old soul who has an incredibly mature and sensible outlook on life. Her work in Showtime’s newest  series, “Shameless,” has been widely praised by critics who call her “feisty, strong and sexy, charismatic and beautiful.” “Shameless,” a remake of the hit British show, features Rossum as Fiona, the tough-but-beautiful oldest daughter who works several jobs while also finding time to manage paying the bills and  handling family drama. Quite a stretch for a little girl who began her career as a child opera singer. Rossum passed her first audition at the Metropolitan Opera when she was seven years old; she performed in more than 20 operas in six different languages at Lincoln Center, alongside such figures as Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. She was directed by Franco Zeffirelli in “Carmen.” She left the opera when she entered her teenage years, as she had grown too tall to perform as a child and moved into the acting world via a stint on a daytime soap opera. Rossum created the role of Abigail Williams in “As the World Turns” in 1999 and branched out in performances in the made-for-television movies “Genius” (1999) and “The Audrey Hepburn Story” (2000), in which she played the title character as a young teenager. Other television work included “Snoops,” “Law & Order,” and “The Practice.”

Rossum played an aspiring songwriter in the romantic comedy Nola (2003) and was then cast as the ill-fated daughter of a smallbusiness owner in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003). In Mystic River, Rossum projected an aura of innocence that made her character’s tragic death memorable and heartbreaking. She appeared in the blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and The Phantom of the Opera (2004) for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. She has since starred in Poseidon (2006), Dragonball: Evolution (2009), and Dare (2009). “Shameless” is her first television role as a series regular.

Venice: Tell us how an only child, who is a Jewish girl from New York, prepares to play the eldest of seven kids of an Irish Catholic family in Chicago? What attracted you to this role?

Emmy Rossum: Just that! [laughs] I don’t think of myself as a “Jewish girl from New York.” I mean, those are all things that I am, but as an actor you want to stretch and do things that are different from who you are. I would never want to play a character who is exactly like me; it would be contrary to the point of what acting is. For me it was fun because I come from a single parent household and I’m an only child, so family is something that I personally have always craved. I wanted to surround myself with people who were warm and nurturing, and even a little dysfunctional was more than welcome too. It’s funny, because a lot of the kids who make up the Gallagher family on the show are only children. Only one of us has siblings in real life. It’s interesting that we all gravitated to each other so easily and to the material.

How did being an only child affect you?

I was raised by my mom who was very much my mom and not my pal. I didn’t watch a lot of TV. I remember watching a lot of Shirley Temple movies and going to the ballet and the opera. I had a funny upbringing because my mom is Jewish, my dad is a Wasp, and my mother traveled a lot so I always had babysitters and all of them were Irish Catholic. I loved sweets and my babysitters would always bribe me with treats if I would go to Mass with them. So almost every day I would wind up in Catholic Church. I’ve got guilt from every direction!

How did you make the transition from “child opera star” to (young) adult actress? Was it difficult? It was kind of by accident. I know that I didn’t feel that I belonged in school. I liked the academic side of things but I never really liked the rest; it felt very confined to me, especially the kind of prep school I went to (Spence in NYC). My mom worked so hard to send me to a great school which is how I got the opportunity to sing in the Opera in the first place, since it was my second grade teacher who sent me to audition. By the time I was 12 or 13 and getting too tall for the children’s costumes, Maggie Greenwald, who was making this film called Songcatcher, called the Opera to find out if they had any kids who could act. At this time I’d been taking acting classes with a coach, and the casting director for the film had also called this coach to see if they knew of any actresses who could sing. So my name came up in both instances and they called me in for an audition and that was my first film.

You have been in some very successful films. Why did you decide to do a television show at this point in your career?

Well, I try not to look at material as a function of what medium it is — film, television, or theater. The way the world is expanding and developing, people are getting a lot more of their entertainment in their own homes. It’s more comfortable and easier and more family-oriented. I think those are all good things. Also, from my perspective, unless you are going to do really edgy work in indie films, the real
opportunity for women to do complex roles that are quirky and interesting and really layered are in television, especially cable television. You see these women like Kyra Sedgwick doing great work and that’s what I was looking for. I really had to fight for this role, because they didn’t initially think I’d be right for it at all. I was living in New York and had to put myself on tape and send it to the producers and network executives. They thought I was too princess-like, and because I’d been in Phantom of the Opera that I could only do period drama and could never be gritty and edgy. I think it’s a question of being raw with yourself, not wearing makeup, not having your hair done, and being okay if they shoot you in HD and you’re in your underwear and knowing there is no “retouching.” I think that from an actor’s perspective, it’s really exciting to have all this good material and a character that you can grow and develop, and you have all these hours in a television series where you can do all that.

What was it like making Mystic River with Clint Eastwood?

I would say that experience had the most influence on me of all the projects I have done. I auditioned the normal way. I went in and met the casting director, she put me on tape, and Clint Eastwood saw the tape and cast me. I didn’t meet him until I got to Boston to start work. I was very, very nervous. It was my first time on a big movie and it was Clint Eastwood and all these great actors that I never imagined I would get to work with. I definitely felt excited but a little out of my own element. It was a remarkably relaxed environment.  He said, “Call me Clint,” and that totally flustered me, and I said, “Okay, Mr. Eastwood.” [laughs] Even though my character only shot for about three weeks, it really put me into the mindset of what it’s like to marry yourself with a character. It was about really submerging myself into a culture and way of life and an accent and a whole energy of a character. It was a very nurturing environment; all these  great actors were very friendly and very kind to me. I just remember being so grateful and thinking no matter how successful you get, you can always be kind, and always know people’s names. I learned that from all these people who were so at the top of their game, I mean it doesn’t get any more top-of-the-game than Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn. Everyone was so fantastic and it was such a wonderful experience and I felt very lucky to be there.

What did you do with Sean to prepare for your scenes as father and daughter?

We really didn’t work a lot on it; it came very naturally. It’s funny because I don’t know my own father,  but I seem to like playing those types of roles, maybe it’s acting out my own childhood fantasies, I don’t know. Sean was very warm and we found that moment where I kiss his nose and it felt very playful and  fun and there was that great energy. More than anything, during lunches or the moments where we  eren’t  shooting, he would tell me to take it slowly and put one foot in front of the other and always respond to the material. They all taught me not to feel pressured to have to be working on something all the time, those kinds of things that being in Hollywood can do to you — that kind of “so what are you working on?” thing.

Do you feel the pressure of that, the kind of competitive vibe that most actors have with each other in Hollywood?

I’m living here now because we’re shooting the show, but I consider my home to be New York City. I  will look for a new place there when we’re done shooting here, and if there is another season of “Shameless,” I’ll return to LA to do it, but New York is where I live. From a business standpoint, the  entire city of Los Angeles functions on Hollywood, so it’s very hard to not be aware of it, and I like to not be aware of it. I can live in New York and walk down the street and get a coffee and not see people reading scripts or writing them on a laptop; seeing that in LA makes me more aware of how much  everyone wants it here. Being in NY is a healthier place for me to be because I can ride the subway and just be a normal person.

What do you like to do if you are not working?

I love to cook. I like game night [laughs], seriously, I’m totally geriatric. I cook in my crock-pot and have game night; we play Pictionary, Scattergories, Scrabble, and I like to do arts and crafts like pottery painting. I love being outside, I’m pretty active. I take ballet classes and dance every day. It’s a way of  exercising that  makes me focus not on what my body looks like, but on getting better at something. There’s something to work towards more than an esthetic.

How do you avoid the pitfalls that many of the younger actors in your generation seem to be affected by?

Like rehab? [laughs] It’s just not interesting to me. I think I’m just a little square that way. It seems totally boring and lame and counterproductive. I love playing it on the show — I get to smoke pot with my dad (played by William H. Macy) and drink till I fall down and that’s super fun, but I don’t physically have the constitution to do that in real life. I can’t wake up the next day if I have even two drinks!

Who are your “acting heroes?” Whose work do you most admire?

Laura Linney, I think she’s fantastic. I really like Annette Bening and admire her work. I think Tilda Swinton is fascinating; she’s dark and twisty and fun. I love Marlon Brando and Paul Newman too.

What’s the most challenging thing about being an actress?

To give up control. To feel free enough to not want to be perfect and glamorous on this show. It’s okay that I have a zit and they’re not going to cover it; it’s okay that I have a scar on my eyebrow and they’re going to show that, too, because it works for Fiona the character. It’s hard to really access the darker parts of yourself. Sometimes you have to think about things that are dark to transport yourself to someplace that is real. That can be a hard thing for an actor to go through, but if you don’t do that then don’t do it at all. ▼

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